Writer: Caleb Akpan
Calling the NBA’s Western Conference the “Wild Wild West” has never been more true as it seems to be going into the 2017-2018 season. A mass exodus from the East by all-star level players has strengthened the top teams, bottom teams have added some of the best rookies in the draft; it’s tough to try and decide exactly where all fifteen teams will stand by the end of the season, but we’ll try and do that today.
15. Sacramento Kings
2016-2017 Record: 32-50
2017-2018 Projected Record: 24-58
Picking someone to sit at the bottom of the West isn’t easy, but breaking down rosters, Sacramento seems to be a likely bet. There’s no rising star on the roster like a Phoenix has in Devin Booker and it doesn’t look like they’ll hand the keys to their draft pick De’Aaron Fox immediately as Los Angeles will do with Lonzo Ball. The Kings seem to be in a weird place of trying to build a competitive roster with veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter coming over to be apart of the main rotation, while also attempting to rebuild with young talent. With how strong the rest of the conference is this year, the latter option seems probable over any type of competing from the Kings.
14. Phoenix Suns
2016-2017 Record: 24-58
2017-2018 Projected Record: 27-55
The Suns would probably fall below the Kings if it weren’t for the scoring power Devin Booker possesses. At just twenty years old, Booker scored a historic seventy points against the Boston Celtics last spring, and as the shooting guard continues to improve, the 22 point per game average he held last year should only rise. Having a player that can score that many points will usually win your team a game or two, and in an older era of the NBA, it was enough to form a playoff team, but with super teams and stacked squads everywhere, Phoenix just doesn’t have much around Booker to tack on a couple surprise victories. Keep an eye on point guard Eric Bledsoe and rookie Josh Jackson as the season goes on, Bledsoe could end up being traded to a contender and Jackson is a darkhorse Rookie of The Year candidate.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
2016-2017 Record: 26-56
2017-2018 Projected Record: 30-52
Out of all the teams given little to no chance of making the playoffs, the Lakers are definitely getting the most hype. They’ll have more games on national TV than most playoff teams from l last year at 23, they’ll be talked about as much as any team not named Cleveland and Golden State, and you can continue to expect seeing the world’s biggest stars courtside at their games. or bad, these are usually common occurrences for LA thanks to their market and the brand they’ve built over the years, but for the first time post-Kobe Bryant, there seems to be some actual hope in the land of purple and gold. Picking a player with the potential Lonzo Ball has will usually do that, and it definitely helps that his dad has put the team up for playoff contention and continues to be one of the most talked about people in sports media. With the Ball family effect taking place and a ton of rumors swirling around an already storied franchise, the Lakers will certainly be one of the most talked about teams in the league, but with little following Ball outside of Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and other very young players like Kyle Kuzma, don’t expect a lot of the discussion about the Lakers to involve winning.
12. Dallas Mavericks
2016-2017 Record: 33-49
2017-2018 Projected Record: 32-50
After sixteen seasons of playing basketball at .500 or better, the Mavericks are clearly in rebuilding mode. Dennis Smith Jr. gives the franchise a young talent that legend Dirk Nowitzki can pass the torch to when he decides to retire, and players like Seth Curry and Harrison Barnes are quickly learning how to score in coach Rick Carlisle’s system. The Mavs should stay focused on developing that young talent and letting Dirk gracefully exit the league over trying to squeeze into the playoff race. It didn’t do much for them in their final .500 years and a losing season already has the franchise headed in the right direction with the selection of Smith Jr., repeating that in 2017-2018 should help the team build a young core to move forward with. Watch for Nerlens Noel’s role in this season as well, after messy contract negotiations over the summer, Noel is stuck with a one-year deal at the qualifying offer and a bench role to start the season. If the young center isn’t happy with this at season’s end, he could easily change teams and set Dallas back even further from returning to their old form.
