Tiers of the NBA’s Western Conference, Part 1: Low expectations for the Luka-Kyrie Mavs
Aug 3, 2023, 1:09 PM | Updated: 3:16 pm
Greet your fellow NBA fan with wondrous joy my friends, because we are in an all-time era of not only basketball talent but parity as well.
Look no further than the Phoenix Suns’ Western Conference as proof of that.
The defending champion Denver Nuggets speak for themselves after we spent all last season trying to figure out which of these half-dozen-plus teams was going to take the West. While there is more definitive separation at the top this year, if you fancy yourself a gambler, I see 10 teams that are in the running. There are too many stars spread across the league now, on top of a good blend of depth. Even the bottom dwellers will give you plenty of reasons to watch.
How do they all stack up? Why, I’m thrilled you asked, so I’ll do what any sports content creator does: Rank them!
In order to establish more clarity on how these teams are separated, tiers have been utilized. We will be working in reverse order, so the first three tiers of what I believe are the top eight teams in the West will be coming later in part two.
Let’s get into part one, covering the bottom half of the conference.
Tier ?: Did you trade Damian Lillard yet
NR. Portland Trail Blazers
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
They’re top of the next tier if they don’t. Bottom of the league in their own tier if they do.
As someone who will happily tell you Lillard is their favorite player to watch, the disrespect is out of control. He’s a top-three point guard right now and the existence of Stephen Curry greatly diminishes the way Lillard should be viewed, like one of the most unique and devastating offensive threats ever. It’s a league-altering shift if he gets dealt and Miami becomes the favorite if it’s there. Yeah, I said it!
It’s a shame this rebuilding project around Lillard is behind schedule or else it would have been an exciting group to watch him teach how to win.
As the youths say, Scoot Henderson is Him. Poor Charlotte Hornets fans. He will make this team worth watching, with or without Dame. Shaedon Sharpe’s electrifying jams that remind us of Gerald Green hide some of his glue guy traits, so if he can shoot it as a high-volume guy on 3s (and all indications are that he can), watch out. Anfernee Simons is a contender for the vacant World Heavyweight Heatcheck Microwave Scoring Guard Championship belt left behind by Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams. Rookie Kris Murray did a lot of good, translatable NBA things at Iowa, like his brother.
The Jerami Grant contract got laughed at but the Blazers had to secure their only other really good NBA player long term. He’s still only 29 years old and will be movable off that. Think the Aaron Gordon deal the Orlando Magic signed him to a few years back, with the NBA’s cap spike coming in the middle of this decade that will make Grant’s annual average value of around $30 million not so bad.
When it comes to the future outlook of this conference five years down the line, Portland gets ignored. With Henderson, however, I believe the Blazers have to get mentioned. He’s that good. Dare I say, he’s got some bravado to him. That “it” factor. Sharpe, Simons and whatever comes of the Lillard trade should be enough to build around the new face of the franchise.
Pretty funny how sports work sometimes, with Portland getting that type of seamless transition.
Tier 5: Surprisingly plucky
14. San Antonio Spurs
I have to enact the “Just In Case Victor Wembanyama Dominates Right Away” clause that could bump San Antonio into the play-in race.
Even though he will mostly be hidden away on league pass, get ready for Wembanyama to be the most over-analyzed rookie in league history. The avenues to make foolishly serious judgments on his game, whether by Twitter, TikTok or YouTube, just don’t compare to anything else. And that’s before even getting to the talking head era of sports discourse on television, which is going to result in a lot of terrible conversations about him as a basketball player.
That warning aside, the immediate anchor potential for the phenom could be the latest cheat code a starting center provides of almost automatically making their team a good defensive group. That’s a lot to put on just Wembanyama but San Antonio’s secondary foundational pieces like Jeremy Sochan and Devin Vassell came into the NBA known primarily for their defense as well.
If that happens and Gregg Popovich is cooking right from the jump, is the offense capable enough to cause problems?
Vassell has leapfrogged Keldon Johnson in how the Spurs’ best young talent is viewed. While it was only 38 games last year due to injury, Vassell’s offensive game was impressive, with real scoring upside and more than a pinch of playmaking. Tre Jones, entering his fourth season like Vassell, looks on his way to becoming a starting-caliber point guard.
I’m still extremely in on Sochan being great. He does too much right on the floor, and stories from his rookie year like the uptick in his free throw percentage after changing to a one-handed release were positive indicators he’s headed in the right direction. We’ve all been in the building when someone is on some Chuck Hayes nonsense at the line, a moment that forces the crowd to create a noise combination of curiosity and laughter. For a 19-year-old to be nails through that, just to improve as a player, is impressive to me.
Is Sochan’s off-dribble game ready to expand in Year 2? How about Johnson? Can he progress some more, or is this a modified Tyreke Evans situation we’ve got on our hands?
San Antonio was A-OK with letting this come together naturally early on in the timeline, so it didn’t seek out any other more ball-dominant players to help that side of the ball function better, instead ruling to evaluate more of its squad. It was the right move. 2022 first-round picks Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley are a pair of two-guards the Spurs have to continue to explore, while another French rookie Sidy Cissoko slipped to 44th overall in the draft but is a name a handful of smart draft analysts were intrigued enough by to believe in as a top-25 talent.
Devonte’ Graham still has a few games a year when he catches fire. It’s a great opportunity for former Suns point guard Cam Payne to reestablish himself as one of the NBA’s elite reserve floor generals, and his pace with this athletic group will be a plus. A smart team will trade for Doug McDermott. Hopefully it’s a contender, as he’s on the shortlist of fun, older players from the last decade that deserve some postseason shine continuing to elude them.
There are certain permutations of the landscape when a team like this could ascend into the top-half of the West standings but this is the best the conference has ever been.
13. Houston Rockets
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Rockets will prove to be a true testament of how much star power matters.
Because while I remain a big fan of Fred VanVleet, he is not a top 50 player and you need at least three of those to win in this league. Maybe they can be the 2019 Clippers, one of my favorite teams in the last 25 years that you might remember for the, “Yo, are they about to beat the Warriors?” moment as an eight-seed when they did not in fact beat the Warriors.
Those Clippers just had a bunch of fun dudes, and (*L.A. Knight voice*), lemme talk to ya: Houston also has a bunch of fun dudes, (Yeah!).
I hope Tari Eason and Alperen Sengun are on enough television screens this year to showcase how fun they are. Eason’s a menacing, highlight-reel producing wing and Sengun is the next best-bet to become an offensive hub as a big. Amen Thompson, the No. 4 selection this year, will be in their company soon enough. His glue guy resume, like his brother’s, is off the charts.
Hey, Jae’Sean Tate is still on this team! He’s good too! So are Jock Landale and Jeff Green!
Cam Whitmore was a top-5 talent who slid all the way to 20th due to medical red flags. As he showed in Las Vegas, he can play. Kevin Porter Jr. will have to relax and let his point guard chops shine the most, but even if he doesn’t, there are still some scoring explosions coming out of him.
You know who else would benefit from taking down a chill pill or seven? Marquee free agent signing Dillon Brooks, of course! He will set the precedent for defense. I’m not sure about the example he’ll be offensively.
With all those guys, the selling point here is how much you believe 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green or 2022 No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. can significantly impact winning this year. I share both skepticism and encouragement they will figure it out over the long haul. Ime Udoka’s biggest challenge will be untapping the potential from both of them while doing so in a way that makes him team better.
The pair’s collective talent is sky high. Green’s gotta figure out the right tempo to his game, how to make defenses move the correct way to set up both himself for success and his teammates. Smith is all about aggression and skill progression in little areas to expand the off-the-bounce elements. One is a hyper-explosive 6-foot-4 guard that is an impossible 1-on-1 cover. The other is a 6-foot-10 wing with an unguardable, pretty jumper that fills in the margins everywhere else.
If one starts to really put it together this season, Houston immediately becomes competitive. If both do, the Rockets can start thinking about the playoffs sooner rather than later.
