NBA

Ranking the best teams in the Western Conference

It’s become almost a cliche to call the Western Conference a bloodbath, but year after year it continues to be just that. The 2019-20 NBA season is no exception.

As teams in the Western Conference like the Oklahoma City Thunder have shifted course to rebuild this season, in its’ place are two new teams like the LA Clippers and Utah Jazz that have bolstered their rosters significantly.

After a season where it seemed like the balance of power was shifting East, suddenly the Western Conference reigns supreme again.

(Note: These rankings aren’t predicting regular-season wins. They are simply a prediction of who the best teams will be come playoff time.)

1. LA Clippers

The LA Clippers are going to be the favorites to come out of the Western Conference for a lot of people, but it feels warranted. On paper, the Clippers have the right combination of star power, depth, versatility and continuity to win it all.

If they don’t finish this season with at least a top-five defense, it would be a massive disappointment. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, JaMychal Green and Patrick Beverley may be enough to be the best defense in the NBA.

The only thing that could potentially slow LA down would be health. Right off the bat, George is expected to miss the first six weeks of the season to recover from the shoulder surgery he received this summer.

Leonard has only played an average of 58 games per season and found a lot of success last season with the Toronto Raptors with a load management schedule.

If the Clippers play it conservative, they still have enough talent on their roster to win over 50 games, be a top-four seed and be well-rested for the playoffs.

2. Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are a team that’s hard to place for many analysts entering the 2019-20 season. When you trade for possibly the most polarizing player in the NBA in Russell Westbrook, it’s not hard to tell why there’s mixed feelings.

It’s understandable if you aren’t ecstatic about the Westbrook trade for Houston, but it shouldn’t dictate how you feel about the roster.

It’s almost easy to forget that having James Harden alone has secured the Rockets such a high baseline of regular-season competence over the past several years.

The roster starts to looks really good when you factor in Houston retaining Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers this summer.

The depth may or may not shaky as the Rockets are banking on players like Danuel House, Gerald Green and Tyson Chandler giving quality minutes this season.

However, if two of those three players can hold the fort down for half a season, general manager Daryl Morey has had a lot of success on the buyout market in past seasons.

The dynamic of Westbrook is important, but there’s a high enough degree of continuity and trust carried over from last season’s 53-win Rockets team to warrant this spot on the list.

3. Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets won 54 games last year and were a top-10 offense and defense last year led by a budding MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic. What’s amazing is that they somehow managed to get better this summer by snagging Jerami Grant from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The addition of Grant makes Denver much more versatile defensively as they’ve also retained Paul Millsap and will likely get a healthier season from point guard Gary Harris.

Jokic and Jamal Murray should show signs of growth this season as they are still both still under 25 years old. There is plenty of depth on this team with guys like Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley coming off the bench.

If the Nuggets can get anything out of rookie Michael Porter Jr., that’s a plus, but not something you’d depend on getting this season. The only thing holding this team back from being higher on this list is depth and inexperience.

The talent on this team is there to go all the way and that’s not an exaggeration.

4. Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz started the summer as the talk of the offseason by making the first splashy move to acquire Mike Conley Jr. from the Memphis Grizzlies. Conley will slot right next to Donovan Mitchell to form a really solid defensive backcourt and give Utah a lot more offensive firepower.

It cost a fair bit to acquire Conley (Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver namely) and the Jazz also made the conscious decision to trade long-time forward Derrick Favors, but the team quickly shifted its sights to capable veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis and Jeff Green to fill their roles.

It’s a big shakeup, but as long as Conley, Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are healthy, Utah should again be competing to be the league’s best defense this season.

A lot of eyes will be on the Jazz and the NBA recognizes that as their nationally broadcast games went up from 17 to 25 this season. They will also continue to have the benefit of altitude and a great home-court advantage.

Health will ultimately make or break whether or not Utah can live up to this ranking, but in terms of talent, they are more than capable of making the second round in this loaded West.

5. Golden State Warriors

The most overlooked Western Conference team going into next season may just be the team that’s made the past four NBA Finals.

The Golden State Warriors certainly lost a lot this summer in perennial MVP candidate Kevin Durant and super sixth man Andre Iguodala, but they still have a ton to work with.

While it’s true that Klay Thompson will miss the majority of the regular season rehabbing his torn ACL, there’s a non-zero chance that this team could be contending in the Western Conference Finals come playoff time.

If we’re led to believe that Stephen Curry, one of the five best players in basketball, plays 70 or more games this season, there’s no reason that the expectation for this team isn’t at least 47 wins.

If the Warriors run a ton of spread pick-and-roll with Curry and Draymond Green, it should be enough to warrant a top-seven offense in the NBA.

Extending Green and re-signing Kevon Looney were nice offseason moves tor the Warriors and should keep them above water defensively. D’Angelo Russell is an interesting wrinkle that may complicate this prediction.

The fit with Curry in the backcourt may be clunky and Russell will have to commit defensively like he’s never done before. However, it’s clear that Golden State chose to make a talent play by trading for him and it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.

The team may take a blow in the standings early on, but when Thompson returns, the Warriors should be considered one of the deadlier teams in the Western Conference.

6. Los Angeles Lakers

Many will believe this is too low for a Los Angeles Lakers team that just paired Anthony Davis with LeBron James this summer. Perspective is important when analyzing Los Angeles’ spot on this list.

For example, last season the Lakers just barely missed out on the playoffs and this ranking has them right in the thick of things, acknowledging their improvement.

Also, as stated earlier, the Western Conference is stacked, so calling Los Angeles one of the six best teams isn’t meant to knock them.

What this ultimately comes down to is the paltry supporting cast surrounding Davis and James. Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Dudley are solid veteran pickups, but when you get outside of Los Angeles’ starting lineup, it starts to get dark.

Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo are big names, but have not been productive pieces to winning teams in quite some time. There also isn’t the same level of trust in the Lakers front office to improve on the fly this season than there is for other teams like the Boston Celtics and Rockets.

Age and injury concerns are also ever present with this roster. James turns 35 in December and Davis has missed around 17 games per season for his NBA career. It will be interesting to see how these questions will get answered this season.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have made the playoffs six out of the seven years Terry Stotts has been the head coach. Damian Lillard provides a level of consistency and leadership that is usually good enough to lead Portland to at least 45 wins most years.

CJ McCollum is a capable All-Star player himself that will help spell Lillard through the regular season marathon. It would be foolish to leave the Blazers out of the playoffs, barring some crazy injury.

Replacing Jusuf Nurkic‘s minutes will be tough. The Blazers believe Hassan Whiteside is up for the task, but Whiteside just isn’t as good as Nurkic, particularly defensively.. There also may be a conflict once Nurkic returns to demand that starting center position.

Aside from extending Lillard’s contract and trading for Kent Bazemore to help replace Maurice Harkless, most of Portland’s moves have come off as kind of bizarre. They may shock the NBA world and come out ahead, but for now their spot on the list seems appropriate

8. San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since the 1996-97 season, so a lot of this prediction is based out of pure respect. Nevertheless, San Antonio does have a lot of talented veterans like DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay.

Interestingly enough, for the first time in a few years, there’s real optimism surrounding the Spurs’ young core. Dejounte Murray is a prime example of this optimism. Thought Murray missed last season due to his ACL injury, he could have major ramifications for the Spurs future.

The same goes for players like Jakob Poeltl, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker. If the Spurs play their cards right, next year could be a competitive breeding ground that also gives the franchise some direction moving forward.

Gregg Popovich will get this team to regular-season victories, but what may be more important is if he’s be able to develop and identify any diamond in the rough that may form from this core next season.