11. Utah Jazz
2016-2017 Record: 51-31
2017-2018 Projected Record: 35-47
Losing Gordon Hayward is a huge blow to the Jazz’s playoff chances after finally staying healthy enough and living up to their potential last season, winning 51 games. Now, in a Western Conference full of star talent, the Jazz don’t have an obvious go-to scorer and will have to look to an old Joe Johnson and an inexperienced Rodney Hood to lead the way. Luckily, the Jazz’s excellent defensive presence, led by Rudy Gobert, should not disappear with Hayward’s exit, and that should be enough for them to get some more wins than a Dallas or Los Angeles, but without an all-star talent, they just don’t have enough to keep up with the standard playoff teams of the NBA, especially in the West.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
2016-2017 Record: 51-31
2017-2018 Projected Record: 41-41
The tenth seed is where we probably start to see teams that can make the playoffs and that’s pretty crazy, but it’s tough to say the Clippers don’t have enough talent to make it, even without Chris Paul. Blake Griffin, when healthy, is without a doubt one of the NBA’s best players and he’s in a frontcourt with solid scorer Danilo Gallinari and rebounding monster DeAndre Jordan. Their backcourt will miss CP3 without a doubt, but Patrick Beverly is one of the best guys in the league when it comes to playing his role and gives the Clippers a defensive identity they desperately need. His old Rockets teammate Louis Williams should contend for Sixth Man of the Year, replacing Jamal Crawford seamlessly and players like Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker give the bench just enough depth to complete the team. The only thing stopping the Clippers from being higher is how strong the rest of the West is, but there’s a chance they can catapult some of the teams listed higher than them as long as they can stay healthy and gel together.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
2016-2017 Record: 43-39
2017-2018 Projected Record: 42-40
The Grit n’ Grind era is probably over in Memphis, but Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are still two of the best players at their positions. The thing that may stop them from making the playoffs is the talent around them. Chandler Parsons is coming off an injury-riddled 2017 season and if he can’t return to his form prior to last year, the Grizzlies are without a reliable third option, something most of the best teams in the league have these days. Tony Allen is no longer at the two to solidify the team’s defensive efforts, instead former Kings Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore will try to live up to the potential they once had on their new teams, though they are mainly offensive talents. If Memphis is to continue their playoff appearance streak dating back to 2011, coach David Fizdale has to quickly retool the team’s style to fit their new offensive-minded players and shift away from the slower, defensive-minded style the Grizzlies have been accustomed to.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
2016-2017 Record: 34-48
2017-2018 Projected Record: 44-38
With the two best big men in the NBA, it should be no question that the Pelicans will make the playoffs, but here we are. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins may not be enough to cut it, but if they can truly mesh together, it should be. Besides those two continuing to build chemistry, New Orleans needs Rajon Rondo to return to his assists leader form and Jrue Holiday to stay healthy as a number three after the big guys. After a surprisingly solid defensive effort last season, adding Tony Allen gives the team potential to gain elite status in that category, and they’ll need it to stop the teams ahead of them and make it into the playoffs. Their bench does not have enough to guarantee them a spot, and a lack of depth at the small forward position could force some awkward lineups, but if Davis and Cousins carry their loads and their other starts bring enough, New Orleans has the opportunity for postseason play before DeMarcus Cousins has the opportunity to switch teams in free agency.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
2016-2017 Record: 41-41
2017-2018 Projected Record: 46-36
Portland has a situation similar to New Orleans, except their most talented players are obviously in their backcourt. Damian Lillard is probably the best player in the league to not receive accolades for his accomplishments, rarely making the all-star team and not getting a spot on Olympic rosters due to how loaded the NBA is at point guard, despite being one of the leagues best scorers and shot creators. Alongside him, CJ McCollum continues to improve and is now a consistent twenty point scorer and one of the best shooting guards in the league. At last season’s trade deadline, Portland swapped Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic in a move that seemed to give Portland a legitimate third player, but Nurkic probably needs a bit more time with the team against some tougher competition before his impact can be judged more accurately. If he keeps up with his production from the end of last season, the Blazers have an anchor on both ends of the court to solidify a playoff team. If not, Portland may be on the outside looking in come late April, and with their contract situation, they’d have little room to improve, it’s playoffs or bust for Rip City.
