When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich. Despite a commanding 2016–17 season that vaulted Golden State into the discussion of the greatest team of all time, the league isn’t bowing out. What many assumed would lead to a fatalistic recession during the Warriors’ high period of dominance has instead led to its opposite. The West has loaded up on weapons and teams are charging back at the Warriors in full force. It’s more or less left the Eastern Conference in shambles, but we can worry about that another time. The West is going to be an 82-game joyride, and there are as many as 12 teams with a legitimate claim to one of the conference’s eight playoff slots. Let’s take a look at the top 10.
1. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry will make nearly three-fourths of Kevin Durant’s entire two-year earnings in the upcoming season alone, but make no mistake: These are Durant’s Warriors. By agreeing to a stunningly low two-year, $53 million contract, KD, the second-best player in the known universe, made sure everyone on the team eats. The gang’s all back together, with some potentially helpful additions in Jordan Bell (a roving, shot-blocking small-ball 5 snatched from the Bulls on draft night) and Omri Casspi (a stretch 4 who has shot 38.4 percent from 3 since 2013–14, and is on a one-year, make-good contract after an injury-riddled season last year). And if you’re waiting for this year’s Extreme Makeover: Respected Basketball Player Edition renovation à la JaVale McGee, know that Nick Young is on the way.
The Warriors have been the standard bearers for three seasons now, controlling personnel decisions around the league like a moon controls the tides. They’re the reason the Western Conference landscape shifted to such an extent. "Ruin the league" for a year, and watch what grows in the fertile ashes.
2. San Antonio Spurs
And yet, the Spurs are shock-proof, operating on the same sturdy foundation of anti-hype for going on two decades. San Antonio GM R.C. Buford saw Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, and Paul George all switch teams, blinked once, and re-signed Patty Mills to a four-year, $50 million deal.
San Antonio has got a pretty good reason for wanting to run things back: The Spurs think they can beat the Warriors as currently constructed. They had a 23-point lead against the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter before Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in what is now the most infamous foul of the 2017 playoffs. It’s easy to envision a competitive series had one of the five best players in the world been healthy for its duration.
Leonard has emerged every season with something new in his arsenal. This past season, his first as the undisputed lead on a championship contender, he became an almost unguardable isolation scorer. His Game 4 against the Grizzlies in Round 1, wherein he scored 21 of the Spurs’ final 25 points of the game, still resonates as a performance that proved he has several gears that have yet to be tapped into. But perhaps he’ll enter 2017–18 as a reflection of his surroundings. Perhaps he’ll emerge as the Spurs’ primary facilitator and finally log more than eight assists in one game. Leonard’s usage skyrocketed to career highs last year, and he was no less efficient for it — it might be time to push that usage rate up to James Harden and Russell Westbrook levels.
3. Houston Rockets
There is a comforting familiarity in the NBA offseason that hearkens back to childhood. We treat major transactions and free agents like Lego bricks, stacking and connecting them into multicolored obelisks of possibility. And instead of their demise coming at the hands of a 5-year-old’s boredom, it comes from the timeless reminder that reality is cruel and never works out the way you think it might (unless you’re Kevin Durant).
James Harden is partnering up with CP3 in what might be one of the most fascinating basketball experiments ever. It’s the kind of pairing that makes more sense under the influence of mind-expanding drugs; the vision becomes clearer under the guidance of a shaman like Mike D’Antoni. Will it work?! I want to believe. The unorthodox union becomes more of an obvious decision the less you think about how well they’ll harmonize and more about how rad their dueling banjo solos are going to be. Adding additional superstars to a roster is largely about establishing a superior standard and creating an environment where deviation from that standard is minimal. The Rockets will have one of the five best point guards in the league at any given point in the game running D’Antoni’s system. This offense will be both relentless and breathtaking. That’s an overwhelming combination.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Landing Paul George accomplishes a similar effect in Oklahoma City. His jack-of-all-trades skill set is the perfect complement to Russell Westbrook’s overlord-ball, but more importantly, he will balance the team’s pH during those precious minutes when Westbrook has to take a breather. Russ’s on-off numbers, if you’ll recall, were farcical in their five-game first-round series against the Rockets less than three months ago. With Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder had a plus-4.9 net rating; in the 46 minutes he spent off the court, everything descended to hell, with the Thunder managing to get outscored by 51.3 points per 100 possessions.
In a moment of reckoning, GM Sam Presti appears to be back on his wunderkind flow: Adding George for the price of two solid but unremarkable young players, and free agent Patrick Patterson (three years, $16.4 million) for a lower price than his previous contract despite the salary cap spike of the past two seasons is some masterful front officing. Patterson had a truly horrendous postseason, which may have evaporated much of his market value, but at his best, he is a late-period Serge Ibaka simulacrum, a reliable floor spacer and an able defensive player who doesn’t offer as much rim protection as you’d hope.
