A little over two weeks ago, Kevin Durant abandoned his long-cherished Oklahoma City home to go west and seek his fortune with Golden State. He announced his decision on Independence Day, a move wrought with irony. While the rest of the country celebrated its freedom, the Warriors instead established a tyrant rule over the rest of the NBA. Not since the days of Bill Pullman and Will Smith had anyone won so thoroughly on July 4. Golden State might as well have swallowed the sun and brought about Ragnarök.
But although the Warriors squelched all but the faintest hopes of a ring in the foreseeable future for 29 other teams, they weren't the only ones who came out of that day a winner. The (distant) runner-up? None other than the Los Angeles Clippers.
Let's face it, these Clippers weren't winning a title anyways. Even if they managed the improbable and somehow emerged victorious from the West gauntlet after going through two of Golden State/San Antonio/Oklahoma City, they'd be meeting Cleveland in the Finals — led by LeBron, perhaps the single worst matchup for LA in the entire league. Durant's decision did nothing to change that sobering reality.
Success doesn't have to be defined only by hardware, especially for a franchise that not too long ago was a perennial cellar-dweller. With that in mind, no one benefits more than the Clippers from the new Warriors empire.
The last few years, they faced the misfortune of being just the 3rd- or 4th-best team in an impossibly competitive conference. Now, while they're even further away from #1, the rest of the canopy has thinned out. Untangling the layers beneath them is a slightly thornier proposition.
Tier VII — Non-Starters
Unfortunately, they'll suck enough to land yet another high lottery pick. They might become annoyingly relevant again in a few years, so enjoy these years of bumbling ineptitude while you can.
Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are an extremely intriguing duo of length and potential. If they both pan out alongside Devin Booker, this team has the makings of something special down the road.
Tier VI — Question Marks
Both Denver and Minnesota have a lot of youth and talent on their roster. While it may not result in playoff success this year, they'll probably finish ahead of one or two teams in the next two tiers who inevitably tumble.
Don't sleep on Denver for a dark horse run to the 8th seed, they're young and deep (to a fault; they'll have trouble giving everyone playing time). Nikola Jokic is already an excellent young center. How much of a leap Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris take will determine how much noise they make this year.
Karl-Anthony Towns might be knocking down the door of the top-10 players list by the end of this season. He's that good. The rest of the Wolves will have their fair share of growing pains, though. They don't have the depth yet to truly pose a playoff threat (Cole Aldrich can only do so much on his own), but next year they might be good enough to compete for home-court advantage in the first round.
Tier V — Stragglers
It's early, but the bottom of the West playoff bracket looks to be a pretty crowded race this year, with six or seven teams vying for the last three spots. Not everyone can be a winner.
Lost: Chandler Parsons, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton
Added: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy
For the first time in seemingly forever, the Mavericks actually have some youth (Curry, Justin Anderson, and $94M man Barnes) to build upon. It may not be enough to take them anywhere this year, as the rest of the team is another year older. With Bogut and a healthy Wes Matthews in the mix, they might also have a competent defense again — if they can stay healthy.
The problem (apart from the competition just being better) is that they still rely way too much on Dirk in order to succeed, and with every passing year that becomes less and less effective. They need to turn the reins over to Salah Mejri if they want to go anywhere.
Lost: Gerald Henderson
Added: Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli
???: Mo Harkless
Picking the Blazers to miss the playoffs is probably the most controversial take I have in these rankings. Does some of that stem from the fact that I'm still salty over how things went down in April? Absolutely. But there's a rational case to be made too.
Portland will be an overhyped team going into this season, because they made it to the second round and had a few close games against a Warriors team that was on cruise control (especially on defense) for the whole series. They had a good second half of the regular season, but most of that came in January and February; after March 1 they were only 11-10.
They benefited from exceptional health and multiple other teams (Memphis, Dallas, Houston, Utah, and New Orleans) imploding or falling apart due to injuries. In another season, 44-38 might not have been good enough for the 9th seed. Last year, it got them the 5 seed against a Clippers team with two of its best four players suffering from debilitating injuries before the postseason even started (and we all know what happened after that).
Portland's marginally improved, but other teams have too. At least a few of those teams will regress back to the mean in terms of injury luck, meaning Portland could actually finish with a better record than last season and still end up out of the playoffs. They're well-coached and have the potential to make noise this year, but I suspect (and want to believe) that they won't.
