Grizzlies, Suns, Warriors among NBA teams hoping to make leap in West this season
By Chad Smith
December 28, 2020
7:50 p.m. ET
After previewing the potential playoff race in the Eastern Conference, it is time to head West. The Los Angeles Lakers claimed their 17th championship in October, and are the team to beat once again in the Western Conference. The Lakers made some exceptional moves to retool their roster, but there were several teams that improved in the shortened off-season. Many will be making moves in the near future, namely the Houston Rockets.
The top teams are obvious, but there are a handful of teams that are primed to join them. Last season the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Thunder, Jazz, Mavericks, and Trailblazers all made the playoffs. With the Thunder rebuilding and the Rockets possibly moving on from James Harden, there could be a couple of spots up for grabs in the postseason. These three teams are in position to claim one of those potential vacancies.
Golden State Warriors
After devastating injuries rocked their season last year, the Warriors were ready to join the elite again as championship contenders. Unfortunately, the season-ending injury to Klay Thompson changed all of that. Typically, an injury to one player isn’t a nail in the coffin, but there aren’t many players like Thompson.
The good news for Warriors fans is that the team was able to add the uber-athletic Kelly Oubre Jr. The explosive left-hander will provide Golden State the ability to still thrive in transition, and capitalize on turnovers. Playing alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green will afford him all of the opportunities to maximize his value as he enters a contract year.
The other big addition that the Warriors made came in the draft, when they selected James Wiseman with the 2nd overall pick. The seven-footer seems to be the ideal fit at the Center position in the future as well as the present. Head coach Steve Kerr has praised Wiseman's ability to be a high-level defender and to know where to position himself on offense.
The X-factor for this team will be Andrew Wiggins. If he is able to consistently be a reliable contributor and not just empty calories, it could vault this team's ceiling. The sneaky additions of Kent Bazemore and Brad Wanamaker should also help with the depth of this team. They may not be championship contenders, but if Curry and Green are able to remain healthy throughout the season, the Warriors should be back in the playoffs.
You would be hard-pressed to find a team that improved more than the Suns did by the addition of a single player. The arrival of Chris Paul didn't necessarily put Phoenix on the map. Their incredible play in the Orlando bubble at the end of last season was a precursor to what this team is capable of if they are clicking.
In addition to Paul, the Suns also landed Jae Crowder, who is a veteran that knows his role. He should fit right in with Paul, and gives the team some toughness and spacing on the floor. Langston Galloway and E'Twaun Moore will also provide some much-needed floor spacing on the perimeter. These small pickups will make a world of difference with Paul at the captain of the ship.
Between Paul and Devin Booker, the backcourt will be the teeth of their offensive attack. The real breakout star in the league this season could be the man in the middle, Deandre Ayton. Entering his third season, Ayton is going to be a major beneficiary in terms of what Paul can do for him. Though he only played 38 games last season due to his suspension, Ayton still averaged 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game.
The success that Phoenix has this season could come down to their trio of young wing players. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Rookie Jalen Smith will share the bulk of the minutes and will need to get up to speed to be on the same page as Paul and Booker. If they are able to do that, the Suns could return to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.
Memphis has quietly been building a playoff team that can compete in the tough Western Conference. While everything runs through their two stars in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr, there are plenty of other guys that will be key figures in their success this season. They are still a very young team, so there will be growing pains along the way.
Head coach Taylor Jenkins did an admiral job in his first season, and should take another leap this year. He has another large crop of rookies to fit into his system, but he should have the same rotation of players again this year. The emergence of De'Anthony Melton has really added another element to this team that desperately needed someone in that Sixth Man role. They have tremendous depth at several positions, including potential breakout candidate Brandon Clarke.
Dillon Brooks is another guy that could really add to his game this year, should he still have the same opportunity as last season. His scoring more than doubled from the 2018-19 season, jumping from 7.5 ppg to 16.2 ppg last year. All of his shooting percentages have gone up since his rookie year, and his defensive skills have improved as well.
It has been four years since Memphis played in a playoff game. That team was comprised of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies have been rebuilding since that playoff exit to the San Antonio Spurs. With continued improvement and a little good fortune, this young core could ultimately be better than any of those “Grit and Grind” era teams.