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The Upcoming Western Conference Playoff Race Could Be the Best in Years

The Lakers have set the tone by signing LeBron, but they aren’t the only team out west trying to make the leap. All 15 teams have a reason to fight for a seat at the table. Who makes it could determine the future of the NBA’s middle class.

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The Western Conference will have a lot of unhappy teams at the end of this season. LeBron James going to the Lakers won’t swing the balance of power in the conference unless Kawhi Leonard comes with him, but it does throw the hierarchy in the West even further out of whack. A weird imbalance exists among the 15 teams. They all want to win now. There isn’t a single franchise in the conference like the Magic, Hawks, or Bulls in the East, all of whom are punting on the season in order to build for the future. But therein lies the problem: The NBA isn’t Lake Wobegon. Not everyone can be above-average. Something has to give.

For all the talk about how deep the West is, there still aren’t any legitimate title contenders outside of the Warriors and the Rockets as things stand today. What the conference does have is an extremely large middle class and a swell of teams hungry to get out of the basement. There were only seven games separating the no. 3 and no. 10 seeds last season, and the five teams that finished at the bottom of the conference are all trying to accelerate their rebuilding processes. This situation can’t last for long. There aren’t many owners who will pay the luxury tax for a team that finishes with the no. 11 seed, and All-Star-caliber players won’t spend the prime of their careers on those teams, either.

The result is going to be a free-for-all in the middle of the standings. The regular season, at least out west, should be interesting because so much is on the line for so many franchises. There are at least a half-dozen teams that could be blown apart if things go badly, and several more that could really regret going all in this season if they don’t end up making a big leap. Consolidation of talent is coming in the West, and the difference between being a franchise in position to add pieces in what should be a wild 2019 offseason and starting over will come down to a few games.

The Safe Bets

Golden State and Houston are in a category of their own. The Warriors are a virtual All-NBA team, while the Rockets have James Harden and Chris Paul locked up for the rest of their primes. Neither team is going anywhere.

There are only three other teams in the West that can feel comfortable about their futures: Utah, Oklahoma City, and the L.A. Lakers. The Jazz have Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert under team control for at least three more seasons, while LeBron doesn’t have an option in his contract with the Lakers until Year 4. The Thunder dodged a bullet when Paul George re-signed, but it’s going to hit a few other teams in the West this season. There just aren’t enough spots in the middle of the conference for every team that needs to crack the top eight.

Playoffs or Bust

Few teams have had a more interesting offseason than New Orleans, which essentially replaced DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo with Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton. The rationale behind those moves was discovered last year after Cousins tore his Achilles. The Pelicans traded for Nikola Mirotic and set Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday loose on offense, and watched as their team blossomed. Now, just a few days into the offseason, they’ve rounded out their starting lineup with younger and more athletic players. The question is whether these moves will be enough to keep Davis happy, since he has only two years left on his deal and has won one playoff series in seven seasons in New Orleans. Every contender is clearing the decks for him, so the Pelicans can’t afford to regress.

Portland has an uneasy relationship with Damian Lillard, who went public with his gripes about the team’s direction last season. They have been in limbo since losing LaMarcus Aldridge, and there isn’t an obvious path out of the salary-cap hell they put themselves in during the summer of 2016. Money issues already cost them a key piece (Ed Davis) off their bench, and they could lose two more (Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton). Their only hope is the development of Zach Collins, whom they took with the no. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft to be their center of the future. If they miss the playoffs, Dame may demand a trade.

Jimmy Butler isn’t the face of the franchise in Minnesota like Davis is in New Orleans and Dame is in Portland, but letting him walk next summer would be just as devastating, since the Wolves gave up three lottery talents to get him. Butler didn’t click with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and he has already said that the ability to contend for a championship will be his primary consideration in free agency. Minnesota doesn’t have the cap space to address its lack of 3-point shooting and perimeter defense. If head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t trust GM Thibodeau and play the two wings (Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop) he just drafted, he could end up losing both jobs next summer.

