Western Conference Preseason Predictions

By: Avi Tyagi

1. Clippers
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 7th in West
Last Season Finish: 8th in West, Lost in Play-In Tournament, Missed Playoffs
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Kawhi, Paul George
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Kawhi, Paul George
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the avant-garde collective of wings can realistically finish top of the West with any given health. Without Kawhi, only 31 games of Paul George, and just 5 games of Norman Powell, the hobbled Clippers were still on the precipice of entering the playoffs last season. Amir Coffey, a worthy rotation-level wing may be their 12th man. They can excel in almost every configuration. In transition, Wall, Powell, Coffey, PG, and Mann could fuel transition attacks. For pure spacing, Kennard, PG, Kawhi, Powell, and Batum could offer enough extra passing and defensive resistance to persist regularly. A 4 out, 1 in lineup of Zubac, Kawhi, Paul George, Batum, and Covington can swarm the opposition without compromising any offensive creation or spacing. None of those layouts even include Reggie Jackson or Marcus Morris. So long as Kawhi and Paul George can lace up their sneakers for at least 100 contests combined, the depth and adaptability of approach and skillsets can create a potent regular season offense.

2. Pelicans
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 9th in West, Won the 8-seed, Lost to Phoenix 4-2 in WC 1st
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Zion
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Zion, Ingram
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Zion
I’m all in on impressive growth from the Pelicans. Even 55 games of Zion are likely enough for me to vault them this high. A member of my All-NBA team in his first full season, Zion can torment paint protectors and is to be feared when flanked by Jonas Valančiūnas on the boards. Spacing concerns will likely be tempered with Herb Jones, Ingram, and McCollum flanking that imposing duo. McCollum finished with a dominant regular season upon donning the Navy, Red, and Gold, averaging 26.6 points and 6.4 assists per 75 possessions on 58% true shooting. With Herb Jones shouldering most of the difficult perimeter responsibilities that sometimes fell to CJ in Portland, and on a roster without a guard perimeter shot creator, CJ was able to redesign his game to focus more on off-ball attacks and pick and roll playmaking. The Birds finished with a +2.5 Cleaning the Glass net rating from February 1st onwards, with a healthy Brandon Ingram and the additions of McCollum and Nance fortified the roster. Dyson Daniels and Jose Alvarado profile as arguably the best bench-ball-pressure duo in the league and Trey Murphy’s magnificent summer league and preseason profiles as a potential steppingstone for a breakout season off the bench. The roster goes 11 deep and profiles to add a game-changing force back to the roster.

3. Warriors
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 3rd in West
Last Season Finish: 3rd in West, Beat Nuggets 4-1 in WC 1st, Beat Grizzlies 4-2 in WC Semis, Beat Mavericks 4-1 in WCF, Beat Celtics 4-2 in the Finals. CHAMPS!
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Steph, Klay, Dray
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Steph, Klay, Dray, Wiggins
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Poole
The foundational 6 is excellent. Wiggins snuck onto my all-star team last season and ramped up his attention to detail on the glass, defensive ferocity, and offensive assertion throughout the playoffs. Poole has been a dynamite All-Star caliber offensive force over the back half of the season. Klay and Draymond are likely to have healthier seasons and play more than 78 combined games. Looney is an extremely solid defensive big. The questions arise with the depth. Moses Moody profiles as more than capable of performing as a 3 and D rotational wing, but can he attack closeouts with enough aggression and find incisive reads to create easier shots for teammates and the lineups that feature him? Wiseman has shown some offensive improvements over the course of the preseason, but still profiles as a defensive sieve capable of sinking bench lineups. Kuminga’s on-ball defense and awareness as a help-side defender have improved dramatically, but many of his other skills are still a work in progress. Are JaMychal Green and Donte DiVincenzo reliable enough on offense to thrive off the bench? The losses of Bjelica as an extra passer, GP2’s otherworldly on-ball pressure, and Otto Porter’s defensive malleability in small-ball units appear likely to be sorely missed. The season profiles as a developmental playground for the young bench lineups, and so the counteracting forces of improved health with the upstart rotation members leave the Warriors in the same regular season locality as last season’s preseason prediction and actual finish.

