How to measure success for each Western Conference team in 2017-18 NBA season
The West is where more than 70 percent of the teams think of themselves as a lock to make the playoffs
Just like the Eastern Conference, there really is only one Western Conference team whose season is all about competing for a title. The Golden State Warriors are massive favorites to repeat as champions for good reason, and the rest of the league is playing catch-up. Unlike the East, though, 11 teams in this conference will feel like their season is a failure if they do not qualify for the playoffs. This is going to be a bloodbath, and it's worth keeping in mind the overall talent of the conference when judging the performance of the non-juggernauts. Good teams will miss the postseason, and they will need to find other positives to look at when that happens.
With that in mind, here's how Western Conference teams should measure success in the 2017-18 season (the East is):
They had an average defense (15th) and a terrible offense (23rd) last year, and they'd be so much more competitive if they just dragged that O up to 15th or so. This seems possible if Dennis Smith is as good as advertised as a playmaker. The system and personnel here will put him in the position to succeed; Smith running pick-and-rolls with Nerlens Noel and pick-and-pops with Dirk Nowitzki should be the basis of most of their offense. In a conference like this, the Mavs don't project as a playoff team, so they should be judged mostly on how well Smith handles being a rookie starting point guard and how Harrison Barnes performs in his second season as a featured player. It's also worth keeping an eye on the Noel situation -- he was supposed to be their center of the future, but he signed the one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer rather than inking a long-term deal. If he elects to re-sign with them after that, it would say a lot.
From December onward, the Nuggets had the second-best offense in the league behind the Warriors, led by Nikola Jokic's unreal playmaking ability. With Paul Millsap on board and all their young guys one year older, they must remain unstoppable offensively while making progress at the other end. As long as they're better than awful on defense, there's enough talent here to make a postseason appearance an attainable goal, even in a conference as tough as this. Two key variables: Jamal Murray's efficiency and Emmanuel Mudiay's decision-making ability. If those two young guards are productive, then it's hard to imagine Denver disappointing.
Golden State Warriors
They should be historically great again and should shoot for that in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, even if they don't care much about chasing 70-plus wins anymore. Their challenges -- challenges in a relative sense, you know? -- will be retaining the joy they've had for the past few seasons despite being expected to win all the time, keeping everybody happy with roles rather than wanting more and, perhaps most important, focusing on little things like taking care of the ball and making extra efforts on defense even when those things aren't required to win on a night-to-night basis. They will need the good habits for playoff time, where anything short of a third title in four years will inspire ridicule.
The Rockets mean business, and will be evaluated accordingly. As harsh as this may seem given the quality of their competition, James Harden and Chris Paul need to make it to the conference finals in order for their season to seem like a success. Daryl Morey's front office has assembled a much more balanced team when it comes to its offensive attack and its defensive versatility, and it's no secret Houston did all this with the Warriors in mind. It would be a stunning story if they actually managed to knock off the champs; giving them a scare should be seen as a validation of the major moves they made.
Los Angeles Clippers
Can Blake Griffin be a top-10 player with more offensive responsibility? Will DeAndre Jordan be convinced this is the right place to re-sign and be the best he can be? How will Danilo Gallinari fit in? There is a lot of uncertainty about these Clippers, but everyone seems to agree that revamping the roster was necessary. Along with decreased expectations that come with losing superstar Chris Paul, they should have more fun, be more exciting and, most refreshingly, win games with depth. The goal should be to jell quickly enough that making the playoffs isn't really in question.
Los Angeles Lakers
This group has to bring back the spirit of Showtime. To be clear, we're not talking about championships, just the style of play. Luke Walton wants this to be a run-and-gun team, defined by unselfishness and led by a transcendent passer. Rookie Lonzo Ball must show he's the guy who everybody else should want to play with, and all the other young guys -- especially Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle -- have to show serious development so that a) stars will want to play with them or b) they can be traded for stars. This is all about being perceived as an up-and-coming team, even if they're not a force in the short term. Victories aren't that important, but there should be progress in that regard. Winning 30-plus games seems reasonable.
Success for the Grizzlies means keeping their seven-year playoff streak alive and continuing their evolution as they put Grit-n-Grind behind them. They have to keep Marc Gasol happy, get Chandler Parsons healthy and get something out of that weird bench. Memphis was great at times last season, and it now needs to be more consistent. It'd be nice if it finished in the top six in the conference and had a more winnable first-round matchup, but it can't afford to lose games to mediocre teams too often to do those things. You'll basically be able to figure out whether the Grizzlies came together based on whether Gasol's name continues to come up in trade rumors around the deadline and after the season.
