The Western Conference, boasting the winner of three of the last four NBA Championships, markedly improved in the frenetic 2017 offseason, as the Eastern Conference’s elite players converged to the west, forecasting an ultimate battle for Western Conference supremacy.
Here is a breakdown of the conference’s elite teams.
The Cream of the Crop
The Golden State Warriors remain the benchmark of the NBA. To achieve the ultimate, you must get through the reigning NBA Champions. Buoyed by their elite starting five, whose offensive prowess is unrivalled in today’s game, Golden State’s dynasty may only be beginning.
Previously, perceived ‘super teams’ such as the Miami Heat of 2011 and the Los Angeles Lakers of 2013 have been substandard in the early stages of their tenures. In the case of the Lakers, the ship was never steadied. But these Warriors were at times immaculate, and their playoff record remained pristine until the Cavaliers took Game 4 of the Finals.
Now, having strengthened their bench stocks through the elite shooting of Omri Casspi and Nick Young, consolidated by the youthful versatility of Jordan Bell, Golden State is more than merely a four-headed monster. Although their bench unit in 2016-17 was solid and reliable, in the 2017-18 season, it is arguably the crème de la crème of the NBA.
The Improved Contenders
Predicted by many to be the Warriors biggest foe in the upcoming season is the Houston Rockets. The instigators of the opening blockbuster offseason trade, Houston added the NBA’s most efficient point guard, Chris Paul.
This trade, which saw Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Sam Dekker, among others, depart from Los Angeles, gives Houston two playmaking guards to complement their array of elite shooting.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the trade, however, is young centre Clint Capela. Capela excelled last season, his third in the NBA, improving his scoring average to 12.6 points, up almost 50 per cent from the season prior, in just under five more minutes per game.
A contributing factor to this was the absence of Dwight Howard, who previously started at the centre position for Houston, which translated in Capela playing alongside Harden more frequently.
Capela received countless lob passes from Harden, which he translated more often than not into a crowd-inducing dunk. Now, Paul and Capela figure to run numerous pick and rolls, forcing opposing defences to either leave a perimeter shooter unguarded, allow Capela an open path to the rim or give Paul an easy two points.
The only doubt for me over Houston is their ability to protect the rim against dribble penetration, but with their offensive potency, they will be difficult to beat regardless.
Of course, what team embodied the concoction of talent from the east to the west more than the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Having ridden the historical wave that was Russell Westbrook in the 2016-17 season, General Manager Sam Presti knew that another season of its kind would ultimately be a misuse of Westbrook’s talents. So, as any good GM would, Presti turned role players into all-stars, acquiring the services of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, yielding just Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott.
The initial doubts over this team are valid – how will three isolation scorers compete against a team such as Golden State, whose chemistry and ball movement is from another dimension? Put simply, it will require sacrifice.
Carmelo Anthony will likely become a spot up shooter for the first time in his career, although he will undoubtedly be given ample opportunity to showcase his unique offensive talents as an isolation player.
Paul George and Russell Westbrook will be the two main ball handlers, and both will be asked to assume less responsibility than in years gone past, ultimately maximising their roster while preserving them for inevitable late-game heroics.
Beyond their star power, however, the Thunder possess veteran depth and role players who nicely complement each other. Andre Roberson and Steven Adams, the former one of the game’s elite defensive players and the latter an ever-improving centre, will fill out the Thunder’s starting line-up.
Roberson’s offensive deficiencies have been well documented, although the addition of George and Anthony releases the pressure valve somewhat. The addition of veteran Patrick Patterson, as well as the youthful exuberance of Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant, gives the Thunder much-needed depth.
Perhaps the headings used in this article are misleading. For years, decades even, the Spurs have been the ‘Cream of the Crop.’ Crowned NBA Champions on five separate occasions since 1999, San Antonio’s model of consistency, envied culture and knack for finding and developing young talent has seen them as the league’s benchmark.
The Spurs even have their imprints on the Warriors’ developing dynasty. Warriors’ assistant coach Mike Brown, who at times has served as Head Coach in Steve Kerr’s absence, was an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, while Kerr played for Popovich on two separate occasions spanning four seasons.
To exclude San Antonio from the group of ‘improving contenders’ is also misleading, as quietly, as is a theme with the Spurs, they added Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne.
Although the losses of emerging players such as Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon lessens their depth, the predicted emergence of Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans will hold them in good stead.
So while it may be unfair to exclude them from the two categories mentioned above, the Spurs are in a category of their own. For as long as I can remember this has been the case, and as long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm and Kawhi Leonard is on their roster, it will continue to be the case.