The Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder spent the off-season undergoing massive overhauls in hopes of keeping up with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. To say that any of the four teams were keeping up with the defending champion Golden State Warriors would probably be an overstatement, and that notion was reinforced when 93 percent of the league’s general managers picked the Warriors to repeat as champions.
The 2017-18 season begins tonight with the Boston Celtics facing the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets facing the Warriors in a doubleheader on TNT. A look at the Western Conference, with teams listed by predicted order of finish in their division, reveals some serious turnover from last season. (The Eastern Conference preview can be found here.)
Golden State Warriors
67-15 last season
Key newcomers: Nick Young, Omri Casspi, Jordan Bell (draft)
Key departures: None
Outlook: The expectations for the Warriors after two championships in three seasons are incredibly simple: Win a third title or be considered an enormous disappointment. Golden State managed to hold on to all its key players, thanks to Kevin Durant’s decision to leave money on the table, and it even added a few capable veterans in Young and Casspi, who can each contribute to the second unit.
With a Big Four so talented that the team is considered indomitable, the most interesting subplot this season may be seeing if Coach Steve Kerr develops some of his younger players to fill in the gaps as his roster begins to age. There appear to be two clear apprenticeships, with Patrick McCaw learning from Andre Iguodala and Bell, whom the team acquired by buying his rights at the draft, learning from Draymond Green.
Los Angeles Clippers
51-31 last season
Key newcomers: Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams
Key departures: Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce
Outlook: The Lob City era is over. Paul wanted a change of scenery, and the Clippers facilitated that by sending him to Houston in exchange for an enormous package of players. None of them can match Paul’s stardom, but Beverley and Harrell are rugged young players who add some toughness to the team, and Williams is a great scorer off the bench.
The Clippers’ season may hinge on how well Teodosic, 30, a Serbian guard who played the past six seasons in Russia, can translate his game to the N.B.A. His passing in the preseason has left numerous jaws agape, and the Clippers could easily be a 50-win team even without the former face of the franchise.
Status: Holding their breath
Los Angeles Lakers
26-56 last season
Key newcomers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez, Kyle Kuzma (draft), Lonzo Ball (draft)
Key departures: D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov
Outlook: It is finally time to talk about Lonzo Ball as a basketball player instead of being distracted by his father, LaVar, the bombastic and controversial A.A.U. coach and sneaker salesman. Ball appears to be N.B.A.-ready as a passer, but his jump shot is slow and inconsistent, which could limit him as a scoring option. Comparisons to Jason Kidd are apt, and Ball has that kind of potential.
But the key to making the Lakers take the leap from an intriguing group of youngsters to real contenders is not Ball. It’s Brandon Ingram, whose height, build and body language are reminiscent of Kevin Durant. Now Ingram needs to play basketball like Durant. If he does, watch out for the Lakers.
Status: Rising. Fast.
32-50 last season
Key newcomers: Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, George Hill, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox (draft), Justin Jackson (draft)
Key departures: Rudy Gay
Outlook: The Kings blew things up last season when they traded DeMarcus Cousins, and the smart rebuild continued with a phenomenal draft in which the team got two potential cornerstone players in Fox and Jackson. Sacramento brought in veterans like Carter and Randolph to teach the youngsters how to win, and may have an intriguing pickup in Bogdanovic, a Serbian guard in his first N.B.A. season.
It may take a few seasons for Fox and Jackson to really shine, but the Kings, who have been in disarray for so long, seem to be moving in the right direction.
Status: Course corrected
24-58 last season
Key newcomers: Josh Jackson (draft)
Key departures: Leandro Barbosa
Outlook: The team that starts the season in Phoenix is not likely to have the same roster as the one that ends it. Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe are likely to get traded at some point. The Suns are committed to building a youthful and inexpensive team around Devin Booker, Alex Len and Jackson, and might be worth watching simply to see Booker play.
Brandon Knight is expected to miss the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Status: Still a few years away
Oklahoma City Thunder
47-35 last season
Key newcomers: Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Patrick Patterson, Terrance Ferguson (draft)
Key departures: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott
Outlook: The supporting cast for Russell Westbrook took a beating during the playoffs, and in some accidentally public tweets from Kevin Durant. But the excuses for Westbrook came to a halt after General Manager Sam Presti landed two superstars this off-season in Anthony and George, along with a tremendous role player in Patterson. That the Thunder gave up so little to get those players is either a testament to Presti’s savvy or an indictment of how some trades are concluded in the modern N.B.A.
George is a star on both ends of the court, and Anthony is a truly gifted scorer, so if Coach Billy Donovan can come up with a rotation that maximizes those two players while getting Westbrook some rest, the Thunder could be at the top of the West alongside Houston and below Golden State.
Status: No more excuses
31-51 last season
Key newcomers: Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford
Key departures: Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Nikola Pekovic
Outlook: Coach Tom Thibodeau is known as a great teacher, but he struggled to turn his lessons into results last season despite having one of the game’s best young players in Karl-Anthony Towns and a potential star in Andrew Wiggins. Now Thibodeau has added two of his favorites — Butler and Gibson, who can simultaneously produce at a high level and help their coach break in the younger players. Teague and Crawford can chip in consistent veteran production, and Minnesota did not have to give up much to put this new team together.
Chemistry is always a question with a club that had a great deal of turnover, and no one really knows what to make of Wiggins, but the combination of Towns and Butler should be enough to make Minnesota a team that no one will want to play.
