Denver are NBA champions but while they bask in their low-key effectiveness, the hype in the Western Conference is centred on the team which finished last.
The hype around No.1 draft pick Victor Wembanyama’s entry into the NBA is bigger than the towering Frenchman himself with highlights of the San Antonio phenom’s exploits going viral every time he’s stepped on the court in the pre-season.
Alley-oops, stepbacks, blocks, long-range shooting, Wemby has delivered so much wow factor, it looks like the prediction that he will be the most impactful rookie since LeBron James 20 years ago will be spot on.
While the Spurs are likely to again be a draft lottery team, they now have an exciting future for the final chapter of the Gregg Popovich coaching dynasty.
And the Nuggets will happily keep plugging away at the top of the standings as they try to defend the franchise’s breakthrough title with dual MVP Nikola Jokic more than content to let the spotlight fall elsewhere as long as his team continues racking up the wins.
There is a glut of challengers to Denver’s supremacy in the West this season, headed up by the rebooted Phoenix Suns, veteran squads in the Golden State Warriors and the LA Lakers, emerging teams in Sacramento, Memphis and OKC, as well as highly combustible outfits like the Clippers, Minnesota, New Orleans and Dallas.
From 15-1 (in finishing order last season), here’s how each team is shaping up heading into the new season, which tips off on Wednesday morning AEDT with the Nuggets taking on the Lakers.
Last year’s record: 22-60
What’s new, what needs to happen: Wemby, that’s what’s new. And this point guard in the body of a centre is evoking audible gasps from anyone who sees him in action. For the Spurs, this season is all about getting him used to the hustle, bustle and grind of an NBA campaign and seeing which sort of players complement his unique skill set.
Apart from second-year forward Jeremy Sochan and re-signed guard Devin Vassell, there are no other foundational pieces in this roster but don’t expect San Antonio to try to accelerate the Wemby timeline with trades – they will build slowly over his first couple of years before looking to build another dynasty around their franchise cornerstone.
Prediction: They will finish near the bottom of the standings again with around 25 wins but after being one of the least interesting teams to watch in the past few years, they will be the darlings of NBA League Pass whenever Wembanyama suits up.
Last year’s record: 22-60
What’s new, what needs to happen: The Rockets have brought in Ime Udoka as coach, as well as experience in the form of ex-Raptors guard Fred VanVleet and controversial Memphis wing Dillon Brooks. Boomers centre Jock Landale has also been added from free agency via Phoenix.
Houston are working out what they’ve got talent wise from their bevy of recent lottery picks in Jabari Smith jnr, new addition Amen Thompson, Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun – each of them has potential to become a star but also just be a solid rotation player. Houston need at least a couple of them to pay off.
Prediction: The new coach and decision to bring in some veterans will ensure they’re not terrible but they’ll be lucky to crack 30 wins.
Last year’s record: 33-49
What’s new, what needs to happen: It’s a new era after Damian Lillard asked for a trade to Miami but was sent to Milwaukee. No.3 draft pick Scoot Henderson is the new face of the Blazers and together with fellow young prospects Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons and ex-Suns centre Deandre Ayton, they could form the nucleus of a decent team, in about three years from now.
Prediction: Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams, who were part of the deals that sent Lillard out, will be traded mid-season for more draft assets and Portland may finish with the worst record in the West.
Last year’s record: 37-45
What’s new, what needs to happen: The Jazz paid a low price to acquire Atlanta power forward John Collins in a move which is probably not going to move the needle too much in either direction but was worth a shot. Utah chief Danny Ainge has retained the majority of the squad which surprised its way to 37 wins last season with breakout star Lauri Markkanen and Team USA centre Walker Kessler again the focal points of their campaign.
Prediction: They could trade away a few rotation players to lean into the tank but they may package some of their many future picks to land a fringe All-Star or two. Will likely take a slight step back in the wins column.
Last year’s record: 38-44
What’s new, what needs to happen: Kyrie Irving is kinda new after his trade deadline deal late last season which produced seven shades of not much at all for the Mavericks. Whether his combination with Luka Doncic works is the be-all and end-all of Dallas’ hopes.
Celtics forward Grant Williams and veteran shooter Seth Curry have added depth but Dallas are still super skinny.
Prediction: Very little at the defensive end means Dallas could be struggling to even make the play-in despite having playoff expectations. Kyrie could be in a Lakers uniform before the season is out for one last foray with LeBron James.
Last year’s record: 40-42
What’s new, what needs to happen: Chet Holmgren looks determined to make up for lost ground after the No.3 draft pick was unable to play last year due to a foot injury. The seven-footer with shooting range is put out by Wembanyama getting all the attention so his addition could propel the Thunder from last season’s play-in appearance to genuine playoff candidates.
Prediction: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a legit All-Star now and if Boomers guard Josh Giddey continues his development, OKC are shaping as a team on the rise, although a top-six spot and automatic playoff spot appears just out of reach as the team is currently constructed.
Last year’s record: 42-40
What’s new, what needs to happen: Not a lot different with the personnel but the NBA’s most frustrating potential superstar, Zion Williamson, is fit and firing. When he’s on the court, the Pelicans can mix it with any team but he was only on deck 29 times last season to make it a not-so-grand total of 114 matches in his first four years in the league.
