The 2021-22 NBA season kicks off on October 19, and while the Western Conference has generally considered more competitive than the Eastern Conference in recent years, the East has taken home two of the last three NBA Championships.

There’s no shortage of contenders in the West this season though. The Los Angeles Lakers, just 12 months removed from an Orlando bubble NBA Finals win over the Miami Heat, will be back to compete again, this time with Russell Westbrook joining forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Phoenix Suns beat the Lakers in last year’s playoffs en route to an NBA Finals appearance against the Milwaukee Bucks. Devin Booker and Chris Paul fell in six games, but Phoenix will be hungry to compete once again.

The Utah Jazz can’t be counted out after finishing with the best record in the West last season, and the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks could also make a deep playoff run after another strong regular season finish. The X-factor in the conference is the Golden State Warriors, who will re-gain the services of Klay Thompson, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Other teams to watch include the Los Angeles Clippers, though they’ll be without Kawhi Leonard, the New Orleans Pelicans, who moved on from Lonzo Ball but still have an explosive 1-2 punch in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and the Portland Trailblazers, who are always a threat with Damian Lillard on the roster.

How will the West shake out in the 2021-22 season as the league returns to regular 82-game play? Which eight teams will make the traditional playoff field, and which two will have a chance at making noise in the play-in games?

2021-22 NBA Season Preview

NBA Finals Contenders

Photo: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
  1. Utah Jazz (56-26)
  2. Phoenix Suns (54-28)
  3. Los Angeles Lakers (52-30)
  4. Golden State Warriors (49-33)

The Western Conference has some dangerous teams at the top, and at least four (if not more) squads that have a real shot at representing the conference in the NBA Finals.

After finishing the 2020-21 NBA season with the best regular season record in the entire league, the Utah Jazz will look to run it back in 2021-22. Donovan Mitchell is one of the brightest young stars in the NBA, and with Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert by his side, Utah is a defensive powerhouse. The Jazz put up an incredible winning combination on the court last season: with the league’s 4th-best offense (116.4 points per game) and 3rd-best defense (107.2 points allowed per game.) Adding Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gay, and Eric Paschall as depth pieces in the offseason can only make the Jazz even better. After winning .722% of their games last season, the Jazz are set to turn in another great season in 2021-22. Whether that translates to a deep postseason run is still in question, as Utah fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals last season, falling in six games despite initially taking a 2-0 lead.

Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the Phoenix Suns trailed Utah by just one game for the league and conference’s best record last season, and also look poised to maintain their winning ways this season. After reaching the NBA Finals last season, and even taking an early 2-0 lead, the Suns should be even better in 2021-22 with quality postseason experiences under their belts. Chris Paul will be 36 years old this season, but Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Deandre Ayton are all just blossoming.

The Los Angeles Lakers may have the best shot to represent the West in the NBA Finals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll top the conference’s regular season standings. After trading Kyle Kuzma, Montrez Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Washington Wizards, the Lakers are all-in on a Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. The problem is, as shown in past seasons, Los Angeles is significantly worse when James or Davis miss time due to injury. Assuming each player takes some days off during the 82-game season, 52-30 sounds like a reasonable benchmark for this Lakers team. Getting into the postseason healthy will be more important than earning the conferences best regular season record. Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Rajan Rondo, DeAndre Jordan and Kent Bazemore round out an interesting group of veterans chasing an NBA Championship.

Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors were able to tread long enough to earn the 9th seed in the West and a shot at a play-in game last season, but didn’t make it to the final field of the 16-team playoffs. But with Klay Thompson coming back from a torn Achilles suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals, the Warriors should be taken much more seriously this season. Besides Thompson’s return to the court and Andre Iguodala re-joining the team, not a ton has changed on Golden State’s roster. But giving Curry his Splash Brother-in-crime should pay dividends for the Warriors offense. With two high-octane shooting and scoring threats alongside Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green, Golden State could return to being one of the most feared teams in the NBA, and I certainly wouldn’t want to run into them fully healthy come playoff time.

Playoff Teams

AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth
  1. Denver Nuggets (47-35)
  2. Portland Trailblazers (46-37)
  3. Dallas Mavericks (45-36)
  4. Los Angeles Clippers (44-38)

The next four teams are pretty good bets to make the playoffs, but might lack the firepower and depth needed to push through to the NBA Finals next June.

The Denver Nuggets have a been a regular season powerhouse for the past few seasons. But with stud guard Jamal Murray sidelined for most of if not all of the 2021-22 season with a torn ACL, the Nuggets ceiling is slightly lower. Still, with an ever-improving Michael Porter Jr. and reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, Denver should be able to sustain another winning season and earn a playoff seed just outside the top four.

The Portland Trailblazers largely treaded in place over the off-season, but should still be considered a perrenial playoff contender with their current roster. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are one of the best one-two punches in the NBA, Robert Covington is a versatile player, and Jusuf Nurkic nearly averaged a double-double last season. Depth options including Ben McLemore, Tony Snell, and Larry Nance Jr. round out a solid squad, even if the bench will no longer have the services of Carmelo Anthony. Portland should finish the regular season strong, but may need extra help if they wish to push the team over the top in the playoffs.

