Stein on Sports: NBA western conference predictions and team breakdowns

Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokic run up the floor during the 2022 All Star Game. Photo by Erik Drost/wikimedia

This is going to be one of the most interesting and exciting NBA seasons in recent memory. The West isn’t wide open, but some playoff spots are certainly open for the taking. Many teams are going to look a lot different from last season, be it from blockbuster offseason trades, high level players coming back from injury, or newly gained playoff experience. Also, the fact that many teams are capable of making the playoffs, while others will be focused on landing that #1 spot in the draft for Victor Wembanyama, will create an interesting dichotomy in the league, especially for the teams sitting in the middle of the pack. The West is going to be fun this year!

  1. Nuggets 
  2. Warriors
  3. Clippers
  4. Suns
  5. Grizzlies
  6. Mavericks


  1. Pelicans
  2. Timberwolves
  3. Lakers
  4. Kings


  1. Trailblazers
  2. Jazz 
  3. Rockets 
  4. Thunder
  5. Spurs

Individual Team Breakdowns:

  1. Denver Nuggets: Last year, the Nuggets were carried to the playoffs by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic, without Jamal Murray, their All Star caliber point guard who suffered a season-ending injury. This season, Murray is back, along with forward Michael Porter Jr., who showed a lot of promise until his injury last year too. The Nuggets will have their second and third options back for the season, and boast a good bench too.  

Keys to the season: stay healthy, get consistent bench scoring

Ceiling: 1 seed, Floor: 4 seed

  1. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors are coming off an NBA championship, and I see no reason they shouldn’t be able to get back there again this year. They did lose key bench players like GP2, Otto Porter Jr, and Juan Tascano Anderson, but they have the benefit of getting James Wiseman, a top-three draft pick, back from injury. Wiggins and Poole both improved a lot last year and they both should this year too. If they can sort out their contract and team issues with Draymond and Poole, they will have a great season.

Keys: integrate Wiseman into starting lineup, figure out Draymond issue

Ceiling: 1 seed, Floor: 3 seed

  1. Los Angeles Clippers: What more do you want? Kawhi is back. Paul George is back. John Wall is back. People have forgotten how dominant Kawhi has been in seasons past, and this is his year to remind them. Paul George is more than capable of having an MVP contender season, and even if Wall is a shell of his Wizards days, he can make a big contribution. The Clippers are embarrassed that their efforts to create the next big super team have not panned out yet, and I believe this is their chance to show the league that breaking up the team for PG and Kawhi was worth it. They also have a very established, deep bench that has proved itself in years past. 

Keys: stay healthy, Paul George plays like MVP caliber 2019 PG

Ceiling: 1 seed, Floor: 4 seed

  1. Phoenix Suns: I could see this team sinking all the way down to the play-in this season. They seem deflated after the embarrassing game 7 blowout at home in the playoffs last year, and who wouldn’t be. The issues with their team were seriously exposed in that series last year, and I don’t know if there’s much different this year. They did manage to re-sign Ayton, but he hasn’t seemed too happy to be there after their contract negotiation issues. The Suns are just running it back after last year, and there’s not much new for me to be excited about.

Keys: Booker takes another step, sign another piece before trade deadline

Ceiling: 4 seed, Floor: 9 seed

  1. Memphis Grizzlies: Last year the Grizzlies proved they can win without Ja, and Ja proved he is one of the best players in the league, earning a starting spot on the all star team. They have a deep team, and Ja is only going to get better, but they are in danger of slipping as the West gets better and better. I wouldn’t be surprised if they fall lower than people think this year.  

Keys: Dillon Brooks takes a big step, maintain good role players around Ja

Ceiling: 3 seed, Floor: 7 seed

  1. Dallas Mavericks: With their surprising run to the conference finals last season, the Mavs have shown that they can be legit title contenders. Luka is going to do what he does, we know that. However, the question of whether they have an adequate supporting cast remains. Losing their number 2 in Jalen Brunson during the offseason was a big hit to their offense, but they have guys like Spencer Dinwiddie and Tim Hardaway Jr. who can step up. They also still have a collection of great role players who were very valuable in the playoffs last year. 

