Tommy Ciatto, Alex Bay, and Ben Chanenson
The Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs after starting the year 3–15 through their first 18 games in 2016. Despite a disappointing season, the future is bright in Dallas. Dallas was one of the elite teams during the early 2010’s, and because of that they had low draft picks which caused them to not acquire elite talent through the draft. However, the Mavericks now have a franchise cornerstone for the post-Dirk era: point guard Dennis Smith Jr. The ninth pick of the draft, Smith is looking like the steal of the draft. He was a phenom in the Summer League, averaging 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals. The Mavericks surround him with the great shooting of veteran Wesley Matthews and the 39 year old Dirk Nowitzki. Nerlens Noel was resigned in the offseason to protect the paint, while Harrison Barnes continues to improve into one of the best two way players in the league. The bench is a major weakness with the only proven contributors being Seth Curry and Devin Harris. Rick Carlisle, who is one of the best coaches in the NBA, will help this team overachieve, but this team is not ready yet. The Mavs are primed to finish at the bottom of the standings again, but their young core will make their stay at the bottom brief.
After missing the playoffs last season by an extremely slim margin, the Denver Nuggets are hoping to cross this threshold and make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. With a talented roster of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets definitely have the talent on paper to make the playoffs. However, an even more star studded Western Conference may come in their way. Many teams acquired superstar talent, so that will create a very competitive conference and the Nuggets will have to fight for their playoff spot. A finalist for the Most Improved Player Award in 2017, Nikola Jokic, is a tremendous player for the Nuggets and will be one of the franchise cornerstones for years to come. Jokic is looking to have another breakout year after averaging 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists in 73 games last season. After winning 40 games last year, they should look to win more after adding All Star talent in veteran Paul Millsap. Millsap has quietly been one of the top tier players in the league the last few seasons, making four consecutive All-Star games. Denver was one of the best offensive teams last season, and with the addition of Millsap along with development of Harris, Murray, and Jokic, the Nuggets look to develop into one of the premier teams in the league.
Golden State Warriors
Coming off of an impressive 67-win season and another NBA Championship, the Golden State Warriors will attempt to repeat their title in a revamped Western Conference. As usual, the Warriors were able to sign new key role players that will likely fit into their offense extremely well. They signed shooting guard Nick Young, a stellar shooter, to a 1 year deal. In addition, they signed small forward Omri Casspi and traded on draft day for rookie power forward Jordan Bell, which seems to be a steal in the making. They were able to maintain their unbelievable core of 4 All Stars– Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green– as well. With these new signings, they strengthen already one of the best benches in the league, allowing for more depth in their lineup. Led by two of the top five players in the league, Golden State is poised for a repeat; however, huge offseasons from the Rockets and Thunder may impede the Warriors from reaching this goal. In the end, if the Warriors are able to remain healthy, their star-studded lineup should be no match for any NBA foe that may stand in their way.
The Houston Rockets finished 3rd in the Western Conference last season, but exited the playoffs in the second round after having high expectations. This offseason, the Rockets made a huge move, trading point Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Sam Dekker for All-NBA point guard Chris Paul. With a backcourt now led by Paul and superstar shooting guard James Harden, the Rockets now have arguably the best backcourt in the league. With talented players like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and Ryan Anderson, the Rockets will look to finish towards the top of the Western Conference. Even though the Western Conference has gotten even better over the past 4 months, the Rockets still have some of the best talent in the NBA on their roster. It will be interesting to see how Harden and Paul play together, as Harden had the best season of his career last year essentially playing point guard. Both are tremendous playmakers who dish out assists and shoot the lights out. For these reasons, Houston is definitely looking like a title contender this year.
