Midway through last season, the Western Conference was looking to be tougher than a 50-mile swim through shark-infested waters. With everyone at full strength, those sharks might as well have been armed with shotguns and the opposable thumbs needed to use them.
Of course, injuries to Kevin Durant, Wesley Matthews, Dwight Howard, Mike Conley and Chris Paul, plus the ill-fated Rajon Rondo trade all contributed to taking a few sharks out of the water, and left them without as much artillery.
Now, after a free agency period allowed the top teams to reload, a little injury luck will hopefully set up the conference gauntlet we were hoping for this past April. We saw what happened last year, but a month after the Warriors won the NBA title, let’s take a look at how much fortunes have actually changed at the top of the conference.
- Golden State Warriors
The Warriors won their championship and return almost the whole team, aside from the David Lee–Gerald Wallace swap with the Celtics. They won 67 games last year and flew through the Western Conference fairly easily, even if they didn’t get the toughest draw. Draymond Green got his money and they’re betting that he continues to develop offensively. They should still be in the running to be the best team in the West, but the strength at the top should be enough to prevent them from running away with the conference.
- Houston Rockets
James Harden had an MVP-level season and led the Rockets to 56 wins and a No. 2 seed, but the West is looking to be much stronger this year and the Rockets aren’t much improved. The Warriors could afford to stand pat, but the Rockets aren’t as unshakeable. Taking a team that was good and adding Marcus Thornton should make them better, but I can’t help but feel that their retooled and healthy rivals have jumped them in the pecking order.
- Los Angeles Clippers
It was almost a really bad offseason for the Clips, an “F” for effort in almost losing DeAndre Jordan. But they didn’t lose DeAndre, and they added Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, who if nothing else should both help one of the most woeful benches imaginable in terms of usable bodies. There’s no foundational superstar they added, but they should have the ammunition to close out a 3-1 lead over the Rockets should they find themselves in that position again.
- Portland Trail Blazers
Losing LaMarcus Aldridge from a team that was already in crash-and-burn mode after Matthews’s injury last season is a killer, and the team knows as much considering the move to ship Nicolas Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Losing four out of their five starters makes me feel okay about dropping them out of the playoffs altogether. Someone needs to make room for a healthy Thunder team.
- Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies didn’t get much better this offseason either, although re-signing Marc Gasol was the main priority and that happened. Along with Conley and Zach Randolph, they should have the brute force to bully their way into contention, especially if they get favorable matchups in the playoffs. The Grizzlies kept pace with the Warriors for the first 25 games of the season and were only four games off the pace in the middle of February. But every year they don’t get the job done in a tough West, their championship window gets a little closer to being shut.
- San Antonio Spurs
They might have been the No. 6 seed last year, but don’t forgot that they were a popular pick to come out of the West. On April 15, the Spurs lost to the Pelicans to put them as the sixth seed in the West, when they still had a chance to move up to third or even second with the right luck. On that day, they were 7/2 to win the NBA championship, according to OddShark.com, the third-best odds in the league after the Warriors and Cavaliers. The Rockets and Clippers were next in the conference, at 16/1 and 18/1, respectively. Now, add Aldridge to the Spurs machine, and you have a team that’s expected to challenge the Warriors for the best in the West.
- Dallas Mavericks
Missing out on Jordan changed this team’s ceiling dramatically, even if their almost-franchise big man wouldn’t have really given them a chance to compete with the top teams. However, their floor has crumbled beneath them. They were a pretty sure thing as a playoff team before Emoji-gate. Now they have an old Dirk Nowitzki along with a washed up Deron Williams and an overpaid Matthews — who I wouldn’t call overpaid even with the injury if not for the weird pay raise he got when DeAndre reneged. The Blazers are ready to drop out of the playoffs, presumably to make room for the Thunder. I wouldn’t quite kill the Mavs’ chances, only because I’ve seen what Nowitzki can drag into the playoffs, but unless Williams and Nowitzki return to 2006 form and Matthews comes back healthy, they’ll have to claw their way to a low seed even if things go well.
- New Orleans Pelicans
They re-signed Anthony Davis. They may not be ready to compete for a championship this season, but locking up their superstar means they’ll keep making the playoffs as long as he’s healthy. Once they can surround him with a quality supporting cast, they’ll be ready to take the next step into a deeper playoff run.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Everyone has seemingly forgotten how good the Thunder were before the Durant injury. Everyone is quick to crown either the Warriors or the Spurs as the 2016 Western Conference champions, and even the Clippers are gaining some buzz as a sleeper team. The Thunder at full strength made the conference finals three out of four years between 2011 and 2014, only missing out by losing to the Grizzlies in the 2013 semifinals without Russell Westbrook. Now, I don’t quite think the team is as good in 2016 as it was in 2014. Whatever Enes Kanter brings offensively is mitigated by his horrible defense and how much he needs the ball on an offense with two ball dominant superstars. Not that the supporting cast and bench was off the charts in 2013-2014, but Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, Steve Novak and Anthony Morrow aren’t the type of guys to bring Oklahoma City a championship without monumental efforts from Durant and Westbrook, even if they’re both capable of carrying the team.
The Suns and Jazz are both knocking at the door, waiting for the Mavericks or some other team to misstep and open up another playoff spot for them. They’re young and hungry, and have plenty of budding talent even if each is missing the franchise-changing player you need to really make a mark in the West.
For arguments sake, and at risk of insulting and offending any of the many delusional fan bases out West, let me take the Timberwolves, Lakers, Nuggets and Kings all out of the picture. They may have all drafted potential stars, and Boogie Cousins makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but let me be polite in saying maybe next year for them.
As for the contenders, the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Rockets and Grizzlies should all return as strong or stronger than last year. As good as the conference seemed last year, it might be even stronger at the top come April 2016.