The Western Conference is going to be absolutely brutal during the 2023-24 NBA season. Thirteen of the 15 teams are coming into the year with pretty clear hopes of making it to the postseason. One of those remaining two teams, the Portland Trail Blazers, turned Damian Lillard into a bunch of really solid pros and has an impressive young core that could end up being a nightmare to deal with. The final one, the San Antonio Spurs, have a 7’3 freak of nature who could end up being the best player in the world sometime soon and a revered head coach who is just used to winning a whole lot of games.
All of this is to say that every night in the West is going to be a blast. Only 10 team can make the playoffs and the Play-In Tournament, and there are going to be some incredibly disappointed squads because they just can’t break into that collection of teams — let alone fail to earn the 7 or 8 seed. Still, not every team is perfect, and here’s the big question every team in the West needs to answer this season.
Dallas Mavericks: Can They Piece Together Enough On Defense?
The Mavs were dreadful defensively after the Kyrie Irving trade, as they were never able to replace Dorian Finney-Smith’s presence on the wing. This year, they’ll hope Grant Williams’ addition can bring some much-needed defensive versatility on the wing, as he showed in Boston he’s capable of defending both forward spots and centers in a pinch. Both of the rookies they drafted, Dereck Lively II and Olivier Maxence-Prosper, have some questions regarding their offensive capabilities, but both could play immediately for their defensive upside — with more to come on Lively below. The return of a healthy Maxi Kleber also should help, as they rode a small-ball lineup featuring him at center in their playoff run two seasons ago, and Josh Green figures to step into a larger role as well, as he’s their best bet for perimeter defense on this roster.
There should be a baseline of a top-8 offense with the combination of Luka Doncic and Irving, which means to be a playoff team they don’t need to be elite at defense, but simply passable on that end. That wasn’t the case last year, but this roster certainly seems better equipped to be less of a sieve on that end. Jason Kidd’s reputation as a strong defensive coach will be put to the test this season, but if he can get them outside the bottom 10 in the league, this should be a pretty dangerous team.
Denver Nuggets: How Do They Replace Bruce Brown And Jeff Green?
The tricky thing about the Nuggets is that we know so much about them. The team is running it back with the starting five that got them a ring — Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic — while head coach Michael Malone is still in town. That starting group gives them a floor that, barring injury, no other team can match.
If there is a problem, it revolves around the fact that two key pieces of the puzzle from last year are no longer here. After one season with the team, Brown cashed in on his brilliant 2022-23 campaign by signing a lucrative, 2-year deal with the Indiana Pacers. Green was ultra reliable and steady for the team during his two years in Denver, he’s now a member of the Houston Rockets. Their contributions to what the Nuggets accomplished last season can’t really be overstated, as they were effective cogs in the machine on offense who were willing to take on difficult assignments on defense.
The only major questions with the starting group revolve around whether Murray can finally get over the hump and become an All-Star and how much more room Porter has to grow. Caldwell-Pope and Gordon are as defined in their roles as they can be, while Jokic is the best basketball player on the planet. But there are real questions about replacing Brown and Green.
Golden State Warriors: How Does Chris Paul Fit In?
The Jordan Poole era coming to an end probably wasn’t a surprise — his gigantic salary was a potential handcuff on the team in terms of limiting what they could do going forward, he saw a drop-off in his efficiency after signing his new deal, and of course, there was the much-discussed incident in the preseason where he got into it with Draymond Green, which ended in Green punching him. The much bigger surprise was what the Warriors got back for Poole and a future pick: Chris Paul.
Over the course of his career, Paul has seemed to take pride in battling against Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, and the rest of the Warriors. Imagine going back to, like, 2016 and telling yourself that Chris Paul would end up on the Golden State Warriors. It just doesn’t sound right! And yet, it’s not hard to see how he can really help Golden State, particularly in the minutes when Curry is on the bench — like most teams that build their offense around an elite player, the Warriors have struggled over the years when Curry rests. Paul, in theory, can give Golden State a near-ideal option to run things when Curry is off the floor, and it’s not hard to see how having him out there with Curry would make it easy for the Warriors to unlock Curry’s ability to move off the ball.
