As I am sure you read in the title, this article will be my opinion on whether teams are trending upwards, downwards, or neutral for this coming season. Now, some factors go into this decision. My decision on what trending grade they receive deals with how much better they will be from last year to this year. None of my trending decisions will factor on success in a couple years. It deals with, ‘will they be better than last season?’ So, with that being said, it is time to get right into my opinion for Western Conference Teams.
Nuggets are still planning for the future. This is not a win now team. They have some pieces in Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Danilo Gallinari that I am 100% positive they will try to trade at least two of them for draft picks and young players. Nuggets have some intriguing big men in Nikola Jokic, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Jusuf Nurkic as well as young guards in Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton. They went on to draft Jamal Murray at #7, Juan Hernangomez at #15, and Malik Beasley at #19 all in the 1st round. Barring any major trade where they use some of these young players to acquire someone like Blake Griffin, I do not see them improving too much from last season. They will be a good team don’t get me wrong but teams below them are improving. I fully expect them to be outside the playoff picture once again.
Timberwolves finished below the Denver Nuggets last season. I expect that to change this coming season. Wolves have a new coach in Tom Thibodeau who knows how to get the most out of his players, especially near career dead point guards (see C.J. Watson, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks). So, if anyone is to finally get Rubio to reach his potential, it is Thibs. Whether they keep him or trade him remains to be seen but Thibs may be able to get the most out of him. Another year of improvement for Wiggins will help as Thibs will likely fall in love with him. He loves his forwards. He loved Luol Deng and he loved Jimmy Butler. Now he has an athletic freak in Andrew Wiggins to work with. We haven’t even mentioned Karl-Anthony Towns yet either. The future is bright and so is the present. They still have other players like Shabazz Muhammad, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, and Tyus Jones too. This team has a good chance to slide in there for the playoffs this year. Watch out for this team.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Well, I’m sure this is not too much of a shocker. Losing arguably the 2nd best player in the NBA is kind of a downer. Up 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and then allowing them to win 3 straight and take the series hurts. Losing Kevin Durant to that same team when you were so close to beating and consequently moving on to visit the NBA Finals hurts even more. Now, the fact that Russell Westbrook might leave or get traded is just the icing on the cake. Just like that the Thunder have fallen. It is not like complete hope has been lost. The Thunder still have a good team as is. Who will start at small forward is a question mark, but you still have Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Ersan Ilyasova as possible starters. You still have interesting prospects in Cameron Payne, Mitch McGary, and Domantas Sabonis. Everything will revolve around what happens to Westbrook next season. Just do not expect the Thunder to finish #3 like last season.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers took the NBA by surprise last season. After many predicted (including me) that they will finish among the worst teams in the West, they went on to a 44-38 record and 5th seed in the NBA Playoffs. They even won a series, 4-2, against the Los Angeles Clippers. Damian Lillard dominated the NBA last season. C.J. McCollum won Most Improved Player. McCollum could improve even more next season too. Blazers biggest signing was Evan Turner. I do not know how much Turner will help the Blazers improve, if at all. Festus Ezeli could give them an interior presence they do not yet have in Meyers Leonard or Mason Plumlee. They need to rely on inner growth from guys like Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, and Moe Harkless (since they spent so much money on three of those guys). They should have another good season next season. Whether or not they steal another playoff series when it comes down to it remains to be seen.
Would the Jazz actually trade Gordon Hayward? I’ve seen his name come up but would they actually ship him off? I would hope not. Hayward is good and would be coveted by many teams. The Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the season. They were so close. They should be back in the playoff race once again. They brought in veteran George Hill to man the point guard spot. They have Dante Exum returning from injury. They still have Shelvin Mack, who filled in admirably after the acquisition from the Hawks. Point guard is looking good for them. They have Alec Burks, who is an underrated shooting guard for them. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are the stars of the team currently. They brought in Joe Johnson for veteran leadership and for contributions off the bench. Maybe this year will be the first time they will make the playoffs since the 2011-2012 season.
Golden State Warriors
Grading the Warriors is hard. They signed Kevin Durant so how are they not trending upwards? They broke the record last season by going 73-9. How do you get even better than that? 74-8? I doubt it. They will not top that 73-9 record BUT they might win the championship this coming season. They won two years ago and was one game away from winning last season. Now they have added a former MVP to the talented starter group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Having those players sounds good on paper, but, we are not sure how they will mesh together. It took time for LeBron, Wade, and Bosh to mesh in their first year. Curry, Thompson, and Green have learned their roles for Golden State but now they must learn a new role with the addition of Durant. They lost an array of players this offseason to make room for Durant. Will that hurt chemistry? They still have Livingston and Iguodala. They added veterans Zaza Pachulia and David West. Anderson Varejao is their only real “big man.” Durant, whom is probabaly 6’11”, can man the center spot with Draymond at the power forward, or vice versa. That small ball lineup will be dangerous. So will the Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers
What is going to happen to Blake Griffin? Rumors containing his name are swirling. Thunder, Celtics, and Nuggets are just some of the teams I have seen that would be interested in the power forward. This is not a championship team. They were eliminated 4-2 against the Blazers in the first round last season. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin all are potential free agents in 2017. If Griffin is not traded this offseason, he could decline his player option and walk. Do the Clippers want to risk that? They could trade him and get pieces to help for now or the future. As the Clippers have shown these past few years, they seemed destined to be a very good regular season team every year and then burn out in the playoffs. I don’t think the Clippers will improve much next season, if any.
