EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Tiers of the NBA’s Western Conference, Part 2: Suns share the top with Nuggets

Aug 4, 2023, 12:52 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, and if you missed Part One, that covered the bottom half of the conference.

It’s time for the contenders.

Tier 3: Are you sure you’re on the list?

8. New Orleans Pelicans

(Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

All three of these teams could easily climb a tier up. We start with he biggest enigma in the conference.

New Orleans needed Brandon Ingram to carry them to close out last season, and he did just that. When it was in jeopardy of missing the play-in, Ingram averaged 27.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists per night in the Pelicans’ last 18 games while shooting 51.8% from the field. He looked like the star we all saw two postseasons ago against the Suns and is on the shortlist of guys who could make their first All-NBA team this year.

It wasn’t the best season from C.J. McCollum, who will turn 32 years old later this summer and at this point in his career might be more of a third banana on a really good team. That’s crucial for the Pelicans, because it makes them more reliant on Zion Williamson staying healthy. When he is, he’s a top 20 player. In 20 of his 29 games last year, he scored 25-plus points. He only recorded less than 16 twice.

The reason to buy stock, though, beyond Ingram’s ascent is the improvement of third-year wing Trey Murphy III. He posted 19.9 points per game across that same Ingram stretch. He is not just a shooter. There were reasons to believe a jump from Herbert Jones, also entering his third season, was coming. Murphy was the one to take those steps and looks like a true pillar of their program.

The question is if any of the other young talent has a leap in front of them. Perhaps the forecast on Jones was a year ahead of schedule. Jose Alvarado had some real flashes beyond the pest work. Ditto for Dyson Daniels after going eighth in the 2022 draft, and this year’s rookie Jordan Hawkins is a snug fit as a heady sharpshooter with upside for more.

All of that is treating Williamson like he doesn’t exist. But he does, and for that alone, they are a tier higher than they should be.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

Casting the heebie-jeebies from the Ja Morant situation aside, Memphis is getting stubborn with how much it believes in its group.

Marcus Smart is obviously a wonderful acquisition and a sizable upgrade off the Dillon Brooks spot. But the Grizzlies have been in dire need of some more offensive creation beyond Morant, Desmond Bane and Tyus Jones. The best they could do at the deadline last year was Luke Kennard, and so far this offseason, the follow-up was Smart and Derrick Rose. And they lost Jones.

Outside of Morant (when he gets back from a 25-game suspension), Bane, Smart, Jaren Jackson Jr, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies seem OK with letting Ziaire Williams, Santi Aldama, David Roddy and Jake LaRavia continue to develop. Packaging some of that group and picks for a scoring wing has been right there for over a year. They have been reportedly trying to do so. They need to try harder.

It’ll come down to Morant taking the incredibly difficult steps forward between star and superstar, assuming Bane and Jackson don’t take another leap. Bane was actually doing this at the start of the season, on his way to being an All-Star, before he got hurt a dozen games in and never quite rediscovered that form. Jackson’s defensive promise caught back up to the more-offensive-based glimpses we got at the start of his NBA career. Perhaps the offense gets going upward again.

Morant is that good to believe it’s coming. It also does not feel like a safe bet after the amount of off-court noise he’s had that rivals a jet engine. He’s also serving as the head of the snake in a top-6 that’s in the running for the NBA’s best.

The Grizzlies are either going to keep hitting their head on the ceiling or finally break through. I have no idea which it will be this year.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

(Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

Oh yeah, I’m doing it!

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best guards in the league, Josh Giddey took a huge step forward in his second season and a similar year-long breakout for Jalen Williams is on tap after a strong debut showing.

The ancillary pieces are there, and the big addition to make that a fact was EuroLeague point guard standout Vasilije Micic, originally a second-round pick in 2014 who waited nine years to come to the states. Micic becomes the fourth big, high-IQ, skilled ball-handler in OKC’s arsenal. Few guys see the floor as well as he does and Micic brings a wealth of experience and savvy that will establish more winning habits on a team that started doing that last year already.

OKC sees the direction basketball is going. It is racking up smart, skilled and big initiators in a system catered to maximizing it. Having that dynamic won the Thunder more games than they should have last year and that will continue.

Luguentz Dort is an elite defender and lottery pick Cason Wallace has the potential to be one. Smart additions on the margins like shooter Isaiah Joe, constantly hustling do-it-all wing Kenrich Williams and 2022 second-round pick Jaylin Williams — the king of taking charges — fills out the depth nicely. Oh, and if the Thunder get a substantial enough jump from No. 11 pick in 2022 Ousmane Dieng or the 18th pick in 2021 Tre Mann, that’s another guy.

The real swing will come via rookie Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft who was out all of last year. Like Victor Wembanyama, the 7-footer shows the MonStars direction we could be headed in for the sport’s future.

Holmgren’s got perimeter skills, can stretch the floor, covers ground well and is an exceptional shot-blocker. If his thin frame holds up to the NBA’s strength and physicality, he will be good right away. There’s a chance he’s very good right away. As a fan, I couldn’t help getting excited watching Kevin Garnett rave to Holmgren about his defensive instincts (explicit language warning) and Holmgren crediting Garnett himself, an all-time defender, for that. On that end of the floor, that’s the vision for his ceiling.

