NBA: Stacked heavier than ever before with LeBron James' arrival, Western Conference will be star-studded affair
With reigning champions Warriors, the Rockets, the Thunder, the LeBron-powered LA Lakers, the Spurs and even the fun 'bad' teams are going to ensure that the Western Conference will be deeper and more competitive than ever next season.
Imagine the NBA as an imbalanced taraju, a weighing-scale held by Lady Liberty, the Libran balance-sign in an uneven see-saw. For years, maybe even decades, the scale has been tipped with far more weight towards the west.
Since Michael Jordan's final Chicago retirement in 1998, 14 of the 20 championships have gone to the West and 14 of the 20 MVPs have been players in the Western Conference. Almost every year, teams with a winning record seem to miss the playoffs in the competitive West, while sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams have found a way to sneak into the post-season.
The only saving grace for the East in the twenty-tens has been LeBron James. James has been in every single of the last eight Finals, carrying the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has been the only force to thwart West teams from sweeping every title in this decade, winning three titles as Finals MVP in 2012, '13, and '16. Since 2014, every player in the All NBA First Team has been a Western Conference player—except for James.
And on 1 July — the first day of free agency this summer — James left the East for sunnier weather in Los Angeles. The taraju in the West, already loaded with most of the best players in the NBA, just got heavier with the weight of the greatest player of our generation.
For the new season, the Western Conference has the reigning champions Golden State Warriors, last season's best regular season team, the Houston Rockets, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder, the LeBron-powered LA Lakers and the ever-consistent San Antonio Spurs. Add to that the defensively-sound Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Portland Trail Blazers, and even the fun 'bad' teams and the conference will be deeper and more competitive than ever next season.
There is a good chance that the top five players per position in the NBA — perhaps the All NBA First Team — will be entirely from the Western Conference next season: Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. Others, like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Paul George, and Rudy Gobert could be vying for elite status, too.
The team to watch, as they have consistently been for the past few years, are the Golden State Warriors. The star-studded squad added DeMarcus Cousins to a roster that includes Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green and has won three of the past four NBA titles. With all of the "core four" in their prime and the bonus of Cousins (if he returns to form following his Achilles injury), anything but a Golden State three-peat will be a surprise.
But the team that came closest to thwarting their ambition since they added Durant to the mix are the Houston Rockets. Powered by reigning MVP Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela, the Rockets stretched the Warriors to a tense seven-game series last playoffs. Over the offseason, they lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute but added veteran offensive force, Carmelo Anthony. Older and with less dept, the Rockets may have lost an edge to Golden State over the summer. However, on the bright side, the Harden-Paul-D'Antoni relationship is another year older and fuelled by another heartbreak to be hungry for redemption.
Not many people will consider the Los Angeles Lakers true title contenders, but it will be foolish to count out any team starring LeBron James. The Lakers scored a jackpot in LeBron but failed to surround him with superstar talent as envisioned. Instead, LeBron gets a mixture of exciting young prospects (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart) and questionable veteran pieces (Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley) to run a campaign in his first season out West. Even with LeBron, the Lakers might not be good enough to beat the top two of the conference but expect King James to bring back some 'showtime' magic to the Purple And Gold.
The chhupa rustam — hidden secret — of the conference are the Utah Jazz. Utah are a disciplined and well-coached team, who will be anchored in defence by Rudy Gobert and powered in offence by second-year guard Donovan Mitchell. With Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, and good role players on the roster, this team might again make a good post-season run this season.
One of the biggest surprises of the free agency rush was Paul George, who decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder and continue his partnership with Russell Westbrook. They might not have found playoff success, but Westbrook has been a supernova force in the NBA in recent years, averaging a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. The Thunder lost Carmelo Anthony to Houston but will hope that more continuity and balance in their roster will help them improve from last season's disappointing first-round exit.
Never underestimate the San Antonio Spurs. This has been a season of change in San Antonio, who traded their disgruntled best player Kawhi Leonard to Toronto, saw Tony Parker sign with Charlotte Hornets, and waved goodbye to the retiring Manu Ginobili. Still, the team will feature two solid All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the latter arriving in return for that Leonard trade. Helmed by legendary coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs will once again play polished, disciplined basketball.
Sometimes, a player is so good that his presence alone is good enough to propel a team to playoff contention. That player is Anthony Davis and his team is the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo over the offseason but added Julius Randle from the Lakers. They have some solid surrounding players in Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, but all will go through "The Brow", who is the most talented big man in the game.
One of the upstart teams to look forward to will be the Denver Nuggets, featuring multi-talented big man Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, and Gary Harris. Over the offseason, the Nuggets also added Isaiah Thomas to their squad and drafted the injury-riddled prospect Michael Porter Jr. If Jokic and his team improve as projected, Denver will make a leap back to the playoffs.
A mercurial but talented roster is that of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are both gifted players, both with defensive flaws, but both still in their early 20s with room for improvement. Around them, coach Tom Thibodeau has surrounded a squad that represents his old Chicago Bulls teams featuring All-Star Jimmy Butler, former MVP Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and new signee Derrick Rose.
The Portland Trail Blazers — led by an exciting backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — finished third in the regular season last year, and will be bringing back a little-changed squad. In a loaded West, however, it is unlikely that they will be able to take a step forward this year.
Lower down the totem pole, fans can expect some competitive basketball from the Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks (who added the talented Slovenian rookie Luka Doncic), Phoenix Suns (featuring the young core of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton), and Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizz, in particular, have ambitions to bounce back to playoff contention if their ageing core stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are able to successfully bounce back from injury. The last remaining team — Sacramento Kings — might not win too many games but will feature a group of exciting youngsters like De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley to build for the future.
With so much talent in the conference, there are going to be heavyweight clashes or matchups of rising young talents almost every day during the regular season. The playoff race will be a close finish and when the post-season begins, the intensity will be amped up as superstars fight to enhance their legacy.
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