We all know that the Western Conference is looking as strong as it ever has this upcoming season. The rich are getting richer and the best teams are getting better. Top seeds from a year ago have improved in a variety of ways. From re-signing key pieces, to signing new small pieces, to blockbuster deals, every team has gotten better. All of it has contributed to an immense amount of hype for a Western Conference showdown.
As exciting as all that should be, the focus right now will be on the teams who weren’t lucky enough to make the postseason last year. While some have warranted more buzz than others, every team in the West who missed the playoffs last year has improved this off-season.
Let’s start bottom to top so we can finish with the Nuggets.
Finishing last in the West were the Phoenix Suns. If you want a powerful argument in favor of how valuable Russell Westbrook was to his team, look no further than the Suns roster for your proof.
Their back court contained Eric Bledsoe who averaged 21.1 points and 6.3 assists alongside Devin Booker who averaged 22.1 points per game. At the three spot, T.J. Warren scored an efficient 14.4 points on 49.5% shooting while showing flashes of better things to come.
The team is absolutely loaded with potential with Marquese Chriss and guys who came on strong for them at the end of the year like Tyler Ulis and Alan “Big Sauce” Williams. Not to mention a solid anchor of championship pedigree in Tyson Chandler and former decent starter in Brandon Knight who just two years ago averaged 19.6 points and 5.1 assists.
Back to how this helps Russell’s case for being a worthy MVP, if the team just described was dead last in the West and only won 24 games, just imagine the kind of season the Thunder would have had without Russell Westbrook. This is one of those “I’ll just leave this here” kind of moments.
All jokes aside, the Suns improved by drafting Josh Jackson. Phoenix clearly has plenty of talent to pair him with. It seems the organization also realizes that youth doesn’t win in the NBA and are trying to get in the mix for the services of Kyrie Irving and maybe another experienced Cavalier. The bottom line is that this team has playoff-level talent. The group probably isn’t ready to live up to that potential yet.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been in the headlines more than any other team in the league this summer. We all know it drafted Lonzo Ball and that expectations are high for him. Actually, expectations are as high as where the retired jersey numbers hang to be exact.
He’ll certainly improve his teammates 2K ratings and help them reach their potential. Also making buzz in the Las Vegas Summer League was 23rd overall pick, Kyle Kuzma, out of the University of Utah. He took home a championship game MVP from Summer League as well as a championship trophy for his team.
Flying under the radar and similarly returning close to home like Ball, is Brook Lopez. The ole reliable center will definitely help the Lakers with his ability average 20 points per game if necessary. Alongside him is a new addition in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope has been a very versatile and aggressive defender for quite a few years now. He can also be a streaky scorer and shooter at times.
The Minnesota Timberwolves made a huge splash landing Jimmy Butler through a trade. Then, Minnesota made a smaller splash with still plenty of ripple by adding Jeff Teague. With a third new expected starter in Taj Gibson, the Wolves should be a totally different team from last year. Not to mention it will be bringing a three-time Sixth Man of the Year off the bench in Jamal Crawford now.
A lineup of those there along with Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns has potential to be a championship contender at some point. Probably not this year, but eventually they could certainly contend.
The Kings have been historically known for never doing anything right, but the script may have been flipped. Not only did the have an excellent draft by selecting De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, and Frank Mason, but they also made some free agent signings.
These include mentoring veterans in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter. Sacramento now has great balance between youth and veterans to go with its’ talent. The Kings don’t seem like it’ll be a laughingstock anytime soon.
The Mavs drafted an absolute stud in Dennis Smith, Jr. and locked Dirk Nowitzki back in until he turns the tender age of 40. The team got better because they added without losing anyone (assuming Nerlens Noel re-signs eventually) but will probably fall far in the standings to due teams below them making much bigger improvements.
Did they overpay to return Jrue Holiday? Yes. Was it a smart decision? As long as he stays relatively healthy, yes. Besides returning their point guar-wait, he’s not their point guard anymore.
There’s a new sheriff in town, ready to play alongside the old one. Rajon Rondo, whether the world wants to admit it or not, was a huge pickup for the Pelicans. He will be a nightmare for teams in the pick-and-roll. His best years have come when he has a dominant big man with him. Now, he has two of them. In case Rondo averages 20 assists per game this year, give us credit as the first to say he had a chance to.
Finally the Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets only off-season addition that will help them in their immediate future is Paul Millsap. Millsap will certainly be a game changer in Denver. The Nuggets will have to keep pace with the teams who finished below them. The youth in Denver has to improve the way it is expected to.
Just as Nikola Jokic‘s minutes will go up from 28 per game, the rest of his numbers must go up as well. Plain and simple, he needs to be in the conversation for best center in the league next year.
Gary Harris, while remaining efficient, must up his scoring closer to the 20-point per game mark around where Paul Millsap should be.
The last key piece who should see his numbers increase the most is Jamal Murray. He could find himself as an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. His minutes will increase a lot as he is likely to assume the starting point guard duties. History tells us that a majority of players are least efficient shooters as rookies. That means the future looks pretty bright for Murray.
As long as these three main players improve as they should and the rest of the team pulls their weight, a playoff birth should be in store for the Nuggets.
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