It has been six years since a team other than the Golden State Warriors won the Western Conference, and eight since a team other than the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs won it, but that appears almost certain to change.
The Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a playoff team, and the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to complement LeBron James. In a far riskier move, the Houston Rockets reunited James Harden and Russell Westbrook in a backcourt that could be more productive than anything the league has ever seen — or a disaster for both players.
But even after those moves, there is still a sense that the conference, and the N.B.A. in general, is wide open. The stranglehold the Warriors had on the entire league has been released, and in the resulting power vacuum, at least four or five teams have emerged that could easily rise to the top of the West.
Los Angeles Clippers
Key additions: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Maurice Harkless
Key subtractions: Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Draft: Mfiondu Kabengele (No. 27), Terrance Mann (No. 48)
Everyone knows about Kawhi Leonard (N.B.A. champion, defensive maestro) and Paul George (perennial All-Star, defensive maestro), and there is no question that their joint arrival in Los Angeles this summer instantly vaulted the Clippers into the realm of bona fide contenders.
More often overlooked is that the Clippers did not need to trade away half their roster — cough, Lakers, cough — to attain their two new stars. Consider the players who are returning from the team that went to the playoffs last season, and even pushed the Warriors to six games in a first-round series: Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet.
That is a decent core to build around. George will miss the early part of the schedule as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery, and there are always chemistry questions when new players come to town. But Leonard and George fit the blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude that the team came to embrace last season, and it would be a huge surprise if the Clippers do not position themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Western Conference. SCOTT CACCIOLA
Los Angeles Lakers
Key additions: Anthony Davis, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Quinn Cook
Key subtractions: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart
The Lakers are trying to reboot for the second season of the LeBron James Experience: new coach, new supporting cast and loftier expectations after nearly everything that could have gone wrong last season went wrong.
James, after missing a big chunk of last season with a groin injury, watched the playoffs from home for the first time since the 2004-05 season, when he was a second-year forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers. No one expects the Lakers to finish with another losing record after they (finally) traded for perennial All-Star Anthony Davis over the off-season. They also added some much-needed shooting by signing Danny Green and Jared Dudley.
But the Lakers lack depth — they shipped a fleet of promising young players to the New Orleans Pelicans to acquire Davis — and an injury to one of their front line stars would likely doom their championship aspirations.
Underestimate James at your own peril, though, even at age 34 and even after a preseason full of geopolitical distractions stemming from the team’s recent trip to China. James has a chance to make his mark yet again in a wide-open conference. SCOTT CACCIOLA
Golden State Warriors
Key additions: D’Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Omari Spellman, Glenn Robinson III, Marquese Chriss
Key subtractions: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jordan Bell
Draft: Jordan Poole (No. 28), Alen Smailagic (No. 39), Eric Paschall (No. 41)
After five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals and three championships, the Warriors were radically remade through the combination of Kevin Durant leaving for Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala being traded, Shaun Livingston retiring and Klay Thompson being sidelined indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
The Warriors did their best to salvage the off-season, acquiring D’Angelo Russell, a 23-year-old All-Star point guard, in a sign-and-trade for Durant. But even that move could limit them, as it put them under a hard cap for salaries for the season, meaning the team they have on Day 1 is likely to be the team they have all season, beyond the roster fillers at the end of the bench.
Golden State still has one of the game’s most devastating offensive weapons in Stephen Curry, and its most versatile defender in Draymond Green. When Thompson returns they would be the only team in the N.B.A. that could put a lineup on the floor with four players who had made an All-Star team in the last two seasons. But there is no question that the team’s championship-level defense has been gutted.
Key additions: Dewayne Dedmon, Trevor Ariza
Key subtractions: Willie Cauley-Stein
Draft: Justin James (No. 40), Kyle Guy (No. 55), Vanja Marinkovic (No. 60)
If Coach Luke Walton deploys the offense that most people expect from him, then Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic should all be taking even more shots from 3-point range. The team invested a chunk of change in retaining Harrison Barnes, who is familiar with Walton from their time together in Golden State, but a playoff spot in the West typically requires some defense. Beyond the signing of an aging Trevor Ariza, it’s hard to see how Sacramento plans to improve in that regard.
Key additions: Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Aron Baynes
Key subtractions: T.J. Warren
Draft: Cameron Johnson (No. 11), Ty Jerome (No. 24)
Drafting in the lottery each year means Phoenix gets its fair share of interesting young prospects, but in recent history that hasn’t led to the team getting any better. This year’s roster, however, has some compelling additions. Ricky Rubio is a solid veteran who has experience winning, Dario Saric has had flashes of brilliance, and Aron Baynes adds toughness to a team used to getting beaten up. Even the draft was interesting, as Cameron Johnson is more of a high-end complementary player than a potential superstar, which could make him an ideal fit on the floor with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
Key addition: Jerami Grant
Draft: Bol Bol (No. 44)
The Nuggets have something almost none of the N.B.A.’s other contenders have: continuity. They are bringing back last year’s starting five, and Nikola Jokic looked like he was only getting better at the FIBA World Cup. They have a few lottery tickets in the forms of Michael Porter Jr., who missed last year because of injury, and Bol Bol, a center who fell in the draft but could provide serious upside if he can keep himself on the court. It’s easy to be taken in by the big names of the Los Angeles teams, but the Nuggets, figuring to get off to a more seamless start, are a threat to finish as the No. 1 seed in the West.