There is absolutely a path where this works, where Paul gives the team the ball-handler and floor general to deputize Curry, where his otherworldly hoops IQ fits in perfectly, where he buys into a role (either as a full-time starter or a spot starter who is primarily a sixth man) that just fits into the Warriors ecosystem. There is, also, a path where it doesn’t, where Paul just never quite gels with a team that has been an adversary of his for years, where the slow, meticulous style that he has mastered is a cumbersome fit in Steve Kerr’s wonderfully fluid side. Could they turn his contract and a bunch of other stuff into a star by the trade deadline? Who knows! This can go in a lot of different ways, which is part of what makes it so fun.
Houston Rockets: How Big A Leap Can They Take On Defense?
The reason Ime Udoka was hired was to bring a defensive identity to a team that has been lacking one for two years. It’s also why Fred VanVleet was the target over James Harden in free agency, and why they are willing to deal with Dillon Brooks’ at times frustrating antics to bring in an All-Defense caliber wing. It’d be hard not to take a step forward defensively from last year, when they were 29th in defensive rating (per Basketball-Reference), but it remains to be seen how big that step can be.
At this point, they should have enough on the perimeter and wing to be able to always have a couple good defenders on the floor at all times, which is a considerable upgrade from where they’ve been. VanVleet and Brooks are proven pests on the perimeter, while Tari Eason and Amen Thompson have the frames, athleticism, and profile to be very good on that end, they just need the structure around them. The real question on defense is whether they have enough rim protection, as they weren’t able to land the defensive upgrade they hoped for in free agency when Brook Lopez balked and returned to the Bucks. As such, Alperen Sengun will be back starting at the five, where he doesn’t provide much in terms of rim deterrence (0.9 blocks per game a year ago) but also was not being helped much at all by a very leaky point of attack defense.
Houston will be a really interesting test of how much improving your point of attack defense can raise your defensive level overall if you still lack elite rim protection. Sengun shouldn’t be left on islands trying to cover two guys at once as much as last year and can focus more on being in the right position, which should help him be more effective, but there’s a ceiling to his impact on that end. They have a chance to be special offensively if things click for enough of their youngsters at once, but they’ll need to climb out of the bottom third of the league on defense to have a chance at a really surprising leap into Play-In contention.
Los Angeles Clippers: Will We Finally Get Close To A Full Season Of Kawhi Leonard And Paul George?
We have avoided the health question with most teams, because any injury to a top star at the wrong time will end a team’s chance of winning a title. However, in L.A. we’re entering our fifth year of the Kawhi and PG era and have never seen the two play more than 108 combined games. The good news is, the two are entering the season at full strength (with the understanding that full strength has a different meaning with two stars with their injury histories) and there is once again a bit of optimism that maybe this can be the year they can get to the postseason and have both available for a full playoff run.
That really is where everything starts for this team. That said, they also have to get to the playoffs, which isn’t a simple proposition now with the Play-In Tournament. Last year, they earned the 5-seed out West with Kawhi Leonard looking better than he ever has since arriving in L.A., but had his postseason cut short by another knee injury in the first round. Paul George was similarly sensational in his 56 appearances, but likewise missed the postseason with an ill-timed knee sprain at the end of the year. When those two are on the floor together, the Clippers play like a contender in the West. When they aren’t, the Clippers are a competitive but ultimately overmatched team. It really is about that simple. Before this experiment ends, it’d be nice to get one year where we see what they could do at full strength in the playoffs, but that’s a long way off.
Los Angeles Lakers: Did They Do Enough This Summer?
LeBron is LeBron, even if Father Time ends up catching up to him a little bit more this year now that he is officially the oldest player in the NBA. Anthony Davis is Anthony Davis, and James has made abundantly clear that he wants to hand the reins totally off to him and let the Lakers be his team. As long as those two are able to play and be good, effective NBA players, teams are not going to have a good time playing against Los Angeles.
The question, as always, is going to be the pieces around them. We have a pretty good sense of how some guys are going to fit: Austin Reaves is a legitimate third option and someone whose ability to score and make plays fits awfully well alongside those two. For his offensive limitations, Jarred Vanderbilt’s defense and ability to get hustle points on offense is a nice fit. D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura aren’t perfect players, but their ability to score gives the team a much-needed boost on offense.
