The Lakers enter 2021-22 as the presumed favorites in the Western Conference after their offseason blockbuster, but this could be one of the most competitive races in recent memory as the West searches for a counterpart to either Brooklyn or Milwaukee.
The Jazz and Suns are healthy and ready for a shot at Los Angeles’s superteam, while healthy squads in Denver and Golden State come playoff time could add further intrigue to the mix. Perhaps Kawhi Leonard comes back for a run with the Clippers, and maybe Luka Dončić and the Mavericks arrive as real contenders ahead of schedule. Sorting out the Western Conference playoff picture isn’t as easy as it initially looks.
We’ll save the postseason prognosticating for another day. For now, let’s take a look at all 15 Western Conference squads, finding one key question for each team as training camps open across the league.
Blazers—Is an organizational pivot looming?
It’s been a quiet open to training camp in Portland despite Damian Lillard’s offseason frustrations, though this situation doesn’t exactly feel resolved as Opening Night approaches. Even if a deal isn’t imminent, a shakeup is likely looming for the Blazers barring a sprint to the top of Western Conference standings. This could be a far different roster in late February than what we see now.
Just exactly how Portland alters its roster is an admittedly-open question, with two potential routes. The Blazers likely prefer to attempt further tweaks around their franchise star, potentially even dealing CJ McCollum if the right co-star can help bring Lillard closer to the Finals. But if any (relatively) marginal move doesn’t move the needle, the nuclear option could emerge. Dealing Lillard could provide Portland with Ben Simmons and/or a treasure-trove of picks, and like Houston with James Harden, dealing Lillard would enable the Blazers to strip the rest of the roster for additional assets. Apologies to Portland fans for laying out this scenario. But it’s one that’s very much in play barring a 50-win pace.
Clippers—Can Paul George carry a playoff team?
A few ugly playoff moments have obscured the conversation surrounding Paul George. Los Angeles’s forward is a top-15 player with a first-team All-NBA ceiling, sporting a game jarringly bereft of holes. George is one of the sport’s most prolific three-point shooters (39.8% from three since 2016 on over 2,500 attempts), and he averaged a career-high 5.4 assists per game last year as he took greater command of the offense as a lead playmaker. George finished third in the MVP vote in 2018-19. He’ll need to replicate that performance to carry the Clippers to the postseason as they await Kawhi Leonard’s return.
Grizzlies—Will Ja Morant shake his sophomore slump?
Ja Morant remains one of the most electrifying athletes in basketball, though he needs some polish to his game for Memphis to keep pace in the Western Conference. Morant shot just 45% from the field and 30% from three last season, and his 0.81 points per possession mark in the pick-and-roll ranked No. 21 of the 23 players to log at least 400 attempts. Defenses continue to severely sag off Morant, daring him to pull the trigger beyond the arc and near the foul line. This isn’t an unsolvable problem for the Murray State product. NBA history is littered with guards who grew as jump shooters through the first decade of their career. But as the crop of quality ball-handlers across the league continues to grow, a lack of growth from Morant could see both he and the Grizzlies stifled in the middle of the pack.
Jazz—Is Utah ready for its championship moment?
Utah made some moves on the margins this offseason–hello, Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside, goodbye, Derrick Favors–yet by and large, this is the same core returning as the 2020-21 squad. Expectations are understandably high. Utah won 52 games last season and posted the NBA’s best net rating, and the drama of Utah’s COVID-19 scare and subsequent bubble exit was put firmly in the rearview mirror. Had Mike Conley been healthy, we very well could have seen the Jazz represent the Western Conference in the 2021 Finals.
There appears to be some rising pressure in Utah ahead of 2021-22. We’re entering Year 5 of the Mitchell-Gobert partnership, and there’s been significant investment from ownership across the roster. The Lakers are an imperfect favorite. Dallas may be one year away, and Phoenix’s best chance could be in the rearview mirror. Denver will be without Jamal Murray for much of the season, and ditto for Golden State and Klay Thompson. With a talented roster and open spot atop the conference, now is time for the Jazz to return to the Finals for the first time since 1998.
Kings—Is a young core forming?
