In most circumstances, when LeBron James is on a team that team is expected to at least be in the hunt for a title. And when he is paired with superstar talent, those expectations can soar.
So you can imagine the case this season. The Los Angeles Lakers are loaded with talent, starting with James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. Then there are veterans Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. No wonder the Lakers are the clear-cut favorite to emerge from the Western Conference.
But the West being the West, it won’t be a cakewalk. The Phoenix Suns advanced to the NBA Finals last season and think they can return and finish the job. The Utah Jazz believe they have a legitimate shot at a title as well.
Here’s a look at what each team in the Western Conference can expect.
2020-21 record: 42-30 (first place, Southwest Division)
Lost to Clippers in Western Conference first round
Coach: Jason Kidd – First season
What’s different? Dallas returns most of the top of its rotation intact, with Josh Richardson the most notable departure. Richardson was dealt to the Celtics for 21-year-old Moses Brown, a lengthy 7-foot-2 center who showed promise late last season with the Thunder. The Mavericks also signed Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown in free agency, both of whom bring size and shooting to the wing spots and should see significant minutes. Bullock will be in the mix to start as well.
Superstar sidekick: The Mavericks are Luka Doncic’s team, but they need Kristaps Porzingis to emerge as a reliable second star to truly break through as a serious title contender. Porzingis has battled injuries during two of his seasons in Dallas and struggled at times to find his role in the offense. Staying healthy is always key for 7-foot-3 Porzingis, but how he fits in new coach Jason Kidd’s system is one of the Mavs’ biggest questions for the season.
More support: Doncic has been brilliant in his brief playoff career, but two first-round exits have shown that he will need more help to advance. Additional playmaking remains a priority after the Mavericks were unable to add a veteran point guard in the offseason. They could still make a move during the season. Having more options around Doncic will give the offense flexibility and make it harder for defenses to load up to try to stop him.
How good can they be? With Doncic as a leading MVP candidate and question marks with several other Western Conference contenders, the Mavericks should be in the hunt for a top-four seed.
PG Luka Doncic (27.7 ppg, 8.6 apg, 8.0 rpg, 47.9 fg%)
SG Tim Hardaway Jr. (16.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 44.7% fg)
SF Dorian Finney-Smith (9.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, 47.2% fg)
PF Maxi Kleber (7.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, 42.2% fg)
C Kristaps Porzingis (20.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 47.6 fg%)
2020-21 record: 47-25 (second place, Northwest Division)
Lost to Suns in Western Conference semifinals
Coach: Michael Malone – Seventh season (266-207)
What’s different? Star point guard Jamal Murray will likely miss most, if not all, of the regular season after tearing his left ACL in April. Beyond his absence, the Nuggets experienced little turnover, with nine of their top 10 playoff rotation players returning. Paul Millsap and JaVale McGee, who had 34 playoff minutes, departed in free agency, while veteran Jeff Green was brought in on a two-year deal.
Staying afloat: Denver did an admirable job of weathering Murray’s injury late last year and during the playoffs. It will be a bigger challenge to do it over a longer stretch this season. Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo will again fill in, with coach Michael Malone relying on who is playing well at any moment. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is their primary playmaker, but replacing Murray’s production in the backcourt will determine whether the Nuggets remain a top Western contender.
Next step: Murray’s absence is also a huge opportunity for Michael Porter Jr. to prove he can be the star he believes he is. Porter averaged 19 points last season on 13.4 shots per game. His offensive talent is undeniable, and he will have room to increase his scoring load. If he can keep shooting over 50% from the field and 40% from 3-point range while continuing to improve his defense, Porter will be a true third star for Denver.
How good can they be? The Nuggets might take a small step back from last year’s third seed, but even with Murray sidelined for an undetermined length of time, they should be in the middle of the West playoff race with a shot at a top-four seed.
