What A Successful Season Looks Like For The Rest Of The Western Conference

To preview the 2021-22 NBA season, we’re taking a big picture look at what this year means to each team in the league. Part 1 on Monday consisted of the Eastern Conference, while Tuesday consisted of just the two teams in the Western Conference that opened their season. Wednesday, we round out the Western Conference and take a look at what they need to do in order to be successful by reasonable standards this year.

Dallas Mavericks

Let the offseason moves marinate and regroup

One of Dallas’ biggest problems last season was that they didn’t make enough shots.  That sounds way too simple and almost like a cop-out, but in so many games last year, the Mavericks started out shooting poorly and put themselves in a hole, leaving Luka Doncic to try his best to clean up the mess.

Dallas smartly attempted to fix the problem, bringing in sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from the Knicks on a three-year deal.  While Bullock doesn’t do much for Dallas’ defense, he almost automatically becomes their most potent wing, and reduces Dorian Finney-Smith’s role to a bench one, where he should excel.

The bigger question for Dallas going forward is whether the actual solution to becoming a true championship contender is finding Doncic a ball-handler to pair with.  Doncic’s passing is special, but the Mavericks’ roster is built for quite literally everything to run through him from a scoring, shot creation and passing standpoint.  It’s a huge load, and as good as Jalen Brunson is, his small stature and inexperience just doesn’t make it viable for the Mavericks to give him long run in games.  Dallas’ roster became even more reliant on Doncic after bringing Bullock in this summer.  Does a potential trade for or signing off a buyout of Goran Dragic elevate the Mavericks ceiling?  If Doncic does in fact need help, it could be a good idea.

Denver Nuggets

In the meantime of Jamal Murray, let Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and Bones Hyland cook

We never will know what the upside was of the Nuggets after they traded for Aaron Gordon at last year’s trade deadline.  Denver seemed to be hitting its peak when the move was made, as Nikola Jokic’s MVP case turned into reality and Jamal Murray’s play was ascending once again.

But then Murray went down with a torn ACL, an injury that not only cost him last season and the Nuggets’ title hopes, but could very well cost him all of 2021-22 as well.

Denver only has to tread water if and when Murray comes back, but it’s very real that a return for Murray – whether it be late in the regular season or for the playoffs – is only a feel-good story, and that he won’t return to true form until 2022-23.

And even if Murray comes back full strength, it’s still no gimmie that Denver would have enough to be taken seriously as title contenders.  That’s why the Nuggets need to use Murray’s absence as an opportunity.  Up until this point, Denver’s perimeter shot creation has yet to slot in at a level that was Finals worthy.

The Nuggets have at the very worst test cases for that role.  Michael Porter Jr. just got paid like someone who has already proven he can be that guy, but to this point he’s only provided his value as a shooter while being a lost cause defensively.  It’s quite clear Denver gave him the money with projection in mind.

Bol Bol might be a bit of a gimmick at this point, but the Nuggets selected him in the 2019 Draft knowing he’d be a flyer and a project.  It’s highly unlikely he blossoms into a star, but with not much to play for given Murray’s unknown timetable, Denver would be smart to confirm what they have and what they don’t in him.

Then there is Bones Hyland, who Denver selected 26th overall in July.  Hyland was an absolute bucket-getter in college at VCU, and at the worst projects as a Kent Bazemore-like player.  Without Murray in the fold, the Nuggets would be smart to let Hyland hold a high usage rate throughout the season.  While his energy can get the best of him, it’s hard to rule out anything from a guy that plays as hard as he does.

Houston Rockets

See what you have in your youth

It’s Year 1 of a rebuild for the Rockets, which puts them in a similar position as teams like the Pistons, Hornets, Magic and Thunder (to an extent… more on them soon).  They just need to play all of the guys that have potential and see what they can do.

There’s a lot of players that need those minutes in Houston – it makes sense as to why they simply told John Wall to not show up and still get paid (Eric Gordon will also probably find his way out as well at some point, as could Christian Wood). 

It figures to be the Jalen Green show this season for the Rockets, which is not a bad thing considering concerns about his ceiling as a truly great player.  Letting him show those weaknesses – or overcome them – allows the Rockets to simply build better around him moving forward. 

Kevin Porter Jr. is surprisingly slotting in as a point guard this year, which seems a little far-fetched given some of his habits as a scorer.  The move for Porter Jr. does open up a sixth man type-role for another rookie in Josh Christopher, who’s ceiling as a NBA player is likely that.

Houston spread its wealth equally with its four first round picks, going with two in the back-court and two in the front-court in July.  There’s a log jam in the paint, with Wood, newly-signed Daniel Theis, No. 16 overall pick in 2021 Alperen Sengun and No. 23 overall pick in 2021 Usman Garuba all needing minutes either for development or financial reasons.  Wood and Theis occupy a around a $21 million cap hit between the two of them, which is quite a lot for a team that’s seemingly in a rebuild. 