4. Suns
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 2nd in West
Last Season Finish: 1st in West, Beat Pelicans 4-2 in WC 1st, Lost to Mavericks 4-3 in WC Semis
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Booker, CP3
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Booker, CP3
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
The vibes are not great, Crowder clearly wants out, and Chris Paul’s defense and offensive self-creation capabilities are quickly approaching an essential threshold. The best team in the regular season still maintains an impressive starting 5, but losing McGee and Crowder may prove to be problematic for the bench. CP3 has slowly ratcheted down his defensive intensity and only sparingly showed bursts of energy to hunt for steals. His ability to deny entry passes on switches and compete with intense on-ball defense has helped shield him from attacks in the past, but he has slowly become a defender who must be protected to conserve his energy and prevent his lateral stationariness from being exploited. In comparison with prior seasons, with only Mikal Bridges and Ayton profiling as plus-defenders on the roster, hiding CP3 on defense becomes less feasible. Optimizing the returns from a Crowder trade will be imperative for a team with subpar depth to retain its position in the top 4 of the conference.

5. Timberwolves
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 7th in West, Lost to Grizzlies 4-2 in WC 1st
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Gobert, Karl
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Gobert, Karl
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Edwards
Edwards is a breakout candidate capable of establishing himself as a true All-Star this season. Gobert might be even better within the Timberwolves ecosystem than he was with the Jazz, due to the superior passing that could create easier openings near the rim and the stronger surrounding defensive structure. Their top 4 meshes well, and Jaden McDaniels profiles as an intriguing 5th starter. I need more assurances from the bench in order to place the Timberwolves further up the leaderboard. Can Kyle Anderson offer enough of an offensive jolt to function as the first forward off the bench. Is there a way to stagger McLaughlin, Russell, and Nowell to avoid having a ramshackle perimeter defense? I expect the roster to gel over time, but prominent internal development from Edwards, McDaniels, and Nowell will be conducive to ranking any higher in a competitive Western Conference.

6. Nuggets
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 4th in West
Last Season Finish: 6th in West, Lost to Warriors 4-1 in WC 1st
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Jokic
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Jokic, Jamal
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
Jamal Murray will likely need time to regain his burst and form. Ditto for Michael Porter. Bruce Brown complements the eclectic MVP Nikola Jokic and creates a wonderful top-6 hierarchy. Christian Braun and Hyland will have to step up to support a weakened bench unit. Their capacity to fill the gaps will be of paramount importance if the Nuggets are to rise to the top in the West. Defensive viability for Hyland equates with camping out in the corner and avoiding getting exposed on defensive switches. With Bruce Brown, KCP, and Aaron Gordon out at the perimeter, he might be sheltered securely enough to mitigate any defensive shortcomings. If Braun can shift his feet fast enough, he could profile as a low-usage 3 and D guard for solid spot minutes to further accentuate the offensive virtues of Hyland, Murray, Porter and Jokic. It’s a testament to the conference that the Nuggets are down here, barely skirting the Play-In.

7. Mavericks
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 6th in West
Last Season Finish: 4th in West, Beat Jazz 4-2 in WC 1st, Beat Suns 4-3 in WC Semis, Lost to Warriors 4-1 in WCF
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Doncic
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Doncic
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
The Western Conference Finalists compete in the Play-In tournament per my estimations. It’s not solely Brunson driven. A rejuvenated Wood, a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. performance, and Dinwiddie could supply and outperform that production. It’s just a stretch in such a difficult conference. Last year’s 4 seed maintained serve at a time when most of the other contenders made a point to gain ground. With Dwight Powell, Davis Bertans, and Josh Green on the periphery of the rotation, a consolidation trade might be the pathway to drastic improvement.