Some have expectations higher for the Dallas Mavericks, but finishing seventh in the conference feels fair to me. Dallas finished fifth in the West last year, but I have the Lakers leapfrogging them assuming James and Davis are available for most of the season, and the Trailblazers edging them by a game. The Mavericks have one of the best players in the league in MVP candidate Luka Doncic. Former New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis is a serviceable number two option, but after that, there’s a steep drop-off in talent. Dallas doesn’t have the deepest bench, and if Porzingis, who has sustained major injuries in the past, isn’t available on a nightly basis, Doncic can only carry the team so far.

When the Los Angeles Clippers put Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the same team, at least an NBA Finals appearance felt like a given. A couple disappointing finishes in the postseason later, and that window is rapidly closing. Leonard will likely miss most if not all of the 2021-22 season after undergoing knee surgery, leaving George to keep the team afloat. George is still a solid number-one option at 31 years old, and the addition of Eric Bledsoe gives the Clippers a new wrinkle. But without Leonard to tie everything together, the Clippers only have the chance to be good, not great.

Middle of the Pack

Photo: ESPN.com
  1. Memphis Grizzlies (40-42)
  2. Sacramento Kings (37-45)
  3. New Orleans Pelicans (36-46)
  4. San Antonio Spurs (34-48)
  5. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52)

There’s a little bit of disparity between the top and bottom teams in this group, but they are all bound by a similar characteristic: as currently constructed, these teams aren’t ready to finish in the Top Eight in the conference. Due to the advent of the play-in games, however, the 9th and 10th-seeded teams may have a fighting chance to advance to the traditional playoff bracket at the end of the regular season.

The Memphis Grizzlies took full advantage of the play-in games in the 2020-21 playoffs, initially finishing 9th in the West but downing the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors to earn the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket. It seems like a realistic spot for Memphis to land again, as the next few teams in the standings are marginally better than the Grizzlies. Still, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Brandon Clarke make up a solid core in Memphis, and a shot at at least a play-in game feels like the floor for the Grizzlies, with the ceiling being a traditional playoff spot as high as the sixth seed.

Last season, the Sacramento Kings played to the tune of a 35-49 pace and finished tied for 11th in the West with the Pelicans. Without any major changes, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, Buddy Hield, Harrsion Barnes and company should win at about the same clip with perhaps a couple extra wins. Rookie guard Davion Mitchell offers some upside, and in a best-case scenario the Kings could steal the 9th seed from the Grizzlies. I have the Kings finishing 10th and participating in a play-in game, but just one or two additional losses could send them to 11th or 12th in the conference.

Everyone wants to see Zion Williamson in the playoffs, and the New Orleans Pelicans are often a trendy pick to sneak in to the top eight seeds in the West. But they played at a 35-win pace last season, tied with the Kings for 11th in the conference, and may be trending in the wrong direction. Sure, New Orleans added big man Jonas Valanciunas and some backcourt help with Devonte’ Graham and Tomas Satoransky, but losing Lonzo Ball is going to hurt New Orleans more than they’re willing to admit.

The San Antonio Spurs enjoyed an incredible, record-tying run of 22 straight playoff appearances from 1998-2019, but have failed to qualify for both of the last two postseasons. Even after the Spurs longtime key players, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Kawhi Leonard left the team, San Antonio still stayed competitive with Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan on the roster. But looking at this year’s squad, Greg Poppovich will have to dig deep to win games with a starting lineup of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl. The 2021-22 Spurs will be a step above a lottery team, but nowhere near a playoff team, an unfortunate NBA no man’s land.

Originally, I was going to put the Minnesota Timberwolves in the bottom tier, but they’ll be closer to the Pelicans and Spurs than the Rockets and Thunder. Minnesota is coming off an abysmal 23-49 season that translates to a 26-56 pace over 82 games. Karl Antony-Towns did miss 22 games, so more availability from their franchise superstar would be welcome to nudge the Timberwolves in the right direction. Minnesota has an exciting lineup that includes D’Angelo Russell and last year’s first overall pick Anthony Edwards, but the bench is pretty listless. Still, the Timberwolves should see a slight bump in winning percentage this season.

Lottery Teams

Photo: OKC Thunder Wire/USA Today
  1. Houston Rockets (19-63)
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder (16-66)

The last two teams in the West have no shot at competing in 2021-22, and despite earning top picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, will be selecting early again in 2022.

John Wall is one of the only names of note on the Houston Rockets roster, but he isn’t expected to ever take the court again for the Rockets. This leaves Eric Gordon is the de-facto best player, and while Gordon is a good ball player, he’s not a number one option. Second overall pick Jalen Green could evolve in to the Rockets best offensive option, but Houston can’t rely on him to win games right away. After finishing dead-last in the NBA at 17-55 last season, I cut the Rockets some slack by giving them just the third-worst record this season.

There is no team in the NBA currently set up worse than the Oklahoma City Thunder, but at least the team has a positive future outlook with a slew of upcoming draft picks. Sixth overall pick Josh Giddey and 18th overall pick Tre Mann will get some NBA experience under their belts this season, but will likely be joined by next year’s top prospects after the Thunder finish with the worst record in the NBA this season.

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Header Photo: Getty Images/New York Post

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