N.B.A. West Preview: The Return of ‘Beautiful Basketball’

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There were years when fans generally knew what to expect from the Western Conference. Everyone knew the Showtime-era Lakers would reach the finals. Everyone knew Timmy, Manu and Pop would have the Spurs contending late in the season. Everyone knew the Mailman would deliver — at least until the Jazz met Michael Jordan and the Bulls. And, more recently, everyone knew the Splash Brothers had Golden State primed for championship runs.

With exceptions, of course, predictability has been one of the conference’s hallmarks. But good luck trying to figure out what will happen this season.

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The Clippers and the Nuggets are missing important players because of injuries. The Lakers are really old. The Suns are running it back, hoping to duplicate last season’s success. And then you have teams like the Jazz, the Mavericks and the Trail Blazers, who could all be decent. But who knows! The word for this — and apologies in advance — is parity.

All of which could set the scene for a dramatic renaissance staged by Golden State, which has been hibernating through the pandemic as Klay Thompson works through a series of catastrophic injuries. He is nearing a return, though, and Golden State spent the past two seasons building out its roster and developing young players like Jordan Poole.

Here is a closer look at the conference and how a potentially wild season could shake out:

The Suns are mostly running it back with the same roster that took them to the 2021 finals. They added Elfrid Payton and JaVale McGee, veterans who shouldn’t expect to see much playing time.

Chris Paul has proved his doubters wrong repeatedly, but he turns 37 in May. At some point, he won’t play at an elite level anymore. Right? Right? Meanwhile, Devin Booker turns 25 at the end of October and has already been an elite offensive player for several years. Does he have another gear in him?

Deandre Ayton’s continued development should be a boon for Phoenix, but with the improvement of the Los Angeles Lakers and a healthy Golden State team, the Suns will have a steeper path to repeat as Western Conference champions.

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Credit…Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

The Lakers were a smoldering mess by the start of the playoffs last season. LeBron James was run down. Anthony Davis kept getting hurt. The result was a first-round loss to the upstart Phoenix Suns in a generational battle that went in favor of youth.

If that loss seemed to signal that the Lakers ought to consider getting a little younger, well, they lumbered off in the opposite direction. James, operating as de facto general manager, opened up his Brentwood manse to a series of potential recruits this summer. The new-look Lakers now feature the likes of Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, an old friend in Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers are — what’s the word? — experienced. If they can keep their appendages intact, they could challenge for their second title in three seasons. But that’s a big if. Five players on the roster are at least 35 years old, including the 36-year-old James.

There’s no timeline for Kawhi Leonard’s return from a partial anterior cruciate ligament tear sustained against Phoenix in last season’s Western Conference finals. The Clippers are still brimming with talent without him, but do they have enough to make noise in the West?

Paul George carried Los Angeles through nearly two playoff rounds without Leonard last season, dispelling growing beliefs that he could no longer lead a team by himself. This year, he will need Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris to repeat their fruitful production from the last postseason.

Since then, the Clippers have traded Patrick Beverley for Eric Bledsoe, and Serge Ibaka is expected back from injury. Although it will be tough to compensate for Leonard’s scoring and defense, Coach Tyronn Lue should have enough to work with. Without Leonard in a stacked West, though, the Clippers are likely to fall short of an N.B.A. title, again.

Klay Thompson has not played basketball in public in quite a while. In the roughly two years since he went down with a knee injury in the 2019 finals, the Raptors, Lakers and Bucks have won championships, a pandemic has gripped the globe and Thompson ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon in a workout before the start of last season, delaying his return by about another year. Golden State, it should be noted, has not won many games in his absence.

But Thompson could be back in the team’s lineup by late December or early January, which would be a welcome sight to anyone who has missed what he can do — a group that includes his teammates.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” Stephen Curry said recently. “Beautiful basketball.”

Will Thompson’s return propel Golden State toward its familiar role as a title contender? Hard to say. But his mere presence could be considered a victory on its own.