Again, making the playoffs is the obvious goal. The Wolves didn't get Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson to remain on the outside looking in. Beyond that, this is about developing an offensive system that makes the most of the considerable talents of Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, as well as establishing a tough, defensive-minded culture. The latter part should be relatively easy with the new personnel, but there are concerns about the former. Jeff Teague and Wiggins need to be opportunistic scorers and the ball needs to move, with Towns and Butler serving as the two focal points when the starting lineup is on the floor. Coach Tom Thibodeau's big job this season is to help these guys be more than the sum of their parts, making the rest of the league fearful of what they could do with a few more years together.
New Orleans Pelicans
One big win would be changing the narrative. Right now, most discussions about the Pelicans involve the idea that Anthony Davis and/or Cousins will want out at some point. Oh, how quickly things have changed since the optimism that came along with the Cousins trade last February. The reality is that the two big men are talented enough to make this work, even though they don't have an ideal supporting cast. The unfortunate part is that Cousins is heading into a contract year, so there is real pressure for it to happen quickly. They need to start strong so rumors aren't swirling before the trade deadline, and they probably need to make the playoffs to keep this thing going in the right direction. None of this will be easy.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Outside of championship-or-bust teams, rarely is a mission statement so simple: the Thunder have to be good enough that Paul George wants to stay. Everybody knows he has an eye on what's happening in Los Angeles, but he has been clear that he has high hopes for his partnership with Russell Westbrook. These two indeed have the potential to start something special, giving Sam Presti's front office another chance to build a championship team. Developing great chemistry with Westbrook, winning around 50 games and doing significantly better than they did in last year's playoffs would be a good way to convince George that this is the place for him. All of this assumes that Westbrook signs a contract extension before the season starts. If he doesn't, there's even more at stake; Oklahoma City will be at risk of losing both of its stars if things go awry.
This sounds like a low bar, but they just have to start playing as a team. This was a real challenge last season, as they seemed more like a collection of inexperienced dudes running around and trying to get buckets. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 pick in the draft, is fits the style they should be playing, and the same can be said of Dragan Bender, last season's No. 4 pick. Bender didn't do much in his rookie season, but has all-around potential. Devin Booker, a great bucket-getter, needs to become more efficient and make more plays for others. Losses are still to be expected, of course, but there's no reason this can't be one of the more fun-to-watch teams on League Pass.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers need to find out whether or not the trio of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic is a workable Big 3 of sorts. There is no worry about the offense, but it remains to be seen whether a team built around these guys can be good enough defensively. Missing the playoffs would suck, as would any extended period of mediocrity that could bring back memories of their struggles early last season. That kind of stretch may bring clarity, though -- management needs to know whether this is a team on the come up or stuck in the middle. A win total in the high-40s would be encouraging, as would looking less vulnerable on defense in the postseason.
The delusional get-in-the-playoffs-at-all-costs strategy is gone, thankfully. As the Kings rebuild without DeMarcus Cousins, all they should be focused on is competing consistently and developing their young players, of which there are many. There's an outside chance everything comes together and they win more than people think, but it's much more likely that they're a few years away from getting serious. Still, George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter are there to make sure the Kings prepare, practice and play with the attitude of a playoff team. If they do that and roles are well-defined, they should be able to look at De'Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Buddy Hield at the end of the season and identify significant areas of improvement. That's what matters.
San Antonio Spurs
Judge them by how Spurs-y they are. With Tony Parker still rehabbing, Manu Ginobili now 40 years old and the challenge of integrating Rudy Gay as he comes off a ruptured Achilles, there are reasons to believe things could be more rocky than normal. San Antonio is the most consistent organization in the NBA, though, and it has never been smart to doubt them because of its age or its relative lack of athleticism. If this team isn't top-four in the conference, precise and proficient on both ends, then something serious will have gone wrong. If all goes well, the Spurs should be seen as a realistic destination for top free agents next summer.
Losing Gordon Hayward was a setback, but it does not have to stop Utah from building something sustainable around Rudy Gobert. The Jazz should be aiming to make everyone who counted them out look silly. They are capable of maintaining their elite defense and staying in the playoffs. Regardless of what happens once they get there, just being there and seeing significant development from Rodney Hood, Dante Exum and rookie Donovan Mitchell would be enough to keep fans excited. The major question here, beyond how well the Jazz will make up for Hayward's absence on offense, is whether or not they will commit to the duo of Gobert and Derrick Favors in the frontcourt. If Favors stays healthy and plays himself into a lucrative contract next summer, then you can assume things have gone pretty well.
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