8. Grizzlies
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 8th in West
Last Season Finish: 2nd in West, Beat Timberwolves 4-2 in WC 1st, Lost to Warriors 4-2 in WC Semis
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Ja
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Ja
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Ja
I am a fan of the Grizzlies off-season moves. Melton is an active defender, but he does gamble for deflections, is not always quick to get his hand up to contest shots, and can be laterally beat by quicker guards. In concert with his limitations on offense, I understand the accrual of another first round pick. Kyle Anderson’s change of pace was a central component to their bench, but his spacing concerns and the depth of recently drafted forwards set up an expectable departure. That does not mean that the roster is better equipped to win games this season. Desmond Bane is an excellent spot-up shooter, Steven Adams is a sound defender, and Tyus Jones does offer some stability as a manager of the second unit, but with Jaren Jackson Jr. out for the first third of the regular season, a decline in win totals would not be a poor result. Developmental minutes for Ziaire Williams, Santi Aldama, John Konchar, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy, and Vince Williams Jr. are meant to improve the franchise’s future potential. For now, I would just pencil in some early struggles. The new transition rules will likely benefit this roster more than most, and they have shown the capacity to exceed expectations before. I still feel more comfortable slotting them at 8th.

9. Blazers
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 13th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: Lillard
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Lillard
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
A healthy Lillard plus a solid roster is 9th in the Western Conference. The additions of Jerami Grant and GP2 were imperative to a disastrous defense last season. Small-sample-size Shaedon Sharpe might be an effective bench shot creator to start the season and could establish himself as an elite prospect. With Winslow and Nassir Little’s defensive acumen off the bench, there is a serviceable 9-man rotation this season. However, someone must finish 9th in the conference. For the team to exceed this meager forecast, Simons and Shaedon Sharpe are X-Factors. If they can provide verve as PnR shot creators and passers, they may be able to play opponents to a draw in lineups without Dame. Simons and Sharpe might start the season as effective scorers from 10 feet out, but the advancement of their driving game can unlock three-level scoring potential. With Simons, it’s about tightening the handle and varying his change of pace to take advantage of his excellent explosion and acceleration. Sharpe may have a tougher time refining those skills right out of the gate, so he needs to provide an option as a lob threat and dangerous cutter. If the defense can hold up and Nurkic can stay healthy, a solid season appears imminent.

10. Lakers
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 5th in West
Last Season Finish: 11th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: LeBron, AD, Westbrook
My All-Star last 4 seasons: LeBron, AD
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
Patrick Beverley is a nice addition and I enjoyed Matt Ryan’s summer league performances. I do not have high hopes for this roster anyways. I was skeptical of the Lakers heading into last season and did not consider them title contenders. I was still far too optimistic about their outcome. Much to the chagrin of media outlets, NBA schedule-makers, and fans tuned into primetime games, even high-wattage superstars such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis cannot carry a roster that accentuates their weaknesses and mitigates their strengths. The supporting cast matters. Malik Monk was their 3rd best player and he left to take a role as the 7th man on the Kings. This supporting cast is improved, but only marginally so. The potential of midseason trades that would exchange Westbrook and picks for 4th and 5th starters of the 3 and D archetype to suit LeBron’s incredible passing vision is the promise that lands the Lakers in this position. However, without any other additions to the current roster, a rough season may lie ahead of the Lakers once again.

11. Kings
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 12th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: None
My All-Star last 4 seasons: None
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Keegan Murray
Keegan Murray has the potential to serve as an effective secondary shot-blocker and effective secondary or tertiary scorer for the long-term outlook of the Kings. Mike Brown did a phenomenal job as the head defensive coordinator of the inventive and disciplined Dubs’ defense. Their 9-man rotation is encouraging. For it to be a special season that breaks the Kings’ well-documented playoff drought, De’Aaron Fox will need to raise the ceiling of this group. With the additions of Malik Monk, Keegan Murray, and Kevin Huerter and more familiarity with the Sabonis DHO game, the Kings’ offense may hum like a machine and open easy driving lanes for Fox. If Fox could clean up his clunky shot, his effectiveness as a player may elevate dramatically. Better free throwing shooting would generate more easy points at the line for one of the more frequent visitors to the charity stripe. A passable 3-point shot would open even more driving lanes and closeouts to attack for his sonic-speed explosiveness. It’s a lot to ask, so I won’t mark in the improvements as a likely outcome for the projection. Defensively, the personnel are still somewhat shaky defensively. Without any premier shot-blockers and some flammable perimeter defenders, a middling defensive performance would probably be a success for this group. Ultimately, a collapse from any of the teams above it, and a desire to make the play-in while other teams in the conference pivot to draft scouting in February might just vault the Kings into the play-in conversation. In a small-sample size play-in tournament, some sizzling offensive performances might be enough to enter the playoff picture.