It hasn’t been an easy start to the career of Zion Williamson, who is, in his third season, on his third head coach. He has yet to make the playoffs, been besieged by injuries and had to clarify that David Griffin, the team’s head of basketball operations, did not play piano for him to help their relationship.

When he’s been on the court, Williamson has put up fantastic numbers, but the Pelicans have struggled to define his role, whether as the lead playmaker or not.

Now, the Pelicans have reset: Gone are Eric Bledsoe, JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams. In are Jonas Valanciunas, an offensive upgrade over Adams at center, and Devonte’ Graham, a scoring guard and a threat from 3-point range.

Now the newest head coach, Willie Green, is going to take a shot at defining Optimal Zion. Except it’s already off to a rough start: Williamson’s availability for the beginning of the season is unclear after he fractured his right foot over the summer. The Pelicans will have a ton of cap space next summer to make moves, but will Williamson want to be part of another reset if they miss the playoffs again?

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Credit…Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Nuggets employ Nikola Jokic, the league’s reigning most valuable player. Over the off-season, they signed Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon to huge extensions. The Nuggets have size, talent and youth. But they do not have Jamal Murray, their injured starting point guard — at least not anytime soon.

Denver has seemed on the cusp of achieving great things for several seasons, without ever breaking through with a finals appearance. That hill will be steep again this season as Murray continues to recover from surgery to repair a torn anterior crucial ligament. There is no timetable for his return.

“I have a long way to go,” Murray, who sustained the injury in April, told reporters recently.

There are few young players more dynamic than Ja Morant, the Grizzlies’ spring-loaded point guard. Now entering his third season, Morant, the 2020 rookie of the year, has consistently added elements to his game, and hope abounds in Memphis that he has developed a more consistent jump shot. That would create additional challenges for defenders who already had their hands full.

But as the Grizzlies eye a second straight trip to the playoffs, they should also be buoyed by the full-time return of Jaren Jackson Jr., a versatile, floor-spacing power forward who looked sharp playing alongside Morant in the preseason.

The Timberwolves had some leadership turnover in the past few months, but Anthony Edwards in his second pro year should be a very good thing for Minnesota.

He played in all 72 games last season and came in second behind Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball for the Rookie of the Year Award. Edwards is an ideal young player to build a team around. In addition to being an explosive scorer who’s good for plenty of highlight dunks, he has emerged as one of the funnier players in the N.B.A.

Edwards should make a leap this season, but the Timberwolves will also need to see progression from Karl-Anthony Towns, their talented big man, and guard D’Angelo Russell, whom the team traded for in 2020.

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Credit…Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Terry Stotts is out as the Blazers’ head coach. Chauncey Billups is in, and he’ll be working with a roster that isn’t much different from last season’s. Portland lost Enes Kanter, Zach Collins and Carmelo Anthony and added Larry Nance Jr., who can bring a defensive element that the Blazers desperately need.

Damian Lillard is back after reports in the off-season that he wanted out of Portland. Lillard denied those reports and emphasized his commitment to the team, but his desire to end a cycle of early playoff exits was clear after the Blazers lost to Denver in the first round last season.

Lillard and CJ McCollum make up one of the best backcourts in the league, but the Blazers haven’t figured out how to build a championship-caliber team around them. Both guards are in their 30s this season. Time may be ticking in Portland.

The Jazz, coming off another playoff run in which center Rudy Gobert’s effectiveness came under scrutiny, had a mostly quiet off-season. They signed Hassan Whiteside, a center with a style of play similar to Gobert’s, and added a reliable scorer in Rudy Gay.

Their two biggest minefields, as always, will be health and the postseason, and not just because of Gobert’s playoff struggles. Part of the reason Gobert was exposed by the Los Angeles Clippers’ perimeter guards in the second round last year was the Jazz’s leaky perimeter defense that he had to cover for.

