I’ve been thinking a lot about the Golden State Warriors spot in the Western Conference lately. Much of that is because it’s the start of August ... there’s not a lot going on in the NBA right now, so I have limited options for things to think about.
But part of it is because of the conflicting opinions about what sort of team the Dubs will be.
Some view this as a team that won a championship just over a year ago, struggled (relatively speaking) last year due to bad vibes and chemistry issues, addressed those concerns with a trade that landed them a Hall-of-Famer who was an All-NBA player the same year that the Warriors were hoisting a trophy in Boston, and should thus be at the top of the league’s hierarchy.
Others view them as a team that took a big step backwards last year, barely avoided the play-in tournament, has a core that’s two years older than when they last won a title, and swapped their best young player for one of the league’s oldest players this offseason.
There are some people that believe the Warriors are one of the favorites to win a championship this year. I’ll confess that I’m one of them. There are others who think the team has an uphill battle just to make the playoffs.
It’s part of what makes the upcoming season so compelling. The range of outcomes that are not just possible, but expected by a large faction of the fanbase is massive.
So I’ve naturally been thinking about who the competitors are in the West. For me, the West competitors fit into four tiers.
The first tier is the Denver Nuggets. They’re the reigning champs, led the West in wins a year ago, and have a two-time MVP who is still in his 20s. They’re the incumbents, and health is the only thing that will keep them from being an exceptional team again this year (even if the fatigue of a championship and the loss of Bruce Brown might hurt them more than people anticipate).
The second tier is the Warriors and the Phoenix Suns. These are two teams that, in my eyes, have the reward potential to run away with the West, and the risk potential to implode in some form or fashion.
The third tier is the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, and New Orleans Pelicans. These are teams that, in my eyes, have championship potential, but have mammoth question marks. The Lakers, Kings, and Grizzlies need to find ways to take steps forward. The Pelicans need the seemingly-impossible task of staying healthy. And the Clippers ... look, I don’t know.
The fourth and final tier has the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Utah Jazz. You can throw the Portland Trail Blazers in here if Damian Lillard stays put. Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder (or hell, even the San Antonio Spurs) force their way in if young players evolve ahead of schedule. It’s a tier of intriguing teams who can make noise and who will have high expectations, but that I can’t view as a serious threat.
Of all the teams I’ve listed, the Clippers intrigue me the most. I stated before the season that they might be the biggest threat to the Dubs in the West, and that they were absolutely a championship caliber team.
I was wrong, of course. They only went 44-38 and barely made a peep in the playoffs. But Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combined to miss 56 regular season games, with George absent for playoffs, and Leonard appearing in just two of their five games before elimination.
I maintain that the ceiling is there. Leonard is elite (when healthy) and George is very, very good (when healthy); they were 24-14 last year when both players suited up. Ty Lue is one of the best coaches in the league, and they’re extremely deep.
But another year of injury concerns moved the needle for me. At this point, the Clippers default state is injured; until they prove otherwise, that’s who they are.
They just might add a third star, though. Disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden has asked out, which is becoming a near-annual tradition. And he’s made his preference clear: the Clippers.
It’s no sure thing that it will happen, but in this era of player empowerment the most likely scenario is almost always that the star player will get what he wants eventually. We may just have to wait awhile.
So does Harden move the Clippers up into the second or third tier? There’s no denying that a healthy LAC team (assuming they don’t give up any foundational pieces in the potential trade) would have obscene potential but, as we discussed, we can’t count on them being healthy. That’s their possible outcome, not their expected one.
But Harden certainly raises the floor. Even though he missed 24 games a year ago, he’s far more durable than Leonard or George, and the odds of the Clippers having at least two of their three stars healthy on any given night is high.
I’d be inclined to move the Clippers into the second tier with the Warriors and Suns, all while recognizing that a collapse wouldn’t be too unlikely ... but would be hilarious.
Whether or not you view the Dubs as serious contenders in the West, do you see the Clippers — with a hypothetical Harden trade — as frontrunners in the conference?
Where would the Clippers rank with James Harden?
This poll is closed
Favorites in the West
Contenders in the West
Good, but not contenders
An even funnier implosion than in year’s past