The Western Conference hasn’t changed much since the Golden State Warriors trundled their way through it, and won the 2022 NBA Finals. On paper, it looks mostly the same.
There are some changes, for sure. The Utah Jazz shipping three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves turns the latter into a star-studded force (albeit one that still is a ways away, in my eyes), and pushes the former towards a rebuild. Jerami Grant’s trade to the Portland Trail Blazers — and the massive contacts doled out to keep Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Jusuf Nurkić — point towards the PNW still trying to compete.
Kevin Durant’s trade request briefly shook up the prospect of the Phoenix Suns — his preferred destination — but now all is calm on that front. And speaking of calm, all is mellow on the Los Angeles Lakers front after Kyrie Irving opted into his Brooklyn Nets deal — though talks still sprout of a potential Irving for Russell Westbrook swap.
With the dust settled (for now, at least), it’s time to take stock of the Dubs’ competition out West.
There’s always a chance that a team makes a leap — a healthy New Orleans Pelicans squad would be scary, the Wolves might make things click brilliantly, etc. — but, as things stand now, I see six teams that could knock off a healthy Warriors in the West.
Not will. But could. The Dubs are, in my eyes, the Western Conference favorite entering the season, and I see only one other team with a legitimate claim to being the favorites.
But here, ranked in order, are the six teams that I think could challenge the Dubs for their crown.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Why they can challenge the Warriors: It’s been so long since we’ve seen the Clippers healthy, that it’s easy to forget a few things. Namely the superstar that Kawhi Leonard is, and the brilliance of LA when both he and Paul George are healthy.
The Clippers have a strong claim to the title of NBA’s best duo and, despite the foibles of ‘Pandemic P,’ both players are playoffs proven — particularly Leonard. They’ve re-upped with John Wall, who might have a lot more gas in the tank than we think, and they have a tremendous core of role players, in addition to one of the league’s best coaches.
It turns out that paying for good players helps — the 2022-23 Clippers have the third-highest payroll in NBA history ... behind only last year’s Warriors, and this year’s Warriors.
Why they might struggle: Leonard is injury-prone. George is injury prone. Beyond that, Wall is injury-prone, and some of their role players are on the older side. The Clippers have the chance to absolutely run through the league in the playoffs, but they missed the playoffs last year, and there’s still a capacity for that to happen.
2. Denver Nuggets
Why they can challenge the Warriors: The Dubs’ first-round series with the Nuggets might have been their easiest series in the playoffs, but it still wasn’t easy. And that was a Nuggets team missing its second and third-best players.
If — and it’s a huge ‘if’ — Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are healthy, the Nuggets are a stacked team. They’ll also be deceptively good defensively ... the Nuggets had a surprisingly good defense in 2021-22, but it fell apart in the playoffs because Nikola Jokić had to carry such an enormous load that he struggled on the other end of the court.
Why they might struggle: Relying on two players who played a combined nine games last year isn’t exactly a fool-proof plan.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Why they can challenge the Warriors: Golden State saw first-hand how dangerous this Grizzlies team can be. And with nearly all of their key players at an age where they should take steps forward next year — plus a healthy dose of playoff experience now — the Grizz will be scary.
This might seem like too high of a ranking for Memphis, but they play the Dubs very tough.
Why they might struggle: The Grizz are still young. Ja Morant is still trying to figure out how to play defense, and how to make teams pay when they lay off him and pack the paint. They’ve had a few injury concerns. Losing Kyle Anderson hurts.
4. Phoenix Suns
Why they can challenge the Warriors: Phoenix was the best regular-season team in the NBA by a wide margin last year. Three of their four best players (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges) are still improving. Their fourth (Chris Paul) continues to defy Father Time.
I don’t think their playoff struggles point towards anything other than getting injured at the wrong time.
Why they might struggle: They get injured at the wrong time! Do you really expect Paul to be healthy in May and June? And if he’s not, do you really expect the Suns to compete with the Warriors? Paul is a bit snakebit in that regard. He managed to stay healthy this year, but Booker couldn’t.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Why they can challenge the Warriors: Even if Golden State ran through them in the Western Conference Finals, the Mavs were a terrifying team. Mainly for one reason: Luka Dončić. Luka is still getting better, and is pretty clearly the type of star that can be the best player on a championship team. He might be able to bring the most out of Christian Wood, and a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. would go a long way.
Why they might struggle: We just saw the Warriors dispatch them with relative ease, and then Dallas’ biggest move in the offseason was to lose their second-best player, Jalen Brunson. They need a lot to go right to not just overcome that loss, but become a better team.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
Why they can challenge the Warriors: Is this giving the Lakers way too much credit? Absolutely. Are they more likely to miss the playoffs again than win the West? Without a doubt.
But the Lakers are still just two years removed from being champions, and have the same star duo. I’m still not comfortable betting against LeBron James in the playoffs, and if — again, big ‘if’ — he and Anthony Davis are both healthy, it’s a scary team, despite their glaring weaknesses and laughable dysfunction. And there’s a very non-zero chance that Irving somehow winds up on their squad, inspired and ready to play.
Do I expect the Lakers to upend the Dubs? Absolutely the heck not. But if I squint can I see a way that it could happen? Yeah.
Why they might struggle: LOL you don’t need me to answer this.
Which team in the West has the best chance of upending the Warriors?
This poll is closed
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers