Phoenix Suns sit atop West’s pecking order after landing Kevin Durant

Feb 9, 2023, 7:47 PM
Kevin Durant #7 and Devin Booker #15 of Team United States celebrate a play against Spain during th...
Kevin Durant #7 and Devin Booker #15 of Team United States celebrate a play against Spain during the first half of a Men's Basketball Quarterfinal game on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 03, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

After the Phoenix Suns shocked the sports world at the NBA trade deadline and acquired Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant, the sportsbooks adjusted accordingly, shifting the Suns as the odds-on favorite in the Western Conference.

How does the rest of an air-tight West shape up after the deadline, though?

With apologies to the Blazers and Jazz, who were sellers, here is one man’s basketball opinion on the 11 teams that figure to be in the mix and how they stack up as competition.

Tier 1

Phoenix Suns (30-26)

Don’t overthink it.

Kevin Durant and Devin Booker become the best one-two in basketball. Not only that, but Durant will provide a gargantuan amount of on-ball relief for Booker and Chris Paul. They both really needed that and now Paul can be far fresher in the postseason.

All of this positions Deandre Ayton to star in his role even further. His gravity on dives creates only bad choices for rotating defenders. Are you, the low man, really going to come over from the weak side corner where Booker, Durant or Paul are to stop a rolling Ayton? Good luck with that!

Defensively, Durant will surprise more casual basketball fans. He is tremendous there and the aforementioned extra legs for Booker and Paul will be of the most help on that end.

The question of who starts alongside the quartet and who defends primary ball-handlers remains. It does not feel like that guy is on the roster right now.

The bench, yes, has depth issues. But there are some capable players there as well.

T.J. Warren was a low-key important part of the blockbuster. His scoring is exactly what the Suns have been missing off the bench. There are potential buyout targets like Will Barton and Reggie Jackson that make sense to help with that too.

Cam Payne, Damion Lee and Ish Wainright have proven to be reliable in some sense this season and the Suns will need that. Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie will factor in as well. We know how solid Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale are.

Durant has done this before. For as much as some want to tout him a ring chaser, he has shown phenomenal adaptability when joining new teams. He will make everyone else better, as the all-time greats do.

Durant, Booker, Paul and Ayton have the postseason experience to lead a title push. This is the best team in the West.

Tier 2

Los Angeles Lakers (25-30)

Oh yeah, I’m putting them up here. The team that is currently 13th in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles went from a squad where you questioned if you even needed a second hand to count how many NBA players it has to a legitimately deep team in terms of talent.

D’Angelo Russell as more of an off-ball guard to LeBron James works. Russell, though, will also need to prove he can avoid being the pigeon on a good defensive team. Dennis Schroder is a decent failsafe if that doesn’t work out.

Jarred Vanderbilt is the most underrated player that got moved. He defends 1-5, rebounds like a maniac and is a skilled passer. He can’t shoot but lineups with him and Anthony Davis as the bigs will eat the opposition alive defensively.

Malik Beasley provides high-volume shooting, something the Lakers unsuccessfully added last offseason, and Mo Bamba slots in as a reliable rim protector when Davis doesn’t want to play the 5.

Long-time readers will know I am a huge fan of Austin Reaves and still believe in Lonnie Walker IV. I can’t say the same about Rui Hachimura or Troy Brown Jr. but it’s unfair to judge young players until they get to play in a good situation. Remember old friend and former Suns second-round pick Davon Reed? He could emerge after showing some glimpses in Denver.

With all this in mind, everyone I mentioned with the exception of Davis, James and Schroder hasn’t proven they can contribute to winning basketball at a contender level, so I’m not buying all the way in.

And of course, if James or Davis gets hurt, they are screwed. But you’re never going to catch me doubting the king when he’s got a capable supporting cast, and that’s what this projects to be.

Golden State Warriors (28-27)

This is pretty simple. The Warriors have not been themselves at all this regular season.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe worded it last Friday, we are still just waiting on them to turn into the team we expected them to be.

None of their wins are convincing. Where are the blowouts? The Warriors are 16th in offensive efficiency and 16th in defense. Their total scoring margin is minus-18. They are, almost perfectly, average.

And yet, they are the Warriors after all. We saw them turn it on last year and do so efficiently enough to win a championship.

Golden State’s group we’ve come to know of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney outscores teams by 21.9 points per 100 possessions, the best mark for a regular starting lineup in the league, per NBA.com.

To stick with the theme of precedent, the Warriors’ track record (like LeBron’s) would be foolish to doubt by ranking them any lower.

Denver Nuggets (38-17)

There is an asteroid the size of Wyoming headed for the Atlantic Ocean. You are two miles away from the point of impact. The tidal waves headed your direction after the impact are going to blow you of the water in the same way as what happens once the Nuggets’ bench comes into the game.

Denver had the best starting five in basketball prior to this week. It has a 16.6 net rating, a number only bested by the aforementioned Warriors death machine among lineups over 150 minutes. When back-to-back league MVP Nikola Jokic plays, the Nuggets’ number is 14.2. When he sits, -10.2.

