NBA

Separating contenders from pretenders in Western Conference entering 2021-22 NBA season

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): The 2021-22 NBA season is almost here! We're just two weeks away from the start of training camp, three weeks away from the start of preseason and a month away from the first regular season game.

It's hard to believe, honestly.

With the majority of offseason transactions behind us, we're starting to see rosters take shape for the upcoming season. Like any other year, some teams made significant improvements, others elected to run it back with a similar roster and some ... didn't improve much at all.

The Western Conference in particular received quite the shake up, with the Los Angeles Lakers trading for Russell Westbrook, along with adding a number of role players to put around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Other top teams from a season ago like the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns decided to give it another go with mostly the same core group. The LA Clippers will have to manage without Kawhi Leonard for an indefinite period of time due to an ACL injury, as will the Denver Nuggets with Jamal Murray for the same reason.

Then there's the Golden State Warriors, who are expecting Klay Thompson to return sometime around Christmas after missing the past two seasons with injuries, looking to get back to their contending ways.

With all of this roster turnover in the Western Conference, it raises one question: Who are the true contenders?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I feel like the best way to approach this is to break it into tiers.

For me, I have the Lakers in a tier of their own at the top of the Western Conference. That's not to say I don't have concerns about this team - more on that here - but it's hard to bet against LeBron James and Anthony Davis if the two of them are healthy. (That's starting to become quite a big if, but that's a conversation for another day). After them, I'd probably put the Jazz and Suns in the same tier, followed by a tier of the Warriors, Clippers and Nuggets. The three of them are sort of in limbo until we see how Klay, Kawhi and Murray look upon return.

I will say, the Jazz are probably the most interesting team to me of that group. We know how good they've been in the regular season. It's been the playoffs where they've run into some issues. While their identity hasn't changed, they are better equipped to go smaller now with the additions of Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall.

Whether or not it's enough for them to get over the hump, we'll see, but I'm intrigued.

Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): It's really hard to argue putting the Lakers above everyone else, which is pretty amazing considering this was a Play-In team a few months ago and there are a lot of questions around this roster. Health played a big role in it, but in response to last year's experiments failing, they're pretty much rolling out an entirely new team, so it feels like we have to put them above everyone else to start by default almost. It helps that LeBron and AD are pretty good.

I don't think Utah and Phoenix are too far behind, and I think we'll know about 20 games into the season whether or not either of them can make it a two- or three-team race for the Western Conference crown, but I'm curious about the Suns' ability to take the good from last season's Finals run, forget the rest and continue to build.

My biggest question surrounds the tier of "incomplete" contenders in Golden State, LA and Denver. Hypothetically speaking, I feel like there's a universe in which a team like the Warriors clicks on so many cylinders early on that we begin to think that Thompson's return will push them to the elite tier. It feels like a big expectation in writing, but I feel like there's some magic left in The Bay.

Is that a wild assertion?

Irving: I don't think it's that crazy to say the Warriors could work their way into the elite tier if Thompson comes back looking like the player we saw during their peak dynasty days. I do, however, think it's crazy to say the Lakers are in a tier of their own, excluding the reigning Western Conference champion Suns from that group.

This team was two wins away from winning an NBA title a season ago, they're running it back with almost the exact same roster and their young core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are only going to get better. I'm curious what the hesitation is there. Is it just the high stakes of having to live up to expectations?

Rafferty: Sort of. And look, I think they had a great offseason. They brought back everyone they needed to and JaVale McGee fits a real need for them, giving the Suns a backup to Deandre Ayton at center. Like you said, Booker, Ayton and Bridges should continue to improve, but on the other hand, are we expecting Chris Paul to have the same season that he did last season? There aren't many people who are bigger fans of Paul than me - one of them is in this chat - but he's got to slow down at some point ... right?

The same can obviously be said for LeBron, but he's an athletic marvel, so I'm cutting him more slack.

What say you, Gil?

McGregor: Guilty as charged on the Paul fandom, and the same could be said for head coach Monty Williams and what the Suns are building in general, beginning up top with Executive of the Year James Jones.

That said, repeating sustained runs is always hard, but especially so in these times. It's slightly longer than the 72 days that the Lakers and Miami Heat got last season, but the Suns tip off the 2021-22 season just 92 days after losing in Game 6 of the Finals. Now, factor in Booker and McGee's participation in the Tokyo Olympics, and that's even less of an offseason for the franchise player and key offseason addition.

The Suns stepped up and were the most consistent team in a year that was very much a battle of attrition across the league. The same could be said for many playoff runs, but it was especially magnified last year.

Health is the key for all teams with title hopes, but I'm actually thinking the playing field will even out and Phoenix's hangover of being so close but not close enough might momentarily set this team back for the upcoming season. They are still young after all.

On the flip side, I do think their championship window will last for the majority of Paul's new contract, so it's not all bad in The Valley.