PG Monte Morris (10.2 ppg, 3.2 apg, 2.0 rpg, 48.1 fg%)
SG Will Barton (12.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 42.6 fg%)
SF Michael Porter Jr. (19.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.1 apg, 54.2 fg%)
PF Aaron Gordon (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 46.3 fg%)*
C Nikola Jokic (26.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.3 apg, 56.6 fg%)
*With Nuggets and Magic
Golden State Warriors
2020-21 record: 39-33 (fourth place, Pacific Division)
Missed playoffs for second straight season
Coach: Steve Kerr – Eighth season (376-171)
What’s different? After missing two seasons with injuries, Klay Thompson is expected to be back around Christmas in one of the league’s most anticipated returns. The Warriors added lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, plus veterans Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica to bolster the bench unit. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore departed.
Working off the rust: Thompson is one of the most universally loved players in the league, and his return will have fans cheering in every city. What kind of player he is after a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles tendon remains to be seen. His deadeye shooting likely hasn’t suffered. But Thompson has also been one of the top perimeter defenders during his career. It is unclear how long it will take him to get back to that level – if he can at all after two devastating injuries and such a long absence.
On the block: The Warriors were in seemingly every trade rumor during the offseason and will likely remain a target of speculation. They want to maximize their title chances while Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson are still in their prime. If another star is made available – such as Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal – the Warriors have promising young players in Kuminga, Moody and James Wiseman and draft capital to make a blockbuster deal.
How good can they be? Depending on how long it takes Thompson to regain form, the Warriors should be back in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture, with a chance at a top-four seed. Swinging a trade for a fourth star would make them title contenders again.
PG Stephen Curry (32.0 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.5 rpg, 48.2 fg%)
SG Jordan Poole (12.0 ppg, 1.9 apg, 1.8 rpg, 43.2 fg%)
SF Andrew Wiggins (18.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 47.7 fg%)
PF Draymond Green (7.0 ppg, 8.9 apg, 7.1 rpg, 44.7 fg%)
C Kevon Looney (4.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 54.8 fg%)
2020-21 record: 17-55 (fifth place, Southwest Division)
Missed playoffs for the first time in nine seasons
Coach: Stephen Silas – Second season (17-55)
What’s different? After trading James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo during the season, the Rockets went into full rebuild mode with four first-round picks: Jalen Green (No. 2), Alperen Sengun (16), Usman Garuba (23) and Josh Christopher (24). They acquired Daniel Theis on a four-year contract to supplement the young core; Kelly Olynyk and Sterling Brown left. Houston is also looking to trade John Wall.
Star in the making: The lottery ping-pong balls bounced in Houston’s favor, and it landed Green of the G League Ignite with the second pick. The Rockets believed they had a future star even before Green was one of the most impressive rookies at Summer League. He has huge potential as a scoring No. 2 guard who can share playmaking duties, and it could just be a matter of time before he becomes the focal point of an offense in need of star power.
Going young: Green is the centerpiece of a promising group of young players that includes incumbents Kevin Porter Jr., 21, K.J. Martin, 20, Christian Wood, 26, and Jae’Sean Tate, 25. With Wall not in the future plans, the Rockets have few veterans in need of ample playing time. Second-year coach Stephen Silas likely won’t have much choice but to give his young core minutes and let them develop.
How good can they be? The young Rockets will face plenty of growing pains and be back in the lottery next spring. But with development from Green, Porter and company, they likely won’t be the worst team again.
PG Kevin Porter Jr. (16.6 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.8 rpg, 42.5 fg%)
SG Jalen Green (17.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.8 apg, 46.1 fg%)*
SF Jae’Sean Tate (11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 50.6 fg%)
PF Christian Wood (21.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 51.4 fg%)
C Daniel Theis (9.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.7 apg, 54.1 fg%)**
*With G League Ignite **With Celtics and Bulls
Los Angeles Clippers
2020-21 record: 47-25 (second place, Pacific Division)
Lost to Suns in Western Conference finals
Coach: Tyronn Lue – Second season (47-25)
What’s different? The Clippers’ biggest loss came during the playoffs in June when Kawhi Leonard suffered a partially torn right ACL. He is out indefinitely and could miss the entire season and playoffs. Los Angeles then swapped point guards Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo for Eric Bledsoe in a trade and signed Justise Winslow.