Since 2011, in every season where Westbrook and Durant played the majority of their games together, the Thunder have finished no lower than fourth in the West. George isn’t on KD’s level, but I expect the results to be similar. Presti has most likely built a mirage, but what a delightful mirage it will be for 90 or so games.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
If we’re betting on any team to make a Jazz-like postseason leap, the Wolves have to be the favorites. A lack of discipline was the root cause of Minnesota’s failure to meet expectations last season, and in Jimmy Butler, the team not only lands a proven star but a literal floor general. As Jonathan Tjarks outlined, there are some concerns about how flexible Tom Thibodeau will be considering he’s essentially using the same tried-and-true blueprint of his last 10 years of coaching to fulfill his vision of the Wolves. But in any case, this team seems primed to be a regular-season powerhouse. I hope everyone on the team is already signed up for their local beer yoga sessions. They’ll need their bodies as limber as possible for the hell-raising Thibodeau is ready to unleash.
6. Denver Nuggets
I think the Nuggets are making the leap next season. True to the way they’ve moved in the shadows as a team of the future over the past couple of seasons, they agreed to a deal with Paul Millsap, a star player so nondescript it’s fair to wonder if he even has a pulse. The Millsap signing is significant; early last season, I asserted that, regardless of his on-court personality (or lack thereof), "Millsap is just plain really good — LeBron, but cut from limestone instead of marble." He fills all the holes the Nuggets had last season, immediately becomes the team’s best defender and most versatile offensive player with Danilo Gallinari gone to the Clippers. The Nuggets will be in a rare situation where their two starting frontcourt players in Millsap and Nikola Jokic are the two best passers on the team, so you can expect a lot of high-low action and dribble handoffs to free up their excellent spot-up shooters in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They were a top-five offense last year, and with any luck, Millsap directing traffic on the back line will help bring their defense to acceptable levels. They’re going to be a blast, and are near the top of my personal League Pass rankings.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
This is where things get tricky. Only two playoff spots are available to a clustered group of the Clippers, Jazz, Blazers, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Mavericks (and the Wolves and Nuggets, if you’re not quite buying the hype). At least five of these teams would make it in the East.
For what they are, I’m still bullish on the Clippers. Losing CP3 hurts their ceiling a bit, but this is still a very talented collection of players from all ranges in the experience spectrum led by a player who could’ve been argued as a top-five player in the NBA only two years ago. The front office has to be commended for the haul they were able to bring in for a top-five point guard ever who already had a foot out the door. Yes, this is a team built on shoddy foundation — injury risk abounds. But as I’ve said before, Danilo Gallinari serves as an ideal starter kit for Blake Griffin’s first foray into being a lead facilitator. Should they stay healthy, the Clippers have more than enough firepower to stay relevant.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
This is a bit of an uninspired choice, but when you have the third-highest payroll in the league, you have to at least make the playoffs, right? The Blazers haven’t been able to make any splashy moves because of their debilitating cap situation, but as constructed, this is still a playoff-caliber team even in a rapidly changing West. I don’t think Jusuf Nurkic was a placebo — his unique style of play as a hulking, but nimble center really does open up a lot of opportunities for Portland’s incendiary duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which might just be enough.
Side note: The Blazers are extremely high on Zach Collins (same!), and he definitely is from the Lillard School of Let It Fly. In a post-draft interview, Collins, a big man who plays on a team with at least five other bigs above him in the pecking order, said, "I don’t see why I can’t be Rookie of the Year." This is the "Blazers in six" of rookie proclamations. Respect.
9. Utah Jazz
Gordon Hayward is gone, and Rodney Hood is frothing at the mouth.
Utah’s identity hasn’t changed. This is still a Quin Snyder team. It will still drag games out (relative to the NBA’s standard pace these days), and as long as the team is bookended by Rudy Gobert and a defensive ace at point guard like Ricky Rubio (or [stares off into the distance] Dante Exum … or rookie Donovan Mitchell), they’ll still be tough to score on. The team no longer has a particularly high ceiling without its star wing, but the Jazz will remain competitive enough to stay in the conversation. It’s looking likely that the eighth seed out West will have to win around 47 or 48 games to land one of the final playoff spots — the Jazz won 51 last season, and Hayward’s win shares amounted to roughly 10 of them.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have the third-longest active postseason streak in the NBA. They’ve built an entire brand out of surprising the shit out of people. But with the heart of Grit ’n’ Grind ripped out just a few days ago, maybe this is the year we can finally start lowering the casket? … But they still have Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. … But Gasol might be on the trading block?
Even in flux, the Grizzlies feel like a safer bet than getting 70 games of flawless basketball from all three of Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Jrue Holiday, who are trying to lift up a trash heap in New Orleans.
This piece was updated with new information after publication.