Few teams love a lottery whiff quite like the Kings, who’ve spent top-10 picks on the likes of Marvin Bagley, Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore and Thomas Robinson over the last decade. But as the franchise eyes its first playoff berth since 2006 (sorry, Kings fans) perhaps there’s a young core on hand to get excited about. De’Aaron Fox made a notable leap as a shooter and playmaker in his fourth season in 2020-21, and backcourt mate Tyrese Haliburton showcased his natural feel as a half-court initiator as a rookie. Sacramento made another investment in its backcourt in the 2021 lottery, adding Baylor guard Davion Mitchell. If the Kings’ latest lottery pick pops as a rookie, we could see the return of a playoff team in Sacramento.
Lakers—Will Russell Westbrook make the necessary adjustments?
There are clear fit concerns in Los Angeles entering 2021-22, an issue largely driven by Russell Westbrook’s shortcomings as a shooter. Westbrook has shot a dismal 29.2% from beyond the arc since 2017-18, and his 38.1% mark on mid-range attempts last season ranked No. 38 of the 42 players with at least 150 attempts. This is an athletically-gifted Lakers team, one that should be able to get to the rim at will. But as defenses clamp down in the postseason, a stream of clanked Westbrook jumpers could cost Los Angeles a series.
But perhaps we’re being a bit reductive in anticipating Westbrook’s fit in Los Angeles. He worked as an effective co-star alongside Harden for much of 2019-20, and the latter half of that season is instructive when preparing for this season. Westbrook served as an outlet for traps deployed on Harden, knifing his way down the lane on half court possessions when teams doubled the three-time scoring champion. Even when Harden wasn’t doubled, his gravity on the floor allowed Westbrook to plow ahead off each catch, attacking downhill as he looked to score or make an assist. The worst version of Westbrook comes as he pounds the air out of the ball before settling for ill-advised jumpers. We’ve seen that version plenty both in Oklahoma City and Washington. But with two superstars surrounding him, Westbrook should have plenty of room to roam. If he continues to attack downhill rather than settle, Los Angeles’s attack could become lethal.
Mavericks—Which Kristaps Porziņģis will we see?
Dallas’s big man appeared disgruntled for much of last season, bristling at his usage in the Mavericks offense as little more than a glorified spacer. Now with Jason Kidd in as head coach in place of Rick Carlisle, perhaps Porzingis can get a fresh start.
Kidd is with Porziņģis talent if Dallas’s media day is any indication. The new Mavericks coach emphasized the need for Porziņģis to put the ball on the floor in 2021-22, adding that there should be plenty of touches available despite Luka Dončić's brilliance. Porziņģis is a gifted offensive player, one who should thrive as a roll man and pick-and-pop threat alongside his superstar guard. Unlocking the best version of Porzingis would go a long way to making Dallas a legitimate threat for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Nuggets—Can Jamal Murray Return at 100%?
The Nuggets loomed as a very plausible Finals representative in the Western Conference for much of last season. That is until Jamal Murray’s ACL tear. Denver’s star guard suffered the injury in mid-April, removing the team's lead playmaker alongside Nikola Jokić just over a month before the start of the playoffs. Denver was eliminated by the Suns in a second-round sweep shortly thereafter, closing the door on a championship chance in an imperfect West.
Denver should be able to steady the ship in Murray’s absence. Jokić remains one of the most brilliant offensive bigs in league history, and he does have legitimate help with Aaron Gordon and the recently-maxed Michael Porter Jr. joining him in the frontcourt. Yet like last year, Denver’s ceiling falls below the Finals with Murray out of the lineup. The Nuggets have time on their side with Murray’s recovery. If he can slowly return to 100% by the postseason, we could have Finals games at a mile high.
Pelicans—Can the franchise find stability?
The Pelicans are heading down a dangerous path with Zion Williamson, as instability with the coaching staff, roster and front office continues to threaten the No. 1 pick’s future of the franchise. And as it’s hard to see New Orleans as anything more than a play-in team, restoring a sense of normalcy to the organization is the chief directive in 2021-22. This isn’t a roster completely devoid of talent. A healthy Williamson can smooth over a lot of holes. Let’s hope Willie Green’s arrival as head coach will help set New Orleans back on the right path before the Williamson situation gets ugly.
