This coming season, the NBA Western Conference will, as always, be competitive for most of its 15 teams. The Portland Trail Blazers enter with new faces, more defense and versatility and a supposedly rejuvenated star ready to compete. But a number of national pundits have already ranked the Oregon franchise in the bottom half of the pack.
Maybe it’s because they’re not valuing the moves GM Joe Cronin has made in recent months, or, maybe, just maybe, they’re tainted by the outstanding tank work the franchise has performed at the end of last season.
And why not? The last glimpse we got of this team was a starting unit consisting of Brandon Williams, Didi Louzada, Keon Johnson, CJ Elleby and Reggie Perry. But while recency bias is handy for predictors across the country, it doesn’t fully reflect what we might see.
Of the five players mentioned above, Williams, Johnson and Louzada will be on the roster this season, but they are unlikely to see any real minutes. They are stuck behind starters Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant and Nurkic as well as Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford and potentially Jabari Walker and Shaedon Sharpe on the bench. Greg Brown III is there too.
Cronin, unlike his predecessor, was bold enough to make changes to an outdated, financially bloated and in-between roster, stuck in mediocrity, wasting the early years of arguably the greatest player in franchise history.
I’m not saying the great Colaradoan is the savior of this franchise, but he made moves that got a lot of the fanbase excited after a decade of kicking the road.
As for the Blazers’ place in the Western Conference, we still have some questions that we can’t answer until the season is well under way; namely the chemistry, form and fortunes of the other 14 franchises.
But despite this, here is a potential hierarchy, based only on guesswork and opinion.
We in shape, let’s get that
The two teams that, if healthy, are one step ahead of the others.
Los Angeles Clippers
This team is scary. If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can stay on the pitch, they will be joined by Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Luke Kennard, Terrance Mann, Ivica Zubac and John Wall. The Clippers are deep, incredibly versatile, well coached and my pick to win the NBA championship at this early stage.
I know they are a rival, but I can’t wait to watch this list. If Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return healthy, it will be incredibly difficult to beat this team. Under the radar, the additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown were also huge. Oh and two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and front row partner Aaron Gordon are also a daunting proposition. Not to mention the likes of Jeff Green, Bones Hyland and Facundo Campazzo fortifying the bench. Mike Malone will have plenty to work with.
As I get older, well Chris Paul is anyway
Elite rosters but for some reason I have my doubts.
Golden State Warriors
Yes, I know they are the defending champions and kudos to the Bay Area team, but another year means older legs and potentially less luck with opposition injuries. You could argue that if the Clippers had their full roster available last season, the Finals might have looked a little different. Of course, you can never count Steph Curry, 34, Draymond Green, 32, and Klay Thompson, 32, but I seriously doubt they’ll have the same success next June.
I don’t know about the Suns. Maybe I’m marked by the way the season ended and the nonsense that followed around Deandre Ayton. But Chris Paul is 37, Ayton is probably still pretty frustrated despite being paid and the roster hasn’t really made any real additions – sorry Josh Okogie. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson are all important pieces but I’m not sold. No doubt I will have an egg on my face this time next year.
Fight to avoid the Play-in
The largest group of teams that, if all goes well, could secure a top-six seed.
Injuries were the biggest hurdle for the Tennessee franchise last season and unfortunately that will continue with big man Jaren Jackson Jr. likely out until the end of the calendar year. But Ja Morant is a force of nature while the youth squad, comprising Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke, should improve this year so they can promote themselves very well from the previous group.
The people of Minneapolis seem very excited about the addition of Rudy Gobert alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Hey, maybe they make the playoffs, maybe Anthony Edwards takes another leap forward. But there are still so many unknowns about this team, which lost a lot of young talent and future draft assets just to bring in the big and dear Frenchman.
New Orleans Pelicans
If Zion Williamson can get on the floor this season, he, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum will form one of the most potent offenses in the game. But let’s remember, there’s only one ball and these three guys don’t fare particularly well when they don’t have it in their hands. I love their actors, namely Herb Jones, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and like Portland, they actually have to perform.
Portland Trail Blazers
Technically, down the roster, the Blazers finish eighth, but there are dozens of permutations that could occur between seeds five and nine. We have yet to see Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant play together, we still don’t know who Jusuf Nurkic will show up and will Nassir Little be able to stay healthy? I will say that I have no problem expecting Lillard to return to the form he was in before the abdominal injury caught up with him. But coach Chauncey Billups now has bodies that match his preferred style of play, so it’s time to deliver.
The Mavericks just let Jalen Brunson walk and didn’t really replace him. Sorry to all Spencer Dinwiddie fans. Luka Doncic can’t do it all on his own. Sure, they made the Western Conference Finals last season, but I don’t think adding Christian Wood and JaVale McGee is really enough to help the talented Slovenian return for another playoff run.
Fight to enter the Play-In
Two franchises trying that last ditch effort to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers
Come to me Lakers fans. But this team has done nothing this offseason to convince me that it will be better. Westbrook is an anvil hanging around the neck of the famous franchise and LeBron James turns 38 in December. I don’t care how athletic anyone is or how well they can take care of their body, nobody beats Father Time.
Of the 15 franchises here, I think I’m the meanest with the Northern California team. I’m excited to see Keegan Murray and Domantas Sabonis play together, but I just don’t know if they have the players to get them into the playoffs.
Watch ping pong balls
Winning matches isn’t really the highest priority. Have you seen that Wembanyama movie?
Danny Ainge has no qualms about completely gutting this jazz roster, which will likely lose Donovan Mitchell in the not-too-distant future. But even with the athletic guard still in Salt Lake City, it’s hard to see how they’re progressing.
San Antonio Spurs
Trading Dejounte Murray to Atlanta was a pretty clear sign that this franchise is down before it goes up. That said, Gregg Popovich is still on the sidelines, I’m just not sure what he can get out of this team.
The Rockets are doing all the rebuilding work the right way. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. are great pieces to build for the future. But that future will not arrive in 2022-23. This young roster can win some games they probably shouldn’t, but for the most part, they won’t feature anywhere near the Play-Ins or playoffs anyway.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Sam Presti will probably have to use a few of those picks at some point, but for now it looks like he’s pretty happy with Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and the rest of the youth movement slowly making their way into the league. I don’t know how happy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is about this.
We have no idea how this Blazers roster will gel, but it’s definitely going to be interesting. We have something different that we’re excited about, for the first time since LaMarcus Aldridge packed up for Texas seven years ago.
The Western Conference will once again be a meat grinder with three or four elite teams at the top, a bunch of franchises battling for relevance in the middle, and a handful of rosters looking to the draft lottery. ‘next year. The Blazers are firmly entrenched in this middle group, going from the comfortable fifth and sixth seeds to the nervous ninth place in the bottom half of the Play-In tournament.
As with every NBA season, injuries are likely to hamper a number of campaigns. But as we speak, most players look ready to compete on opening night with our questions to be answered between October and April.