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wood moved this year – he was signed under the assumption that James Harden would be a Rocket and would be highly coveted around the league if Houston shopped him.  It’d open up a slot for Sengun to show everything he’s capable of, as the two’s skillsets are kind of similar.  At this early stage in his career, and with Theis seemingly in front of him, Garuba might be worth trying out on the wing or at the four, but it’s most likely he’s a super switchy five at the NBA level.

The Rockets shouldn’t have any expectations this year, except to be fun as hell.

Los Angeles Clippers

Treat Paul George like he’s Kawhi Leonard

It has been widely speculated that Kawhi Leonard will not appear in a game for the Clippers this year – regular season or playoffs.  That shouldn’t be shocking. First, it’s Kawhi, who has sat out a whole season because of angst before.  Second, his ACL tear is no joke, and it was sustained quite late in the year last season.  That’s an injury that typically takes a year to come back from.

If Leonard is indeed out for even a deep Clippers playoff run, then Los Angeles should take this year to evaluate his counterpart Paul George.

George overcame a lot of demons in the playoffs last year, leading the Clippers as far as he could after Leonard went out.  Los Angeles still came up short, but George didn’t choke or shy away from the moment – which was almost a first for him.

Getting that over the course of a whole regular season is probably a little unreasonable, but anything less than George’s prior regular season’s – even with a heavier load – should be cause for concern for the Clippers as to whether George is the right running mate for Leonard long-term.

Los Angeles’ offseason was certainly interesting in terms of how they surrounded George.  For a team that desperately needed a point guard to run the show, Eric Bledsoe was a curious answer.  He’s never been the most instinctive passer, and tends to play above his qualifications when it comes to creating shots.  The Clippers would have been almost insane to not bring back Reggie Jackson after the show he put on in the playoffs, but the contract he signed and the playoff production still seems streaky and unsustainable.  Terrance Mann is a good, all-around player, but some of the scoring performances he had in the spring aren’t likely to resurface either. All of those concerns has the Clippers then pivoting to the likes of Luke Kennard and even Brandon Boston Jr. for minutes and production, both of which are tedious bets.  

There’s certainly a level we shouldn’t expect George to hit with the Clippers this year, given his ceiling as a player and the seemingly lack of help around him.  However, there’s no reason he can’t bring Los Angeles to at least a favorable position in the Play-In Tournament or better.  If he can’t, the Clippers may be forced to reevaluate the viability of their star duo when Leonard returns. 

Memphis Grizzlies

If he doesn’t go up another level, find Ja Morant’s running mate

It’s hard to doubt anything when it comes to Ja Morant, who plays as hard as just a handful of players the past decade have.  But while the third-year point guard’s athleticism, penetration ability and passing is superb, it’s questionable as to whether he’s the No. 1 shot creator on a great or better team.

If Morant improves his isolation game and jump-shooting, then that’s great for him and for Memphis.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.  But little evidence exists thus far that he’ll develop into that type of player.

The Grizzlies seem decently aware of this.  They just paid Jaren Jackson Jr. a ton of money, which could pay off nicely if he expands his pull-up shooting game a bit more.  Desmond Bane seems destined for a bigger role this season after he flashed massive potential in 2020-21 as a rookie.  Memphis also made the ultimate home-run swing by selecting Ziare Williams No. 10 overall in the 2021 Draft.  Williams, who checked in at No 55 on the Hub’s board for the draft, came into his freshman season at Stanford as a top prospect thanks to a highly intriguing skillset as a long, 6-foot-8 shot creating wing, but fell after a tough season thanks to both basketball and non-basketball reasons.  While Williams was not highly regarded by this site (it was certainly disappointing to see him come in that low on the board), it is easy to see why the Grizzlies still believe.  If he hits his full potential – finally – the Grizzlies quickly go from frisky and fun to a serious playoff team or better.

Minnesota Timberwolves

New Orleans Pelicans

Portland Trail Blazers

Sacramento Kings

Surprise us, just a little if you can

None of these teams are in particularly great places, but some are in more dire situations than others.  

Minnesota, New Orleans and Portland all have superstar players that are likely less than thrilled to be there.  Two have made serious threats, with Damian Lillard issuing a memo to Portland’s front office that the team must improve, while multiple reports have came out about Zion Wiliamson’s disapproval of how his tenure with the Pelicans has gone.

Nothing at that level of seriousness has been reported about Karl Anthony-Towns’ discontent, but it’s hard to see why he would be ecstatic about playing in Minnesota, even with his best friend D’Angelo Russell on the team.  Years of losing and mismanagement at the top could force Towns out at some point, which would obviously be a devastating blow for the Timberwolves and their future.