12. Jazz
Last Season Preseason Prediction: 1st in West
Last Season Finish: 4th in West, Lost to Mavs 4-2 in WC 1st
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: None
My All-Star last 4 seasons: None
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
The roster is still solid. It might just not be that way for the entirety of the season. The 7-8-player rotation is presently solid, but that outlook changes if Clarkson, Conley, Beasley, and/or Olynyk is no longer on the roster in February. Without a clear concept of who gets traded and what the returns are in each deal, it is difficult to appoint the Jazz as capable of displacing the true heavy-hitters in the tank-athon battle, and a competent early season record is definitely on the table. With the flattened lottery odds, the 7th worst record has a 31.9% chance at a top-4 pick and a 51.6% chance at a top-7 pick. It would not be surprising to see a developmental roster work its way towards that position by the end of the season. All the while, Jarred Vanderbilt and Walker Kessler may form an exciting, complementary defensive pairing and Markkanen and Sexton will have plenty of studio space to explore their offensive game.

13. Spurs
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 10th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: None
My All-Star last 4 seasons: None
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
There are just enough competent surrounding pieces for me to place the Spurs any lower. Their cadre of inefficient shooting guards offers tanking promise, but Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson headline a cast of characters such as Josh Richardson, Devin Vassell, Zach Collins, and Tre Jones who might steady the ship far too effectively for a true excursion to the rock-bottom of the standings.

14. Rockets
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 15th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: None
My All-Star last 4 seasons: None
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: Jalen Green, Jabari Smith
Jalen Green is electric. The scale and variety to his scoring arsenal improved dramatically over the course of the season and a semi-efficient 20 points-per-75 possessions is not off the table. Tari Eason’s fervent disposition and eager enthusiasm for swiping passing lanes, crashing the glass, and blocking shots is enjoyable. The duo of Tari and Jabari will help stem the tide of defensive self-destruction of many of their teammates. The youthful exuberance and variety of play styles on display will make the Rockets an enjoyable offensive watch. However, overall, the putrid defense and the fledgling skill development of their unseasoned roster lends itself to another season of ping-pong balls. The onus to tank is stronger for them than perhaps any other roster in the league; the Chris Paul trade will likely strip them of their 2024 and 2026 picks. Each of those picks might not convey if the Rockets luck into the top 4 once more, but the odds are not favorable. If they can’t dip into the draft pool, acquire a core talent in the 2023 draft, and collectively take major steps in 2023-24, it becomes much more difficult to escape the row of bottom-feeders with those potentially compromised future picks. With that said, the team is still likely to primarily feature its best young prospects this year and any collective development from that bunch could push them above the nadir of the standings.

15. Thunder
Last Season Preseason Prediction: Miss Playoffs
Last Season Finish: 14th in West
My All-NBA Last 8 seasons: None
My All-Star last 4 seasons: Shai
My Elite Prospects from 2019-2022 classes: None
Wane for Wemby, Sabotage for Scoot, Awful for Amen, Call-it-off for Keyonte. The top-end of this upcoming draft is far too tantalizing for the Thunder to pass up. On rewatch, Shai has squeezed onto my All-Star ballot designations for the past 2 seasons and Dort is an excellent defender, but that has not stopped the Thunder tank before. Minutes for Jalen Williams and Ousmane Dieng will likely substitute for many of the OKC Blue call-up minutes from last season and Shai and Dort might combine to play more than the 107 games from last season. I just think the potential for pure unfiltered tanking from a franchise most likely to experiment and to parcel out minutes willy-nilly makes it too likely that the Thunder finish with prime tanking equity in the west. With Chet, I would have them a spot higher because of the potential for quality rim protection. With him sidelined, we are sailing towards another tank-tastic season from the premier pick-collector franchise.