I think they’ll need another year of hibernation. This will be a really fun 30-win team.
12. Utah Jazz
In mid-November when the Jazz beat the Suns 134-133 in one of Phoenix’s best games of the regular season, it was undeniable how legit Utah looked. There was a clear level of buy-in from everyone involved to be capable of, as Chris Paul puts it, stacking up wins.
On the claustrophobia-inducing conference standings worth monitoring daily, Utah was the obvious team that was going to regress and take at least one team out of the logjam, especially when the Jazz sold at the deadline by dealing Malik Beasley, Mike Conley and Jarred Vanderbilt. But in late March, the Jazz were 35-36, still just hanging around. Soon after, though, key injuries (with curious timing) to Collin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen persisted to end play-in hopes.
Tl;dr If you weren’t paying attention, the Jazz were solid pretty much all year. And they got better this offseason.
Saying John Collins was acquired for pennies would be an insult to American currency. The Jazz will roll out a supersized lineup of Got A Legit All-Star Nod In A Stacked Conference Because He Was Awesome in Lauri Markkanen, Making the Rudy Gobert Trade Look Worse Every Day and young center on the rise in Walker Kessler, plus Collins. Utah successfully did that with Kelly Olynyk in that spot last year. Asking Collins to be a better version of Olynyk as a starting point for his career restart is cozy.
On the perimeter, Jordan Clarkson and Sexton were the biggest part of the surprise besides Markkanen’s rise. Clarkson had improvements as a playmaker, which was always the biggest flaw in his game and great to see. Sexton, another guard never afraid to shoot, is doing the same.
The Jazz just need more from either the guards or wings and they are in business. I don’t know what to make of Talen Horton-Tucker’s fit with this group. Ochai Agbaji got enough run with some glimpses of his potential to inspire hope he’s the guy. Lottery pick Taylor Hendricks projects as a plug-and-play rookie that provides the two-way spark I’m alluding to.
If there’s one team from these last four that has a chance to make the play-in tournament, it’s Utah.
Tier 4: Believe it when I see it
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
This trio of teams has betrayed my trust enough and/or is coated with bad vibes to generate enough trepidation in labeling them contenders.
The Timberwolves have a right to be optimistic. Speaking of injuries, they were ravaged by them nearly all year. And once they acquired Mike Conley and got healthy toward the end of the season, they looked capable of taking down multiple playoff series.
But then Jalen McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall at halftime of the play-in game before Rudy Gobert threw a punch at Kyle Anderson on the bench.
The Nuggets handily took them down in the first round. The Nuggets, however, did that to everybody else too.
Everything circles back to how Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns complement each other. The returns thus far have been unencouraging. And Towns’ troubles in the postseason are trending on becoming, well, a real trend.
It’s a shame because Anthony Edwards was awesome in that series and all of the hype surrounding him the last two years as “next up” to become one of the faces of the game has been met. The big jump comes this year. McDaniels is well-known as a premier defender and he’s got much more to his talent after showing some legitimate scoring pop in the second half of the season.
I love Naz Reid and I’m sure you do, too. If you don’t, that just means you haven’t seen him play much. That’s OK. You can fix that. The problem we can’t fix together, though, is he’s on a team paying two centers a combined $77 million next year. Let Naz cook!
Anderson was really good for them last year and it’s criminally overlooked how he helps ball clubs win. Ditto for Conley. He rules.
As the name of the tier suggests, I have to see Gobert and Towns together for a long, sustainable stretch before talking about conference finals possibilities. I’m sold on just about everything else.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
I find this one to be a toughie because there’s a lot to like about what L.A. is as a team on the exterior.
There was no better move this offseason when it comes to value than Russell Westbrook returning for two years and a hair under $8 million. If you were still a doubter heading into the postseason, boy did Westbrook shove that back in your face with his two-way Tasmanian devil routine against the Suns. Him replicating some form of his ferocious defense would be an excellent boost for the Clippers, and that’s before taking into account his outstanding playmaking.