Then there’s Sacramento, who doesn’t have anyone’s unhappiness to worry about except Buddy Hield’s, who is a bit lower on the totem pole than everyone else.  The Kings’ objective this year should simply be to compete and show that progress is being made toward fielding a winning team.  A Sacramento team that makes the play-in tournament? That would be surprising, and a positive step for the franchise. A team that at least doesn’t suck, is entertaining and maybe uses this year as a catapult for elevated success next season?  At the least, that should be the Kings’ goal.

The same goes for New Orleans, Minnesota and Portland, just on perhaps a different standard.  

Portland solved almost every issue it had this offseason except for one.  They brought in Larry Nance Jr. to sure up some of the defensive leaks and added even more firepower around Lillard and CJ McCollum with Tony Snell.  But it didn’t make a big, drastic change that seems to necessary for them to make the leap into true contender status. That could change if Ben Simmons gets moved this year (McCollum for Simmons might be the best deal for both sides in the NBA right now, given the health and safety risk that Kyrie Irving is).  A move like that could be the last-ditch effort needed to keep Lillard in town, because even with the offseason moves, and as Lillard said himself, it just doesn’t seem like quite enough.  If the Trail Blazers can emerge as real Finals contenders this year, it might be a natural way of fending off the inevitable.

Minnesota enters this season in chaos after its President of Basketball Operations was ousted a couple weeks ago.  On paper, the Timberwolves look like they should be decent, but D’Angelo Russell has turned himself into a negative value player, defense no matter what the personnel is has been a challenge over the years and there’s a lot riding on the play and development of young players like Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.  

The Timberwolves turning the page this year and showing that they at least have something must be the goal with the clock on Towns ticking.  Whether Russell is able to flip his value around thanks to the presence of a truer point guard in Patrick Beverley, or the import of Leandro Bolmaro provides a much needed boost to Minnesota’s isolation game, or whether Towns turns into the player we’ve hoped he’d be on both ends, the Wolves need something to break this year, even if it is a late-seed playoff berth.

Finally, there’s New Orleans, which is on its third coach in three years and has struggled to field a competitive team around Williamson.  This season seems to be among their best chances in recent memory, as they relieved some of the clutter at the guard position by sticking to newly-signed Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Santoransky, Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander Walker.  Three of four of those players can play together, with Lewis Jr. potentially being a spark-plug sixth man.  Graham’s a potent guard to pair with Brandon Ingram and Williamson, which should give the Pelicans enough offensive juice.  

The biggest question is defense and health.  Williamson has been a force when healthy, but with him set to miss the beginning of this season due a foot surgery that secretly took place over the offseason, it’s fair to wonder whether someone with his size and skills simply works at the NBA level.  The former No. 1 overall pick has also failed to live up the hype he had at Duke on the defensive side of the ball, which doesn’t bode well for a team already playing Ingram and the 6-foot-1 Graham.  Additionally, while Jonas Valanciunas is certainly a better fit on both sides of the ball than Steven Adams was, he’s not a switchable, athletic big.  Jaxson Hayes fits that mold, but he’s shown serious signs of rawness since being drafted, and the Pelicans just extended Valanciunas’ contract.

New Orleans needs to prove to Williamson that it has something going for it this year.  The problem is that there’s three other teams that are wanting to do the same with their respective superstars, and the Western Conference, even in a diluted state, is still loaded.  It will likely take a big step up from Williamson himself or Graham to get the Pelicans where they need to be in 2021-22. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Get anyone to pop, or get in position to get someone who will

The Thunder are an incredibly difficult evaluation since their long game appears to be endless.  With a bounty of future draft picks, Oklahoma City is in position to get whoever it wants via a trade or trade-up in the draft.  Until that guy becomes available or is eligible (he seemingly did this past draft in Cade Cunningham, but Oklahoma City either passed on the price or Detroit told them No. 1 wasn’t available), the Thunder are in a holding pattern with their roster, which means that incase the opportunity never comes to land the guy, it better come from within.

The options for Oklahoma City internally are a little scarce.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is really good, but his role now seems a little questionable with the drafting of point guard Josh Giddey.  The No. 6 overall pick in 2021 has the superstar qualities that the Thunder seek, but a lack of a jumper and sturdy frame could hold that development back in the long-term.  Giddey can get to the rim with ease thanks to his 6-foot-8 frame, which makes any ability of his to create a shot down the line incredibly valuable.  At this stage though, he’s still a bit of a raw project, and may never reach that next level the Thunder hope he will.

Then there’s Aleksej Pokusevski, who on some nights last year looked like he’d never played basketball before and others looked like a future All-Star. Pokusevski is a whole other level of raw, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be out of the league in five years or not.  Regardless, Oklahoma City banking on the former first rounder to emerge as a cornerstone for them is probably unrealistic.  This year provides a good test-run for him and all the other young talent now that not as many veterans are in the way, but something has to come along eventually for the Thunder – you can’t spend the entire timeline of the picks just waiting to make a move.

Phoenix Suns

Run it back and prove them wrong

Like the Bucks, the Suns have endured a lot of criticism and skepticism after their run to the Finals last season, with most of it being very valid.

To prove that last year was not a fluke, Phoenix doesn’t need to get back to the Finals again.  Encouraging outings against full strength Nuggets and Clippers rosters – during the regular season or playoffs if viable – would suffice.  But it’s unlikely either of those come to fruition, thanks to the very injuries that helped out the Suns in the 2021 playoffs.  

The Lakers are a tough evaluation for Phoenix when it comes to proving their worth.  It’s a completely new Lakers team first of all, but is also a team the Suns beat more fair and square than any other matchups last spring – LeBron James’ claims about his ankle after the loss fail to be taken seriously when he said he was 100 percent before the series started.  Anthony Davis’ injury is a legit excuse, but the James and the Lakers had multiple chances to fight harder against the Suns and never did so.  It wasn’t a matter of Phoenix being better – it was one of the Suns giving more effort.

Phoenix should strive to win the whole thing in 2021-22, whether it’s unattainable or not.  An at least respectable effort to do so should validate much of the playoff run last year.  The Suns roster is only better this year, with Landry Shamet and multiple backup centers (that includes Jalen Smith, hopefully) in the fold.  If the Suns flop, the critics will rightfully be calling.  If they shine, then the rest of the league better watch out.

San Antonio Spurs

Play survival of the fittest with the youth

The Spurs are in better shape than given credit for.  They sneakily have a boatload of young talent.  But at this stage in that collective’s development, they’re all complimentary pieces, or project to be that.

Higher ceiling options could be in the fold.  Keldon Johnson has been a completely different player since San Antonio sent him to the G-League during his rookie season – the former sharpshooter now uses his frame to get to the rim and still shoot over people.  Joshua Primo, as ghastly as that Spurs draft pick was, could have some untapped shot creation in him given his loose, vivacious style of play.  Dejounte Murray – their gifted point guard – just needs a jump shot to elevate his game, and Lonnie Walker Jr. remains a bit of an enigma in that department.

But none of these names are guaranteed to breakout or have their ceilings reach to the height the Spurs need them to.  If San Antonio can get a real feel for everyone this season, they can then move some of the spare parts elsewhere and potentially use them to make a splash.

Utah Jazz

Prove that a big shakeup isn’t necessary 

This mandate for Utah has nothing to do with the regular season.  The Jazz are likely to win a bunch of games, place high in the Western Conference and have a bunch of people going “Look out for Utah when the playoffs start!” only for it to come crashing down underwhelmingly early in the postseason.

The Jazz need that to not happen if they don’t want to ask and answer hard questions.  They’ve got to either make the Conference Finals, or give a good team a sweat on the path to getting there. But even that still feels like a disappointment.

Getting there will be hard, but if Donovan Mitchell can have a bit more of an impact on winning and if Rudy Gay proves to be viable as a small-ball five, allowing the Jazz to go small and switch every position of defense when Rudy Gobert isn’t on the court, then Utah would have at least made progress toward figuring out a solution for a roster that seems to be in denial about iself.

West projected standings:

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah Jazz
  4. Golden State Warriors
  5. Dallas Mavericks
  6. Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Denver Nuggets
  8. Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Memphis Grizzlies
  10. New Orleans Pelicans
  11. Minnesota Timberwolves
  12. San Antonio Spurs
  13. Sacramento Kings
  14. Houston Rockets
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

A paragraph on the rest of the conference: The Suns prove their run to the Finals was no joke by using chemistry to top the Lakers.  Utah continues its regular season dominance but doesn’t pass the eye test as much, leading to another playoff collapse.  Dallas improves but not quite enough, and begins to think hard about what the right team around Doncic looks like.  The Blazers play well but ultimately not well enough, causing demons of the past to surface again.  Denver and the Clippers sneak in despite their banged-up rosters, but don’t pose much of a playoff threat.  Memphis makes the cut due to typical hard play and a step up from Bane and Morant, while the Pelicans are the last team in thanks to Minnesota’s youth and defensive shortcomings.  The Spurs still fail to get one of their young guys to elevate their game high enough, causing them to investigate upgrades league-wide, while the Kings have a disastrous season and reboot.  Houston and Oklahoma City expectedly round out the West, each having their own ways of entertaining but experience none of it translating to actual wins.