That’s a good, albeit not perfect, group of five or six players — that core got swept in the Western Conference Finals by the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. The goal going into the summer, beyond making sure guys in that group got contract extensions, was to build even further. Can Christian Wood finally put together a full season of effective basketball on both ends of the floor? Is Gabe Vincent able to repeat his commandeering performance in the playoffs with the Miami Heat? What does Jaxson Hayes look like on this team? What about Taurean Prince? Can any of their young guys, particularly Max Christie and 2023 first-round pick Jalen Hood-Schifino, give them anything?
The expectations are, and always will be, extremely high in L.A. James and Davis will take them as far as they can on their own, but if the team is going to do anything more than that, it’s going to require all these other pieces playing to the absolute best of their ability.
Memphis Grizzlies: How Well Can They Manage Ja Morant’s 25-Game Suspension?
There aren’t a lot of questions left for this Grizzlies team in the regular season after back-to-back campaigns, and much of what people want to see is whether they can become a more real threat to top West contenders come playoff time. However, they can only answer those questions if they’re a playoff team, and this year they will face a real challenge in securing a guaranteed playoff spot in a crowded West with the 25-game suspension for All-Star guard Ja Morant. Memphis has been very good in Morant’s absence in the past, navigating stretches without him due to various injuries, but going 25 straight games without Morant will put them to the test.
With Tyus Jones now in Washington, they no longer have their steady-handed backup able to run the show, and that means a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of Marcus Smart to pick things up quickly and establish early chemistry with his teammates. Smart is certainly capable of running the show for a playoff contender, but he’s coming from a place where he had a ton of reps and an unspoken bond with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Now he’ll have to quickly create that understanding with Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., and there could be some hiccups along the way. In the long-run, I think the Smart trade was worthwhile for Memphis as he is an upgrade over Brooks and brings some real playoff experience and savvy to a roster that needs it. However, it’s not a guarantee that in the immediate absence of Morant things go as smoothly as they have in the past when the star guard has been out, and in what figures to be a very crowded race for the top-6 in the West, the Grizzlies will need to be able to tread water until he’s back.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can The Second Year Of Their Big Three Go Much Better?
The Timberwolves took one of the NBA’s more ambitious swings in recent memory last offseason, as the team moved a ton of stuff to bring Rudy Gobert to Minneapolis. It was a pretty fascinating statement of intent, as the team clearly believed that a frontcourt duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert could work in harmony as Anthony Edwards ascends to become the face of the franchise. The result of that bet: 42 wins, 40 losses, needing a win in the Play-In Tournament to earn a postseason berth, where they lost in five games to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Obviously there are some pretty easily identifiable reasons as to why that was the case, namely the fact that Towns only played in 29 games due to injury. Their offense wasn’t as dynamic as expected. They swapped out their point guard after 54 games, as they were part of a three-team deal with the Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers to replace D’Angelo Russell with Mike Conley. Instead of having the sort of elite defense that teams built around Gobert tend to have, Minnesota was 10th in defensive rating. The regular season ended with Gobert getting suspended for punching Kyle Anderson during a timeout.
There were bright spots — Edwards is very good, Jaden McDaniels is an impressive player — and the team was by no means a catastrophe. Still, Minnesota didn’t go all-in on the Edwards/Gobert/Towns trio just to win one playoff game and spend the entire regular season flirting with a .500 record. Whether or not they can take a step forward as a trio is the big question for this season and beyond, and if they can’t, there are going to have to be some really difficult conversations about what they can accomplish. But the good news is that those three guys are all extremely talented, they have a well-respected head coach in Chris Finch, and their roster is filled with guys who know how to play alongside that trio.
New Orleans Pelicans: How Much Will Their Starting Unit Play Together?
With most teams I have tried avoiding going with health-related questions, but it’s impossible to talk about this Pelicans team without addressing the elephant in the room. We saw last year that when they’re all on the floor they can be an absolute buzzsaw, as they have terrific balance when at full strength. Their top-6 is genuinely among the best in the league, as Zion Williamson is an unstoppable freight train getting to the rim, Ingram has become an elite midrange scorer, and C.J. McCollum is a steady hand in the backcourt and knockdown shooter. Around those three they can go big or small, with Jonas Valanciunas, Herbert Jones, and Trey Murphy III all providing a different complementary skillset to their trio of stars.