Rafferty: I do too, by the way. Even if Paul isn't the player he was last season - that being, a legitimate MVP candidate - they should still be awesome. I just don't think they're quite at the same level as the Lakers, health provided.

Irving: All fair reasoning, I just didn't want to gloss over that without getting some sort of explanation, because I'd certainly put them and the Lakers in the same tier atop the West.

Rafferty: You do have me second-guessing myself, not going to lie.

McGregor: Same. I'm wondering if them being a mostly-young group is enough to get over the quick offseason turnaround…

Rafferty: That's the other thing. Even if CP3 does decline a tad, improvements from Booker, Ayton and Bridges could make up for it.

I think you've talked me into having Lakers 1A, Suns 1B and then Jazz at 2.

Irving: Now, it's only right we loop in a few teams we haven't mentioned yet that might feel they deserve to be a part of the conversation. Where do you guys stand on the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and, I'll even go as far to say, the Memphis Grizzlies? Is that trio the next tier? Do they have any shot at title contention or a playoff push?

Rafferty: I feel like I've been lower than most on the Blazers the last few seasons. I'm a big fan of the addition of Larry Nance Jr., but until they show real improvements defensively, it's hard for me to view them as a legit contender. Who knows with the Mavericks. They still need another ball handler who can take some of the playmaking pressure off of Luka Doncic, but he's so ridiculously good that if things break right for them, it wouldn't shock me if they made a deep run.

Love the Grizzlies and what they're building, but I think they're still a few years from entering this conversation.

McGregor: It almost feels like Luka alone is enough to put Dallas in a tier of its own, but I'm not sure the team did enough or made the choices this offseason that are going to help them build towards being a contender. I have similar feelings towards the Blazers, as Dame is a top 10 talent capable of carrying them, but at what cost? They made moves but did they really move the needle?

It feels like the Grizzlies should be looped in with their offseason trade partner in the New Orleans Pelicans as up-and-comers in the West. We haven't seen as much from New Orleans just yet, but it feels like this has to be the year that it puts things together.

And like that, we may or may not have just lined up the 2022 Play-In Tournament.

Rafferty: The Timberwolves and Kings should both be in the mix for the Play-In Tournament as well.

Irving: Speaking of playing defence ... I feel the same way about the Pelicans as Scott does the Blazers. Until they play any defence at all, I can't take them seriously as a playoff team, never mind a team to make a run.

It's going to be interesting to see what that Play-In Tournament looks like in the West this year. Last year, we saw the Lakers and Warriors unexpectedly fighting for a playoff spot, and I think there could be a similar element of surprise this year. For example, if the Lakers, Suns, Jazz, Warriors, Nuggets and Clippers are in that top tier, that's your six solidified playoff spots right there. That means we might not get as deep as the Minnesota's and Sacramento's of the conference in the Play-In.

It could be the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Blazers and then one of those other teams. But then again, maybe the Kawhi-less Clippers or Murray-less Nuggets aren't a lock for a top-six spot? It's going to be very competitive.

Rafferty: Goodness. I mean, when you put it that way...

I'm pretty confident that the Nuggets won't be in the Play-In mix. They need Murray to win it all - I thought they were gearing up to be the team to beat prior to his injury last season - but they should be competitive until he returns. Nikola Jokic is that good and they still have some great pieces around him, headlined by Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon.

If Porter goes up a level this season, they're going to be scary even without Murray.

McGregor: Of the "incomplete" teams, I'm most confident about Denver, too.

I won't be as quick to lock Golden State and LA in, as I think it all hinges on those teams clicking on all cylinders. And if I had to pick, I think there's a bigger margin for error with the Clippers, and I have an easier time seeing the Warriors back in the Play-In.

All that to say, the tiers are taking shape, but anyway you shake it, the West is hard, man.

Irving: It seems like the West has never been easy. Especially in my lifetime. But that's what makes it so entertaining down the home stretch every season as teams jockey for seeding.

Rafferty: So after talking it through, it seems like this is where we've landed:

  • Tier 1: Lakers, Suns
  • Tier 2: Jazz
  • Tier 3: Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Blazers
  • Tier 5: Grizzlies, Pelicans
  • Tier 6: Kings, Timberwolves
  • Tier 7: Rockets, Thunder, Spurs

Does that seem right?

Irving: That looks pretty accurate to me. I think the Mavericks and Blazers are both capable of jumping into Tier 3 depending on how well their supporting casts play around Luka and Dame, respectively, but Tier 4 seems right for now. I also think the Grizzlies could jump up a tier, but again, I think where we have them now works.

McGregor: Looks right to me, too.

I feel like we didn't say too much about Utah, but I agree with Scott saying it's an interesting situation. I can see a timeline in which the Jazz move into Tier 1, but that's to be determined.

Going into the season, those are the tiers for sure.

Rafferty: We won't have to wait long now. Ready or not, the season is just around the corner.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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