The NBA is back to pre-pandemic levels of sold out arenas and fan interactions with players and the western conference boasts the last NBA championship team. Fans and analysts are excited to see Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray and Damian Lillard return to play. Many people will focus on how well the Pacific division featuring the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers perform in the regular season. LeBron James could break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, Draymond Green could be traded before the All-Star game, and the Utah Jazz might bottom out for a top five pick.
That’s a lot to process, so let’s turn the attention to which eight teams have the best chances of making the western conference playoffs.
Memphis was one of the most exciting teams to watch last season. They lead the league in points scored, rebounds per game and have an energetic roster. The Grizzlies won a playoff series and learned valuable lessons in their second round defeat to the champion Warriors. Expect an even better season for Grind City.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers bulked up on depth acquiring John Wall, Reggie Jackson, Robert Covington, Nicholas Batum and Norman Powell one year since Kawhi Leonard’s leg injuries. Los Angeles has one of the best coaches in the league with Tyronn Lue and get both Leonard and Paul George back fully healthy. Barring a plague of injuries, the Clippers will be hard to beat.
Jamal Murray finally returns this season and will play his first game since tearing his ACL in what was Steph Curry’s highlight performance surpassing Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors’ all time top scorer. Nikola Jokic is in the peak of his career and the offseason signings of Ish Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finally give Denver the upgrade in shooting and point guard depth.
Golden State Warriors
The reigning NBA champions extended Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole before their season opener versus the Lakers. That means Draymond Green could be moved before the season ends after punching Poole’s face in practice. Even if Green is traded before the All-Star game, there’s no doubt the Warriors can return to the playoffs. Unless there are a multitude of season ending injuries to Golden State’s core players, pencil the champions in for a high playoff seed.
While not the reigning champion Warriors, the Suns need to find a suitable trade partner for disgruntled star forward Jae Crowder.
If Crowder is traded, Phoenix still has one of the best guard duos in the NBA. Monty Williams is still a top ten coach in the league and the added depth at forward and center solidifies the Suns as favorites to enter the playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans should have an even better season than last year barring any major injuries to their starting lineup. CJ McCollum will be the starting pointguard when the season starts. Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram and Jose Alvarado will give opponents fits on one-on-one matchups.
Last but not least, franchise star Zion Williamson should play minimum half the scheduled games this year. He’s already slimmed down and looks to be in the best shape of his life. New Orleans could be scary good early and often.
Los Angeles Lakers
This pick and the next will be unpopular because of how low they’re ranked. However let’s be honest on what is now the category of play-in: the six teams mentioned above have better depth, quality coaching and younger franchise stars. I’m not saying Los Angeles is a bad team, but the age and current roster can’t beat out their inner city rivals the Clippers on a nightly basis.
The Lakers still have quality starters in LeBron James and Anthony Davis (when healthy). However the guard positions will be filled with drama since both point guards are Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook, and the shooting guards are Kendrick Nunn and Dennis Schroder.
This is also a dark-horse pick. Either the Lakers are good enough to make the playoffs or become a franchise crippling dumpster fire. They have the talent to at least surpass teams such as San Antonio, but the coaching and locker room chemistry need to be at least average to propel the team forward.
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On to the final pick.
The Mavericks might have added better talent around star pointguard Luka Doncic but that has to be consistent throughout the season. Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith take some pressure off, but an aging JaVale McGee at center and Tim Hardaway Jr. at shooting guard can only do so much.
Still, Dallas has a premier player that pushes them past teams such as Portland and Minnesota who need to rely on everything available just to stay relevant in the standings.
Play-in losing teams: Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs
2021-22’s Western conference prediction record: 6-4