Status: On the way up
Portland Trail Blazers
41-41 last season
Key newcomers: Zach Collins (draft)
Key departures: Allen Crabbe, Festus Ezeli
Outlook: Portland is desperately hoping that its strong play after Jusuf Nurkic was acquired last season was not a mirage. Impassioned debates have arisen over whether Nurkic’s production really was behind the team’s 14-6 regular-season record when he was on the court, and he has become a totem of sorts for those who argue that the Blazers are to be reckoned with this season.
The reality is probably that the Blazers have a terrific backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum but not enough other talent to be considered one of the top teams in the West. With Lillard squarely in his prime, Portland needs some more help soon or it will have wasted the talent of a special player.
40-42 last season
Key newcomers: Paul Millsap, Josh Childress
Key departures: Danilo Gallinari
Outlook: Nikola Jokic is probably the best player that you have never seen play. A 6-foot 10-inch passing wonder from Serbia, Jokic, 22, is an absolute machine on offense. He can create plays out of thin air and knock down jump shots if teams try to cheat against him. Because he does not have elite athleticism, there has been a consistent belief that he is a poor defender, but he has worked hard on that element of his game. If he can keep improving in that area, he will be one of the best players in the N.B.A.
It says a lot about Jokic that a free agent like Millsap would choose to join Denver, and they seemingly form a great offense-defense combination that could pay huge dividends for the team, especially if Jamal Murray and Gary Harris can coexist in the backcourt.
Status: A sneaky-fun League Pass team
51-31 last season
Key newcomers: Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell (draft), Tyler Lydon (draft), Josh Hart (draft)
Key departures: Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Boris Diaw
Outlook: There is no getting around the fact that Utah was wounded deeply by the defection of Hayward to Boston. The Jazz had developed him into a star, and many expected him to stay. Utah also lost its second-leading scorer in Hill. So who’s left? Well, Rudy Gobert, who is one of the N.B.A.’s best defenders; Joe Ingles, an entertaining role player; and Mitchell, who could be a breakout rookie.
That’s not enough to prevent a dramatic downturn, but Utah has shown in recent seasons that it knows how to build a team. So the exile to Lotteryville might not last long.
Status: Plummeting, for now
55-27 last season
Key newcomers: Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker
Key departures: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams
Outlook: The N.B.A. is littered with people who have underestimated Mike D’Antoni and lived to regret it, but this year presents a special challenge for a coach famous for his offensive vision. He now has a team with Paul and Harden, two ball-dominant point guards who are used to having absolutely everything run through them. On top of that, Paul, at 32, is not exactly suited to the lightning-fast offenses that D’Antoni and Harden prefer.
Still, this is a gamble the Rockets had to take. They now have two of the game’s best players and a chance to create something special. But it is going to involve some serious creativity from D’Antoni and a total buy-in from Paul and Harden to make it work.
Status: Learning to share
San Antonio Spurs
61-21 last season
Key newcomers: Rudy Gay, Derrick White (draft)
Key departures: Jonathon Simmons
Outlook: The Spurs are the Spurs. They lose players every year and end up fine. They bring in players who do not seem like much and those players suddenly have their best season in years. Gay can probably already be counted on for a surprising resurgence under Coach Gregg Popovich’s tutelage.
The one exception to the Spurs’ magic seems to be forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He came over from Portland a few years ago with great fanfare, but he has not lived up to the difficult task of replacing Tim Duncan. But even without Aldridge having a major impact, a team led by Kawhi Leonard is going to be just fine, at least until the playoffs start.
Status: Quietly thriving
New Orleans Pelicans
34-48 last season
Key newcomers: Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Ian Clark, Frank Jackson (draft)
Key departures: None
Outlook: Pairing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins is unapologetically weird in the modern N.B.A., so adding Rondo in the mix makes perfect sense. His potentially divisive personality comes with a huge amount of on-court creativity, and the Pelicans will hope that he is the player who can figure out how to make their big men thrive. He was expected to start alongside Jrue Holiday, but that will have to wait; Rondo is out for four to six weeks after having surgery for a sports hernia.
Allen is past his prime but can still contribute on defense, and Clark is capable of knocking down the open jumpers that the clogged frontcourt should create, so a serious improvement is reasonable once Rondo is back.
Status: Too weird to fail?
33-49 last season
Key newcomers: Josh McRoberts, Dennis Smith (draft)
Key departures: A.J. Hammons
Outlook: The Mavericks will be a delight for as long as Dirk Nowitzki sticks around, though their roster does not seem deep enough to compete in a crowded West. A lot of players would seem frustrated by this situation, but Nowitzki has always seemed to have a good attitude about it, even posting a tweet thanking a fan who sent him $20 to offset some of the money Nowitzki has left on the table over the years to help Dallas try to build a winner.
Smith was an absolute steal as the ninth pick in the draft, and may create some interesting opportunities for Nowitzki. But Smith’s prime will probably come too late to coincide with the last chapter of Nowitzki’s Hall of Fame career.
Status: Enjoying Dirk
43-39 last season
Key newcomers: None
Key departures: Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter
Outlook: It is hard to overstate the weight of the Grizzlies’ “Key departures” column. The grit-and-grind era is officially over, and Memphis is clearly aware of it with announcements already going out that Allen and Randolph will eventually have their numbers retired.
While the end of that era is sad for fans who loved the team’s tenacity, the Grizzlies still have Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, so they are not rebuilding on the same level of teams like Atlanta and Orlando.
Status: Moving on