Los Angeles Clippers
After yet another disappointing postseason, the Los Angeles Clippers made perhaps the biggest move of the offseason by dealing All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets and received a king’s ransom in return. Along with Paul, the Clippers lost key players Luc Mbah a Moute, J.J. Redick, and Raymond Felton during the offseason. In their place comes Patrick Beverly, Sam Dekker, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams. Point Guard Patrick Beverly is an elite defender with a good jump shot and is expected to be the starting point guard this season. Danilo Gallinari had a career year last year in Denver, and Williams played well off the bench for Houston. However, the fate of the 2017-2018 Clippers will be determined by the health of All-Star power forward Blake Griffin. Griffin, who signed a massive deal this past offseason to stay in L.A., is currently recovering from a toe injury. Griffin when healthy is a dominant forward, and the duo of him and All-Star center DeAndre Jordan is nearly unstoppable. In an extremely competitive Western Conference, a top seed will a tough task for this new look Clippers, and head coach Doc Rivers might end up on the hot seat if he can’t make it work for the Clippers.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers last made the playoffs in the 2012-2013 NBA season, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Since then, they have been undergoing a large scale rebuild which began after the 2014 season. They selected Julius Randle in 2014, D’Angelo Russell (who was traded this offseason for Brook Lopez) in 2015, Brandon Ingram in 2016, and stud PG Lonzo Ball this year. They also added SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and selected PF Kyle Kuzma 27th overall, a player who has now been looked at as the steal of this draft. The Lakers have continued to add pieces to form a young, talented lineup. This year does not look like a playoff year, but it will be exciting to finally see Lonzo Ball play in the NBA, looking to be the 2018 ROY. Next summer will be an interesting one for the Lakers, as All Stars Paul George and LeBron James have expressed interest in playing there. However, that will not happen this year, and the Lakers will likely find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference, hoping to acquire next level talent in the 2018 draft.
The Memphis Grizzlies have made the playoffs for seven straight seasons. A large part of that success has hinged on superstar PG Mike Conley and star center Marc Gasol. Both are elite defenders at their respective positions. On the offensive end, both are above average, but not elite. Conley has a good jump shot, but lacks the ability to create his own shot. Gasol has good range for a big man, but lacks the athleticism that he used to rely on. They are surrounded by perennial disappointments Chandlers Parsons, Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans. In order for their playoffs streak to survive David Fizdale will have to coach the season of his life. The team also needs to find a new identity. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are gone and the grit and grind attitude that they brought left with them. Also the team will have a void in the locker room in terms of leadership. As a result, Memphis will most likely miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years and start a new era with a rebuild.
Yet another team in the West with a large offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves made a huge trade to benefit their franchise on draft night, trading away Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn, and the #7 overall pick to the Bulls for 3-time All Star Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves are now looking at a big-3 consisting of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins. With an extremely young core with unbelievable talent, the Timberwolves seem like a lock to make the playoffs in a competitive Western Conference for the first time since 2004. They also added veteran Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague to their roster, loading it with even more talent. A starting five of Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns is scary to any team. The Timberwolves have the talent to not only make the playoffs, but to potentially even make a run for the Western Conference title if Golden State, Houston, and Oklahoma City aren’t playing their best basketball.
New Orleans Pelicans
Coming off a 34 win season, the Pelicans are hoping to rebound and add to their previous win total. They did not acquire one of the best centers in the league, Demarcus Cousins, until All Star Week in February. While the Pelicans still posted a losing record after acquiring Cousins, the future looks bright. Led by Cousins and other superstar Anthony Davis, the Pelicans still have a lot of talent on their roster. This summer, they signed FA PG Rajon Rondo, a fantastic passer and ball handler; however, he will miss some time due to a surgery for a sports hernia, for which he will miss 4-6 weeks. They also signed Ian Clark from the Golden State Warriors, a player with some playoff experience and an NBA title. The Pelicans do not look like a playoff team yet, especially in the difficult Western Conference, but they are on track to flirt with the final seed in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder
In 2016, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the Russell Westbrook Show. He delivered a career year without Kevin Durant in the mix and averaged a triple double. OKC won 50 games, but lost in the first round of the playoffs after reaching the Western Conference Finals the year before. They then proceeded to have the best offseason of any team in the league. They acquired all-star Paul George from the Pacers for pennies on the dollar in what has been widely called the steal of the offseason. Then OKC traded for all- star Carmelo Anthony formerly of the Knicks. Both trades look like “wins” for OKC, but they have risks. Paul George some speculate is heading to the LA Lakers after the season, as he has only one year left on his contract. Anthony, who is 33 years old, can also leave after one year by opting out of his contract. So, the formidable “big three” that OKC assembled could fall apart after one year. OKC also added veteran Patrick Patterson on a bargain of a free agent deal. He joins defensive maestros Steven Adams and Andre Roberson that round out a talented Thunder team. The expectations are high this year for OKC. Some may even call it, “Championship or Bust.” They have a very good shot at winning it all, but have Golden State in their way.
