Western Conference tiers: Clippers, Lakers aren't only contenders aiming for NBA Finals berth

Sporting News

The days of the Western Conference playoff bracket being a mere formality are over. Thanks to the free agency decisions of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant, the West is as wide open as we have seen in the last 20 years.

As many as six teams have a legitimate chance of representing the Western Conference in the 2020 NBA Finals — and that’s a conservative estimate.

There are only eight playoff spots, so good teams will inevitably be left out when the calendar flips to April. Here’s how we see the West playing out...

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2019-20 NBA playoff locks

Clippers: Ahead of the 2018-19 season, Sporting News had the Clippers as a lottery team. What a difference a year makes.

While the rumors about Leonard's interest in the Clippers ultimately turned out to be true, no one expected the coup that coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Balmer scored in getting George to demand a trade and join Leonard in Los Angeles. The duo of Leonard and George, paired with guard Patrick Beverley, creates the most fearsome defensive unit in the NBA. Good luck scoring against "Clamp City."

Aside from the new star power, Lou Williams is coming off back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year campaigns, thanks in large part to his pick-and-roll chemistry with Montrezl Harrell. Landry Shamet enters his second season with higher expectations. Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac will provide frontcourt depth.

The Clippers are the Vegas favorites to be crowned champions — but there are questions. The 2018-19 unit was built on chemistry with one of the closest locker rooms in the league. How will the additions of Leonard and George affect the culture that Rivers has built?

Even more concerning, Leonard and George both have an injury history. Will the Clippers follow the Raptors' model and lean on "load management" during the regular season? How many games will George miss to start the season? How the Clippers go about handling playing time for the two new additions will dictate where they land when the regular season concludes.

Lakers: Magic Johnson is gone, and the Lakers are back. Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

All the talk surrounding Davis and the Pelicans' unwillingness to be a trade partner with the Lakers turned out to be false, giving LeBron James the partner he needs as he chases his fourth title. Both players will enter the season with plenty to prove. James is coming off his first injury-riddled season, leaving him out of the playoffs for only the third time in his career. Davis is ready to shine in LA and show that he’s still a top-five player after quitting on the Pelicans halfway through the season.

With Kyle Kuzma escaping the trade package sent to the Pelicans and the addition of multiple veteran players (Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard), the Lakers are primed to make a deep playoff run. But, much like the Clippers, there are questions that need to be answered.

Health will play a major role in the Lakers' success. James is entering the twilight of his career, and there are reasons to believe that he no longer can carry the load. Any significant injuries to James or Davis will sink the Lakers in the standings.

New coach Frank Vogel will be tasked with making these seemingly random pieces fit together. Can Vogel manage the expectations and the circus that comes with a James-led team? Have the Lakers acquired enough shooting to properly space the floor around James and Davis? Time will tell. For now, "Showtime" is back in the building.

Nuggets: Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and the Nuggets have taken a different approach, focusing on continuity over splashy acquisitions.

The Nuggets return an almost identical roster to the one that gave the Warriors a run for the No. 1 seed in the West last season. They’re betting that Nikola Jokic will take another step toward becoming an MVP and Jamal Murray is the perfect long-term fit alongside him. Denver won’t be getting Clippers and Lakers hype, but they may prefer it that way.

Under the direction of coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets have improved their win total each season (33, 40, 46 and 54 wins over the past four seasons). The addition of Jerami Grant gives them a strong finisher at the rim and a spot-up shooter at power forward (39.2 percent on 3.7 3-point attempts per game last year with the Thunder). The expected debut of Michael Porter Jr. has the Nuggets hopeful that he can fill their need on the wing.

However, there are reasons to believe this is the year the Nuggets see a drop in their win total, and it really doesn’t have much to do with them. The West is simply stacked. Getting back to 54 wins and the No. 2 seed in the West will be a tall task. With multiples teams in the West improving their rosters, the Nuggets certainly won't be the favorite, but they will remain a contender.

Rockets: The CP3 era in Houston was fun, but the Rockets have little to show for it.

After back-to-back playoff exits at the hands of Golden State, general manager Daryl Morey had seen enough. He made the boldest move of his career, sending Chris Paul to the Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook.

At first glance, the pairing of Westbrook and James Harden seems odd at best. They are responsible for the two highest usage percentages over a full season in league history, but the Rockets will be the only team in the league that can run out two former MVPs.

Morey and the Rockets are betting that the two former teammates can coexist and make the comprises needed in order to win. On paper, the Rockets are loaded, but champions aren’t built on paper. Harden and Westbrook will either take the league by storm or Morey will be tasked with shedding the headache the duo creates. There will be no in-between.

Warriors: Golden State may no longer be the juggernaut it once was with Durant, but counting the Warriors out would be nothing short of foolish.

With Durant in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson out until at least the 2020 All-Star break, the Warriors will lean on Stephen Curry. He must be at his MVP-level best. Draymond Green can't afford to coast until the playoffs. Expect him to chase another Defensive Player of the Year award.

The big question is whether newly acquired D'Angelo Russell will be able to fill Thompson’s shoes. If Russell can seamlessly fit into Steve Kerr’s system and provide the offensive boost required before Thompson returns, the Warriors will be near the top of the West. If he can’t, Golden State’s lack of depth will be exposed.

