The 2020-21 NBA season tips off tomorrow, so here’s a look at the teams in the Western Conference, from worst to first. You can see how each team’s roster is shaping up by checking out Hoops Prospects’ NBA Depth Charts.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder overachieved last season, finishing fifth in the Western Conference with a 44-28 record. This year, the Thunder are officially in rebuilding mode. They traded Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 22-year-old combo guard, remains on the roster and is in position to take another step forward with the keys to the offense. He will lead the team in scoring again, but the team takes a substantial hit in that category because the four aforementioned traded players were four of the top five scorers on the team. Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley and Al Horford project to be in the starting lineup, while the fifth spot will likely be filled by either Hamidou Diallo, George Hill, or Trevor Ariza, who has yet to join the team. The Thunder’s roster features 11 players who are 23 or younger. This year will be a development year for the team, and if Horford and Hill stay put throughout the season, they’ll be valuable assets to the players’ growth and maturation.
14. Sacramento Kings
The Kings enter the 2020-21 season on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 15th consecutive year, and with the roster’s makeup and difficult Western Conference, a decade and a half playoff drought seems inevitable. De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III and No. 11 pick Tyrese Haliburton form a solid young trio, but they’re still developing. The team lost Bogdan Bogdanovic to the Hawks via free agency, which opened the door for Buddy Hield to start more consistently — Hield started 44 of 72 games last year. However, there’s buzz around whether Hield will remain with the team — SNY reported that the Kings are eyeing draft compensation for the 28-year-old who is under contract through 2024. If he stays, he’ll slot in next to Harrison Barnes on the wing, and newly signed Hassan Whiteside will add a shot-blocking presence in the paint.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have done a good job at acquiring young talent through the NBA Draft, but that’s all they’ve done. Aside from the one-year stint with Jimmy Butler, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2003-04. There’s a slim chance that this changes in the upcoming season. Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be a top-20 talent, and is coming off a year in which he averaged a career-high 26.5 points per game (PPG), 10.8 rebounds per game (RPG), and a career-best 4.4 assists per game (APG) in 35 games. With D’Angelo Rusell, Ricky Rubio and No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards expected to get significant minutes, the offense will likely be in good shape — the Timberwolves ranked 12th in PPG as a team last season. The defense, on the other hand, was horrendous and didn’t improve. Minnesota ranked 28th for points allowed per game (117.5) and 25th for opponent field-goal percentage (47.7).
12. San Antonio Spurs
Not too long ago, the Spurs were a mainstay in the playoff race. A lot has changed since Tim Duncan retired and Kawhi Leonard was traded. Once again, the Spurs have a nice mixture of youth and experience with notable names LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray. It’ll be interesting to see whether Lonnie Walker IV, 22, takes a step forward after averaging just 6.4 PPG in 16.2 minutes per game last season. Rookie wing Devin Vassell had a nice preseason, and should be in the mix for immediate minutes.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
The future is bright for the Grizzlies, but the future is not the present. Ja Morant, reigning Rookie of the Year, is primed for a near all-star season and is the clear leader of the team. Still, a combination of a talented Western Conference and Jaren Jackson Jr. still recovering from a torn meniscus will ultimately keep the young squad out of the postseason. Jackson does not have a timetable to return, but Zach Kleinman, the Grizzlies EVP of basketball operations, told the media Jackson will be out for “a minute.” When he returns, the Morant-Jackson duo will be one to watch, especially if Dillon Brooks’ comments on Jackson’s growth in stature is true. Brooks and Brandon Clarke will play a complementary role to the team’s top duo.
10. Phoenix Suns
The Suns made a splash in the offseason by trading for 16-year veteran point guard Chris Paul to pair with Devin Booker, making one of the best backcourts in the NBA. This duo will be what drives the team to success, but don’t sleep on Deandre Ayton. His maturation in year three is detrimental to whether the Suns are real playoff contenders or will find themselves in no-man’s land like last year. Losses of Kelly Oubre and Aron Baynes will hurt the offense and defense, respectively, and players such as Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson will have to step up in their absence.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
After an injury-riddled rookie season, Zion Williamson is in position to prove why he’s one the most prominent young players in the league. Through 24 games last year, he averaged 22.5 PPG and 6.3 RPG, similar numbers to his lone at Duke. If he can avoid injuries, Williamson will likely have an All-Star sophomore season. Additionally, the core around him is competent — Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram and Steven Adams join Williamson the starting five. Ingram stands out as the team’s sole All Star from last year, with averages of 23.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 4.2 APG.
8. Houston Rockets
Since 2012, James Harden has established himself as the face of the Rockets franchise, but with trade rumors looming, he may not even play for the team this season. Regardless of the return package, losing Harden — who led the league in scoring for the last three years — would be detrimental to the team, at least in the short team. In the scenario that Harden stays, the Rockets are still a playoff team, though they fall to the bottom of the pack with the lack of supporting talent around the three-time scoring champion. John Wall becomes the third former All-Star point guard to join the squad in as many seasons, but he hasn’t played since Dec. 26, 2018. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker return and are mainstays in the starting lineup, and Christian Wood is a young but solid addition — he’s also a center, something the Rockets didn’t have last season after trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington, who is now with the Trail Blazers. There are plenty of recognizable names, but the talent isn’t immense. If Harden stays, though, expect another scoring title as he propels the team to the playoffs once again.
