Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 26, 2024

One question for every NBA team: Western Conference

By FREDDY BRANSON | October 31, 2023

image-2

ERIK DROST AND TSOTNE0314 / CC BY 2.0 AND CC BY-SA 4.0

Freddy Branson asks the biggest question each Western Conference team will have to answer this season.

After a long and eventful offseason, the NBA season is finally upon us! All 30 teams are starting off with a blank record, and we, as fans, have (mostly) grand delusions that “this will finally be our year!”. That being said, I wanted to delve into one key question that every team will have to answer in order for them to reach the promised land.

DALLAS MAVERICKS: Can a heliocentric offense win in the playoffs?

Coming off an incredibly disappointing 2022-23 season, the Mavericks will be looking to return to the playoffs. If they are able to accomplish that, there are still significant questions over whether they will find any extended success, the primary one being whether a heliocentric playstyle can win the necessary 16 games. 

The numbers that Luka Dončić is able to produce in this system are undoubtedly impressive; however, it may be beneficial for the Mavs to learn from the errors of the Houston Rockets of the past and pivot to a more team-oriented offense. With the re-signing of Kyrie Irving in the offseason, this may come to fruition; however, that remains to be seen.

DENVER NUGGETS: Can they find sustained bench production like last year?

The Nuggets are coming off of their most successful season in franchise history, winning the NBA championship swiftly in five games against the Miami Heat. One of the strongest facets of the Nuggets’ title push was their deep bench, along with the obvious MVP-level play of Nikola Jokić.

Valuable play came from two veteran role players: Jeff Green and Bruce Brown, both of whom left this offseason. Given the fact that the Nuggets now only have six players who played in at least seven of their 20 playoff games still on the roster, they will need to find valuable production from somewhere else on their bench to compensate for their offseason losses.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: Can they stay afloat in non-Steph minutes?

Perhaps the only blight on the Warriors during their reign of dominance has been the level of play when Steph Curry is off the court. This was most obvious during last season, when the Warriors were a +8 ORtg with Curry on the court. 

They will be hoping that, by bringing in veteran guard Chris Paul and relying more on the development of Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, there will be the requisite depth in order to survive when the second unit has to play.

HOUSTON ROCKETS: Can the veterans help the youth develop?

After finishing in the bottom two of the Western Conference for three years straight, the Rockets finally decided that they needed to go in a different direction. There has reportedly been much turmoil in the locker room with murmurings of a lack of structure. 

In response to this, General Manager Rafael Stone fired their head coach, controversially bringing in Ime Udoka as well as bolstering their roster with veterans: VanVleet, Green, and Brooks. 

While they likely won’t contend for at least a few years, the front office will be hoping that these additions will be able to help establish a winning foundation in the youth that will carry the hopes of the franchise.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: Will Kawhi be healthy? 

In the summer of 2019, Kawhi Leonard shocked the world when he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. Expectations were high, with a championship seeming almost inevitable. 

Since then? Leonard has played in 187 out of a possible 345 games while the Western Conference Finals are the furthest point the Clippers have reached. No one can question Leonard’s ability on the court, but can he stay healthy for an entire season and playoff run? 

For the Clippers to have any success this year, they must find a way to win with and without Leonard; otherwise, there is simply no path to a championship.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Can their stars stay healthy?

After an abysmal start to the last season, the Lakers rallied post-trade deadline and went on to make the Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual champions, the Denver Nuggets. 

Moving into the offseason, they were able to make a number of key moves that should further bolster their chances of contending: signing valuable role-players in Gabe Vincent and Taurean Prince, as well as re-signing D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves. 

This year, the main area of concern for the Lakers will just be whether their two stars are able to stay healthy for the length of the season. 

Anthony Davis and injuries have become synonymous with each other, and LeBron James is another year older. It will be interesting to see how the new load management rules will affect their health, but, if they are able to keep it together, there is no doubt that the Lakers will be a force in the West again.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: How will the Ja Morant situation affect the team?

One of the main storylines of last year’s season was Ja Morant’s struggle to stay out of trouble when not on the court. Between the Indiana Pacers incident, the Denver situation and his repeated gun problems, Morant took the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. As a result, the NBA came down hard on his actions, and he was suspended for the first 25 games of the regular season. 

It will be interesting to see how the Grizzlies are able to survive without their star player, with players like Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. likely having to take on an even larger load. If they are able to play well through the first 25 though, then they will just have to hope that Morant’s re-integration takes place smoothly and that there are no damaged egos as a result.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Can the offense be good with Rudy Gobert on the floor?

In 2022-23, the Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the most confusing teams in the entire NBA. With two of the best offensive talents in the league in Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, you would have expected the Wolves to be one of the best offenses in the league. 

