August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

NBA preview: Lakers and Clippers are again the West favorites

The Western Conference is again loaded with playoff contenders as the Los Angeles Lakers look to repeat as NBA champions.

The Lakers reloaded during the offseason, shedding some popular veterans for some younger players as well as wily veterans. Their hallway rival, the Clippers, also acquired some help.

The usual suspects — Denver, Utah, Houston, Portland, a mostly healthy Golden State — are in prime position to challenge their supremacy while rebuilding Memphis, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Sacramento eye playoff contention.

A team-by-team preview of the Western Conference heading into the 2020-21 NBA season.

PACIFIC DIVISION

LAKERS

2019-20: 52-19 (1st)

Won NBA Finals over Miami

Hello: Marc Gasol (FA), Wesley Matthews (FA), Dennis Schroder (trade), Montrezl Harrell (FA).

Goodbye: Danny Green (trade), Dwight Howard (FA), JaVale McGee (FA), Rajon Rondo (FA).

Outlook: The reigning champions lost some valuable role players but managed to get younger in adding the 27-year-old Schroder, who gives them another playmaker and scorer, while veterans like Gasol and Matthews will provide defensive grit and inside-outside scoring ability. A trip back to the Finals and an attempt to win a record 18th title seems likely barring misfortune with injuries.

CLIPPERS

2019-20: 49-23 (2nd)

Eliminated in second round by Denver

Hello: Serge Ibaka (FA), Luke Kennard (trade).

Goodbye: JaMychal Green (FA), Montrezl Harrell (FA).

Outlook: All the pieces are in place this season for the other L.A. team trying to make its own history — getting to the conference finals — with new coach Tyronn Lue. All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, in camp and have plenty of help for a first Hallway Series in the playoffs. Adding the versatile Ibaka with the starters and re-signing Marcus Morris were key. Kennard needs to replicate the breakout season he had in Detroit, though.

PHOENIX

2019-20: 34-39 (10th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Jae Crowder (FA), Chris Paul (trade), Jalen Smith (draft).

Goodbye: Justin Jackson (trade), Kelly Oubre Jr. (trade), Ricky Rubio (trade).

Outlook: Can Paul do for the Suns what he did in Oklahoma City? Stabilizing a young core has been his forte the last few stops of his career, including with the Clippers’ Lob City crew. Offensive dynamo Devin Booker helped Phoenix go 8-0 in the bubble and almost qualify for the postseason play-in game against Portland. Now Paul gives the Suns one of the top scorers in the fourth quarter.

SACRAMENTO

2019-20: 31-41 (12th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Tyrese Haliburton (draft), Glenn Robinson II (FA), Hassan Whiteside (FA), Chimezie Metu (FA).

Goodbye: Kent Bazemore (FA), Bogdan Bogdanovic (FA).

Outlook: De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III and Buddy Hield will get another highly touted draft pick to join them in Haliburton, but it will be difficult for the Kings to break their drought of 14 consecutive seasons missing the playoffs. Whiteside gives them a rim protector and rebounder, but not much offensive punch. Bagley’s injury history gives them pause.

GOLDEN STATE

2019-20: 15-50 (15th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Kent Bazemore (FA), Kelly Oubre Jr. (FA), James Wiseman (draft), Brad Wanamaker (FA).

Goodbye (for now): Klay Thompson (injury).

Outlook: Can the Warriors go from first, to worst, to back to the playoffs? It’s a big ask with Thompson lost for another season, this time because of a torn Achilles tendon. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Oubre and Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick, form a solid foundation. Bazemore is back to fortify the bench. Who knows what this team will end up looking like?

NORTHWEST DIVISION

DENVER

2019-20: 46-27 (3rd)

Eliminated in conference finals by Lakers

Hello: JaMychal Green (FA), RJ Hampton (draft).

Goodbye: Jerami Grant (FA).

Outlook: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray joined the NBA’s pantheon of dynamic duos, and they will again have plenty of help with youngsters Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Green will be expected to fill the scoring touch Grant showed in the playoffs before departing during free agency. A healthy Will Barton adds to the team’s versatility as does the re-signing of Paul Millsap.

OKLAHOMA CITY

2019-20: 44-28 (5th)

Eliminated in first round by Houston

Hello: Trevor Ariza (trade), George Hill (trade), Al Horford (FA), Aleksej Pokusevski (draft).

Goodbye: Steven Adams (trade), Danilo Gallinari (FA), Nerlens Noel (FA), Chris Paul (trade), Dennis Schroder (trade).

Outlook: The Thunder moved a ton of talent and brought in some capable veterans with 10 trades. New coach Mark Daigneault will lead a squad with a dozen players under 24, including potential reserves-turned-starters Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort.

UTAH

2019-20: 44-28 (6th)

Eliminated in first round by Denver

Hello: Udoka Azubuike (draft).

Goodbye: No key players.

Outlook: The Jazz are built to win behind explosive guard Donovan Mitchell and stalwart center Rudy Gobert. Bringing back forward Derrick Favors and drafting Azubuike will fortify the frontcourt and add to a solid second unit that includes scorers in Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. They surrendered a 3-1 series lead in a first-round loss to Denver and might need another key piece to the puzzle to advance this season.

PORTLAND

2019-20: 35-39 (8th)

Eliminated in first round by Lakers

Hello: Robert Covington (trade), Derrick Jones Jr. (FA), Enes Kanter (FA).

Goodbye: Trevor Ariza (FA), Hassan Whiteside (FA).

Outlook: After an injury-plagued season during which players missed a combined 248 games, the Trail Blazers became one of the toasts of the bubble by making the playoffs a seventh consecutive season. Healthy and reloaded with wings alongside Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nukic, Portland should challenge for a top-four spot.

MINNESOTA

2019-20: 19-45 (14th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Anthony Edwards (draft), Jaden McDaniels (trade), Ricky Rubio (trade), Malik Beasley (FA), Juan Hernangomez (FA).

Goodbye: James Johnson (trade).

Outlook: Edwards, the No. 1 pick, could be a good fit in the lineup alongside D’Angelo Russell because of his athleticism and ability to get to the rim. Despite a sizable roster turnover, the big question will be whether franchise cornerstone Karl Anthony-Towns can put it all together amid the pandemic, which has cost his family seven lives, including his mother’s.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

HOUSTON

2019-20: 44-28 (4th)

Eliminated in second round by Lakers

Hello: DeMarcus Cousins (FA), John Wall (trade), Christian Wood (trade).

Goodbye: Robert Covington (trade), Jeff Green (FA), Austin Rivers (FA), Russell Westbrook (trade).

Outlook: The Rockets seem to have lost more talent than they brought in. Yet Wall, when healthy, has averaged 20 points and more than eight assists per game the last three seasons. Cousins has played well in the preseason too. If nothing else, this club is entertaining one way or another.

DALLAS

2019-20: 43-32 (7th)

Eliminated in first round by Clippers

Hello: Josh Richardson (FA), Josh Green (draft).

Goodbye: JJ Barea (waived), Seth Curry (FA).

Outlook: Health problems could slow the Mavericks to start the season, with Kristaps Porzingis out until the new year as he rehabs from his right knee injury and backup big man Dwight Powell returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon. If Luka Doncic continues to play like an MVP candidate, and Richardson can adequately replace Curry’s three-point shooting, Dallas should make it past the first round.

MEMPHIS

2019-20: 34-39 (9th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Justise Winslow (FA), Zhaire Smith (FA), Desmond Bane (draft).

Goodbye (for now): Jaren Jackson Jr. (injury).

Outlook: The next step for a young Grizzlies team led by rookie of the year Ja Morant would be to make the playoffs, but with Jackson and Winslow injured to start the season it will be a tough haul in the competitive West. Coach Taylor Jenkins, who got Memphis to the edge of the playoffs last year, will likely feature a starting lineup whose average age, when healthy, is 23.4.

SAN ANTONIO

2019-20: 32-39 (11th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Tre Jones (draft), Devin Vassell (draft).

Goodbye: Marco Belinelli (FA), Bryn Forbes (FA).

Outlook: The DeMar DeRozan/LaMarcus Aldridge pairing has a final season together, but even with a mixture of young and veteran talent around them the Spurs will be hard-pressed to make a playoff run.Gregg Popovich was forced by injury to play a guard-heavy lineup in the bubble that featured an up-tempo game, but the team has to replace some good perimeter shooters.

NEW ORLEANS

2019-20: 30-42 (13th)

Did not qualify for playoffs

Hello: Steven Adams (trade), Eric Bledsoe (trade), Kira Lewis Jr. (draft).

Goodbye: Derrick Favors (FA), Jrue Holiday (trade).

Outlook: Sophomore slump? Unlikely for a healthy, in-shape Zion Williamson. With Holiday gone, the Pelicans don’t lose much with Bledsoe alongside point guard Lonzo Ball. There’s also plenty of scoring punch with Brandon Ingram and JJ Redick. New coach Stan Van Gundy wants to emphasize defense and Adams, the 7-footer acquired from the Thunder, will give them plenty of that in the middle.