2020-21 NBA Tiers: Western Conference

The 2020-21 NBA season is right around the corner (even though we just crowned the LA Lakers as champs). With the draft and free agency zooming by faster than De’Aaron Fox, we here at SLAM PH hope to help you get a hand on what to expect.

To whit: tiers!

Here are our educated guesses as to how the regular season will unfold for the Western Conference. We’ve placed the 15 teams into the categories we think they’ll fall in, although take note, they are NOT then ranked within their respective tiers. Also remember, if things were pretty different within the Orlando bubble, then the 2020-21 season could be uncharted territory. A positive COVID test would place a player on the shelf for at least 3-4 games, and let’s not even consider the possibility of multiple players catching the ‘rona, and necessitating a huge shake-up in the rotation.

With all the caveats aside, here’s how we see the West shaping up:

Finals Contenders

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The LA Lakers look primed for back-to-back titles, as once-maligned GM Rob Pelinka opted for major upgrades instead of keeping the band together for one more run. The additions of 6MOTY Montrez Harrell and 6MOTY runner-up Dennis Schroder gives Showtime plenty more punch, especially in games when LeBron James or Anthony Davis rests, while on the other end of the court, Wesley Matthews fills the 3&D role, and Marc Gasol gives the defense a more cerebral force. To top it off, extensions to James, Davis, KCP, and Kyle Kuzma lock in the team’s core.

With that said, these upgrades certainly look good on paper, but we’ll have to see how they translate on the court. The Lakers offense gets a boost from the Harrell/Schroder combo, but both have spotty defensive reputations. Matthews actually shot a bit worse from three than Twitter’s punching bag Danny Green (.364 versus .367), and Gasol was a non-factor in the bubble Playoffs for Toronto. Playing with James and Davis should raise their games, but that dynamic duo might sit more than ball, given the quick turnaround between seasons. And so if this group doesn’t gel quickly come the postseason, they might look more like the Clippers in Orlando than the team on the front of their unis.

Speaking of…

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It’s easy to clown on the LA Clippers, given the way (the meme-tastic loss of a 3-1 lead) they flamed out of second round, but it should be remembered that when they tried in the regular season, they looked dominant, thus all the visions of “LA vs LA in the WCF” in fans’ heads. This team still has Kawhi Leonard, a two-way game-changer, and they added his old Toronto teammate Serge Ibaka, who gives LA’s other franchise a much-needed dose of rim protection. Their wing depth also got an upgrade, courtesy of Nic Batum and Luke Kennard.

The big question regarding the Clippers however is whether or not they will change the way Leonard and Paul George do things, in the wake of highly-publicized reports of superstar treatment for the pair. That might have been understandable for Leonard, a two-time champ and Finals MVP with a degenerative knee issue, but much less so for George. Kawhi did have his load managed, but his numbers were about the same or better than his previous stint with the Raptors. George, who was supposed to be the squad’s second option, was wildly inconsistent, especially in the Playoffs, though he attributed some of that to mental health issues and the stress of playing in the bubble. It’s now up to new head coach Ty Lue to get everyone, including George and his big, shiny, new extension, to play nice with each other. And he’ll have to do that still without a designated playmaker, the hole they were unable to plug in free agency or the draft.

Playoff Locks

Continuity is the name of the game here. If the majority of your rotation is already familiar with each others’ quirks and tendencies, that should give them a distinct advantage given the fast pace of this NBA season. Such is true for the following four teams.

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The Denver Nuggets rode their one-two punch of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic all the way to the Western Conference Finals. They now head into this season hoping that they’ve got a Big Three, with Michael Porter Jr. completing the troika. They’ll need him to not just shine on offense, but on defense too, because the team’s depth on that end took a hit (so long Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig). Denver is also crossing their fingers for better health for Will Barton (he missed the entire bubble experience), and while we’re making wishlists, maybe Bol Bol can become a unique, but productive, part of the rotation.

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The Portland Trail Blazers survived a bout of bad health to make it into the West’s play-in game, eventually becoming the eighth seed. They start this campaign with Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood whole, and Carmelo Anthony already in the fold, though Zach Collins is out until January with ankle surgery. Nevertheless, this is still the deepest squad surrounding Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, thanks to the additions of Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Harry Giles, and the returning Enes Kanter. If Covington can help bump the team’s defense up to the teens (they were 28th in DRTG last season), PDX should claim at least a top-four finish this season.

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The Utah Jazz are another team banking on better health. Though they were in the bubble minus the injured Bojan Bogdanovic, the increase in shots allowed Donovan Mitchell to secure his superstar bonafides, with some epic scoring nights in their first-round loss to Denver. The team brought back big man Derrick Favors, who should keep the team’s defense intact even when Rudy Gobert sits. And speaking of Gobert, he and Mitchell received hefty long-term extensions this offseason (sixth man Jordan Clarkson also got re-signed). The hope is that the good vibes keep coming, and the Jazz can make even more noise in the postseason.

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The Dallas Mavericks are in a unique position in this quartet – they have perhaps the brightest star in Luka Doncic, but have the most incomplete roster. Doncic’s sidekick Kristaps Porzingis is out with a torn meniscus until next year, and the team didn’t go all-out in the offseason, maintaining salary cap flexibility for Giannis Antetokounmpo, only for the Greek Freak to extend with his team. It remains to be seen if they have enough shooting after swapping Seth Curry for Josh Richardson, but James Johnson gives them some much needed toughness, something very apparent in their first-round loss to the Clippers last season.

