What Each Eliminated West Playoff Team Has To Do To Go Farther Next Season

The Western Conference Finals matchup is a bit surprising, as the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks are squaring off against one another. They’re two exceptional teams, but considering just how good the Western Conference is, it’s commendable that both were able to make their way through the first two rounds and get to a point where an NBA Finals berth is within reach.

As for the other six teams that made it to the playoffs but came up short of a conference finals appearance, at least five of them will view their inability to get to that point as a major disappointment. It begs the question: What do these teams need to do to make sure they can go farther in 2024-25? Just like we did with the Eastern Conference yesterday, we tried to answer that question for the teams in the West today.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Cash in

The Thunder opted to not move a ton of stuff ahead of the trade deadline, instead making a much smaller move to bring in Gordon Hayward. Could they have pursued OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam, instead? They surely had the picks to move, if they wanted, but they didn’t want to take a big swing, opting to let it ride with their young core.

They won a playoff series, then lost in six games in the conference semis against the Mavs. Hayward played 14 total minutes in the first three games, then watched from the bench. At some point, Oklahoma City does have to swing for the fences — they just cannot use all of their draft capital, their team is going to get expensive sooner rather than later once extensions for Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren get sorted out, and they now have a data point for where they can stand to get better in the postseason. There’s an obvious spot in their starting five to upgrade, too, as Josh Giddey saw his role decrease throughout the series against Dallas — he even got removed from the starting lineup towards the end. If they can find a guy who can play off of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, taking some of their draft capital and blowing a team away for the right guy would be a very wise decision as they try to take that next step.

Denver Nuggets: Build out your bench

Denver is in a funny spot, because while most teams need to play their best lineup more, the Nuggets ran theirs back and leaned on it a ton this year. They were excellent all season, the team won a ton of games, and then, their 5-man group of Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic struggled mightily in their 7-game conference semifinal loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Denver can, should, and will lean on those guys next year — all of them are coming back, although Caldwell-Pope has a player option for $15 million and if he declines it, one would presume he’ll get paid by the team.

Regardless, the Nuggets lost some serious depth this past offseason when Bruce Brown and Jeff Green left, and Michael Malone seems to understand that bringing along younger guys is important. It’s worth watching how the Nuggets front office approaches its bench, which was one of the least productive in the NBA during the regular season and the playoffs. Do they try to bring in guys from the outside, or do they believe younger players like Zeke Nnaji, Christian Braun, Julian Strawther, Peyton Watson, Jalen Pickett, and Hunter Tyson can get the job done with a little more experience? Regardless, finding a few guys who can come off the bench and complement the league’s most highly-regarded starting lineup is priority No. 1 for the defending champs this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers: ?

I’ll be honest: I have no idea what the Clippers should do to go farther in the playoffs. It seems like they once again want to run back the Kawhi Leonard + Paul George duo, despite the former once again seeing his year end early due to injury and the latter hitting unrestricted free agency. James Harden is a free agent but will presumably get paid. Ty Lue hasn’t gotten fired and doesn’t seem like he’s going to. Norman Powell, Ivica Zubac, Terance Mann: Still here. P.J. Tucker is probably not turning down $11.6 million. Who knows if Russell Westbrook declines a player option worth $4 million.

The answer really might just be to keep Leonard healthy somehow and hope that a full year of playing together plus their first offseason as a trio means the Leonard-George-Harden core can go to war with opposing teams. Maybe there’s some way to figure out a trade with the $30 million or so that Powell and Tucker earn, along with a 2030 pick swap or something — if there’s someone out there who can lessen the physical toll Leonard puts on himself, they need to try and acquire him. It’s just really hard to see what a feasible path towards getting better would be other than hoping continuity wins out.

Phoenix Suns: Nail the 2024 Draft pick and hope to hit on a couple vet mins

This, basically, is the only path the Suns can go down this offseason barring them surprising everyone by actually improving via a trade (it’s very, very rare for a team negotiating from a position of weakness to get better in that situation), so it’s the answer here. Phoenix went down the vet minimum route last summer, and because of the new CBA, they can only sign vet minimum dudes in free agency this summer. If there’s a source of optimism, it’s that the team knows exactly what its core is — Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen — and can target guys on the market entirely around knowing this, as opposed to indiscriminately giving deals to guys before having all their big business done, like last year. (Remember, the Deandre Ayton trade that brought Nurkic and Allen to town did not happen until September.)

As for adding young, dynamic talent, the 2024 NBA Draft, where the team is picking 22nd, is going to be crucial. I’m just some idiot on the internet, but trading the pick in a “win-now” move would be a big mistake, as having a dude on a rookie deal for the next four years is something Phoenix could really, really use as it tries to navigate its current financial situation. This player doesn’t necessarily need to be a win-now guy or a developmental pick, although presumably, the former would be a better fit on their roster. The high-end talent Phoenix has can take them a long way, but the front office desperately needs to build a team around them that makes sense.

Los Angeles Lakers: Get a third star (or star-ish player) somehow

The dirty little secret with this Lakers team is that 47 wins in a season where Anthony Davis plays in 76 games and LeBron James plays in 71 is about right. Yes, there were some tendencies Darvin Ham had that drove fans insane and led to him getting fired, but if those two guys miss a combined 17 games, you’re going to end up closer to your ceiling than your floor. They quite possibly win a playoff series if they draw anyone in round one than Denver, but instead, their season looks like a step back despite winning four more regular season games than they did the year before.

As such, adding a third guy who can fit alongside those two and raise the team’s ceiling a bit would be a big boost — it’s part of the reason the Lakers declined to make a big trade at the deadline, instead opting to go into this summer with extra draft capital to play with and a collection of salaries that can be put together to facilitate a deal. Guard help, especially in the aftermath of another D’Angelo Russell postseason stinker, would be nice — we’ll see if this comes to fruition, but in the event Darius Garland does try to leave the Cavs, attempting to buy low on him (he’s a Klutch client!) would be awfully appealing.

New Orleans Pelicans: Figure out who your core is and build around it

This one isn’t all that hard to figure out. The trio of CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson just doesn’t gel the way it needs to. There has to be some tinkering there, especially when the team has two wings (Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy III) who are absolutely perfect role players. Do they roll the dice with Williamson’s health and see what they can get for Ingram on an expiring contract? Do they decide Williamson just can’t be trusted and kick the tires on a trade for him? What’s McCollum’s role in all of this?

An interesting subplot here: The Pelicans still have picks they can move from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades, so once they pick a direction, they have additional, lucrative stuff they can move to bring talent in if they so choose. They don’t have to put together everything to acquire a guy, but they could put together a very interesting trade package around, say, Ingram and Milwaukee’s unprotected 2027 first-round pick if they can acquire a star.