7. Golden State Warriors
Two years removed from a five-year stretch of making the NBA Finals, the Warriors were set to return to title contention with the core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green leading the charge. Then Klay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season before it began. Still, Head Coach Steve Kerr will utilize his weapons to lead the team to a winning season. Curry is a top-five talent in the league, and barring injuries, he will lead the offense, while Draymond will look to rebound from last season’s underwhelming play to lead the defense. Andrew Wiggins will step in as the team’s second scoring option, but Kelly Oubre may outshine the former No. 1 pick. James Wiseman’s usage will be interesting to watch — the Warriors typically do not gameplan around their center, but being the No. 2 pick in the draft may change that.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic is magnificent, and every sign points to him being an NBA Most Valuable Player in the future. He even finished fourth in MVP voting last season after averaging 28.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG and 8.8 APG on a 43-32-Mavericks team. What holds the team back is the lack of depth and injury-prone Kristaps Porzingis. The 7-foot-3 Latvian is progressing in his rehab, but head coach Rick Carlisle told the media that there’s no timetable for his return. The rest of the roster is underwhelming to contend for a title. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson are nice complementary pieces on the wing, but outside of Porzingis, the frontcourt is weak with Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Willie Cauley-Stein and Boban Marjanovic set to receive minutes. A postseason run is imminent, but a deep one is questionable given Doncic’s supporting cast.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
With no context, the Trail Blazers’ fall from the Western Conference Finals in 2019 to fighting for a playoff spot in 2020 is frightening. But Jursif Nurkic was out with injury, CJ McCollum struggled out of the gate, and the losses of Al-Forouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless hurt more than expected, especially on defense. Well, those two forwards aren’t back, but the Trail Blazers’ lineup is deeper than it was in 2018-19. Damian Lillard and McCollum carry the load offensively, while Nurkic mans the paint. Robert Covington was the team’s key addition, as he provides excellent defense and the ability to knock down 3-pointers. Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Anfernee Simons and Derrick Jones Jr. provide support for the stars of the team, as will Zach Collins, when the power forward/center returns from injury. Another trip to the Western Conference Finals will be difficult, but Portland’s depth will be potent, especially come playoff time.
4. Utah Jazz
Although the Jazz fell short of making the second round of the playoffs, they took the Nuggets to seven games without Bojan Bogdanovic, who averaged 20.2 PPG in the regular season. With his return, the Jazz are in position to make a deep playoff run. Once again, Donovan Mitchell will conduct the offense, coming off a 24-PPG season and playoff run in which he averaged 36.3 PPG on .529/.516/.948 shooting splits. His backcourt partner, Mike Conley, will play a critical role in how far the team goes. If he can resemble his Grizzlies self, the Jazz backcourt will be one of the best in the league. In the frontcourt, Rudy Gobert returns as one of the best defenders in the NBA. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a big part of the Jazz being one of the best defensive teams in the league.
3. Denver Nuggets
In the aftermath of the 2019-20 NBA playoffs, the Clippers got more shame than the Nuggets received credit for the semi-finals series between the two clubs. The Nuggets, who ultimately won in seven games after trailing 3-1 in the series, are equipped with a similar roster heading into the new season. Jerami Grant’s departure certainly hurts, especially defensively, and Paul Millsap, 35, will have to take on defensive leadership. Michael Porter Jr. may be the guy to fill the 12-PPG-gap that Grant left — his ability to add wing scoring alongside Gary Harris and Will Barton will alleviate pressure from the team’s two leading point producers, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Jokic is a top-15 player — top 10 in some books — but it’s Murray’s improvement to keep a eye on. He finished the regular season averaging 18.5 PPG and 4.8 APG on .456/.346/.881 shooting splits but increased those averages to 26.5 PPG and 6.6 APG on .505/.453/.897 in the playoffs. If his play is reminiscent of the 19 playoff games last year, the Nuggets have every right to be considered for the top team in the West.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Not only did the Clippers underperform and blow a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the playoffs, but the Lakers signed Montrezl Harrell, who produced 18.6 PPG and 7.1 RPG last season, away from the Clippers. Still, the Clippers are poised for a redemption year. The front office fired head coach Doc Rivers, who is with the 76ers now, but Tyronn Lue — who was on staff last year — takes his place, so the system will likely remain intact. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George return as one of the top duos in the NBA, while Lou Williams, Patrick Beverely, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac and Reggie Jackson return as key rotation players. The team also added Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard and Nicholas Batum to fill out the roster. The question lies in whether the players, namely Paul George and Lou Williams, who both struggled in the 13 playoff games last year, can step up against the grueling competition in the Western Conference. Leonard has proven his ability in the clutch and playoff situations, but secondary and tertiary scorers are essential to win a championship.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers headline the Western Conference as reigning champions and are favorites to win the NBA Finals in back-to-back years. LeBron James enters his 18th NBA season, and there’s no reason to believe he’s slowing down despite turning 36 in December. He’ll run the point again after playing in that role for 57% of his minutes played, according to Basketball Reference. His counterpart, Anthony Davis, will be the team’s go-to option on offense and is primed for another strong season on both ends of the floor — he’s one of few NBA players in consideration for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. These two are enough to make the Lakers a threat, but the additions of Montrezl Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and Dennis Schroder, 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, make the team stronger overall. Additionally, Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews bolster the rotation that lost Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Rajon Rondo. There have been a lot of changes for a roster that just won the championship, but the leadership, coaching staff and star players remain the same, prompting for another potent run at the title.
Also see 2020-21 Eastern Conference Preview