Jazz: Utah finally got its man. Mike Conley had no interest in playing for the Jazz around last year's trade deadline. The Grizzlies' bleak future changed his perspective.

The Donovan Mitchell-Conley backcourt is a scary thought for the rest of the league. Conley has been buried in a small market, stuck playing for a non-contender for the past few seasons. We’ve forgotten how valuable he can be. For the first time in the Quin Snyder era, Utah will have an offense that can match its defense.

Outside of the Clippers, no one did more to improve their roster than the Jazz. Bojan Bogdanovic will be the third option offensively and provide Utah with a lethal shooter from deep. The Jazz also threw in some depth at multiple positions in free agency (Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay).

If Mitchell is able to take another leap, the Jazz will be one of the most dangerous teams out West.

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Fighting for the last two playoff spots

Trail Blazers: Even after coming off a Western Conference finals berth, Portland will still be fighting for relevance.

Portland lost seven players from the team that won 53 games the year before, and that doesn’t include Jusuf Nurkic, whose status is up in the air after suffering a gruesome leg injury late last season. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have an argument for the best duo in the league, and the signings of Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore are interesting, but they don’t move the needle.

If Nurkic is able to recover quicker than expected, maybe Portland cements itself as a playoff team. That's a major "if." Portland will be fighting to stick in the top eight all season long.

Thunder: Considering what Oklahoma City lost this offseason, the Thunder should be happy with the team they'll field this season.

After George demanded a trade to the Clippers, general manager Sam Presti decided it was finally time to let go of OKC's stars. Presti was able to acquire a dizzying array of draft picks, an overpaid but still productive Paul, a potential future All-Star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran forward Danilo Gallinari in separate George and Westbrook deals. If the Thunder hold onto Paul for the entire season, they should be a playoff team.

Keeping Paul is a longshot, though. All signs point to a true rebuild in OKC.

Spurs: Is this finally the year that San Antonio snaps its playoff streak? The Spurs are at 22 straight trips to the postseason now despite a slight scare last season.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have done a remarkable job of remaining competitive after the Leonard saga. They return every key player from last year's No. 7 seed, and the expected debut of guard Dejounte Murray should give them a boost. DeMar DeRozan will be looking for a repeat of his first year in a Spurs uniform. LaMarcus Aldridge should remain a reliable scoring option.

The issue here isn’t the Spurs. It’s the rest of the conference. The West is so loaded that a team led by Popovich has a good chance of being left out of the playoff picture. But counting them out would be silly, as we've seen so many times before.

Mavericks: When one European sensation departs Dallas, two others take his place.

Luka Doncic is expected to improve upon a sensational rookie season that saw him take the league by storm and earn himself the Rookie of the Year award. After averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, Doncic will be responsible for leading a franchise that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons. He'll be paired with big man Kristap Porzingis, who is hoping to return to form after coming off an ACL injury.

Those two should vault Dallas into the playoff conversation, but the organization's inability to attract another star in free agency tempers expectations.

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NBA Draft lottery teams

Pelicans: Lose Davis and instantly replace him with Zion Williamson? The Pelicans are counting their blessings.

New Orleans will be must-see TV. Williamson has already taken the NBA by storm after limited minutes in Summer League and preseason competition. Getting Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart in return for Davis (plus multiple future draft picks) made the trade palatable, and the JJ Redick signing in free agency was a pleasant surprise. Don't forget about Jrue Holiday, one of the league's most underrated players.

New Orleans won't be an easy out on a nightly basis, but they don’t have enough to crack the top eight. At least they’ll be entertaining.

Kings: After the first promising season in what seems like forever, the Kings have real hope.

De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley III proved last season that they have the potential to be quite the trio. Nearly 40 wins in the West with a young group should have meant Dave Joerger kept his job. But this is Sacramento, folks. Job security doesn’t exist.

Luke Walton takes over after his unsurprising firing as Lakers head coach. General manager Vlade Divac is betting that Walton will be able to mold this roster into a playoff team for years to come. The Kings will just have to wait a little longer.

Timberwolves: They’re better off without Jimmy Butler, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a playoff push.

No team had a more disappointing 2018-19 season than Minnesota — Butler ensured that would be the case early on. Now free of any Butler-related drama, Minnesota can focus on the future. Karl Anthony-Towns will need to continue on his upward trajectory after posting 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks a year ago. Andrew Wiggins is only 24 years old, but that contract is looking worse by the day. He has to give the Timberwolves something (or anything, really).

Retaining head coach Ryan Saunders and drafting Jarret Culver were both nice moves, but Minnesota simply doesn't have the firepower to threaten for a playoff spot.

Suns: Phoenix continued its run as the laughingstock of the league last season. It’s hard to foresee any major changes as the regular season approaches.

Deandre Ayton quietly had a nice rookie season, and Devin Booker showed signs of taking the next step. But signing Ricky Rubio in the offseason for $51 million over three years was a classic Suns move. Another losing season is on the horizon.

Grizzlies: The "Grit n Grind" era has come to an end. And yet, the future is bright in Memphis.

Trading away Conley officially ended the most successful stretch in the history of the franchise, but in drafting Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, who will both team with sophomore stud Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies have a strong foundation. There will be growing pains, of course, but there will also be fun basketball in Memphis.

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