Missing star: Leonard’s absence will loom over everything the Clippers do. It’s possible he could return for the playoffs next spring. But Leonard has been cautious with injuries in the past, and it’s just as likely he sits out the whole year. Paul George stepped up in the playoffs after Leonard was hurt, but George hasn’t had to carry a team as its only star for an entire season since he left the Pacers in 2017. Without Leonard for the postseason, there is a much lower ceiling on the championship prospects.
Starting nod: After reviving his career last season, Reggie Jackson was rewarded with a two-year contract and a hefty raise. With the trade of Beverley and Rondo, Jackson appears to have the inside track to the starting point guard job, despite the addition of Bledsoe. Jackson shot 43.3% from 3-point range in the regular season and meshed well with George in the starting backcourt, especially in the playoffs when he averaged 17.8 points and shot 40.8% from deep to help the Clippers reach the Western Conference finals for the first time.
How good can they be? The Clippers face a tough road to a top-four seed in the deep West. They will compete for the top six and a guaranteed playoff spot, but they could fall to the play-in tournament.
PG Reggie Jackson (10.7 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.9 rpg, 45.0% fg)
SG Paul George (23.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, 46.7% fg)
SF Nicolas Batum (8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 46.4% fg)
PF Marcus Morris Sr. (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.0 apg, 47.3% fg)
C Serge Ibaka (11.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 51.0% fg)
Los Angeles Lakers
2020-21 record: 42-30 (third place, Pacific Division)
Lost to Suns in Western Conference first round
Coach: Frank Vogel – Third season (94-49)
What’s different? LeBron James and Anthony Davis are back, but the Lakers overhauled the rest of the roster. Dennis Schroder, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Markieff Morris, Wesley Matthews and Andre Drummond are out. Russell Westbrook, Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan and Trevor Ariza are in.
Old guard: The Lakers’ age is one of the league’s biggest storylines. James is 36 and entering Year 19, and eight of their 10 new players are 32 or older. With Davis’ injury history, coach Frank Vogel and his staff will closely monitor the Lakers’ health and durability. James scoffed at the offseason talk about the Lakers being too old, but even he will appreciate having Westbrook there to help handle the ball and initiate the offense.
Maximum versatility: James, Davis and Westbrook are locks for the starting lineup. The final two spots are questions. The Lakers’ best lineups have featured Davis at center and James at power forward to maximize spacing. Howard and Jordan can fill different roles at center in big lineups. Ellington, Anthony, Monk, Nunn and Bazemore can give the Lakers various looks with shooters on the perimeter.
How good can they be? As long as James and Davis are healthy, the Lakers are title contenders. The window is perhaps smaller given its age, but the experience can be the deciding factor in many series.
PG Russell Westbrook (22.2 ppg, 11.7 apg, 11.5 rpg, 43.9 fg%)*
SG Wayne Ellington (9.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.5 apg, 44.1% fg)**
SF LeBron James (25.0 ppg, 7.8 apg, 7.7 rpg, 51.3 fg%)
PF Anthony Davis (21.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 49.1 fg%)
C DeAndre Jordan (7.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 76.3 fg%)***
*with Wizards **with Pistons ***with Nets
2020-21 record: 38-34 (second place, Southwest Division)
Lost to Jazz in Western Conference first round
Coach: Taylor Jenkins – Third season (72-73)
What’s different? Memphis traded for Steven Adams in a swap of centers to replace Jonas Valanciunas. Beyond that, most of the Grizzlies’ core rotation returns from a playoff team. As part of the Adams deal, the Grizzlies moved up to draft Stanford forward Ziaire Williams. They also acquired Kris Dunn, Carsen Edwards and Jarrett Culver and dealt Grayson Allen.