Play-in Favorites

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A healthy Klay Thompson would have made such a difference, but alas, it was not meant to be. The Golden State Warriors, perhaps more than ever, need Stephen Curry to be not just available, but incandescent, if they’re to return to the postseason. They’ll need to change the way they play too. Aside from Steph and Draymond Green, they lack the sort of secondary playmaking they used to enjoy from guys like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston. What they have instead are athletes: Andrew Wiggins, Eric Paschall, Kelly Oubre, Marquese Chriss, and #2 overall pick James Wiseman should all fly up and down the court. If that athleticism can also translate on the defensive end, look out. If not, they’ll at least be fun to watch.

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The Phoenix Suns hit upon what they hope is the formula for a return to the postseason: culture-changer and point god Chris Paul, plus the core of an 8-0 bubble team. If that wasn’t enough, the team splurged on high quality vets to bolster their bench: Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, and E’Twaun Moore. That said, this team does have an Achilles heel in that they’re quite shallow up front. Once you get past former #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, there’s former Warriors benchwarmer Damian Jones, rookie Jalen Smith, and…that’s it. They better hope Ayton’s ankles hold up, and that he avoids another failed drug test.

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Are we uncomfortable yet? The Houston Rockets did part ways with Russell Westbrook, but entering the season, James Harden is still in their fold. Trade talks continue, with reports having the number of teams Harden is okay landing on expanding. It’s hard to tell what this squad’s ceiling is without knowing what they’d get back in a hypothetical deal, but at least judging from the rest of the roster, they should contend regardless for a postseason seat. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins look good, coming back from devastating injuries, and Christian Wood can put up points in a hurry. If or when Harden gets traded, H-Town will definitely need a reappraisal.

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Where Zion Williamson goes, the New Orleans Pelicans go too. Given that, we have to ask ourselves, is the team doing a good job putting the former #1 overall pick in position to succeed? By most accounts Williamson should be a small-ball 5, surrounded by shooters. New Orleans seems to have gone the other way though, pairing him with a freshly-extended Steven Adams, and failing to add another sniper to the group of JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli. Perhaps the team is banking on improvement from former Lakers Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, or they’re waiting for the opportunity to cash in some of those draft picks from LA and the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Which San Antonio Spurs team will we see – the squad at the fringes of contention pre-COVID, or the team that went 5-3 in the bubble? True, LaMarcus Aldridge, arguably the team’s best player, was already expanding his range beyond the three-point arc early on in 2020, but when the Spurs landed in Orlando, they fully embraced the long-bomb. It didn’t result in the team’s storied postseason streak staying alive, but it showed that their young’uns, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, and Keldon Johnson, had potential. This season sees the Spurs at a bit of a crossroads, as Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay are all on expiring contracts. Do they embrace the vets and go for one more run, or see if there’s a trade market for them, and bet on youth?

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The Memphis Grizzlies fell in the play-in game for the eighth seed, capping off a fine debut for #2 overall choice Ja Morant. They could have gone all-in on veterans in the hopes of breaking into the top eight this time around, but instead all their additions are rookies. No, the Grizz are going slow and steady instead, hoping their deep supporting cast further gels around Morant. Case in point: Justise Winslow, their big get in the Andre Iguodala trade, has yet to even make his Grizzlies debut. This may not be their year, but it’s hard to argue against Memphis’ future.

Lottery Bound

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Despite adding the No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, it’s still difficult to be high on the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. Veteran leaders Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis should help what is a largely young contingent, but this roster still seems a bit unbalanced. They’ll likely toss out a lot of three-guard line-ups by necessity, and they’re thin up front beyond Karl-Anthony Towns and Davis, with Jake Layman penciled in as their starting 4. Ultimately, things go back to Edwards. Despite his scoring reputation in college, he’s already shown flashes of defense in the preseason. Still, it’d be too much to expect him to develop into a reliable stopper as early as year one. As such, the Timberwolves will likely find themselves on the losing end of a lot of high-scoring affairs.

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The positives for the Sacramento Kings heading into the season are short: they kept De’Aaron Fox by giving him a big extension, had Tyrese Haliburton fall into their laps with 12th overall pick in this year’s draft, and with the exit of Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency, Buddy Hield should see more consistent minutes, including at the end of games. Those three aside though, there’s little reason to be pumped about the Kangz. Could Marvin Bagley III finally stay healthy and make a leap? Perhaps, but so many more things would need to break Sacramento’s way if they’re to even sniff the play-in games.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were the most active team of any NBA offseason, but while they’ve amassed quite the stockpile of future draft picks, their immediate future is full of question marks. The known quantities are few: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the man, coupled with Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo, and Lu Dort. Seven-foot shooting guard Aleksej Pokusevski is a keeper as well, and should be plenty of fun to watch. Everyone else though (and possibly everyone, for the right price) is gettable via trade, with veterans Trevor Ariza, George Hill, and Al Horford being the highlights. In a sense, there’s no pressure on new head coach Mark Daigneault, beyond developing the young guns who do figure to be part of the squad’s core. Still, it’d be a cool story if they were to somehow crash the postseason party, but after what happened last season, lightning (or thunder in this case), can’t strike twice, right?