Los Angeles Lakers
What can you say about the Lakers? Their first signing was Timofey Mozgov. That move is still being mocked to this day due to the money given out to him. You can mock the Mozgov move, but to me, the Deng one was a strong pickup. Deng can contribute. He has a lot of miles on his tires, but he’s not done. He can still play. On top of his on court contributions, he can mentor the young eighteen year old Brandon Ingram. Deng has had a very solid career and Ingram would be wise to learn off of Deng. Deng can hold down the starting spot until the Lakers feel Ingram is ready for the task. Deng can bring leadership to the entire team too, not just Ingram. Lakers are probably going to be either the worst team or the second worst team in the Western Conference. Kobe Bryant is gone so it is the young players’ team now. Let them learn. Let them fail so they can succeed. Lakers fans, you are going to have to endure the bad now, to get some good later.
You just read that I thought the Lakers will likely be the worst or second worst team in the West. The other possibility to finish last will be the Phoenix Suns. They struggled their way to 23-59 last season. They have some young talent on this roster like Devin Booker, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and T.J. Warren.They also have some guys that they can use as trade bait to bring in other players or picks. Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe are likely trade candidates this coming season. One or both of them will likely be moved by the time the trade deadline rolls around. As of right now, it looks like another bad season in Phoenix.
Rudy Gay is all but gone. Kings are ready to move on from him. So, when they trade him, I don’t foresee them getting a player that will help them improve right away. They brought in Afflalo this offseason. Will he go back to playing like he did in that breakout year in Orlando? Most likely not. He didn’t in Portland or New York. He is a good acquisition but not the type of player that will help you improve wins. Looking at how the teams finished last season, the Kings were #10. Nuggets had the same record as them at #11. What if they trade for Griffin? That may put them above Sacramento. New Orleans (#12) lost some people but if healthy could they be better than Sacramento? We’ll see some improvement from #13 Minnesota so they should pass up Sacramento. All these reasons are why I put Sacramento as trending downwards.
The best thing the Mavericks did this offseason was take care of Dirk Nowitzki. Other than that, they missed out on a very good offseason once again. They threw money at a player; Harrison Barnes; that has not completely proven that he deserves it. Mavericks sat at #6 last season and with other teams below them improving, Mavericks may finish an 8 seed or not even make it at all. Grizzlies, if they stay healthy, will be better than Dallas. Do the Rockets improve? Possibly. The Jazz may improve too. Those are three teams that were close to the Mavericks last season and could pass them up this season. That would force them down to 9 already if those three teams pass them. I said before the Wolves may be a dark horse playoff team too. The Mavericks season may be a disappointment but, maybe I am wrong about Harrison and he shows why he got paid. Maybe they do better than expected. These are all predictions and they aren’t truth. There is only one way to find out; wait and see for the season.
Rockets completely fell apart last season. It was disastrous. A factor that may help them next season is the release of toxic chemistry between Harden and Howard. They did not like playing together and it showed. Now that Howard is gone, maybe things turn around a little better in Houston. Harden could turn things around and play like the MVP candidate he was two years ago. They brought in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Both bring along huge question marks. Both have problems staying healthy, especially Gordon. It seems like that is a risk that is worth it to take for the Rockets. It could pay off handsomely, and it already better than keeping Howard and Harden together for another season. Nene was brought in for good leadership and mediocre play due to injuries hurting his play. Rockets will likely be a fringe playoff team once again.
The resigning of Mike Conley was important. The signing of Chandler Parsons could pay off. The most important part of this offseason for the Memphis Grizzlies is the fact that they will get time to rest and get healthy. They played a record of 28 players last season due to injuries. If you were on the Grizzlies last season, it seemed like chances of you getting hurt were higher than the chance of Stephen Curry making a three. The injury bug was severely contagious last season. Getting these players necessary rest so they can heal is key. That is the biggest factor for the Grizzlies success next season. The resigning of Mike Conley and signing of Chandler Parsons helps too.
New Orleans Pelicans
Gone are the injury prone Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Pelicans have brought in guys like Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore, and Terrence Jones. Although, they weren’t as bad as the Grizzlies, they had their injury problems as well. After this year, Tyreke Evans will likely be gone too. They can take that money and spend it on someone else. But as far as next season, there will probably be some improvement depending on good luck with health, but not enough to put them back into the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
It’ll be odd to no longer see Tim Duncan in the NBA. It is an end of an era in San Antonio. He has had a Hall of Fame career but father time has finally caught up with him. With Duncan’s departure, they “replaced” him with Pau Gasol and David Lee. Those aren’t bad replacements whatsoever. Manu Ginobili is back for another year. The Spurs still have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge to lead the way. They’ll be set. They will have another good year next year. Don’t worry too much about the Spurs. They will quietly do their thing like they do time and time again every season.