Life can come at you fast in a wild NBA offseason. Just a few short weeks ago, there was a lot of big talk from the Houston Rockets brass about making a big splash; now they’re left looking like they’ll be content with bringing the same crew back.
Typically, running it back with a successful team like the Rockets isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the offseason, but this wasn’t a typical offseason. The flurry of superstars finding new teams has completely changed the landscape in the NBA — and, in particular, in the Western Conference that the Rockets call home.
Obviously, both the teams from Los Angeles — the Lakers and Clippers — stepped up in a huge way, while other teams like the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs improved through more subtle acquisitions. The New Orleans Pelicans didn’t fare too shabbily in the trade that sent Anthony Davis to the Lakers, either, and, oh yeah, they got to draft a player who is considered to be the NBA’s next big thing.
On top of this, the three teams that finished ahead of the Rockets in the standings in the 2018-19 season — the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers — aren’t significantly worse off going into next season, and the only playoff qualifier that is expected to fall off is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
So, let’s assume the Rockets are running it back (as of this writing, they had rumored interest in acquiring Thunder star Russell Westbrook, but that possibility was reportedly a long shot), and project next year’s Western Conference playoff teams, plus a few other teams to watch.
PROJECTED 2020 WEST PLAYOFF SEEDS
1) LA Clippers — Depth gives the Clippers the slight edge for best in the West over the Lakers, as the Clippers add two of the NBA’s best players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a team that already made the playoffs last season.
2) LA Lakers — Davis, Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins join LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma to form arguably the strongest starting lineup in the NBA. It’ll be interesting to see just how much the big acquisitions will improve a team that went 37-45 last season.
3) Warriors — Despite losing Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala in the offseason and having Klay Thompson sidelined for a chunk of the season, I simply cannot buy the team that has won the West five years in a row spiraling too far downward while they still have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and one of the NBA’s best head coaches in Steve Kerr. And, they also added rising star D’Angelo Russell to the mix.
4) Jazz — After finishing fifth in the West last season, the Jazz stepped up with a pair of sneaky-good acquisitions with a forward whose stock is rising in Bojan Bogdanovic and a veteran point guard to lead the young team in Mike Conley.
5) Nuggets — Like the Rockets, the Nuggets are running it back, opting in on veteran forward Paul Milsap, extending the contract of young star Jamal Murray sending a qualifying offer to key reserve Trey Lyles. Unlike the Rockets, the Nuggets are coming off finishing second in the West last season and are a young team that will only get better.
6) Trail Blazers — The Blazers lost a couple of pieces to their puzzle with Mo Harkless and Farouq Aminu finding new homes, but they added a 3-and-D wing in Kent Bazemore and a rim protector in Hassan Whiteside to bolster a lineup that features one the best backcourts in the NBA with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who led the team to the conference finals.
7) Rockets — James Harden will continue to be one of the NBA best players, Chris Paul should still have enough left in the tank heading into his 15th NBA season, and Clint Capela will continue to be a quality weapon on both ends of the floor to keep the Rockets highly competitive in the West, but standing pat when so many teams improved will make returning to the playoffs a battle.
8) Spurs — The Spurs aren’t going anywhere when it comes to playoff contention as long as all-time great head coach Gregg Popovic is at the helm. Plus, the Spurs have a top-notch one-two punch in forward LaMarcus Aldridge and guard DeMar DeRozan, and have excellent depth.
OTHERS TO WATCH IN THE WEST
Pelicans — No team may have transformed more in the offseason than the Pels, which added No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, Lakers trade pieces Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, and offseason acquisitions J.J. Reddick and Derrick Favors to join incumbent star Jrue Holiday. A team that finished near the bottom of the standings last season suddenly looks like a playoff contender.
Mavericks — With Kristaps Porzingas returning from injury to add instant star power along with 2019 rookie of the year Luka Donic, the Mavericks should be much improved next season. The offseason acquisitions of well liked big man Boban Marjanovic, Seth Curry and Delon Wright will also bolster the Mavs’ depth.
Kings — After finishing ninth in the standings last season, the Kings added veteran wing Trevor Ariza to one of the NBA’s most exciting young core groups in De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III — a core group that will only get better with age and eventually make the Kings a playoff contender, should they stay together.