1. UTAH JAZZ
This division is all Utah’s. Every player in the starting eight should be good for at least 30 points a game once Hayward and Zeller are back in full health. There are no star players here – the boring but always solid Horford and Hayward are probably as close as the Jazz get to that – but that doesn’t matter with depth like the type that Utah enjoys. This is a team that could finish very high in the West thanks to weak in-division competition.
2. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Don’t look now, but this team might be a playoff contender. Reaping the benefits of the Aldridge trade, Portland already has a nice young core of Lillard and Butler. The acquisition of DeAndre Jordan means this team is in win-now mode, and with four 1sts next year, there are plenty of trade chips. Portland could use some more help in the supporting cast, which is pretty lacking outside of Rodney Hood. Regardless of what changes might be forthcoming for the Blazers, this is a team on the rise, and the decline of other teams in this division makes them a playoffs dark horse.
3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
A team no longer in the business of winning division championships, the Wolves are looking for ways to get into the postseason again. Armed with a solid if not astounding core of Kevin Love and Jeff Teague, Minnesota has a lot on its roster in terms of end of the bench guys, but the supporting cast just isn’t anything special, or even average, at this point. Barring an unexpected surge from someone else, Minnesota’s third-best player this season will be either Jared Dudley or Jose Calderon. That’s just not good enough. Fortunately, though, Minnesota has some options here. If they decide to make a run, there are assets to be traded, including one of the two first round picks it owns and intriguing youngsters like the Powells and Kelly Oubre. If, however, they decide to hold off, there are plenty of veterans to auction off for picks and younger, cheaper guys. As presently constructed, the Wolves are just an ok team, but there’s a lot of flexibility here.
4. DENVER NUGGETS
Denver is about five good players away from being a contender, but what’s there is pretty good – at least in the backcourt. A trio of Booker, Smart and McCollum is a set-and-forget for at least the next 10 seasons at the top of the order. Beyond that, however, the Nuggets are lacking. Jaylen Brown, while exciting, is a total unknown as an NBA players. Faried may no longer be a double-double machine in Denver as the team continues to slowly phase him out. Horford’s arrival in Beantown mercifully sends Olynyk to the bench, and the talented Motiejunas is buried and unhappy in Houston. The entire bench could be cut and this team really wouldn’t be missing anything. This team is on the right track, but still very much in development.
5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The once-mighty Thunder are still reeling from a woeful 2015-16 season, during which OKC won just 1 single game. The Durant and Westbrook trades allowed OKC one season of success before rearing their ugly heads; now, it will take years for the Thunder to dig themselves out of this hole and become relevant again. The prognosis for 2016-17 remains grim, but the good news is that things are trending up – even if only a little bit. After a nice draft this month, the Thunder now have a young group that includes Bobby Portis, Tyler Ulis, Denzel Valentine, Furkan Korkmaz, Kay Felder and Cam Payne. None of those guys will develop into top players on a championship team, but it’s something. OKC’s mission this season is to get some more picks – they have no 1st rounders for the next two years and no picks at all next fall, which threatens to stall the rebuild significantly.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
After taking over this team midway through the league’s first season, the Spurs lucked into the first pick and Karl-Anthony Towns, who is the best first overall pick since LeBron James. Combine KAT with Kawhi and Drummond and you have a lethal trio that should easily average 150 points per game by themselves. And even beyond those three, there’s a lot else to like here. Lin will be the showrunner for the Nets this season. Turner is a weird fit in Portland, but I can see it working. Dieng and Biyombo will collect double-doubles. Jennings and Booker are nice players to have on the bench. The Spurs are one of three teams I see vying for the top spot in the West.
2. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
After two seasons of lying in wait, it’s finally time for the Pelicans to have a good season. Kyrie and AD have long been the cornerstone pieces of this franchise, and with midseason additions Eric Bledsoe and LaMarcus Aldridge, this team is looking really dangerous. The starting eight is rounded out by two high-upside players in Embiid (finally!) and MKG, and two very solid guards in Manu and CoJo. Plus, there’s Ben Simmons – but who knows if he’ll actually play this season. This team’s biggest problem will be injuries. AD is already banged up. I mentioned Simmons already. Bledsoe, MKG and Kyrie have all missed a lot of games over the past two years. And Embiid hasn’t played basketball in two years. If everything comes together, this team could be unstoppable. But that might be a big “if.”