Future goals: The Grizzlies have a promising young core in place led by Ja Morant, a leading candidate to be a first-time All-Star. But they were ahead of schedule in winning two play-in games to snag the eighth seed in the Western Conference. That playoff experience will be invaluable, but the West is still deep, so it might not be reflected in the standings. Memphis could get better and still miss the playoffs. Will ownership and management be able to continue prioritizing long-term development even if it doesn’t include this year’s postseason?
On the comeback: Jaren Jackson Jr. returning to form would be a huge boost to the playoff prospects. Jackson was limited to 11 games at the end of last season after returning from meniscus surgery. He struggled to find his shot, especially from 3-point range. If Jackson can get back on his upward trajectory from two years ago, he and Morant can regain their spot among the NBA’s top young duos.
How good can they be? The West will be tough, but the Grizzlies remain on track in their development and should be in the middle of the play-in race again. With some breaks, they could push for a top six spot.
PG Ja Morant (19.1 ppg, 7.4 apg, 4.0 rpg, 44.9 fg%)
SG Dillon Brooks (17.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 41.9 fg%)
SF Kyle Anderson (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.6 apg, 46.8 fg%)
PF Jaren Jackson Jr. (14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 42.4 fg%)
C Steven Adams (7.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 61.4 fg%)*
2020-21 record: 23-49 (fourth place, Northwest Division)
Missed playoff for third straight season
Coach: Chris Finch – First full season (16-25)
What’s different? With no draft picks and little cap space, the Wolves made small changes, trading Ricky Rubio for Taurean Prince and acquiring Patrick Beverley for Jarrett Culver and Juancho Hernangomez. The front office was upended with the surprise firing of general manager Gersson Rosas before training camp.
Searching for identity: Minnesota’s struggle to find stability continues after the dismissal of Rosas. Thus, development will be a major goal for several young players, especially Anthony Edwards, the second-year guard who was last season’s runner-up for Rookie of the Year. While the Wolves are an intriguing potential trade destination for Ben Simmons, internal growth from Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell remains Minnesota’s most viable path back to the postseason.
Running the show: Rubio’s trade leaves Russell the unquestioned starter at point guard. Russell must regain his All-Star form if the Wolves hope to make progress toward the playoffs. He missed nearly two months for knee surgery but made strides late in the year next to Towns and Edwards in new coach Chris Finch’s offense. With a healthy knee and a full offseason to familiarize himself with the system, Russell could jump-start Minnesota’s rebuild with a bounce-back year.
How good can they be? If things break their way and their key players make a big enough leap, the Wolves could potentially compete for one of the last spots in the play-in tournament. However, the West is likely too deep, and the Wolves are still a year or two away.
PG D’Angelo Russell (19.0 ppg, 5.8 apg, 2.6 rpg, 43.1 fg%)
SG Malik Beasley (19.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 44.0 fg%)
SF Anthony Edwards (19.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg, 41.7 fg%)
PF Jaden McDaniels (6.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, 44.7 fg%)
C Karl-Anthony Towns (24.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 4.5 apg, 48.6 fg%)
New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 record: 31-41 (fourth place, Southwest Division)
Missed playoffs for third straight season
Coach: Willie Green – First season
What’s different? The Pelicans have a new coach in Willie Green. At point guard, they allowed Lonzo Ball to leave and replaced him with Devonte’ Graham in a sign-and-trade. Then they swapped centers, acquiring Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams in a deal that also sent Eric Bledsoe out. New Orleans also acquired Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple in the Ball deal and drafted Trey Murphy III.
Backcourt turnover: Letting Ball go and not matching what seemed like a reasonable four-year, $80 million deal was a perplexing move, especially given how well Ball meshed with Zion Williamson and his prowess as a defender. Graham shoots the same from 3-point range as Ball (37% over the last two seasons), and at 6-foot-1, he’s a big downgrade for a defense that wasn’t great. Graham’s contract is affordable (4 years, $47.3 million), but the Pelicans also gave up a first-round pick to acquire him.