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Rockets—Will the backcourt provide promise?
The Rockets were forced to take a severe organizational pivot last year as Harden forced his way to greener pastures, but the future of the franchise appears healthy despite the 2020 tumult. Houston tanked its way to the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft, and it enters this season armed with one of the league’s youngest rosters. Houston has cap flexibility, a horde of Brooklyn picks and patience for what could be a year in the conference cellar. Taking such a route was sensible after Harden demanded out.
It’s too early to look to the 2022 draft, so for now, Houston has a pair of guards that it likely deems as franchise anchors. Jalen Green enters the league as the No. 2 pick in the draft, bringing explosive athleticism paired with a smooth step-back jumper. Houston acquired 21-year-old Kevin Porter. Jr in a trade with the Cavaliers last year, and nurtured by the Rockets coaching staff, Porter thrived as an oversized point guard. Neither Green nor Porter will bring Houston to the playoffs in 2021. Though a year after Harden’s ugly departure, the pair could set the Rockets on a path back to contention.
Spurs—Is a tank on the horizon?
San Antonio enters perhaps the final year of the Gregg Popovich era without a clear path back to relevance. There isn’t a budding All-Star currently on the roster, and the trading for Ben Simmons is more a hypothetical than anything at the moment. With no top-line talent to speak of, perhaps the Spurs will take a dive toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings, eyeing one of the top picks in the 2022 draft. Popovich has thus far been loath to the idea of a tank, working to field a competitive roster every year. But a slide down the standings may occur even without an endorsement from management.
Suns—Will we see the same Chris Paul?
Chris Paul hit the nadir of his value around the league after the 2019 postseason, an ugly end to his Houston tenure as the Rockets lost in the Western Conference semifinals to a Kevin Durant-less Warriors squad. The Point God was summarily shipped to Oklahoma City shortly thereafter, a trade in which the Rockets attached four years of pick control alongside Paul in exchange for Chris Paul. Houston's move is disastrous in hindsight.
Paul found the fountain of youth in Oklahoma City, and after one year with the Thunder, his comeback tour reached new heights in Phoenix. Paul posted a career-best 55.7% effective field goal percentage last season, and he logged 70 regular-season games in addition to 20 postseason contests. Paul’s reformed diet has led to a sustained post peak few envisioned years ago. Phoenix remains a top-flight title contender if Paul can replicate his 2020-21 form this season.
Thunder—Which youngsters will pop?
The expectations are decidedly low in Oklahoma City once again this season, and Sam Presti would likely prefer to sport the NBA’s worst record in 2021-22. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for growth across the roster. The Thunder actually do sport an interesting collection of young talent headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Luguentz Dort also looks to be a future franchise building block. Will anyone else on the roster pop as a bankable piece? Australian rookie Josh Giddey could show flashes of his rumored playmaking brilliance. Aleksej Pokusevski has an intriguing frame and some offensive bounce appeal, even if he’s a bit of a black hole at this point in his career. Watching the Thunder in 2021-22 is a hard sell, though there is some degree of intrigue as opening night approaches.
Timberwolves—Will Karl-Anthony Towns Bounce back?
Let’s hope to see Karl-Anthony Towns turn in a career season after a difficult past year. I’ll cede the floor to SI’s Michael Pina for more on Minnesota’s big man.
Warriors—Will Steph Curry have any help?
We’re entering our third season of the post-Durant era in Golden State, and this still feels like a franchise several steps from a return to the Finals. Not that Steph Curry is to blame. The greatest shooter in NBA history turned in a brilliant 2020-21 campaign alongside a hapless supporting cast, finishing the year with a league-best 32 points per game on 48/42/91 shooting splits. Curry isn’t slowing down without a superteam. But will he even get a respectable unit flanking him? That’s no guarantee.
Klay Thompson is unlikely to return until the calendar turns to 2022. Andrew Wiggins could very well miss 40-plus games as he refuses the COVID-19 vaccine. Young center James Wiseman has yet to prove he can be a productive player, and rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga are obvious question marks. It’s a shame we’ll likely see another season unfold with Curry out of the championship picture.
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