Prediction: A top-four berth is not out of the equation if Zion, Brandon Ingram and seasoned guard CJ McCollum aren’t struck down by injuries yet again but they could also fall short of the post-season if there is a continuation of their star trio’s recent trend of being unavailable too often.
Last year’s record: 42-40
What’s new, what needs to happen: Wolves fans are hoping a steady roster and Karl-Anthony Towns being back to full fitness translates into a rise into the top contenders group in the West. Anthony Edwards is on a trajectory to superstardom but this is still just his fourth season in the NBA and he is yet to prove he can take this imbalanced squad to the upper echelons of the conference.
Prediction: This will be the last year Towns plies his trade in Minnesota with a team like the Knicks or Miami eager to acquire his services and the Wolves likely to give up on the experiment of pairing him with Rudy Gobert in the frontcourt after again finishing mid-table in the West.
Last year’s record: 43-39
What’s new, what needs to happen: In a rarity for the Lakers in recent off-seasons, they haven’t tinkered too much with the team, bringing in some depth pieces like Christian Wood, Cam Reddish and Jaxson Hayes but sticking by the nucleus that revived their prospects in the latter half of last season.
As usual, their chances revive around LeBron’s combination with Anthony Davis but at least with Austin Reaves taking a leap last season and D’Angelo Russell not overplaying his hand, the Lakers have a support case that complements their star duo.
Prediction: They’ve got a team that can do well in the playoffs but not one that can sustain high performance enough through the regular season to get a home-court seeding in the first round.
Last year’s record: 44-38
What’s new, what needs to happen: Chris Paul is a Warrior. Let that sink in. Golden State’s long-time agitator from his LA Clippers days to his stints in Houston and Phoenix is now running the perimeter with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
The younger players in Andrew Wiggins, Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga can’t be relied upon to step up for anything more than a game here of there.
Prediction: This group is getting too old and Paul’s addition has only bumped up their average age. Draymond Green is already set to miss the start of the season with an ankle injury and if Curry misses any substantial time, they will finish in the bottom half of the playoff bracket.
Last year’s record: 44-38
What’s new, what needs to happen: James Harden is supposed to be on his way to join up with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook if a deal can be struck with Philadelphia.
That would give the Clippers an awesome core quartet to make a charge at the 2019 title but unfortunately all four are past their prime with Leonard and George serial absentees due to constant injuries.
Prediction: The Clips are desperate to compete so they will probably get the Harden deal done even though there appears to be little interest elsewhere for him. Even if they land him to run the point, it will be a similar situation to last year where they will never seriously become title contenders.
Last year’s record: 45-37
What’s new, what needs to happen: Bradley Beal is on board to pair with Devin Booker in the backcourt while Jusuf Nurkic will start at centre after the Suns jettisoned Ayton to Portland.
Kevin Durant’s late-season trade showed promise until they ran into Denver in the second round of the playoffs and a lot of the burden will again fall on his shoulders even though Booker and Beal are proven scorers.
Prediction: Defence is the issue with Nurkic hardly an intimidator in the pain and prone to lengthy absences with injury. Beal, Booker and Durant will share the playmaking for a team without a specialist point guard but Phoenix again don’t look capable of getting past the Nuggets.
Last year’s record: 48-34
What’s new, what needs to happen: Stability has been a rare commodity in the Californian capital but the Kings have not only kept faith in their roster, they have managed to not sack their coach after Mike Brown was named the best in the NBA last sason.
Apart from the addition of JaVale McGee to sop up minutes at back-up centre and highly rated mature rookie forward Sasha Vezenkov, who is set to be a key part of the rotation, the Kings are pinning their hopes of De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and co continuing their rapid rise.
Prediction: They will be a solid regular-season team and could even challenge Denver and Phoenix for the top seed but they lack the requisite firepower to be a factor in the playoffs unless they can trade Harrison Barnes and picks to acquire a third bona fide star.
Last year’s record: 51-31
What’s new, what needs to happen: Marcus Smart has lobbed in Tennessee after the Celtics rebooted their roster and with Ja Morant suspended by the NBA for the first 24 games for repeated stupidity in flashing a gun at nightclubs, they needed reinforcements in the backcourt.
Former MVP turned journeyman Derrick Rose also fits that bill but despite having Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson jnr and Desmond Bane’s sweet shooting from outside, the Grizzlies could struggle while Morant is biding his time on the pine.
Prediction: A slow start will put Memphis in the mid-table logjam and they’ll struggle to register a third straight 50-win season.
Last year’s record: 53-29
What’s new, what needs to happen: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so apart from losing Bruce Brown in free agency and saying farewell to journeyman Jeff Green, it’s the same crew who created history by lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Jokic is still only 28 with the kind of game that won’t be affected by fading athleticism, basically because he doesn’t rely on it, and his basketball IQ alone makes them a contender every year as long as his back-up crew is on deck.
Prediction: Jamal Murray is a lock to make his first All-Star team and Denver will beat Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals because the Suns, like pretty much every NBA team, have no answer to limiting Jokic’s mastery.