Portland Trail Blazers
Key additions: Pau Gasol, Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja
Key subtractions: Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard and Jake Layman
Draft: Nassir Little (No. 25)
The combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum makes Portland dangerous every season, and while the Blazers seem intrigued at what they may be able to get on both ends from Hassan Whiteside, it is hard to look at the players who left and the ones who came in and think the team didn’t either tread water or get worse. When you consider what the rest of the teams in the West’s playoff picture did, that could push Portland down into the 8-10 seed range.
Key additions: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, Ed Davis, Emmanuel Mudiay
Key subtractions: Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen
Draft: Jarrell Brantley (No. 50), Justin Wright-Foreman (No. 53), Miye Oni (No. 58)
Apparently sick of being a good but not great team, the Jazz blew things up, surrounding Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell with a series of upgrades. None is larger than Mike Conley, a veteran guard who could simultaneously unlock the best of Mitchell and hit a new level with his own game.
Key additions: Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Jordan Bell, Noah Vonleh and Treveon Graham
Key subtractions: Dario Saric, Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones, Anthony Tolliver, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, Jerryd Bayless
Draft: Jarrett Culver (No. 6), Jaylen Nowell (No. 43)
The Timberwolves don’t inspire a lot of confidence, but the team’s starting lineup is far from terrible. Karl-Anthony Towns is legitimately great, Robert Covington is a beast when healthy, Jarrett Culver is intriguing and Jeff Teague is … fine. The wild card is Andrew Wiggins, who keeps saying he’s going to play up to his draft position and contract but never seems to get there. Minnesota doesn’t figure to be a very good team, but it shouldn’t be awful.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key additions: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Key subtractions: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant
Draft: Darius Bazley (No. 23)
The Thunder’s transaction column this off-season saw a likely Hall of Famer come in and two likely Hall of Famers go out. No one is sure how long Chris Paul will stick around with a team that is reworking itself, but before he pushes too hard for a trade he may want to consider that Oklahoma City has solid young prospects in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley and a metric ton of draft picks to get better in the near future. This season may be rough, but as Paul nears the twilight of his career, being around a team of fun youngsters could extend his relevance.
Key additions: Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha
Key subtractions: Chris Paul
Well, the Houston Rockets had a quiet summer. It’s not like they blew up their team and made a risky trade for Russell Westbrook, or that the executive who pulled the trigger on that deal unwittingly set off an international incident.
But on to basketball: Whatever the pairing of Westbrook and James Harden will be, it will not be boring. But if it’s going to work, Westbrook needs to be able to hit a respectable amount of jumpers. He’ll likely get a lot of open looks, the most of his career. He can’t shoot 29 percent from out there, otherwise teams will load up on Harden in the paint. The Rockets aren’t deep and just lost Gerald Green to a broken foot for a significant amount of time. If Houston works, it’ll be because Westbrook and Harden jibe: Westbrook’s explosiveness combined with Harden’s isolation dominance will work better than people are predicting. SOPAN DEB
San Antonio Spurs
Key additions: DeMarre Carroll, Trey Lyles
Draft: Luka Samanic (No. 19), Keldon Johnson (No. 29), Quinndary Weatherspoon (No. 49)
Of the West’s playoff teams, San Antonio is the only one that can rival Denver in stability. While that likely does not bring them back to the heights they were reaching just a few years ago, it’s reasonable to expect improvement this season from last, as Dejounte Murray is healthy and Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl are still developing.
New Orleans Pelicans
Key additions: J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart
Key subtractions: Anthony Davis
Draft: Zion Williamson (No. 1), Jaxson Hayes (No. 8), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (No. 17), Marcos Louzada Silva (No. 35)
Losing Anthony Davis hurts, but a major fact remains: The Pelicans never won anything with him no matter how good the big man was. Given the task of building something entirely new, David Griffin, a general manager with an N.B.A. title on his resume, got lucky by scoring the No. 1 pick and using it on Zion Williamson. The start of Williamson’s career is complicated some by a knee injury that will keep him out at the start of the season — and it’s reasonable to wonder if his weight and violent body movements will be a long-term issue — but Griffin complemented the Williamson pick with two more potential stars in Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. He also gave in to Davis’s trade demand, but not before extracting a king’s ransom from Los Angeles. The Pelicans are still young and raw, but they have everything they need to be great — and it may not take that long for them to get there, provided Williamson’s knee gets back to 100 percent.
Key additions: Delon Wright, Seth Curry
Key subtractions: Dirk Nowitzki
Draft: Isaiah Roby (No. 45)
Beyond the expected, yet depressing, retirement of Dirk Nowitzki, there wasn’t much movement for Dallas in the transaction column. But the Mavericks should be a far different team with the return from injury of Kristaps Porzingis and the continued development of Luka Doncic, last season’s Rookie of the Year Award winner. Dallas will go as far as that pair takes it, and while it won’t be instant, it’s easy to see why the Mavericks made a series of painful moves to get to this place.
Key additions: Jae Crowder, Tyus Jones, Andre Iguodala
Key subtractions: Mike Conley, Justin Holiday
Draft: Ja Morant (No. 2), Brandon Clarke (No. 21)
The Grizzlies admitted enough was enough, and traded away Mike Conley, the last piece of the Grit and Grind era. This team now belongs to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson. They’ll get some help from veterans like Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder, but there will probably be a lot more sinking than swimming, at least in the early going.