Building around Zion: Green is a first-time head coach, but he’ll also be Williamson’s third coach in three seasons. Williamson is the face of the franchise who made his first All-Star appearance last season. He needs to improve as a defender and add polish on offense but should continue to dominate as a scorer. Green must figure out how to spur growth among the other young players to maximize the chances of competing for the playoffs.
How good can they be? The Pelicans likely have a shot at the play-in tournament. Their moves likely aren’t enough to boost them into the top six.
PG Devonte’ Graham (14.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 2.7 rpg, 37.7 fg%)*
SG Nickeil Alexander-Walker (11.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.2 apg, 41.9 fg%)
SF Brandon Ingram (23.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.9 apg, 46.6 fg%)
PF Zion Williamson (27.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 61.1 fg%)
C Jonas Valanciunas (17.1 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 59.2 fg%)**
*with Charlotte **with Memphis
Oklahoma City Thunder
2020-21 record: 22-50 (fifth place, Northwest Division)
Missed playoffs for first time in six years
Coach: Mark Daigneault – Second season (22-5)
What’s different? General manager Sam Presti remained committed to the rebuild. They slipped to sixth in the lottery and selected Australian wing Josh Giddey while taking Tre Mann (No. 18) and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (No. 32) later. OKC also acquired a first-round pick to take on veteran center Derrick Favors and traded Al Horford and Moses Brown
Franchise cornerstone: Perhaps Presti’s biggest move was signing 23-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to a five-year, $172 million maximum rookie extension. He was a borderline All-Star last year, averaging 23.7 points on 50.8% shooting overall and 41.8% from 3-point range before his season was limited to 35 games because of a plantar fasciitis tear in his right foot. Gilgeous-Alexander is recovered from the injury.
Building blocks: With Gilgeous-Alexander’s role clear, a major goal for the season will be determining which of their numerous young players will be key pieces around him long term. The Thunder have a roster full of promising talent, and the list of players out to prove they should be part of rebuild is long: Luguentz Dort, 22; Darius Bazley, 21; Aleksej Pokusevski, 19; Theo Maledon, 20; Giddey, 18; Mann, 20; and Robinson-Earl, 20. Without veterans to impede the way, there will be abundant opportunities to stand out.
How good can they be? The Thunder will be one of the worst teams in the league again, and that’s largely by design. But they might be forced to make a move with all of their draft capital sooner rather than later.
PG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.7 rpg, 50.8 fg%)
SG Josh Giddey (10.9 ppg, 7.5 apg, 7.4 rpg, 42.7 fg%)*
SF Lu Dort (14.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.7 apg, 38.7 fg%)
PF Darius Bazley (13.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 39.6 fg%)
C Derrick Favors (5.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 63.8 fg%)**
*with Adelaide of Australian NBL **with Utah
2020-21 record: 51-21 (first place, Pacific Division)
Lost to Bucks in NBA Finals
Coach: Monty Williams – Third season (85-60)
What’s different? Not much has changed for the defending Western Conference champs as the Suns brought back most of the roster that came within two wins of the title in July. Phoenix added an experienced backup center in JaVale McGee and guard depth with Landy Shamet and Elfrid Payton; the notable departures were deep rotation pieces Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter.
Familiar faces: Chris Paul elevated the Suns to championship contender during his first season in Phoenix. Retaining the future Hall of Famer was the top priority, and Paul is back on a manageable four-year, $120 million deal. Phoenix also re-signed reserves Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky. With nine of the top 10 players returning from the playoff rotation, the Suns are banking on continuity to help them remain in title contention after last year’s surprise second seed and Finals trip.
The next step: It’s easy to forget the key players are still quite young. Devin Booker is a two-time All-Star and one of the league’s best scoring guards at 24. Center Deandre Ayton, 23, and wing Mikal Bridges, 25, are among the best young players at their positions. All have areas to improve, as do reserves Cameron Johnson, 25, Jalen Smith, 21, and Shamet, 24. If the group takes another leap forward, the Suns could challenge for the top spot in the West.
