Arena: Ranking NBA Western Conference Contenders
This NBA offseason has been one of the craziest in recent memory.
In just one week, stars like Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Gordon Hayward all went to new teams. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey called the NBA a "Weapons Race" because of the flurry of moves made to help teams compete with the Golden State Warriors.
Though many basketball pundits thought most teams would play it timid and build for the future while waiting out the Warriors dynasty, the exact opposite has happened. Teams are pushing all the chips to the center of the table in an attempt to dethrone the Warriors.
As free agency has unfolded, getting through the Western Conference playoffs is starting to look nearly impossible. Here's an inside look at next year's top contenders in the West:
1. Golden State Warriors
Facing a pivotal offseason, Bob Myers and the Warriors’ front office continue to appear “light years ahead” of the rest of the league.
They wasted no time in signing Steph Curry to a five-year, $201 million deal, (the largest in league history) and somehow got Kevin Durant to sign for $9.5 million below the max. The Warriors used those savings to resign core players Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West and Zaza Pachulia.
With another year of team chemistry under their belt, the Warriors could somehow be even better than last year. Durant and Curry really started to figure out how to maximize each other’s talents late in the playoffs, with Curry ceding the “team alpha” title to Durant. That additional cohesion and the return of most of their core already suggests the Warriors will grow one – and that is without the addition of Swaggy P.
Nick Young has had a tumultuous career, but last year he showed his strengths as a three-point shooting playmaker, while also improving markedly on defense. It’s unclear exactly how he’ll be deployed amongst the Warriors crowded wing rotation, but he will surely feast on all the open threes the Warriors generate.
Speaking of three-point shooting, Golden State made another great under-the-radar move early in the offseason in signing combo-forward Omri Casspi to a one-year, $2 million contract. Casspi gives Golden State’s bench the type of three-point shooting forward it lacked last season.
2. Houston Rockets
The addition of Chris Paul instantly made Houston the biggest threat to knock off the Warriors next season.
The Rockets were already the third best team in the conference last year – a 55-win squad that lost to the Spurs in six in the Western Conference Semis. Mike D’Antoni won coach of the year, Eric Gordon won sixth man of the year, James Harden came in second in MVP voting. A lot went right for a really good Houston team last season.
But Daryl Morey was not content with really good. Acquiring Chris Paul for a few rotation players and non-guaranteed contracts was a calculated way to go from good to great.
A Paul/Harden backcourt is instantly the best in the league, (Sorry GSW) and now Clint Capela may start to look like DeAndre Jordan with all the perfect lobs he’ll be receiving from CP3. Additionally, Houston signed P.J. Tucker to play as a combo-forward off the bench. Tucker is a great defender and will likely step into Ryan Anderson’s spot when the Rockets need to maximize their defensive output. Also, don’t discount the impact resigning Nene will have on the Rockets bench.
The Paul/Harden pairing has incredible potential, but may not work because of the need for both players to have the ball in their hands constantly. In theory, if they can properly learn how to share the ball, each could function well as a situational spot-up shooter since both are money from beyond the arc.
This is CP3’s best chance to put his previous playoff woes behind him and the Rockets best chance to compete with Golden State. Seems like a perfect marriage.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Maybe the post-Durant era in Oklahoma City won’t be all that bad?
Russell Westbrook won the MVP after a record-breaking season, and Sam Presti somehow got him Paul George as a sidekick. Presti swindled the Indiana Pacers, trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for George without even having to give up a single draft pick.
Though George has made his preference to join the Lakers next year well-known, Oklahoma City will have a year to convince him to stay. If he wants to compete for championships sooner than later, he should do just that.
George will pair with recently resigned Andre Roberson to form one of the best wing duos in the league. With Steven Adams patrolling the paint, the Thunder figure to go from average on D to one of the best in the league. Couple that with the offensive firepower that Westbrook and PG13 can create together, and the potential is sky-high.
OKC lost Taj Gibson to free agency, but rebounded by signing Patrick Patterson to a bargain contract for the mid-level exception. Patterson may even be an upgrade in terms of fit, considering his three-point prowess and slight edge over Gibson in quickness.
4. San Antonio Spurs
It’s crazy to see the Spurs this low, but they just have not been able to upgrade their roster the way Houston and Oklahoma City have. That does not mean the Spurs will take a step back. It just means the competition in the Western Conference is really that high.
Let’s not forget the huge lead the Spurs had in Game 1 against the Warriors before Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury.
Hamstrung by salary cap problems, the Spurs were unable to make the huge signing they were rumored to be considering, but they still got Rudy Gay on a cheap deal.
Gay will slot in behind Leonard as the Spurs new sixth man and could easily win sixth man of the year if he can properly adapt to Gregg Popovich’s system. The Spurs should also be able to slide LaMarcus Aldridge down to center and throw Gay in with the other starters in an effort to compete with GSW’s switchy lineups.
The next question is what they do with Aldridge. When they signed him, they thought he would be their Duncan replacement, playing solid defense and scoring from the post at will. While Aldridge still remains an effective scorer, he proved in the playoffs that he is no longer the go-to option he once was. For that reason, rumors have circulated about the Spurs desire to move on from Aldridge. However, it doesn’t seem like the Spurs will be able to get fair value in a trade.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
It was only a matter of time before Tom Thibodeau made a flurry of win-now moves.
Trading for Jimmy Butler instantly turned this team from playoff-hopeful to borderline title-contender. Add in Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford and suddenly, the Wolves are built to win now and later.
Butler has two years left on a below-market contract and is one of the top 15 players in the league. He developed into the player he is today under Thibodeau’s tutelage and will be a great example to the young players of how hard work truly pays off in the NBA.
Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are already becoming offensive juggernauts, but both players haven’t defended as well as their talents suggest they can. Wiggins was expected to become one of the league’s premier perimeter stoppers, but his defensive development has stalled out recently
Likewise, big KAT profiles as a mobile shot-blocker, but has been aloof on defense consistently. Even after a full year in Thibodeau’s system, Wiggins and Towns did not improve on defense the way everyone expected.
Enter Butler and Gibson, two plus defenders who know the system and can set a positive example for the young ones while also helping them compete now. Swapping Ricky Rubio for Teague will greatly help the spacing, considering Teague is a legitimate shot make (plus the Wolves managed to get a first round pick out of the Rubio trade). Zach Lavine's hot shooting off the bench is gone, but three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Crawford will surely fill that role well.
With a set of solid veterans and some of the most promising young players in the league, Minnesota could eventually be the team that dethrones the Warriors.