In the NBA, if you're a team trying to move up, one of the easiest ways to do it is to hope that other teams move down. And most seasons, at least a few elite teams take a hit here or there. That's primarily due to free agency, the salary cap, and the luxury tax, which are the great equalizers of the NBA; it's difficult for a team to hold onto their best players indefinitely.
This year however is shaping up to be the exception. Depending upon how you feel about the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks, you would have to say that every contender from last season will be at least as good next season, if not better — or perhaps much better.
There's one major factor contributing to this: the NBA's new TV contract kicks in next season, and when it does the salary cap will skyrocket. So that traditional field-leveler was essentially absent this summer (and next summer as well).
In a normal NBA year, the Warriors have to think very, very hard about making Draymond Green a maximum player, pushing Stephen Curry down to the FIFTH highest paid player on their roster (at over $11M per). Green and Klay Thompson now give them six players making at least eight figures (that includes Gerald Wallace, who is at least cheaper than David Lee). The Warriors will have a hefty tax bill come July 2016, but it's all worth it to keep their team together, since many of those contracts will look like bargains (not just Curry's) under the new cap. Even with Harrison Barnes coming out of his rookie deal next year, the Warriors may still keep the band together.
And it's not just the Warriors. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers also jumped at the chance to move deep into luxury tax territory rather than lose a key piece of their teams. The Houston Rockets have exceeded the tax threshold and are looking at the hard cap, partly because they chose to give Patrick Beverley a big raise to keep him around.
(San Antonio is such an outlier that they just don't count. Few teams in the league have ever gotten a single player to sign at a discount — in San Antonio, it's just what you do. Half of their roster is ridiculously underpaid compared to what they could get on the open market, including their traditional Big Three and another starter, Danny Green. There are no lessons to be learned from the Spurs because only the Spurs can do what they do.)
The four best teams from the Western Conference last season are all better (at least on paper) after the machinations of July (At the very least, they are all undeniably more expensive). The Cavs won the East last season despite suffering two major injuries, and they will have more or less all of their pieces back. And then there are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who advanced to the Western Conference Finals three out of four seasons before Kevin Durant's lost year (the exception was the year Westbrook went down in the first round). They'll have Durant back with a lot of new amd interesting pieces around him. And Memphis improved as well.
In short, there are six teams at the top of the Western Conference who will likely be better next season than they were last season, and the reward for the one that survives the Western playoffs is probably a much better Cleveland.
All of which implies that the gap between the top teams and the rest must be widening, but that's a subject for another day.
Let's take a quick look at the top of the Western Conference to see what happened. It's worth noting that the first five teams on this list will all pay the luxury tax next year as things currently stand, while Memphis is hard-capped and approaching the tax line.
The Warriors — We're talking about the NBA champs here. Not only that, the Warriors weren't just better than the rest of the league last season, they were much better, at least from a statistical standpoint. So even if they haven't added anything (and no one they added should be expected to break into their rotation this season), they're still the favorites by virtue of keeping Green. Now add in the growth factor for young players like Green and Barnes and Klay Thompson and Curry (although it's difficult to imagine him getting better) and Golden State is downright frightening. Still, the rest of the West isn't rolling over; they seem to think they can close the gap.
The Spurs — Yes, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be a year older. Yes, Ginobili has clearly begun to decline, and while Duncan was still great, he can't play forever. But all they did this summer was sign the only major free agent to change teams AND add a former All-Star at the vet's min, while losing just Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes from their rotation.
In case you were wondering: LaMarcus Aldridge + David West > Tiago Splitter + Aron Baynes.
That's just not fair.
The Rockets — Houston made it to the WCF last season (much to our amazement and dismay, our dismazement) with Jason Terry as their starting point guard. The injured Beverley will be back, and now they have traded for Ty Lawson without giving up anyone in their rotation. (It's amazing that Denver couldn't get a better package for Lawson, even given his legal troubles.) So Houston's point guard rotation, which was Terry and Pablo Prigioni in last year's playoffs, is now Lawson and Beverley. Sure they lost Josh Smith, but if Terrence Jones and Donetas Motiejunas are both healthy, they're going to be OK.
The Clippers — After almost losing DeAndre Jordan and bucking the rich-get-richer trend this summer, the Clippers instead added Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Cole Aldrich, and Wesley Johnson — while losing only Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. The Clippers had the second best efficiency differential in the league last season without any bench to speak of: now they look as deep as any team on this list.
The Thunder — Until Kevin Durant's injury, the Thunder were simply assumed to be one of the two best teams in the West. Then while Durant was out, Russell Westbrook became an MVP candidate and the Thunder added players like Enes Kanter. Don't forget that Serge Ibaka was hurt last season as well. This OKC team, when healthy? We have no idea how good they can be.
The Grizzlies — Speaking of injuries, remember that Mike Conley, perhaps Memphis' most important player, was less than 100% in their WC Semis loss to the Warriors, a series they led after three games. Memphis re-signed Marc Gasol and got one of the only free agent bargains of the summer in Brandon Wright to replace Kosta Koufos in the rotation, a big upgrade. The Grizzlies don't feel like they're quite at the level of these other teams, but who would want to face them in the first round of the playoffs?
We talked about the insane quality and depth of the Western Conference last season. Well, the seventh and eighth place teams may not be quite as good (though don't sleep on the New Orleans Pelicans) but the top six are all probably better, which is just crazy. Last season the Spurs lost in the first round, and that was with the Thunder missing the postseason because of all of their injuries. This year, at least TWO of these teams will finish the season without winning a playoff series.
Any one of the six would likely be favored to meet the Cavs in the Conference Finals in the East.