But Donovan Mitchell has greatly improved since entering the league four seasons ago. The Jazz have the talent to be a top contender in the conference. It’s still a question of whether that will carry over into the postseason, where the Jazz have disappointed in recent years despite posting strong regular-season records.

And for what it’s worth, Gobert bulked up in the off-season.

It has been a long time since the Thunder have been as bad as they were last season, when they won just 22 games. Before that, they hadn’t won fewer than 40 games since 2008-9, Russell Westbrook’s rookie season. It helped, of course, that they had Kevin Durant, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Chris Paul or Westbrook at various points in each of those seasons. Those star players are long gone.

Oklahoma City finds itself in a multiyear rebuild to get back to a point of true and consistent contention, and has a trunkful of first-round draft picks over the next seven seasons to help.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s best player, signed a five-year maximum extension this summer. A foot injury kept him out most of last season, and in his absence Luguentz Dort showed offensive promise. Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander give the Thunder a solid young core to build around for the future, but that probably won’t translate to many wins this season.

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Credit…Matt Kelley/Associated Press

The biggest off-season acquisition for Dallas was Jason Kidd, as head coach. Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard, in theory should be a good match for guard Luka Doncic, who last year vaulted himself into the conversation for the Most Valuable Player Award. But Kidd reportedly clashed with players during his two previous head coaching stints, first with the Nets and most recently with the Milwaukee Bucks.

One of the conundrums facing Kidd is how best to deploy Kristaps Porzingis, who has reportedly grumbled about how he has been used next to Doncic, although both players said all the right things during training camp. Porzingis is entering the season fully healthy for the first time since he was with the Knicks, and that is a boon for a team looking to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since winning a championship in 2011.

The Mavericks didn’t make much of a talent leap this off-season, so it’s unlikely that they will be competing with the Western Conference’s elite.

The Spurs are officially in full rebuilding mode. They’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-back years, which had never happened. They lost their best player, DeMar DeRozan, to the Chicago Bulls, although they got Thaddeus Young and a first-round draft pick in a sign-and-trade. Other veterans, like Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, left for greener pastures.

Now the franchise’s future is in the hands of players like the third-year forward Keldon Johnson, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, and the Spurs are projected to have a good chunk of cap space next summer. This is a developmental year to see what they have in players like Lonnie Walker.

San Antonio signed some quality veterans (Bryn Forbes, Doug McDermott), but don’t expect to see the team in the playoffs. And, of course, there’s the annual question: How much longer will Gregg Popovich coach?

For a team that finished with the league’s worst regular-season record last season, the bar for contention is decidedly low in Houston. But if the Rockets compete at all this year, it will be because of the rookie Jalen Green.

Green is a confident 6-foot-6 guard with exceptional athleticism and a creative shotmaking arsenal. He is the clear focal point of the Rockets’ offense and rebuild.

Coach Stephen Silas will enter his second season in Houston with one of the youngest rosters in the N.B.A. Green, 19, is one of several Rockets players under 22. And in the likely event that John Wall, who is reportedly working with the team on a trade, doesn’t suit up for the Rockets this season, Green will be forced into a leadership role whether he’s ready for it or not.

The Kings have endured some sad, challenging times. Fifteen straight losing seasons and the league’s longest active playoff drought can’t really be described any other way. Now, Coach Luke Walton, who has gone 31-41 in each of his first two seasons, is preparing for Year 3 and there is only modest cause for optimism.

The positives: De’Aaron Fox, 23, and Tyrese Haliburton, 21, who was a revelation as a rookie last season, are a backcourt that any franchise could begin to build around. And the Kings appeared to add a solid perimeter defender by drafting Davion Mitchell from Baylor. (He was impressive at summer league.)

But Mitchell cannot guard five positions at once, and the Kings were awful on defense last season, ranking last in the league in opponent’s field-goal percentage, among other unsavory distinctions. They could be in for another bumpy ride.



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