Is that viable for a deep playoff run? I don’t think so.

And the Nuggets’ deadline movement was getting rid of Bones Hyland, a young guard not ready yet, and adding Thomas Bryant, the guy who will play whatever minutes Jokic doesn’t and that’s not a lot.

Ultimately, it comes down to if Denver can get Jamal Murray back to true Blue Arrow levels or get the leap from Michael Porter Jr. we’ve been waiting on. If that comes, it is in business at the top. If not, I’d be worried.

Then again, Jokic might make it a MVP trifecta and it is the best five in basketball (to this point).

Tier 3

Memphis Grizzlies (33-21)

It just doesn’t seem like their year.

The braggadocios, fearless way in which the young Grizzlies operate has predictably developed some resentment their way and it feels like they are going through the process of figuring out how to deal with that. The results in the Western Conference since Ja Morant declared he’s fine in it have not been encouraging.

Memphis was the one team in the West I was eyeing the most with the deadline. It has always felt a player short, whether it’s the amount of help for Morant with the offense or just the wing to perfectly balance out their great bigs and guards.

That’s not quite Luke Kennard, a terrific shooter and underrated player overall.

It’s too many rock-solid contributors and not enough real oomph.

New Orleans Pelicans (29-27)

I initially wanted to put the Pelicans a tier lower with the tailspin they went into, losing 10 straight games as Zion Williamson continued to recover from his latest injury.

Williamson and Brandon Ingram have played 11 games together since the start of last season, the first for head coach Willie Green.

I worry they haven’t had enough time to gel in order to reach the heights of the Finals, where I would have picked them to end up six weeks ago.

As we know from the last postseason, this is a deep, tough squad with serious star power at the top and young players who have gotten better. It’s just a matter if the Pelicans can get healthy enough in time.

Tier 4

Dallas Mavericks

I’m out on the balance.

I think Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving together works, especially with Dallas’ style of isolation play that bounces the life out of the basketball. You can hear that thing wheezing, gasping for air when they play, and now Irving factors in.

From there, however, the Mavericks didn’t make any more moves at the deadline. They are really going to miss what Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith provided.

Their first primary ball-handler off the bench is either Frank Ntilikina or rookie second-round pick Jaden Hardy. In the wing rotation, Reggie Bullock is the lone reliable perimeter defender left. 22-year-old Josh Green, who just earned a rotation spot for the first time this year and has been playing extremely well, is now one of the biggest X-Factors in the league. Tim Hardaway Jr. can light it up and that just might be the Mavericks’ route to serious success, an offensive juggernaut doing just enough defensively.

Maxi Kleber’s return to the lineup will help with that but Kleber, Davis Bertans, Dwight Powell and Christian Wood can only do so much in the big rotation for a defense that ranks 22nd in defensive rating.

Los Angeles Clippers (31-27)

The leaders in the clubhouse for the biggest gap between how good a team looks on paper and how good it actually is.

The Clippers have been fine. They are 23rd in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are still taking games off, so I’m not sure how to build trust there for a game every other day in the postseason. The supporting cast behind them that looked awesome five months ago has been an incredibly mixed bag, which led to them shaking up their second unit by sending Kennard, Reggie Jackson and John Wall out and Eric Gordon, Hyland and Mason Plumlee coming in.

There is a six-point gap in how much better per 100 possessions Los Angeles is with Nic Batum out there, per Cleaning the Glass, the only player outside of George or Leonard with an impressive mark in that regard.

Tier 5

Minnesota Timberwolves (30-28)

I really like Mike Conley. His numbers alongside Rudy Gobert were outstanding for the last two seasons they played together. Anthony Edwards has played like a superstar the last two months.

But Minnesota has a thin rotation, lacks shooting and still doesn’t have Karl-Anthony Towns back from injury yet at 37 games and counting.

If there was one team that required the regular season to sort out its chemistry and on-court fit, it was the Timberwolves. And they haven’t been fortunate enough to stay healthy for it.

Sacramento Kings (31-23)

It’s too early for a team I really like to watch that is going to be a force the next couple of years.

Domantas Sabonis is a stud and De’Aaron Fox is coming into his own as an All-Star guard. That’s a great pair of stars.

Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter have provided even more firepower in supplementary roles while Sacramento has a great mix of a veteran (Harrison Barnes) and rookie (Keegan Murray) at forward.

After those six, however, eh. And to end on the same point we relied on up top, Barnes is the only guy with a true playoff pedigree of those six.

Oklahoma City Thunder (26-28)

If you haven’t caught an OKC game yet this season, try your best to catch a few. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best shows in basketball right now and he is surrounded by a ton of exciting, talented young pieces that play really freaking hard in an aesthetically pleasing brand of hoops.

It would not shock me if the Thunder went as high as a top six spot with how close the standings still are right now. They would have faded by now if they weren’t legit to some capacity.

But as far as playoff prospects, Kenrich Williams is the only rotation player that is at least 25 years old and Paul’s one year in OKC was the core’s lone taste of the postseason.

If we are talking about future power rankings, the Thunder are way, way up the list.

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