Keys: Dinwiddie fills Brunson’s shoes as #2 option, need solid role player production 

Ceiling: 4 seed, Floor: 8 seed

  1. New Orleans Pelicans: Despite having a 9 game losing streak in the middle of the season, and finishing at the 9th spot in the West, the Pelicans somehow made it out of the play-in, and beat the #1 ranked Suns twice. This year, they are looking even better. They are bringing back Brandon Ingram, who was fantastic last year, Jonas Valančiūnas, and one of the best young cores in the league. Additionally, they’ll have CJ McCullum for the whole season, who they traded for last year at the trade deadline, and of course, Zion is back. Considering he averaged 27/7/4 in the 2020-21 season, and has clearly gotten in much better shape over the offseason, which was a big concern for his health, Zion is looking to be back with a vengeance this year. 

Ceiling: 3 seed, Floor: 9 seed

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves: There are a lot of maybes with the T-Wolves this year. They went all in on acquiring Rudy Gobert from the Jazz, but in the process lost a ton of role players and draft picks. They have a roster that’s capable of being one of the best starting lineups in the league, but there are too many questions of how they will fit together to jump there just yet. KAT usually plays at the center position, but this year, Gobert would push him to the 4. If their top four of KAT, Gobert, D’Lo, and Edwards are able to mesh this season, they could be very dangerous, but I’m not too high on them yet. 

Keys: KAT succeed at the 4, Anthony Edwards takes the next step

Ceiling: 4 seed, Floor: 10 seed

  1. Los Angeles Lakers: Last year, the Lakers seemed like the worst team that was talked about the most. We know Lebron will do what he does, but there are obviously some serious question marks about LA. Can Anthony Davis stay healthy, and slide back into the starting lineup? Can Russ find his role, and get back to his triple-double self (or at least a sliver of himself). Do they have enough bench players to give their starters rest? I really want to say yes to all these questions, but it doesn’t seem likely. They fell so flat on their face last year, and didn’t make enough changes in the offseason for me to feel confident putting them higher in a stacked West. 

Key: find Russ’ role on the team and stick with it, Davis stay healthy, get shooting off the bench

Ceiling: 6 seed, floor: 12 seed

  1.  Sacramento Kings: What more can you say about the King’s that hasn’t been said for the past 20 years? They have Sabonis and Fox, and a few other decent players, but besides that their best hope lies in the draft. If your friend is a Kings fan, go give them a hug. 

Keys: develop young talent like Davion Mitchell and Keegan Murray, draft well

Ceiling: 9 seed, Floor: 13 seed

  1.  Portland Trail Blazers: Last year the Blazers finished thirteenth in the West with 27 wins, despite Dame’s 24/7/4. They got robbed blind in their trade with the Pelicans, as it seems like they got almost nothing back for CJ McCollum. On the bright side, it seems like they have some decent role players around Dame, but not enough to make any noise this season. I really don’t know where Portland should go from here. 

Keys: let young players gain experience, book Dame some studio time when it comes time for the playoffs

Ceiling: 9 seed, Floor: 13

  1.  Utah Jazz: They tried and tried the duo of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and while it brought the Jazz regular season success, it never seemed to work in the playoffs. Now that they’ve blown it up over the off-season, Utah seems ready to rebuild, gaining a significant number of draft picks and young players from their trades with Minnesota and Cleveland. They’ve got a solid young base, and can use this season to develop their younger players, and look to place well in the draft.

Ceiling: 11 seed, Floor: 14 seed

  1.  Houston Rockets: Despite their fall compared to their title contending teams from recent memory, the Rockets have a bright future in their young stars Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr and KPJ. This season, Houston will surely be looking to land a top draft slot, and a chance at Wembanyama.

Ceiling: 10 seed, Floor: 14 seed

  1.  Oklahoma City Thunder: Losing Chet Holmgren for the season isn’t ideal for OKC, but its not horrible. They will be able to get their other young players some good experience, and hopefully they can get Wembenyama in the draft. If they play their cards right, OKC will have a bright future. P.S. I’m fairly sure OKC has more draft picks in the next couple years then players.

Ceiling: 11 seed, Floor: 14 seed

  1.  San Antonio Spurs: This year, the Spurs aren’t going to have to try very hard to get a high draft pick. Who knows though, maybe Tim Duncan will come out of retirement and lift them to the play-in tournament. This will be one of the many teams hoping for Wembanyama. Poor Pop. 

Ceiling: 14 seed, Floor: G-League relegation

Stay tuned for my NBA Eastern Conference predictions later this week…

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