Lost: Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy
Added: Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple
Who knows what to make of the Sacramento Kings? They did a good job of adding veteran talent this summer and made an excellent trade with Phoenix on draft night, but they ended up picking two more big men when they already had three centers on the roster. On paper, this may be as deep a team as they've fielded in the DeMarcus Cousins era (with a solid coach to boot).
Sacramento was beyond atrocious on defense last year under George Karl, but with Dave Joerger they may finally display enough competence on that end to seriously contend for a playoff spot. If they trade Rudy Gay, there's a chance they get the same post-trade bump that Memphis and Toronto got a few years ago. Maybe that's enough to put them over the hump and into their first playoff appearance in over a decade, just in time for next year's move into a new arena.
Tier IV — Sacrificial Lambs
The disparity between the top and bottom half of the Western Conference Playoffs won't be nearly as pronounced as it was last year, but these teams still won't pose a serious challenge to the elite/god-tier opponents they'll face in the first round. The commonality between these three teams is that they're all led by a top-10 player, which is something the teams behind them can't boast (apart from Sacramento).
Lost: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters (?)
Added: Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Alex Abrines
Had Durant stayed, OKC, who made four of the last six WCFs (the two absences the direct result of catastrophic injuries), might have been the title favorite ahead of Golden State. Without him, instead they take a steep tumble into the understory of the Western rainforest.
It's very hard to place this Durant-less roster on the map. With him last year the team struggled season-long with defensive consistency; the same issues are still present, but now they have to deal with all sorts of offensive questions too. A Westbrook-Oladipo backcourt poses all sorts of spacing issues (throw Roberson into the mix and they make Rondo and Wade in Chicago look like the Splash Brothers), but when they play their best offensive lineups with Morrow and/or Kanter they become hopeless on defense.
Durant and Ibaka were probably the two most important defenders on last year's team. If OKC wants to even make it to the playoffs for a jackpot first-round rematch against KD, they'll need to play smart, hard defense all season long. That starts with Westbrook, who's been plain bad on that side of the ball for two seasons now.
Lost: Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones
Added: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Nenê
???: Donatas Motiejunas
On the topic of poor defense... I trust Harden and the Rockets way more than I do Westbrook and the Thunder. Houston will struggle on that end too, but I don't think effort will be as much of a problem for them (yes, even for Harden).
The other difference for Houston is that they won't have nearly as much difficulty in making up those points on the other end. Under Mike D'Antoni, Harden might be the best offensive player in the league. This could be the year that NBA fans learn to fall in love with his game all over again, remembering just how good of an all-around player he is. Unlike last year, he doesn't face the same pressures to be responsible for 100% of the offense, which should result in improvements on both ends of the floor (a desire to disprove the haters after last season's fiasco might help too).
They'll need for Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley to bounce back defensively, and for Clint Capela to take another step forward in order to move up the Western Conference ladder. Nenê-when-healthy could also be an important asset on that end of the floor.
This Rockets team closely resembles the 2013 incarnation, Harden's first year in Houston and his only non-Dwight campaign till now. That team was a run-and-gun outfit that set three-point records (all later topped by Golden State, of course) and blitzed large swathes of the league. This team might be in line to do something similar.
Lost: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Norris Cole (?)
Added: Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, Terrence Jones
My dark-horse West team this year. I'm doubling down after daring to slot them in at the 5/6 spot last summer (as you'll notice later, doubling down is a recurring theme in these projections).
The Pels did a nice job of retooling, acquiring several solid young defenders while letting some of their worst matadors go. Like with many other teams in this part of the West, defensive improvement and consistency is hugely important for New Orleans to return to the playoffs. Skynet he may be, but Anthony Davis has yet to show himself to be as consistently good on that end as we've expected him to be for years now (he's not bad, just not great).
Year 2 in the Gentry system should be a good thing for the Pelicans' core. Jrue Holiday was excellent when healthy last year, and the Brow might be ready to take the leap we expected from him last year. Their center depth should be a major point of concern, but New Orleans has the smalls this year to put Davis at center and spread the floor with athletic defenders.
Tier III — Plucky Upstarts
Something old, something new.
Lost: Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson (?)
Added: Chandler Parsons, Troy Daniels, James Ennis
The core of the Grizzlies the last half-decade (Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol) remains intact, but is Grit'n'Grind still really their identity? Both Allen and Z-Bo are well into their 30s, Gasol just passed that mark too, and Conley is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. Now, the addition of Chandler Parsons brings a splash of Glisten'n'Glam to Memphis.