The Kenyon Martin Jr. pickup for a mere two second-round picks makes the cut for that offseason pound-for-pound value leaderboard. Martin is one of the best finishers in the sport right now, getting better as a diver setting screens to maximize that while his shot is still in process. That and his cutting will mesh well with the ball-handlers. The shot-blocking is just as explosive and this is the type of veteran-laden group to help him along with all the details defensively.
The supporting cast is a bit diminished, as we saw in the postseason. Losing Eric Gordon was a blow. But Bones Hyland is expected to step in and provide the supplementary offensive spark like Norman Powell will. Terance Mann has to play more. He’s ready. Mason Plumlee coming back was big, forming one of the better center partnerships with Ivica Zubac.
In general, though, the wing support is light, feeling the weight of Robert Covington and Marcus Morris withering away. That matters considering we just can’t expect Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to be healthy at the same time. This is Year 5. The bubble was the only time. That conveniently included a lengthy break during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they still lost to the Nuggets in the second round.
It’s one of the biggest bummers of this generation. Leonard is by all accounts one of the best in the world and George has made six All-NBA teams. The two-way contributions both theoretically mesh together and should match nearly every star duo we’ve seen. But it’s all in theory because of injuries.
A potential James Harden trade looms over their summer. I cite his incredibly shoddy playoff resume as reason for this to not change my thinking enough beyond some improvement in the regular season.
9. Dallas Mavericks
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Dallas had a great offseason.
Grant Williams is the glue guy it desperately missed after sending Dorian Finney-Smith away as a part of the price for Kyrie Irving. Seth Curry on paper is extra shooting but his self-creation and scoring ability has been underrated for years. The Mavericks not just relying on second-year guard Jaden Hardy to provide that beyond Irving and Luka Doncic will be helpful. I will soldier on with my responsibilities on Tim Hardaway Jr. Island until I am the only one left. More scoring and shooting works.
My hang-up is the rest of the team.
Are we sure the center rotation has a playoff-caliber big in there to play major minutes? JaVale McGee’s first year in Dallas was a disaster. Maxi Kleber quietly regressed while dealing with an injury. Dwight Powell has historically been fine for what feels like a century. Richaun Holmes wasn’t playing on a great Sacramento team for a reason. The mighty lottery pick the Mavericks tanked for yielded Derek Lively II. He projects to be the perfect rim-protecting and rim-running center for this style of play. Can he be that guy in the postseason immediately?
So, on the perimeter, we’ve got Doncic, Irving, Curry and Hardy on the ball. Pretty good. Off it, there’s Williams, Josh Green coming off a breakout season and … ? Dante Exum is back in the NBA two years later, bringing a supposedly reworked jump shot so his great defense can stay on the floor. Olivier-Maxence Prosper athletically is a modern wing built in a lab but was just the 24th pick in this year’s draft.
Jason Kidd teams tend to go nuclear eventually and some of his quotes toward the end of the season registered on my radiation-detecting devices. Mixing that in with Irving is, uh, bold! Let’s call it bold.
Besides that hesitancy, the way the Mavericks play that puts the ball on life support with how much it gets pounded into the hardwood won’t translate to winning at the highest level. The stagnant individual-based flow was already extreme with Doncic, and now that Irving requires lots of possessions on the ball, I’m worried how much offense they run beyond those two guys putting pressure on the defense individually and forcing multiple rotations. It’ll take a commitment to change — and those two haven’t shown a willingness for it so far, particularly Doncic.
It’s a huge year for him after a giant step back following a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2021.
Doncic came into training camp out of shape and the team never recovered from the mediocrity that it resulted in. There are new clips of Doncic working out posted every day this offseason, so he appears to be at least taking that part more seriously. He doesn’t even turn 25 until the end of February, and as LeBron’s career winds down in preparation of him taking off the mantle, Doncic keeps looking the most positioned to don it in his place. This season will tell us a lot about how true that turns out to be.
The final three tiers and eight teams are to come in Part Two.