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Offseason power shift sees Suns rise in Western Conference

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Devin Booker #1 after making a three-point basket against the Washington Wizards in the second half of an NBA basketball game at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)

There’s more to come, but the NBA offseason thus far has provided a good indication of the shift in the Western Conference.

National insiders have spoken at length about how many teams are trying to win right now, with most front offices assessing their situation as potentially landing them in the playoffs. Or, they’re done losing, and need/want to win.

That created quite the pace for free agency and the trade market as well, specifically in the West, where Oklahoma City is the only team obviously not trying to get much better.

With most of the high-magnitude signings done, citing the likelihood of a trade or two still to come, here are the teams trending the most in one direction or the other that are in the playoff hunt.

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Phoenix Suns

Phoenix has undoubtedly risen the most.

With the point guard upgrade from Ricky Rubio to Chris Paul, and replacing the big loss of Kelly Oubre Jr. with Jae Crowder, the Suns have the potential to be a top-four seed.

That’s because of the upside already in place through the young core, but also because it’s a team with legitimate depth.

They didn’t get a perfect third guard that can initiate the offense, but the combination of Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore all give head coach Monty Williams options beyond bubble star Cameron Payne. You need that type of insurance with Paul’s injury history and age.

Dario Saric and Jalen Smith could bounce off each other very well as combo bigs, with Smith specifically as a guy who could really thrive early in his career as an energy 5 asked to keep it simple in 10-15 minutes.

Most importantly, that’s a whoooole lot of shooting. Outside of Crowder, Ayton is the only projected rotation player that didn’t take threes at an efficient rate last season, and that’s something he’s adding to his game.

It’s a certified good team on paper that could be very good depending on how the lineups mesh together.

Los Angeles Lakers

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Talk about reloading.

The Lakers lost Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Dwight Howard but added better replacements with Dennis Schroder, Wes Matthews, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol.

Schroder gives the Lakers a much-needed extra source of on-ball creation, Matthews had a sneaky resurgence in Milwaukee, Harrell was Sixth Man of the Year and Gasol playing with Anthony Davis and LeBron James is basketball bliss.

Retaining Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was something that needed to get done, and it did.

This is arguably James’ best supporting cast ever, a frightening proposition for the rest of the league.

Something is finally working out for the Lakers. How about that.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland’s offseason will go under the radar but they’ve got a chance to be in the top-four as well.

The Blazers have been lost on the wing since Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless departed, so trading for Robert Covington was a monumental addition.

They also brought back Rodney Hood to lead the second unit, and while Derrick Jones Jr. on the full mid-level exception was an overpay, he’s an important signing to bring more depth behind Covington. Remember, it was Gary Trent Jr. that had to guard LeBron James in the playoffs.

Harry Giles is a decent swing as a big too. Anyone as talented as him that’s only been on the Kings is worth another look.

Bringing back Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony is more about extra bodies that can still do one thing fairly well, but this is a deep team with Damian Lillard at the helm. If Jusuf Nurkic can get back to the way he played two seasons ago, like he did in the bubble, watch out.

Down

Denver Nuggets

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Denver was dealt a big blow when Jerami Grant chose the Detroit Pistons despite the Nuggets offering the same contract. Luckily, the Nuggets retained Paul Millsap, and JaMychel Green cushions some of that blow.

With that being said, their depth was a huge strength, and it’s gone. Torrey Craig was a key player for them in defending perimeter options and he’s now with the Bucks.

They’re relying on second-year players Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol much more, and now they cannot afford to have Will Barton and Gary Harris have the down years they did last season.

The Nuggets should be treated as a playoff lock still but they could have been up in a tier with the LA teams. They’re not. Grant was a big-time player for them and Millsap is only getting older.

New Orleans Pelicans

It’s a funky balance being on the cusp of the playoffs while maximizing assets.

David Griffin did well in his return for Jrue Holiday, but the team dynamic will change with Holiday out and Eric Bledsoe in, probably not in a good way. Going best player available in the draft netted them Kira Lewis Jr. with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Lonzo Ball still on the roster.

Steven Adams for Derrick Favors (who signed with Utah) is a fair enough trade-off, though, and was a crucial pickup for them to remain alive in the postseason picture.

The roster doesn’t quite come together well enough to inspire full confidence, and in the end, it comes down to how healthy Zion Williamson is anyway.

Golden State Warriors

The loss of Klay Thompson due to injury is substantial and moves them from the top of the conference to the muddled-up mess below the first three or four contenders.

Stephen Curry’s greatness should not be questioned but it’s a wild-card roster up top with Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and James Wiseman. This team is going to fly offensively and play a fun style. It also has a lot of room to go both right and wrong.

Even with additions like Kent Bazemore and Brad Wanamaker balancing out the bench, they’re gonna be battling for one of those last playoff spots.

TBD

Houston Rockets

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

A bonus round is warranted for Houston. Currently, the LA teams, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Utah and Dallas feel like the top-7 of the West in some order. The Rockets staying together would keep it at eight, making them a huge swing in the layout of the conference.

The question is if James Harden and Russell Westbrook stay, and if not, what the return is. For now, they have. The trade noise subsided a bit during free agency, but it would be surprising if it kept quiet in the next few weeks.

They got a great return on Covington (two first-round picks) and Christian Wood was an excellent signing as their perfect stretch 5.


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