That is a really good basketball team on paper. Last year, the Thunder went from bad to leaping right past mild competency to threatening to being good. Can they gallop ahead of another level next season, to a legitimate postseason team capable of winning a series or two? I’m not ruling it out.

Tier 2: Knocking on the door

5. Golden State Warriors

This trio of squads could very well produce the biggest boss in the West. There’s also a good amount of variation hanging up in the air.

Here’s the thing: I think the Warriors will figure the Chris Paul piece out. Surely he’s not starting, because that would mean moving one of Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Klay Thompson or Andrew Wiggins to the bench. Skipping by that, the variety of Paul’s pick-and-roll attack is a large yet blank subsection of Golden State’s offensive playbook it should have filled more years ago. And Paul still has a lot left defensively, when his workload allows it, which is an underrated part of this move. The Warriors have perfected the load management aspect.

Does Paul close games? I have no idea! But we’re talking about what has statistically been the best lineup in basketball the last three years and the patchwork around it getting led by the God of Point. It’s not why the Warriors did it, as they surely just used whatever would work to unload Jordan Poole’s salary, but they’re the Warriors and it’s Chris Paul, who has won at a high level everywhere for nearly two decades.

The bigger question I have is the lack of oomph beyond Curry. While Thompson and Green rounded into form at certain points last year, we also had some “uh oh, is this when it ends?” moments watching both last postseason. Wiggins remains awesome. Gary Payton II brings defense. The wing rotation, well, appears to be betting on Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga (again).

First-round pick Brandin Podziemski is a seamless stylistic match with his offensive skillset. Keep an eye on the same for undrafted rookie and playmaking 5 Trayce Jackson-Davis. I’m going to bet on one of them being an instant contributor. I heard how aggressively you just rolled your eyes. Sorry.

I just can’t get around how this feels like the last hurrah, after telling signs we watched last year. Steph is 35.

But did you see him last year? Nah, I’m not doing it. I refuse to put them any lower. Nope.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

This ultimately comes down to how good you think Los Angeles’ role players are (while dinging them for obvious injury concerns). I think a lot of the variation in opinions comes down to two stud playoff performers: Rui Hachimura and Gabe Vincent.

I think Vincent is a damn gamer. There’s been some conversation on how much better he is than last year’s starter Dennis Schroder, and, well, a lot better. He gave Miami the desperate extra on-ball juice it required (especially without Tyler Herro) on the league’s biggest stage. He’s capable in that spot he will hold alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

Hachimura’s 3-point shot (34.7% in his career) with a non-existent playmaking game (1.3 assists per game) and some defensive question marks that extend to his overall feel were part of why he was so available and it’ll be interesting to see how he balances the desire to still create on the ball. Kyle Kuzma could do it in the past. Hachimura just did last May.

D’Angelo Russell’s impact and salary ($17 million with a second-year player option) are the real wild cards. The playoffs keep exposing the limitations within his game as a starting point guard and I wonder if the point of his return is for the Lakers to sniff around the trade market in January.

Austin Reaves’ extension for less than $60 million over four years was a heist. Jarred Vanderbilt got the opportunity to show what he was about as a premier glue guy with the shiny L.A. spotlight on him and will only get better with a full year to acclimate. Taurean Prince was a sneaky good addition.

It all comes back to the health of James and Davis, which is why they’ll perpetually be ranked lower than they should. Even when James was able to play in the postseason, he was clearly bothered by something to limit his downhill ferocity, and it’s a valid concern to wonder if that’s just how it’s going to be for him now. We know Davis’ track record. That’s the deal.

3. Sacramento Kings

The separator to put a team on top of this tier was who feels the most solid.

Yep, it’s the Kings! Imagine that a year ago!

They were a Stephen Curry Game 7 performance for the ages  — or Harrison Barnes buzzer-beater 3 or De’Aaron Fox hand injury — away from evolving instantaneously out of regular season darlings into playoff darlings.

Sacramento is going to be much, much better for getting that type of test in its first postseason foray. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than a top-five point guard (Fox) and center (Domantas Sabonis) with a great supporting cast.

I am scavenging the world like the protagonist in a C-tier post-apocalyptic movie looking for any stock remaining of Keegan Murray, the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft who was a key starter as a rookie and had chunks of that series when he showed he was about it.

He will step up to a more prominent role in what should be a natural transition for Barnes to become even more of a secondary guy. Barnes was an underrated presence for them all year and will continue to be that.

I am elated to award Malik Monk the vacant World Heavyweight Heatcheck Microwave Scoring Guard Championship belt he will defend proudly this season. His playoff moments were amazing and, thankfully for us as fans, this is just the start for him. Monk and Davion Mitchell were so impressive against the Warriors. I did not include Kevin Huerter on purpose. Big year for him.

The Kings’ offseason was more about tying down the foundation while keeping an eye on Colby Jones and Sasha Vezenkov.

Jones, a second-round pick out of Xavier, is the extra ball-handler behind Fox and Monk the Kings have needed. He’s really freaking smart for his experience level and has a lot of skill to go with it, while also playing his tail off defensively.

