EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

NBA offseason review: Suns face even more impossible Western Conference

Jul 19, 2018, 10:25 AM | Updated: 3:02 pm

Phoenix Suns center Alex Len, from left, guard Troy Daniels, forward Josh Jackson and guard Devin B...

Phoenix Suns center Alex Len, from left, guard Troy Daniels, forward Josh Jackson and guard Devin Booker sit on the bench in the closing moments of a loss to the Brooklyn Nets during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Phoenix. The Nets defeated the Suns 98-92. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Western Conference was fairly impossible last year, building on its reputation as the dominant conference in the NBA and pushing the case for abolishing conferences altogether.

That was last year, and after the offseason this year, the conference has become straight up impossible.

Looking up and down the rosters in the West, there’s only one real team that you can make a case for not being competitive.

Other than that, a cluttered 3-9 seed region separated by three wins in 2017-18 becomes even more difficult to project.

This adds even more uncertainty to the Phoenix Suns’ long-discussed aspirations of contending by 2020 and accelerating #TheTimeline.

Across the NBA, there are potential free agents signings, buyouts and trades left to occur this summer, but the anticipated major landfall moves have been made.

Here’s a look at what each team did in alphabetical order.

Dallas Mavericks

Keep an eye on Dallas having the biggest jump in a win total out West besides the Los Angeles Lakers.

First of all, Dallas was more than a 24-win team last year. Per Cleaning the Glass, Dallas won 8.7 games less than they were expected to based on their efficiency, by far the highest number in the league and the largest in the past four seasons.

That team shakes off an expected rough rookie season for point guard Dennis Smith Jr., adds the rookie who will do the most to help a team win this year in Luka Doncic and one of the best centers in basketball, DeAndre Jordan.

The best piece the Mavericks lost was Doug McDermott, and Doncic will be taking all those wing minutes and then some.

They aren’t a playoff team, but with a top three NBA head coach in Rick Carlisle, Dallas is going to be competitive.

Denver Nuggets

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

One of the most under the radar storylines in the NBA last year was the Nuggets winning 46 games despite Paul Millsap only playing in 38 total.

With that and the expected improvement of younger players like Jamal Murray (21), Trey Lyles (22), Nikola Jokic (23) and Gary Harris (23), 50 wins should be on the table for Denver.

They lost Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, relying on more youth like those aforementioned names and Juancho Hernangomez to replace them. Bringing back Will Barton, though, was big.

Isaiah Thomas, of course, is the wild card that could push this team to a whole other level if he can even regain his Sacramento form as one of the best sixth men in the league, let alone his MVP form from Boston.

Golden State Warriors

Well, the Warriors were overwhelming title favorites before free agency. Then they added DeMarcus Cousins, managed to keep Kevon Looney and are bringing back Jordan Bell in his second year, shoring up any concern over who they play at center in the playoffs next year. That is, in case you were concerned, which I don’t think anyone was anyway.

Houston Rockets

We will soon find out how big of a deal it is for the Rockets to lose Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. It feels significant given how much they meant to the team’s identity of switching defensively and spacing the floor for Chris Paul and James Harden to do the isolation business.

Expecting they bring back restricted free agent Clint Capela, Houston still appears to be a wing short to be in a separate tier with the Warriors at the top of the conference. Maybe Joe Johnson has a comeback year left or second-round pick De’Anthony Melton is ready right away. If not, even the long-rumored signing of Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t be enough to fix the loss of those two crucial perimeter pieces.

Los Angeles Clippers

We have finally arrived at our first team that looks to have gone from “in the playoff hunt” to the “outside looking in.”

The loss of DeAndre Jordan stings. The Clippers have plenty of good players like Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris and Lou Williams, but there is an undeniable lack of star power on this team that will keep them away from 40-win territory. That’s not to say Jordan is a star, but their best player is now gone and no one close to that level has come in to replace that hole.

Instead, the pivot toward a future built around lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson appears to be the focus.

Los Angeles Lakers

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The Lakers quietly formed a defensive identity around a young roster, and Brandon Ingram’s emergence in year two would have been even quieter had it not been for the amount of people Googling his stats once he popped up in Kawhi Leonard trade rumors.

They bring back that youth, minus a breakout year version of Julius Randle, and add LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet, to it.

Unfortunately, the Lakers’ transportation team sent out to find veteran role players for James arrived back at Staples Center in the shape of a clown car filled with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee. Oh yeah, and the likes of Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart popped out of the trunk after an unsuccessful trip to San Antonio.

The intricate balance of how much patience James and the Lakers have for younger players — and if they bench them for their veteran counterparts — will be fascinating to watch unfold. Will Ingram, Hart and Lonzo Ball be preferred to the likes of Luol Deng, Rondo and Stephenson? The young crew is undoubtedly better than the old, but the signings indicate the Lakers think otherwise to a certain extent.

Either way, you win at least 45 games with a healthy James on your team. At least.

Memphis Grizzlies

(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Besides losing Tyreke Evans for nothing (whoops!), the offseason went well for Memphis by default. Jaren Jackson Jr. will be ready for real minutes from the jump and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol had plenty of time to get healthy.

Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson were huge additions to a wing group that has been dehydrated and stranded in the desert since Tony Allen left and Chandler Parsons’ knees disintegrated.

They could be a playoff team if healthy, but even if they aren’t, expect them to be far peskier this year.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Not much movement here. The foursome of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins remains a playoff hopeful. Keep an eye on Keita Bates-Diop, Josh Okogie and Tyus Jones to inject some much-needed life and young blood into the second unit if Tom Thibodeau allows them to, which he probably won’t, because, reasons.

New Orleans Pelicans

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

DeMarcus Cousins is a gigantic loss, but Julius Randle is about as good as the Pelicans could have done in their situation. He’s a solid, compact big to play with Anthony Davis or Nikola Mirotic.

Mirotic, by the way, has turned into a reliable two-way stretch forward, and there aren’t many of those in the league.

If Jrue Holiday can maintain his elite level of play from the playoffs, the Pelicans will be in the playoff race. That, the health of Davis, and how much of a downgrade Rajon Rondo to Elfird Payton is, will swing this one way or the other.

Oklahoma City Thunder

One of the big winners of the offseason, the Thunder managed to re-sign Paul George on a long-term deal and locked themselves into potential 50-win seasons for the foreseeable future.

The supporting cast remains the biggest weakness of the team. Perhaps a year of experience for Terrance Ferguson did wonders and Nerlens Noel can be the great defensive big he was in Philadelphia. Even after bringing back Jerami Grant, it’s an uphill battle for the role players around Russell Westbrook, George and Steven Adams.

The pending release of Carmelo Anthony could end up as addition by subtraction beyond the financial perspective.

Phoenix Suns

Hey, I know that team!

Devin Booker has a real group of players around him this year, a quick 180 from where he stood midway through last season. Trevor Ariza is one of them and so is Mikal Bridges. How much those three can influence the game will dictate what direction this team goes in next year. So too could Josh Jackson in his second year and if-he’s-not-traded T.J. Warren, who are both switchable (good and bad!) wings with specific, valuable offensive skills who could fit as slashers in Igor Kokoskov’s movement-heavy system.

Potential bonuses will be how positive the contributions to winning basketball are from Deandre Ayton and Brandon Knight. Even for his high expectations, Ayton is still a rookie, and who on Earth could possibly have any realistic expectations with how Knight will play? Because of that fact, is there a move for a point guard still coming?

That comfortably puts the Suns alongside the Kings and Clippers at the bottom of the conference, but a push or two in the right direction due to developments on the roster could have them more alongside the Mavericks and Grizzlies as stingy 35-45 win teams. After the incrementally large improvements Booker has made in his first three years, would an All-Star nod in this stacked conference be that much of a surprise in year four?

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland is the one team we have to cite when discussing a potential trade that might be coming. The Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum backcourt has seemed to run its course and the lack of depth around them is even more of a reason to make a move.

Due to their contract nightmares from 2016, the Trail Blazers also didn’t have any wiggle room to make a significant addition this offseason.

Group them up in that murky collection of Memphis and New Orleans where it’s tough to project if they can land a playoff spot.

Sacramento Kings

Man, the Kings have the worst roster in the West and it’s not close.

Their three best players are probably Zach Randolph, Buddy Hield and … Bogdan Bogdanovic? Does De’Aaron Fox look remarkably better in year two?

Whatever direction the young core swings over the next year doesn’t impact much for this upcoming season. Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles will be fun down the road, but start watching R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson mixtapes, Kings fans. That is, if the Kings had their first-round pick next year, which they don’t. Oops.

San Antonio Spurs

(Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

The Spurs are the biggest winner of this offseason in the West that didn’t add LeBron James to their roster.

They had a disgruntled, volatile asset in Kawhi Leonard to deal, and with the return they received in the trade, clearly prioritized winning now over any head-start on a rebuild.

In return from Toronto, they received DeMar DeRozan, who is in his prime and just made Second Team All-NBA. DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio make the Spurs one of the four teams in the league to have at least two members of an All-NBA team from last season on their roster.

The Celtics wouldn’t deal Jaylen Brown, the 76ers wouldn’t offer Markelle Fultz and the Lakers wouldn’t trade Brandon Ingram for Leonard. To get DeRozan instead of a package built around young role players and picks is a huge win.

What hurts is the subtle losses of Danny Green (going to Toronto in the deal), Tony Parker (signed with Charlotte) and Kyle Anderson (signed with Memphis). Players like Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli and Derrick White will be tasked with filling in the gaping holes on the supporting cast.

Yes, shooting will be an issue, but it isn’t more complicated than a 47-win team without Leonard adding one of the five best shooting guards in basketball.

Utah Jazz

Like Minnesota, Utah didn’t have any major roster movement and their best piece, Donovan Mitchell, gets better with another year of NBA experience.

If the Jazz can avoid being ravaged by injuries like they were last year, look for them to comfortably threaten for a top-four seed.

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