Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors meet for the second time this season.
If both teams were at full strength, this would be one of the more exciting games of the regular season. Instead, we're left with a matchup between the best and worst team in the Western Conference.
Andrew Wiggins making his Warriors debut will make this game still worth checking into, but ... I'm not expecting him to take down the Lakers all by himself.
In saying that, you and I got to talking ahead of this game about whether or not these will be the two best teams in the league next season when the Warriors get Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson back to full strength - assuming, of course, the Lakers re-sign Anthony Davis if/when he turns down his player option for next season. So, what say you?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): How disrespectful of me would it be to say that I need to see Curry, Thompson, Draymond and now Wiggins prove it first?
I know that's the same core - minus Wiggins, of course - that own the best regular season record in NBA history, but all of those role players from that team are gone. While Wiggins seems like he's a good fit schematically, you never know what he's going to bring to the table.
Steph is expected to return at some point after the All-Star break this season, so we'll get a quick glimpse of he and Wiggins together, but Klay is still going to be coming off of a severe injury.
I'm not sure I'm ready to re-crown Golden State as one of the two best teams in the league based off of the recent past. What do you think?
Rafferty: I don't think it's disrespectful. Curry, Thompson and Draymond are each going to be in their 30s when next season starts and Thompson is coming off of a serious knee injury. Plus, as optimistic as I am that the Warriors can unlock Wiggins' potential - not as a star, but as a Harrison Barnes replacement - I still have concerns about their depth.
Ultimately, I think it's the Lakers and LA Clippers at the top of the Western Conference again next season. The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz should only continue to get better as well, as should the Dallas Mavericks.
The Houston Rockets are a huge question mark to me because of the small-ball experiment they're going all-in on, but they shouldn't have a problem winning 50-plus games as long as James Harden and Russell Westbrook are around.
Irving: The West is still going to be loaded, there's no doubt about that. And while I did just say I'm not ready to re-crown them as one of the two best teams in the league, I still believe that if Klay can return to the player he was last season, the Warriors are still more than capable of being a top three or four team in the West.
Yes, Curry and Green are getting older but as long as Thompson is at full strength and Wiggins is at least the player he's been this year, I don't see why they can't be better than Denver, Utah, Dallas or Houston.
Rafferty: Again, I think depth would be the reason. They don't have the cap space to make any significant moves this offseason, so they're relying on Kevon Looney being healthy, which he hasn't this season, and the likes of Jordan Poole, Damion Lee and Eric Paschall leading their second unit.
The kicker is they could be getting a top-five pick by virtue of being one of the worst teams in the league this season.
You know more about this year's draft prospects than I do, so how big of a deal would it be if they got someone like Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, Cole Anthony or James Wiseman? And that's assuming they even keep that pick because they could very well look to trade it to acquire a veteran or two.
Irving: I certainly agree that depth is going to be an issue. That team is going to struggle when Steph and Klay aren't on the floor even though I like what I've seen from both Paschall and Lee this season.
But as far as that top-five pick, I'm not sure any of those players are ready to make an immediate impact. At least not so much that selecting one of them is going to make me believe that the Warriors depth question will be solved.
They could be better off trading that pick to try and get an asset that's more along the timeline of their star players, but it doesn't appear as though this year's draft picks are going to go for much on the trade market with the questions surrounding the talent in this year's draft class.
Rafferty: The other thing is that it wouldn't be easy for them to package that pick with players to acquire someone who better fits in their rotation because of the way their salaries are structured.
We can assume Curry and Thompson are off limits, so that leaves Wiggins' salary of $29.3 million and Green's of $22.2 million next season. After them, Looney is their highest paid player at ... $5 million.
We saw how not having those mid-tier contracts can impact teams this trade deadline with the Boston Celtics. There were a number of players that made sense for them, but Marcus Smart's salary was the only one they could really use as a starting point to match salaries and he's almost too important to them defensively to be moved.
So unless they trade Wiggins or Green, this might just be the team they have.
Irving: Even if they don't trade Wiggins or Green, or add any significant assets, this still is not a team that any Western Conference opponent would want to see in the first round of the playoffs. Imagine it takes them a little bit to get going to start the season and they finish somewhere between the No. 4 seed to the No. 7 seed? Going against Steph and Klay in the first round would be a nightmare.
Rafferty: Let's assume the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Mavericks and Warriors are the top seven teams in the Western Conference next season. How would you rank them through the lens of the best playoff teams, not necessarily regular season teams?
Irving: That's tough to say without seeing how the Jazz and Nuggets progress in this year's playoffs, as well as what kind of damage the Rockets can do or how Luka Doncic will perform on that big stage. But if you're forcing me to rank them, I'd go:
I'm always going to bet on LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard shortly thereafter. Steph and Klay have proven themselves in the postseason a whole lot more than any of the other stars on this list, and after that I think Utah has the most talented team. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are wild cards and while Luka is only going to get better, his supporting cast isn't as loaded as the aforementioned. The Nuggets rank last just because I'm not sure any of those teams would be afraid to see Denver in the playoffs.
All of this hypothetical talk is fun in place of what's going to happen in the matchup between the Lakers and Warriors later on, but it's unfortunate we're still a ways away from seeing Golden State back to full strength. In the meantime, we'll get to watch these other teams develop until the Warriors are ready to make their mark on the league yet again.
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