Vezenkov was EuroLeague’s MVP last season and at one point for Olympiakos produced 275 points on 26 dribbles. Think about that! He’s a phenomenal cutter, like, maybe better than Mikal Bridges. That good. He can also shoot and is comfortable getting it off with little to no room. As you can tell, I think he’s a whole lot of fun to watch and I believe you will co-sign that by the turn of the new year.

Those two sound like they’ll be perfect fits playing off Fox and Sabonis.

Sacramento will be really freaking good (again) and should be thought of as the first team after the top dogs.

Tier 1: Head and shoulders

2. Phoenix Suns

(Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The top of the top, without question, is the Suns and Nuggets. Even though both teams have question marks.

There is no team in the world with a better Big 3 than Phoenix, and it goes beyond the trio “making it work.” Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant all just want to win. Booker and Durant, in particular, have proven they possess the unselfishness required.

When it comes to who handles the rock and can be just as dangerous off it, the group dynamic will be less about that and more about how they manage continuous flow on it for both the offense and each individual. That should come with time in the regular season.

Booker still doesn’t get enough credit for how seamlessly he handled the transition to playing with Chris Paul. It allowed Booker to develop his off-ball game even further, which he has practically mastered before his 27th birthday. Durant’s resume of winning titles in Golden State and jelling perfectly with their style of play speaks for itself. Until our new alien friends show up to the run, Durant is the best off-ball scorer in the universe. Beal’s the guy left to show it can work on the court in relation to contending and he’s said nothing but good things. He is his own off-ball assassin.

All three will have to accept the challenge Frank Vogel doles out in getting the best defense of their careers. Almost all lineup combinations will force at least one of them to take a significant assignment. There’s too much perimeter talent around now for that to not be the case. I’m expecting Booker to embrace this to a point where his defensive impact is noticeable every night. Durant has been that guy before. Beal, again, is the box unchecked (for now).

The depth is much improved, littered with options and much better accentuating skillsets.

Sliding by Deandre Ayton and Eric Gordon, plus the “who is the fifth starter?” question that I don’t think matters a lot as long as they find one guy that works leads us to a few questions.

How quickly can Vogel pinpoint his backup big (Bol Bol, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu)? Who is the primary on-ball defensive specialist (Jordan Goodwin and Josh Okogie)? Which defensive-minded wing with size (Keita Bates-Diop, Toumani Camara, Ish Wainright) and deadeye shooters (Damion Lee and Yuta Watanabe) can Vogel learn to trust?

If those tasks are accomplished by the end of January, these lads will be cooking with gas. If we still don’t know by April, like last year, start to worry.

Ayton and Gordon are the X-factors.

The big man is a story you already know. He could be in the running for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He could also be the guy he was in his last three playoff series, a center bordering on top-25 at his position. If Ayton is somewhere in the middle and consistent, that’s more than fine.

Gordon showed with the Los Angeles Clippers he’s got plenty left in the tank but it’s hardly talked about how tough it will be for him as the offensive producer coming off the bench while still finding his opportunities among the Big 3. When one exits, the other will be looking at their time to get going if they hadn’t already. Gordon can’t get lost in the shuffle as just a shooter in the middle quarters before serving as that great equalizer, the super spacer in crunch time when the matchups warrant it.

This is going to be fun as all hell to watch. I think Booker and Durant, now far more acclimated, will wreak havoc on whoever is in Phoenix’s way while Beal will force many, many folks to eat crow for sleeping on how great he is.

1. Denver Nuggets

This could have easily become the beginning of Denver’s reign of terror. And perhaps it still is. At the very least, though, the Nuggets have left the door unlocked, if not ajar.

The only reason to doubt Denver going into last postseason was because of the atrocious on/off numbers with the undisputed No. 1 player in the world Nikola Jokic. When he was off the court in the regular season, the Nuggets were outscored by -10.4 points per 100 possessions. In the postseason, the net rating conveniently landed at 0.0 on the dot.

I bring this up because of who helped salvage those numbers in the postseason. Bruce Brown, essentially a sixth starter for the NBA’s best opening five, got the Brink’s truck from Indiana while Jeff Green received the vet version of that via Houston.

All you need is eight guys, as the Nuggets showed. It also falls apart fairly quickly if the reliable rotation pieces falter, as the Suns showed.

Denver, for the time being, is betting on its player development. Vlatko Cancar (26 years old), Zeke Nnaji (22) and Peyton Watson (20) were fringe rotation players Denver sporadically used last year. The Nuggets’ mid-postseason trade to acquire two more picks in the 30s yielded guard Jalen Pickett and the wing duo of Julian Strawther and Hunter Tyson.

Their optimism in those half-dozen prospects getting them to eight reliable rotation players once again (and I suppose Justin Holiday, who is on his fifth team in three seasons) could very well be justified. But even if the depth is there, the overall contribution Brown specifically provided is a gigantic loss.

With that said, they are the defending champs. Jokic and Jamal Murray were sensational all postseason. The trio that surrounds them all stepped up when they had to. They’ve earned the respect to hold the top spot.

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