6. Denver Nuggets
2016-2017 Record: 40-42
2017-2018 Projected Record: 48-34
Just barely missing the playoffs last season, adding Paul Millsap should be enough for Denver to improve on their 40-42 record. Milsap gives a Denver team that finished 29th in defensive rating last season one of the league’s best players on that end of the floor, and paired with offensive standout Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets have one of the best big men pairs in the NBA. Players like Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Will Barton quietly get their points night-by-night, and a solid point guard rotation gives the Nuggets depth that’s so desperately needed in today’s game. The biggest question for Denver will be if Milsap’s defensive contributions will be enough to get the team over the hump. Almost finishing dead last in defense last season, the team has a lot of ground to make up, and need more than just Milsap to step up their defensive game and move up in the rankings. A couple of solid defensive outings could be the difference between the playoffs and the lottery, and how close a team can be from being in one group to the other is something the Nuggets are all too familiar with.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-2017 Record: 31-51
2017-2018 Projected Record: 50-32
Does Minnesota have enough talent to almost flip their wins and losses entirely this season? Adding Jimmy Butler (23.9 PPG in 2017) to a team with Karl-Anthony Towns (25.1 PPG, 12.3 RPG in 2017) and Andrew Wiggins (23.6 PPG in 2017) makes that seem like a yes. Will it be easy? Absolutely not, many had the T-Wolves making the playoffs last season, and the obviously still had a lot to learn. Countering this by adding veterans like Butler, Jeff Teague, and sixth man of the century Jamal Crawford to the roster should make the transition a bit easier, and even if they don’t finish as high as this fifth seed prediction, Minnesota definitely seems to have enough in their players and their coaching led by Tom Thibodeau to finally make the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett MVP days of 2004.
4. Houston Rockets
2016-2017 Record: 55-27
2017-2018 Projected Record: 55-27
Combining Chris Paul and James Harden could add onto the genius legacy Mike D’Antoni has in the NBA, with teams like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns; but it also feels like the situation could become a bit disastrous like the 2013 Lakers, also led by D’Antoni and barely making the playoffs amongst months of drama, rumors, and a lack of team cohesion. Luckily, Harden and Paul are both a bit younger and more giving types of players than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, and in the preseason, pairing their playmaking has looked like a genius decision, as the Rockets shoot threes at a historic pace and keep the tempo as high as possible. Those are the exact things you need to do in the modern NBA, and the exact things that should keep Houston in contention for at least a Western Conference Finals appearance, though if they finish in fourth, it may be tough to make it due to the team they’d probably have to face in the second round……
3. San Antonio Spurs
2016-2017 Record: 61-21
2017-2018 Projected Record: 57-25
The Spurs barely did anything to improve their roster over the off-season, in fact adding high- volume shooter Rudy Gay and losing Tony Parker for the time being to injury may have them set up in a worse position…….but they’re the Spurs. It’d be wrong to count them out and blasphemous to not rank them as one of the top teams in the league until they show signs of slowing down. Gregg Popovich will use Kawhi Leonard to the fullest of his potential and with the San Antonio system running almost two decades strong, the Claw should be enough, despite a league trending towards needing three or even four all-stars to have a chance at winning the championship. They might even play super slow and focus on their defense, just because they’re the Spurs, and they don’t really care what everybody else is doing, they’re gonna do their thing and they’re gonna make it work to the tune of 50 to 60 wins, 2017-2018 should be no different.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-2017 Record: 47-35
2017-2018 Projected Record: 58-24
OKC put in about as much work as a team could to improve their roster heading into this season. They turned Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis into Paul George and Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott in Carmelo Anthony. How they did it is still being questioned, but what they have now is the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook combined with two of the best forwards in the game to form one of the strongest teams in the NBA. Complemented perfectly by defensive standouts Andre Roberson and Steven Adams, Oklahoma City’s Big 3 should be able to keep up with any attack the rest of the league has to offer, other than maybe the one listed ahead of them in this ranking. The key to their regular season will be putting in the work to form a team capable of beating the #1 out West, on paper the task doesn’t seem absolutely impossible, but chemistry will have to form quickly, and a confidence will have to build among Westbrook, George, and Anthony that the firepower they possess as a trio is enough to bring the first championship banner to the Thunder franchise.
- Golden State Warriors
2016-2017 Record: 67-15
2017-2018 Projected Record: 69-13
Surprise, surprise, Golden State’s at the top of the Western Conference. They’ve got two of the three best players in the league in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, along with Klay Thompson, who makes scoring 60 points in three quarters look like light work and the defensive player of the year Draymond Green to round things out. On top of all of that, you could probably say they improved their championship-winning roster in the off-season, holding onto players like Andre Iguodala and David West and adding more shooters in Nick Young and Omri Casspi. Golden State can not only top the West, they could top the history books with all the talent they have, something they’ve already done with even less talent prior. The 73-9 regular season record they held in 2016 and the 15-1 playoff dominance they displayed last year are both in jeopardy with all the talent the team in the Bay has. There’s a reason why the rest of the league seems to be getting stronger, they’re just trying to keep up with the machine that is the Warriors, a machine set to have a wildly successful season regardless of who’s in their way.