The NBA’s Western Conference has a lot of potential contenders that will be integrating new pieces, and that means one thing: Someone’s gonna be disappointing!
The last 40 days have completely overhauled the landscape of the NBA, and specifically the NBA’s Western Conference. Kevin Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson’s ACL took the Golden State Warriors from foregone “six or seven straight titles” dynasty to merely “a very good basketball team.” The Los Angeles Lakers backed their way into trading for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James. Then the Los Angeles Clippers upstaged them, and signed Kawhi Leonard, fresh off claiming the scalp of the Warriors’ forever dynasty, and traded for Paul George to go with him. The Utah Jazz traded for Mike Conley to go with their already formidable defense, and the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and Portland Trail Blazers still exist. Arguably, there are now seven teams that have a conceivable shot at making the Finals out of the West.
Of course, only one of those teams can actually do that. Only two can make the Western Conference Finals. And that leads us to a question that may be even more entertaining to see answered than who those two conference finalists will be. When you factor in that some team is likely to surprise, that all of these teams have to face off with each other multiple times throughout the season, and that the random number generator of injury luck is going to sweep through, that means at least one of these teams is likely to be an absolutely epic disaster.
We’ve seen this play out before. We all remember the 2012-13 Lakers, the most incredible example of this type of situation — two players and a coach who absolutely could not coexist in any way flail endlessly as Steve Nash’s prime evaporated suddenly. The 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder are another example, where injuries kept a potential contender out of the playoffs entirely, sowing the seeds of their destruction. The latter is always a concern, but the former is pertinent to this season, where so many teams are going to be breaking in new pieces that have not played together before, relying on players whose primes could rapidly end, or throwing money at players who do not fit their current roster or the expectations coming with it.
There are certainly still roster decisions that will make or break who takes the top spot in the West. There are free agents to sign this summer, breakout seasons yet unknown, and trades yet to be made. But we know the major building blocks, who both rule in their teams as title contenders, but also rule out those teams early in the season if they can’t connect. With that in mind, let’s handicap the major contenders’ possible failings, ranked by the likelihood that they mortgaged their long-term future to go 44-38 this season.
7. Golden State Warriors
The entire reason we’re having this conversation is that the Warriors suddenly appear very mortal. The Kevin Durant safety blanket is gone, and Klay Thompson’s health is a major question mark, if he even makes it back next year. Steph Curry is still Steph Curry, but no player outside of LeBron James has seen more time and energy spent on scheming for him specifically, and now there are fewer options for him to defer to when teams bend an entire defense toward him. Also, Kevon Looney is now the answer at center, and that still doesn’t seem like a super well-known quantity at this point.
But, given all that, it’s still the Warriors. They have the best offensive player in the league and one of the league’s top three defensive players, and if they get Klay back for a playoff run, even 60 percent of him is still an incredible shooter. D’Angelo Russell has his faults, but he’s still a very good secondary handler who solves one of the biggest issues from last year’s team. And Steve Kerr is still around to keep this thing together. The Warriors are mortal, but they aren’t done yet, and there’s a scenario where their current roster is enough for them to tread water until Thompson comes back, and then their experience guides them to yet another finals run, making this entire summer a moot point.
Disaster Rating: Mortal, but probably fine, and proof that death is inevitable and joy is fleeting and meaningless.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were an elite supporting cast with no one to support last year, and while they may have lost some of those supporters in sending Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to Oklahoma City for Paul George, they are now pairing George with Kawhi Leonard. They have two of 2018-19’s MVP candidates, a supporting cast of efficient play finishers and complimentary defenders, and a coach who has navigated the mind-meld of stars on the way to a title before. They have a high likelihood of being fine in the regular season.
The pitfalls for the Clippers are likely to involve the load management question with Kawhi, as a new situation introduces injury variables that could undo the perfect storm of decisions that led to Kawhi peaking in the playoffs with Toronto. The center position might be a little weak in terms of rim protection, and they might not have enough ball-handlers to stay afloat when Kawhi inevitably sits. And most humorous of all, the spectre of the curse that seems to loom over the franchise could choose to rear its head in a particularly ugly fashion. Let’s not forget that the last time the Clippers were legitimate title contenders, the Josh Smithening occurred; and the confluence of ill-fitting parts, potentially schemable offense, and an inopportune #PlayoffP clunker by Paul George could make the Clippers’ exit particularly heinous. It probably won’t go down that way, but if it does, the Clippers are going to go slowly, and with tremendous blood loss.
Disaster Rating: Charlie Brown, one step away, very sure that he’s going to kick the football this time.
5. Denver Nuggets
A lot of things will have changed from 2018-19 to 2019-20, but the Nuggets are likely to be a constant, retaining most of last year’s two seed in the West. Replacing Trey Lyles with Jerami Grant is the only real roster change, and that’s a pretty significant improvement, given that Grant has demonstrated actual skill level. Continuity matters, even if that continuity has only resulted in one disappointing early playoff exit in three years under Michael Malone.
Like the Clippers and Warriors, it’s hard to imagine too much of a failure for Denver in the regular season, short of Nikola Jokic getting hurt. But it is possible. It involves a few unlikely, but plausible, issues. Paul Millsap falling off a cliff as he turns 35 is a possibility that is sad, but weatherable. Severe regression from Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, and the rest of the role players is more likely and more damaging. And if the injury storm they weathered last year hits Gary Harris or Jamal Murray in combination with that, it could trigger a slow start, which could lead to a very ironic outcome — an obvious quality team panic-firing Mike Malone due to circumstances out of his control. The Denver front office is much more stable than Sacramento’s, but in their first year with real expectations, anything is on the table.