How good can they be? The Suns won’t catch anyone by surprise, but they should be one of the top teams in the West again. There is enough uncertainty surrounding other Western contenders that the No. 1 seed isn’t out of the question.
PG Chris Paul (16.4 ppg, 8.9 apg, 4.5 rpg, 49.9% fg)
SG Devin Booker (25.6 ppg, 4.3 apg, 4.2 rpg, 48.4% fg)
SF Mikal Bridges (13.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 54.3% fg)
PF Jae Crowder (10.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.1 apg, 40.4% fg)
C Deandre Ayton (14.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 62.6% fg)
Portland Trail Blazers
2020-21 record: 42-30 (third place, Northwest Division)
Lost to Nuggets in first round
Coach: Chauncey Billups – First season
What’s different? The offseason was marked by the moves the Blazers didn’t make. Portland kept star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (for now) and made several changes around them. Chauncey Billups replaced Terry Stotts as coach. Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Derrick Jones Jr. and Zach Collins left via free agency or trade. The Blazers traded for Larry Nance Jr., signed Tony Snell, Cody Zeller, Dennis Smith Jr., Ben McLemore and Marquese Chriss and drafted Greg Brown III.
Happy superstar: Lillard spent several weeks denying reports he wants out … right now. However, the six-time All-Star didn’t rule out the possibility of asking for a trade. With Norman Powell re-signed on a five-year contract and McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic healthy after missing significant time, the Blazers are hoping continuity, improved health and a coaching change are enough to vault back into the top of the Western Conference playoff race and keep Lillard content.
Lack of depth: Acquiring Nance salvaged an underwhelming offseason that could leave the Blazers with a thin bench. Nance has developed into a versatile, top-tier defender and solid shooter who could potentially be a starter. However, the Blazers have yet to see significant improvement from Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little, and none of the other offseason signings are all that inspiring.
How good can they be? The Blazers might have the highest variance of any West contender, though, with anywhere from a top four seed to the play-in tournament possible.
PG Damian Lillard (28.8 ppg, 7.5 apg, 4.2 rpg, 45.1 fg%)
SG C.J. McCollum (23.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.9 rpg, 45.8 fg%)
SF Norman Powell (18.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 47.7 fg%)*
PF Robert Covington (8.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 40.1 fg%)
C Jusef Nurkic (11.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 51.4 fg%g)
*with Portland and Toronto
2020-21 record: 31-41 (fifth place, Pacific Division)
Missed playoffs for 15th straight season, tied for longest drought in NBA history (Clippers, 1977-91)
Coach: Luke Walton – Third season (62-82)
What’s different? After a major deal with the Lakers for Buddy Hield fell through, the Kings pivoted to smaller changes. They brought in Alex Len and Tristan Thompson to bolster the center rotation behind re-signed Richaun Holmes. Sacramento used the ninth pick to take Davion Mitchell, who was co-MVP of the Summer League. The only notable departures were Hassan Whiteside and Delon Wright.
Trade target: Hield has been unhappy at various points during his five years in Sacramento, and things are tenuous again after he was nearly traded. The Kings have a logjam in the backcourt with Hield, incumbent point guard De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, who impressed as a rookie, and Mitchell, who should be a defensive stalwart from Day 1. With Sacramento a potential destination for Ben Simmons, Hield could finally be dealt as the centerpiece of a trade with the Sixers.
Need to see it: With or without Hield, the Kings should be able to count on consistent production in the backcourt. While Holmes has solidified the center spot, the rest of the frontcourt is a bigger question. Marvin Bagley III, has battled injuries in his three seasons and has yet to realize the potential that made him the No. 2 pick in 2018. If Bagley doesn’t begin to show pronounced growth, the Kings may be forced to finally move on.
How good can they be? The Kings face a tough road to snap a 15-year playoff drought that’s tied for the longest in NBA history. They will have to break the drought as one of the last play-in teams because ninth or 10th in the Western Conference is likely their ceiling.