The Kroenke family, which owns the Denver Nuggets, just opened up the checkbook to keep this team together, paying Nikola Jokic and Will Barton a combined $202 million in long-term salaries over the weekend. Those deals put their payroll at about $145 million this season, which would give them a whopping luxury-tax bill of more than $50 million. The Nuggets will be better if Paul Millsap plays more than 38 games, but that’s still an awful lot of money for a team that may not get home-court advantage in the first round. They will have to package future first-round picks and promising young players to move the dead-weight deals of guys like Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Mason Plumlee, and Wilson Chandler. Miss the playoffs again, and heads could roll throughout the organization.

Even the Bad Teams Expect to Be Good

Memphis won only 22 games last season, but it’s still holding on to the glory days of the Grit ’n’ Grind era for as long as it can. Grizzlies owner Robert Pera even said in an interview that he expects them to be a 50-win team. It’s hard to start over when they owe so much money to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley Jr., and Chandler Parsons. Even worse, they owe a first-round pick to the Celtics (courtesy of a trade-deadline deal for Jeff Green in 2015) that is top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020, and completely unprotected in 2021. That pick could hurt the franchise if it doesn’t convey this season.

A team with the no. 1 overall pick is normally closer to the beginning of a rebuild than the end, but Phoenix is dead set on competing immediately despite drafting a 19-year-old center (Deandre Ayton) whose defense is nowhere near playoff-caliber. The Suns traded an unprotected first-round pick from the Heat in 2021 to acquire the rights to Mikal Bridges, a polished upperclassman who should be able to play a big role as a rookie, and they gave 33-year-old Trevor Ariza a one-year, $15 million contract to further improve their floor spacing and perimeter defense. Suns GM Ryan McDonough, in his sixth season without a playoff berth, can’t afford to be patient any longer.

It’s the same story for Dallas, which dealt a top-five-protected first-round pick in 2019 to move up from no. 5 to no. 3 overall and take Luka Doncic rather than absorb a bad contract (Kent Bazemore) that would tie up cap space next summer. Patience has never been a virtue for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who is hoping that Doncic is the rare rookie who can instantly improve a team. A team that signs a 30-year-old DeAndre Jordan to a one-year, $24 million deal is trying to win now. The Mavs think they hit the jackpot by drafting Dennis Smith Jr. and Doncic in two trips to the lottery, and they don’t want to make a third.

Sacramento has no choice but to push all its chips in this season, thanks to an ill-fated trade to clear cap space in 2015 that cost it an unprotected first-round pick in 2019. The Kings have been the laughingstock of the league for the past decade, and they don’t want to give either Boston or Philadelphia (the two possible recipients of the pick) another top-five selection. The Kings spent a lot of money in free agency on veteran leadership to little effect last season, and there’s no guarantee anything will change if they try again this offseason. They’d better hope that Marvin Bagley III, the no. 2 overall pick in the draft, will complement the young core they have in place. They won’t get another impact young player out of the draft until 2020 at the earliest.

The Wild Cards

There are two teams in the West that don’t fit easily into any of the first three categories, and both should be competitive next season, barring a fire sale. San Antonio is in limbo until it resolves the Kawhi Leonard situation. However, the Spurs re-signed Rudy Gay and added Marco Belinelli in free agency, so they don’t appear interested in starting over. When you consider how little Kawhi contributed last season, the Spurs could improve upon their 47-win campaign with the bounty of talented, young players they would get in a deal for their disgruntled star. And who knows, maybe Kawhi will play out the season with San Antonio. Stranger things have happened in the NBA.

The Clippers are the only team in the West who may want to be in the lottery. They owe a first-round pick to the Celtics that is lottery protected in 2019 and 2020 (if it isn’t conveyed by then, the Clippers will instead give up a second-round pick in 2022). And after turning over their entire roster in a little more than a year, they don’t have any player they are tied to. However, they return the core of a 42-win team from last season, and guys like Tobias Harris and Lou Williams give them enough talent to be frisky. There won’t be many easy wins in the West.