What does the NBA’s Western Conference look like in 2021-22?
The Los Angeles Lakers changed in the offseason and acquired star names like Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, while the Golden State Warriors are close to full strength with Klay Thompson’s expected return increasing their prospects for the season.
The LA Clippers, on the other hand, will be without superstar Kawhi Leonard – he will miss most, if not the entire normal season, after surgery to repair a partial ACL crack in June. Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray suffered his ACL tears in April will miss most of 2021-22.
Will the unfortunate injuries leave the door open for teams to vault in conflict? Which teams are playoff locks? Who will fight for places in the play-in tournament? Who still thinks?
Our expert panel predicts wind-loss records for all 15 teams in the Western Conference.
Note: Our NBA Summer Forecast 2021-22 continues Thursday with our championship and award announcements, including MVP and Rookie of the Year.
Positions in the Western Conference
1. Utah Jazz: 55-27
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 53-29
3. Phoenix Suns: 51-31
4. Denver Nuggets: 50-32
5. Dallas Mavericks: 48-34
6. Golden State Warriors: 48-34
Dallas finished percentage points ahead of Golden State in our panel predictions.
Will the Lakers’ off-season renovation – highlighted by the blockbuster deal to bring former MVP Russell Westbrook home to Los Angeles – make the 2020 champions the clear favorite to win the West again?
Our panel does not think so, at least not in the regular season.
There is no doubt that the Lakers are leading the West in big names, as their list now includes five confident Hall of Famers with offseason additions by Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, joining Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Rajon Rondo, like Howard, a bubble master who returns to the Lakers after a year away, will also have a strong case for Springfield.
But there are doubts about how Westbrook will fit, especially early in the season. Both Westbrook and James have had teams to get started slowly as they adapted to play with other ball-dominating stars.
There are also concerns about whether a team that is so heavily dependent on older players — nine are 32 or older — can hold on during 82 games. Davis, 28, has also had problems with durability, including a groin injury that was a major factor in the Lakers’ first-round exit against the Suns last season.
Jazz, our choice to have the West’s best record, has continuity from a season in which they led the NBA in victories in the normal season. Utah believes it has upgraded its bench after a playoff exit in the second round and replaced Georges Niang and Derrick Favors with Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside, hoping for better health after All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley became bumped in the off-season.
The Suns, who won the West last season after ending a decade-long playoff drought, kept their rotation intact by signing point guards Chris Paul and Cameron Payne again. Phoenix can reasonably anticipate internal improvement as key young players continue to evolve, especially starting center Deandre Ayton and small forward Mikal Bridges as they enter the final seasons of their rookie contracts.
The Nuggets are expected to finish fourth in the West despite star point guard Jamal Murray being expected to miss much of the season while recovering from a torn ACL. Denver, led by reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, ended the regular season with a 13-5 stretch after losing Murray and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
The Mavericks and Warriors are practically right in fifth place, with Dallas only finishing percentage points ahead of Golden State in our panel predictions.
The Mavs made no major off-season changes, contenting themselves with signing 3-and-D wings Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown in addition to signing shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. Porzingis, who has yet to prove he can be a fellow star’s caliber to complement MVP candidate Luka Doncic, is necessary for Mavs to be true candidates.
The Warriors seem far away from their run on five stretches in the final, given that Golden State has not reached the playoffs in the last few years. But Stephen Curry is still in top form and his colleague Splash Brother Klay Thompson is expected to return at some point several weeks into the season after missing the last two due to knee and Achilles injuries.
– Tim MacMahon
The recording group
7. LA Clippers: 45-37
8. Portland Trail Blazers: 43-39
9. Memphis Grizzlies: 42-40
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 37-45
The three-win gap between Dallas and Golden State and the rest of the Western Fields matches nicely with the separation between the top six teams in the conference — who would advance to the playoffs — and those who were forced to win through the NBA playoffs. tournament.
That would mark a change for both the Clippers and Blazers among last year’s top six seeds. For the Clippers, the reason for the drop is obvious: Our panel certainly does not expect Kawhi Leonard to play much, if at all, during the normal 2021-22 season after surgery to repair a partial ACL tear that suffered in the playoffs in June last June. In addition to the Clippers playing after Kawhi’s injury and beating the top-seeded Utah Jazz twice to advance to the conference finals, an 82-game regular season without their best player will be a much tougher challenge.
Portland’s fall seems to reflect a combination of the Mavericks and Warriors having upward lanes and the possibility of All-Star Damian Lillard questioning. If Lillard stays with the Blazers, they have a good chance of beating their 43-39 projection, having won 42 games out of 72 a year ago despite injuries that cost them starters CJ McCollum (25 games) and Jusuf Nurkic (35) for extended distances.
Our panel has the Memphis Grizzlies on the Blazers’ heels for eighth place, but will likely end up in the same spot as last season when they disrupted Golden State in the play-offs before losing to the Jazz in five games. After trading starting lineup Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams and adding few other short-term contributors to the roster, the Grizzlies are expected to fall in terms of winning percentages from their 38-34 record in 2020-21 despite getting a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. to start the season.
In terms of expected record, the Pelicans are actually closer to the bottom five than the other teams in the play-in area. After a disappointing offseason, New Orleans failed to get a veteran star to replace the retired Lonzo Ball (who instead settled for Devonte ‘Graham and Tomas Satoransky via sign-and-trade), the Pelicans are betting on internal development and Willie Green’s arrival as head coach to take the next step in their development and reach the playoffs.
– Kevin Pelton
The bottom five
11. Sacramento Kings: 35-47
12. San Antonio Spurs: 34-48
Minnesota Timberwolves: 31-51
T-14. Houston Rockets: 22-60
T-14. Oklahoma City Thunder: 22-60
Houston and Oklahoma City ended in a draw in our panel predictions.
Within the bottom five of the West is a high degree of variance and approach. There are teams like Kings and Spurs trying to find the right list combination to make a push towards at least one play-in spot. There are Timberwolves, with a young roster and an updated vision trying to build towards something sustainable good.
And there are Rockets and Thunder, two former titans from the conference who are taking serious and sudden falls — strategically, mind you — to prepare for long-term success.
Kings have been on the hunt for a breakthrough for more than a decade, with high-profile electoral elections showing signs of promise each year that it will end in mediocrity. There’s a good team in there somewhere where De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Tyrese Haliburton anchor a quality backcourt. But unless there’s a serious leap from Fox, it’s likely to be a late lottery again for Sacramento, according to our panel.
The Spurs moved on from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and picked up Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott and Zach Collins. Their youthful core of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson is good, but unless there is a major development, the Spurs will be out of play-in again this season.
The Wolves are exciting because they may be the next version of Suns, a meandering franchise with a young superstar apparently on the verge. Out of season there were no major changes, but with Anthony Edward’s exciting rookie season and the pieces in place, the Wolves are opportunistic and looking to find their veteran leading a leap.
The Rockets become a League Pass darling with rookie Jalen Green, and the Thunder remains a compelling rebuild to watch with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander recently christened with a max deal and thrilling No. 6 pick Josh Giddey.
Each team in this group has at least some upside, but there is definitely separation with how much and how long it can last.
– Royce Young