3. HOUSTON ROCKETS
The Rockets finishing this low is no knock on them. The Southwest is by far the toughest division in the league this year and the two teams above them have just a little bit more juice. This is still a great team led by James Harden, who’s my MVP pick this season. I do have a few concerns about the rest of this team, however, though they are small. Can Deron Williams still be good? Will Barnes be a complete train wreck as a primary option? Will having three starters from the same team (Dallas) hurt the Rockets fantasy-wise? Will Joakim Noah stay healthy? Will Mozgov play under Luke Walton? Will anyone on the bench aside from Henderson contribute anything of consequence? I do think the Rockets will be just fine, but there are enough things about this roster that make me wonder if they can stay on top.
4. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
I never know what to say about this team because it’s always been so solid, and it appears they’ll remain so. It just sucks for them that the rest of this division is so good. The Grizzlies would be an easy playoff team in the East, but in the West’s Southwest Division, this team is going to take a pounding from the other top-tier teams. Injuries hampered their campaign last season, and now they’re without Eric Bledose, who’s off playing for a division rival. Still, much like the real Grizzlies, a team backed by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley should do pretty well. For Memphis to do really well, Carroll and Gordon are going to have to stay healthy and Green and Frazier will have to flourish in their new starting roles. Don’t know if I see any of that happening.
5. DALLAS MAVERICKS
I really hate ranking Dallas last, but the fact is that the Southwest is absolutely stacked. This team has a lot of really good young players like Noel, Crowder, Jokic and Mirotic, but there are too many unknowns in the starting eight for me to say that the Mavs will realistically be any better than San Antonio, New Orleans, Houston or Memphis. A backcourt of Seth Curry, James Ennis and Patrick McCaw doesn’t do much for me. Dallas might be able to make some moves, but more likely they just might have to ride out a long season.
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
There’s a lot of reason to think that the Warriors’ title defense will be pretty successful: namely, Steph Curry. Sure, he’ll score less, but with KD in town Curry will pile on more assists because Durant will make good on all the buckets Barnes would miss. He probably won’t score 30 a game anymore, but maybe he’ll average close to 10 assists. Klay’s value takes a hit with KD in town, but the rest of the starters can make up for that dip. KCP should have a big year as Detroit’s primary outside shooter, Plumlee continues to grow as a player, Teletovic will give much-needed spacing to Jason Kidd’s Bucks, Lopez is the only legitimate NBA player on the Nets, and Turner should make that next step sometime this season. The Middleton injury is a huge blow, and Golden State truly has no bench right now, but I don’t think that’s enough to stop them from emerging from the Pacific on top.
2. SACRAMENTO KINGS
The Kings might really need this year to be a big one. It’s the last time, probably, that they can count on Dirk and Wade to put up big numbers. They’re in great shape for this year, but it’s time to take the next step. Boogie is the kingpin for what should be a great team, and the supporting cast is quite good. Barton and Dellavedova were great pickups. Beal, if healthy, should continue to be very useful. Rudy Gay is a good fantasy player and that’s all I’ll say there. The bench, however, is seriously weak until Burks comes back. Sacramento might have to bulk up in order to stay near the top of the West, but either way, with Cousins in the middle, this is one of the league’s best teams.
3. PHOENIX SUNS
Russell Westbrook is going to absolutely light the world on fire this year, and that’s great news for the Suns, who might have the first player since the Big O to average a triple double (even if Westbrook’s come in the form of points, turnovers and missed 3s). Russ is truly where this team begins and ends: how successful the Suns are this year depends on how good he is. The rest of the squad, led by Thomas, Knight, Deng and a few decent bigs, can keep the Suns afloat if something goes wrong, but Russ is the key to this team reaching its full potential.
4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers are an interesting team. Much like the real Clippers, this might have to be this team’s last year rolling Blake and CP3 before some changes are made. Several off-season moves – such as their trade of next year’s pick and the signing of David West – send a message to the league that this team wants to win now. With this roster, I actually can see LA making some noise this year; the dynamic duo is backed by a slew of vets that include Korver, Frye, West and Lee, all of whom should produce reasonably this year. Josh Richardson is all that the team has in terms of youth, unless Luwawu or Onuaku have big rookie years out of nowhere. There’s a lot to like here – but there’s a lot more to like in Oakland, Sacramento and Phoenix.
5. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
How can a team that has Kevin Durant continue to underperform? I’m telling you, man, depth really matters in this league. The blockbuster deal that sent KD to LA ended up being a killer for both sides as the Lakers continue to struggle to put the right pieces around their superstar, whose fantasy value is taking a hit, by the way, playing next to Steph and Klay. Robin Lopez might end up being the Lakers’ second-best player. Tony Parker is still ok but has been declining for about five years. DRose could be a revelation in New York, or he could be a disaster. Nobody else on this team offers meaningful production. If I’m the Lakers, I try to get young quickly without letting go of Durant and start building an army, because this division is not getting any easier.