Despite this, they ranked just 23rd in offensive rating, but 10th in defensive rating. While this may seem alright, in just the previous season they ranked 8th in ORtg and 13th in DRtg. The main difference? Rudy Gobert, who brought with him a negative ORtg when on the court. The Wolves will have to either work out a way to make the offense function with him playing, or they may have to face the harsh reality and trade him away only one year after their blockbuster trade for him.

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: Is Zion the future of the franchise?

Since coming into the league, Zion Williamson has only played in 114 games through four seasons. While it is undeniable that he is one of the most talented players in the league, boasting averages of 26 points per game on an absurd 60% from the field, he just cannot stay healthy. 

It has come to the point where the Pelicans should be having conversations about whether he is a viable avenue for the future or whether they would be better off trying to gain as much value by trading him away. Without a doubt, however, if Zion can’t stay healthy again this season, it is unlikely that the Pelicans will give him too many more chances to prove his worth.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Will Chet make them contenders now, or are they another year away?

For the last few years, the Thunder have been in a deep rebuild, amassing an incredible pool of talent from the draft. However, in 2022-23, they were on the verge of making the playoffs. Coming into this season though, we could see the Thunder take another leap and cement themselves as a true playoff contender. 

With the addition of their second overall pick from last year’s draft, Chet Holmgren, who missed all of last season with a fractured foot, it is very likely that the Thunder will become a dangerous team in the Western Conference.

PHOENIX SUNS: Will a KD “big 3” fail again?

The 2023-24 season sees the return of a thing that NBA fans have become very accustomed to seeing over the last few years: a Kevin Durant team with a “Big 3”. 

This time with Bradley Beal, the Suns will be hoping that their second attempt at a championship will be more successful than last year’s, after being considered favorites to win it all post-trade deadline. 

The most glaring flaw in the construction of their team is the lack of a defensive stopper when Beal, Booker and Durant are all on the court together. 

While the grouping should pose an imposing threat on the offensive side of the court against anyone, when push comes to shove in the playoffs and defenses tighten up, you just wonder whether they will be able to make vital stops on the other end of the court to secure a win.

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS: Should they try to contend or tank?

After a tumultuous offseason headlined by the Damian Lillard saga, the Trailblazers were eventually able to move on and prepare for the regular season, returning with a haul in exchange for their former franchise player. As a result of this, the Trailblazers find themselves with a number of players that are able to contribute valuably to winning basketball: Malcolm Brogdon, Jerami Grant, Robert Williams III, Deandre Ayton and Matisse Thybulle. 

Given this, the Trailblazers could elect to trade these players to teams looking to contend this year, giving them even more draft capital for the future. 

However, there is a possibility, albeit unlikely, that the Blazers will try and contend this year, given the amount of talent on the roster. This would certainly be a shock to many, and likely would not amount to any sustained success; however, it would be an interesting turn for a franchise that was perceived to be rebuilding.

SACRAMENTO KINGS: Can the defense be serviceable?

Last season, the Sacramento Kings shocked the entire world and made the playoffs in a competitive Western Conference for the first time in 16 years. Not only that, but they set all-time records with their overall offensive efficiency. 

In spite of this, the Kings were not able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, losing in seven games to the Warriors. 

The culprit for their demise? An abysmal defense. Out of 30 teams, Sacramento ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, a surprising occurrence given their coach’s long-time standing as a renowned defensive mind. 

If they are able to be even league-average on defense, they likely would be a much stronger contender. However, with a lack of roster moves in the offseason, it is difficult to see a drastic improvement coming this season.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Is there anyone they can build around Wembanyama with?

For what seems like a way too common occurrence for the Spurs, they have managed to find the perfect time to end up with the number one overall pick in the draft and walked away with the generational talent that is Victor Wembanyama. 

This season will be important for Gregg Popovich and his staff in assessing whether there are any players that they can try to develop to build around Wemby. 

Having locked up Devin Vassell for the future, he is likely the only certainty, with sophomore player Jeremy Sochan being the other probable lock for the future. I would imagine that the Spurs experiment with a vast number of lineups and players in order to truly ascertain who they can expect to rely upon in the future.

UTAH JAZZ: What direction should the franchise be going?

The Utah Jazz are in an interesting situation at the moment; after trading away their franchise cornerstones, they looked set to commit to the tank, but a resurgence of Lauri Markkanen helped them remain somewhat relevant. 

You would think that this might be the year the Jazz start rebuilding; however, they always seem to find a way to win games in the regular season.

It will be a pivotal time for the front office to decide in which direction they want to go; they may see them as big sellers when it comes to the trade deadline.


Have a tip or story idea?
Let us know!

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.