The Phoenix Suns only won 23 games last year. With a win total so low there is only one place to go, up. And the man to take the Suns there is Devin Booker. Booker is the best Suns player since former NBA MVP Steve Nash in the mid-2000s. Booker scored 70 points against the Celtics late last season in a single game. At only 20 years old he is the youngest player ever to score that many points. Booker scores due to his elite jump shot, free throw and slashing ability. The Suns also believe in his passing ability and may play him at PG this year. The current PG is Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe has been called a “mini Lebron” by some experts due to his ability to fill up the stat sheet by doing everything on the court. He has been in trade rumors all offseason. After these two stars the Suns have top pick Josh Jackson. Jackson, who played for Kansas, is extremely athletic, but lacks a jump shot. The team also has promising youngsters T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. All of them have played really well for stretches and really bad for others. The Suns are looking for all of them to take a step forward in their game this year and become part of their core. The rebuild is going well in Phoenix, but the light is not visible at the end of the tunnel yet.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers have been an extremely consistent team, for better or for worse. They have made the playoffs in the last 4 seasons, but have failed to reach the Western Conference Finals in any of those seasons. Led by incredible young players in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum with a supporting cast of Evan Turner, Jusef Nurkic, and more, the Blazers look as if they will continue the pattern of consistency. They did not made any major breakthroughs or free agent signings this offseason while their competition made huge moves. Jusef Nurkic is poised to have a breakout season this year, but the Blazers will likely finish around the .500 mark again, potentially slipping into the playoffs as the number 8 seed.
The Sacramento Kings are in full rebuild mode. In 2016 they finished 16 games under .500 and this year they could be even worse. After trading away franchise franchise center Demarcus Cousins, the Kings are searching for their next star player. They might not have to look far however. Rookie De’Aarona Fox from Kentucky has star potential. He is as fast as any player in the NBA and plays lockdown defense. Fox is great at driving down the lane to the basket and setting his teammates up for easy buckets with his passing. His only weakness is a below average jump shot. His running mate in the backcourt is Buddy Hield, a sharpshooter with an impressive jump shot for a young player. Since they are a rebuilding team, they took a gamble on high upside players, Skal Labissiere and Harry Giles. Labissiere was a top player in high school, but has failed to improve since then. Giles was also a top high school player, but multiple knee injuries have curbed his athleticism. If one of these players realizes his potential then the Kings will have a good young core to lay the foundation for their future.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have only missed the playoffs 3 times in franchise history, and haven’t missed since the 1997 season. Having the same coach from 1996, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have maintained an extraordinary level of consistency. While they have one of the oldest teams in the NBA, star player Kawhi Leonard’s play and Popovich’s superb coaching have kept them at the top of an increasingly difficult Western Conference for the last 2 decades. Only 1 of the Spurs’ starters (Leonard) is under the age of 30. Leonard, along with All Star PF Lamarcus Aldridge, may be the only starters left on the Spurs in the next 3 years. While this year they expect to remain at the top of the conference yet again, the Spurs should look to make moves soon to acquire young talent. If not, the future may be dim for San Antonio, a situation they have never encountered in the entire history of their franchise.
The Utah Jazz enjoyed their most successful season of the decade in 2016. They advanced to the semifinals after beating the Los Angeles Clippers, but lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. All-Star Small Forward Gordon Hayward left the team for the Boston Celtics in free agency. The team had two options: rebuild or stay competitive, with the team ultimately choosing the latter. Utah GM Dennis Lindsey drafted promising guard Donovan Mitchell and traded for Ricky Rubio, setting up the Utah backcourt for the next few seasons. Mitchell dominated Summer League and is outperforming his draft position, and Rubio has been a great passer in his years in the NBA with Minnesota, but injuries and a poor jump shot have withheld him from becoming an elite point guard. They join superstar Rudy Gobert, one of the best centers and defenders in the NBA. He is dominant on the glass and made dramatic improvements to his offensive game, averaging 14.0 ppg, 12.8 rpg, and 2.6 bpg last season. Rodney Hood is the starting shooting guard and many within the Jazz organization believe he can fill the offensive void left by Hayward. Joe Ingles improved drastically last year, thus earning him a huge contract in the offseason and the starting small forward spot this season. The Jazz bench, led by Joe Johnson, is not great but is not terrible either. Bench play this season will be crucial in order for the Jazz to be successful. In a revamped Western Conference, the odds are against Utah to make the playoffs, but this hardworking group of guys on the roster will be motivated to earn a playoff spot post-Gordon Hayward.