I'm not sure I totally buy this team, but they've earned the right to be up here based on their track record — consistently outperforming their point differential and Pythagorean, racking up 50-win seasons that don't make sense. Their biggest foe will be health, not only for their injury-prone core but also for role players like Brandan Wright, who missed most of last season. If healthy, Memphis has some questions to answer about its guard depth (Troy Daniels should become a reliable rotation shooter, but they have no one who can run point outside of Conley, and maybe Parsons for brief stretches).
The best days of Grit'n'Grind are behind them. In fact, it's very possible that they're no longer the archetype of Grit'n'Grind anymore, a mantle that might have passed on to the next team on this list...
4. Utah Jazz
Lost: Trevor Booker, Trey Burke
Added: George Hill, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw
They're young, they're big, and they're finally ready to bash and bruise their way into the West conversation. Some people have already written off Utah, after a promising end to the 2015 season was followed by another late April spent at home (courtesy of Jamal Crawford and Cole Aldrich). That's a mistake.
The Jazz had horrific injury luck last year, and they compounded that with an astoundingly poor record in the clutch (12-21 last year in games within three points with under three minutes left, their futility only outmatched by the Suns and Sixers). Some of that ineptitude came from being a young team, especially one without a good point guard. That's no longer the case with the additions of Diaw, Johnson, and George Hill.
This team is strikingly similar to the Pacers and Grizzlies of the last few years — solid, game-manager point guard; athletic wings; two giant big men down low. Like those units, they'll be fantastic on defense but face some struggles on offense (where spacing is tough to come by with Favors and Gobert on the floor together; reserve bigs Diaw and second-year PF Trey Lyles offer more shooting to stretch the floor). Don't sleep on the combination of Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward, both are excellent two-way players with star potential.
Rarely do teams jump from missing the playoffs to gaining HCA and making some serious noise in the postseason, but the Utah Jazz are the exception that can do just that.
Tier II — Tragic Heroes
So-called because neutral fans will rally behind one of them in the hopes of seeing Golden State upset in the WCF. Unfortunately, they're more likely to see these outmatched challengers obliterated by the Megadeath Lineup.
Lost: Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West
Added: Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon, Davis Bertans
Last summer, I suggested that the Spurs might have issues with their depth and with their defense. Instead, they had by far the best bench in the regular season, as well as one of the best defensive ratings of all time. I thought age would finally start to wear them down, and instead they won a franchise-record 67 games. The lesson: never bet against the Spurs.
Which is why I'm doubling down on doubting the Spurs this season. I don't buy their defense. Kawhi and Danny Green are the best defensive wing tandem in the league, and Aldridge was great on that end last season... but I don't think they can adequately mask Pau's shortcomings (not to mention Tony Parker's). They've got promising young wings in Jonathan Simmons and Kyle Anderson, but I'm not sold on their depth.
Most importantly, their offense is suspect. When your two best ballhandlers are 34 and 38, your offense is going to struggle when good defenses key in on them. The Spurs Borg was able to mask their players' individual flaws in the regular season and roll over most of the league, but when push came to shove in the playoffs Oklahoma City annihilated them with length and athleticism, just like they did four years previously. Perhaps they can power their way to another 2 seed in the regular season, but come playoff time there's still another nightmare matchup waiting for them.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Lost: Cole Aldrich, Jeff Green
Added: Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass
The Clippers exploit all those weaknesses too. While the head-to-head series is close to deadlocked over the past few years, San Antonio has never shown an ability to stop any of the Clippers' Big 3. Chris Paul has had his way with the Spurs, Blake Griffin has had his way with the Spurs, DeAndre Jordan has had his way with the Spurs — with zero exception. Recent additions don't move the meter either. Paul and Griffin regularly put up banana statlines against Portland when LMA was still there, and poor Pau Gasol has been one of the Clippers' most frequent targets of ire five years running now.
The Clippers have a combination of pedigree, continuity, and starpower unmatched by any other non-Warriors contender in the West (including the Spurs), making them the favorite to get thumped in the WCF by the real favorite. With the Spurs aging and Oklahoma City out of the picture, no one stands more to gain from this Warriors superteam than the Clippers.
A Western Conference Finals appearance dramatically changes the arc of the current Clippers narrative, and likely makes their legacy more sympathetic (especially now that the Warriors have firmly usurped their position as the league's most-hated team and its foremost villain).
Tier I — Übermensch
1. Golden State Warriors
Lost: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush
Added: David West, Zaza Pachulia, Kevin Durant
They're the best. Around. Nothing's gonna ever keep them down.