Disaster Rating: House that has been meticulously baby-proofed, except for one easily discoverable, uncovered electrical outlet.
4. Utah Jazz
Many see the Utah Jazz as a real contender this year after they traded for Mike Conley and signed Ed Davis and Bojan Bogdanovic. This is a team that already had a good backbone of defense and ball movement, and added three veterans who have consistently thrived on teams with multiple scoring options and strong defensive systems. Expecting big things from Donovan Mitchell in his third season is also reason for optimism. This is a balanced team with a rowdy band of veterans that we all like and want to root for at an individual level.
The chances that this year blows up in Utah’s faces is pretty low, but the disaster potential here is much more existential. While Conley, Bogdanovic, and Davis are quality players, it’s not as eye popping as who many of the other contenders added, or what they already had. The concern is not whether the Jazz could fall apart; it’s that they mortgaged their future for a 31-year old point guard with an injury history and 30-year old small forward, and that may result in the same thing it did last year — 48-50 wins, and then a bad matchup with whichever of these other squads grabs the opposite spot in a 4-5 or 3-6 series and getting swept again. Being right back where you started, but suddenly locked near the luxury tax with a Mitchell extension looming, is enough to give any fan an aneurysm.
Disaster Rating: Took out an expensive subprime mortgage on a three-bedroom house in early 2008.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Yay! Anthony Davis! LeBron James! Lakers back baby, Pelinka the GOAT, Count the ringzzzzz, etc. That’s cool and all, and means the Lakers might win a playoff game for the first time since Mitt Romney was a presidential candidate, which is vast improvement! The problem is that this particular house of cards is A LOT more fragile than many are giving them credit for.
There are no guarantees that LeBron’s 17th season is going to be any more healthy or defensively engaged than his 16th was, and the cracks that have been showing for years in his defensive effort may start bleeding over to the offensive end. Anthony Davis has an injury history of his own, and so does DeMarcus Cousins. Neither of those two have ever been in anything close to resembling a LeBron locker room, either — a unique ecosystem where criticism is rarely pointed but frequently ambient, passive-aggressiveness can is king, and the priorities of coach, front office, agent and player slowly gravitate toward the best player in the room. It’s a situation that has made teams great, but has also broken lesser men, and may start to become more toxic as LeBron’s on-court play becomes less of an example, just like the twilight of the Lakers’ last big-name locker room presence.
There’s definite potential that this could all work, but if even one area of this team starts to falter, the rest is likely to fall apart with it. If the marquee talents don’t mesh, the bench could help — except Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a very tenuous pair to lean on if times are hard. The coach could bring the team together — except Frank Vogel already might be on the hot seat and the Lakers’ next coach is almost definitely already on their bench. And the front office could salvage the situation with trades — but given how Rob Pelinka has shown to operate to date, that doesn’t feel like a good thing!
The Lakers will probably be talented enough to avoid getting punched in the face early in the year as the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers did. The problem is if that does happen, it’s hard to trust that they’ll get back up.
Disaster Rating: Theranos, circa 2014
2. Portland Trail Blazers
The argument for the Blazers has long been, “Damian Lillard + Terry Stotts.” It’s been good enough in every season since 2013-14 and got Portland to the Western Conference Finals last year. But this year, it feels like they’re being mentioned in this conversation purely on reputation. The Blazers have been good for outperforming their Vegas odds by about five wins every year, but it seems very unlikely that this happens again now that Mo Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu, three huge unwritten pieces of that equation, are now replaced by Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, and more Rodney Hood. The part of Jusuf Nurkic, a huge piece of the Blazers’ last two regular seasons, will be played this year by Hassan Whiteside, a huge piece of the Heat’s last two regular season finishes.
Many are treating the Warriors like the Ottoman Empire of this NBA Europe (sick, old, struggling to hang on to past glory), but that’s probably the Blazers — an established West staple who still has some firepower, but is already somewhat crumbling and is probably going to finish this season in several pieces. Also, like the Ottomans, it’s questionable what the highs even were in the first place. But then again, everyone’s been saying this about the Blazers for five years, so who knows?
Disaster Rating: Blockbuster Video, circa 2009
1. Houston Rockets
The following things have never happened before: James Harden playing five seasons for the same head coach, Mike D’Antoni leaving a job under reasonable circumstances, and an elite point guard not named John Stockton recovering lost athleticism in his mid-30s.
These are all things that Houston is banking on to compete with the rest of these teams on this list. While Harden just had a phenomenal statistical season to drag what wasn’t a very strong Houston roster to a top-four seed, that type of year isn’t exactly replicable, especially if Paul firmly slips into the twilight of his career. There has already been scuttle about Paul wanting to leave Houston, but even if he stays, he still might not be enough of a support to keep Houston in the title race.
The Rockets seem destined for a fairly bloody breakup, whenever it happens. There’s potential that Paul gets traded. There’s potential that Harden mails in things once relationships fail, like the end of the Kevin McHale tenure. And D’Antoni’s tendency to find himself in those types of situations, combined with Daryl Morey’s asset-crazed mindset, further increases the odds of this season going nuclear on Houston if they prove to not have the juice to compete with Golden State, the LA teams, and the Northwest squads. Other teams may not have the legitimate title odds that the Rockets do; but if you’re picking a team to fall back to the New Orleans and Sacramento level of the Western Conference, Houston is a good bet, on their way to possibly looking completely different than they do right now by the time the season ends.
Disaster Ranking: Chernobyl