PG De’Aaron Fox (25.2 ppg, 7.2 apg, 3.5 rpg, 47.7 fg%)
SG Buddy Hield (16.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.6 apg, 40.6 fg%)
SF Harrison Barnes (16.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 49.7 fg%)
PF Marvin Bagley III (14.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.0 apg, 50.4 fg%)
C Richaun Holmes (14.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 63.7 fg%)
San Antonio Spurs
2020-21 record: 33-39 (third place, Southwest Division)
Missed playoffs for second straight season
Coach: Gregg Popovich – 26th season (1,310-653)
What’s different? It’s a new day, with an exodus of veterans leaving the Spurs with just two players 30 or older. DeMar DeRozan was dealt in a sign-and-trade. Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Trey Lyles and Gorgui Dieng left in free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge agreed to a buyout in March. The Spurs acquired Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu in the DeRozan deal, brought in Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes, took a flier on often-injured Zach Collins and drafted 18-year-old guard Joshua Primo.
Youth movement: With the old guard out, the Spurs are as young as they’ve been in recent memory. Primo adds depth to a guard/wing rotation that includes Dejounte Murray, 24, Keldon Johnson, 21, Lonnie Walker IV, 22, Devin Vassell, 21, and Tre Jones, 21. San Antonio did a solid job of supplementing the young core with experienced frontcourt versatility (Young, Aminu) and shooting (McDermott, Forbes). The main goal should be identifying and developing rebuild centerpieces.
Long-term vision: Primo was the youngest player taken in the draft and won’t turn 19 until December. He remains very raw, but the Spurs could afford to take a swing on a high-upside player. By drafting Primo, though, the Spurs have signaled they are content building another long-term contender.
How good can they be? They nearly returned to the playoffs last year but lost in the play-in tournament. The ninth or 10th seed is likely the ceiling. After a 22-year playoff run, San Antonio could be facing a third straight missed postseason.
PG Dejounte Murray (15.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.4 apg, 45.3% fg)
SG Derrick White (15.4 ppg, 3.5 apg, 3.0 rpg, 41.1% fg)
SF Keldon Johnson (12.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 47.9% fg)
PF Doug McDermott (13.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 53.2% fg)*
C Jakob Poeltl (8.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 61.6% fg)
2020-21 record: 52-20 (first place, Northwest Division)
Lost to the Clippers in Western Conference semifinals
Coach: Quin Snyder – Eighth season (323-231)
What’s different? Little has changed for last year’s best regular-season team, with much of the top of the rotation returning. Derrick Favors was traded in a cost-cutting move, and Georges Niang left in free agency, but the Jazz found solid, affordable replacements in Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall and Hassan Whiteside.
Run it back: Utah’s top offseason priority was re-signing Mike Conley, and the sides quickly agreed on a three-year, $72.5 million deal. With Conley back, the Jazz will enter with the same starting lineup for a third season. Top reserves Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles are also back, making the Jazz one of the most stable teams in the league. They are banking on that experience and continuity being huge assets against many other Western Conference contenders with more roster uncertainty.
Breaking through: The Jazz have the team to contend for a championship. Now it’s just a matter of getting over the setbacks of the past two playoffs to take the next step. Donovan Mitchell is a postseason superstar who elevates his game in clutch moments. He and Conley were hampered by injuries during the playoffs last season. Rudy Gobert is still one of the best defenders in the league, and his postseason shortcomings have become overstated, but Gay and Paschall should give the Jazz a bit more lineup versatility in an effort to advance past the second round.
How good can they be? A small step back is possible just because it’s the only way for Utah to go. But the Jazz figure to be one of the top teams in the West again, with as good a chance as anyone to claim the No. 1 seed.
PG Mike Conley (16.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.5 rpg, 44.4 fg%)
SG Donovan Mitchell (26.4 ppg, 5.2 apg, 4.4 rpg, 43.8 fg%)
SF Bojan Bogdanovic (17.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 43.9 fg%)
PF Royce O’Neale (7.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 44.4 fg%)
C Rudy Gobert (14.3 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 67.5 fg%)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021-22 NBA Western Conference preview capsules