The Pelicans even have solid depth beyond that six, but there is a ceiling on how far that can take a team if their top stars aren’t on the floor. There are already some injury concerns in New Orleans before the season even begins, but if they can get 60+ games out of Zion and Brandon Ingram each, they absolutely have a shot at being in the West playoff chase. That’s how good they are, it’s just a matter of whether they can finally sustain it for a full season or if we’re doomed to dream of what could’ve been in New Orleans once again.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Are They Ready?
Try to find one person in the basketball world who isn’t excited about the Thunder. It’s really hard! Last season, Oklahoma City was quite the surprise, as the team went 40-42, earned a playoff berth, and won one game during the Play-In Tournament before getting bounced by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their offense is a blast, and is led by a legitimate superstar in All-NBA First Team selection Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Jalen Williams was one of the best rookies in the league last year. Josh Giddey took a leap during his second year. There’s a seemingly endless supply of promising young players, all of whom get better and better the longer they spend in Mark Daigneault’s system.
All of this is to say that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a very trendy pick to make some noise in the Western Conference — maybe not compete with the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns, but be in the playoff hunt all regular season and be a handful once the postseason roll around. But of course, any team can have hype around them. Not every team, however, turn that hype into results, and that’s ultimately the challenge that the Thunder will face.
How do they respond to that first losing streak that brings them down to earth a little bit? Can they survive a major injury to one of their key contributors? Do they have frontcourt depth in the event Chet Holmgren needs some time to get used to life in the NBA? Can they take a step forward on at least one end of the floor — the team was 13th in defensive rating and 16th in offensive rating last year, and while those numbers are solid, there is plenty of room to get better.
The good news is they have a no-doubt star leading the charge and a roster of young, hungry players. Leaps don’t have to happen, but betting on the Thunder to make one seems safe.
Phoenix Suns: Will They End Up Needing To Add A Point Guard?
The Suns are going to start the season putting the basketball in Devin Booker’s hands and having him run the offense, with the understanding there will be plenty of touches for Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant as initiators as well. As they completely overhauled their roster this summer, they focused their efforts on adding wing and frontcourt depth, trying to give Frank Vogel a variety of lineup combinations that can lean more defensive or offensive depending on the situation. However, they never really bolstered their point guard depth beyond the initial addition of Jordan Goodwin in the Beal trade, as both Chris Paul and Cameron Payne are gone from the roster a year ago. It’s clear their plan is to spread out offensive responsibilities across the roster, with Booker as the nominal point guard but running offense through Beal, Durant, and even Jusuf Nurkic as well to take some of the creative burden off of Booker’s shoulders.
What is going to be important in the first few months of the season leading into the trade deadline is for Frank Vogel, James Jones, and the rest of the Suns decision makers to be extremely honest in their evaluation of this team, because it’s very likely they’ll look just fine doing this in the regular season. However, in those bigger games and bigger moments, they’ll be keeping a very close watch on how the ball moves and how things flow offensively, because those will be indicators of whether this can work come playoff time or if they might want to take a look on the trade market for a veteran point guard just to add a steady hand to the roster.
One of the hardest things to do for a team that’s just been constructed is to make decisions that benefit the playoff roster based on regular season results, but Phoenix will certainly need to do its best self-scouting to determine if this group can reach its offensive peak as is or if they need another distributor to maximize their talent.
Portland Trail Blazers: How Does Scoot Henderson’s Rookie Year Go?
We’ll never know everything that went on this offseason, but one thing we do know is that Damian Lillard wanted Portland to turn the No. 3 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft into immediate help. The team decided to not do that, and instead used the pick on Scoot Henderson, the dynamic guard from the G League Ignite who has been pegged as a potential All-Star for years.
Putting major expectations on Henderson right away is not fair. He is, at the end of the day, a teenager who is about to make the jump to the most difficult professional basketball league in the world. But for everything that Portland got (and will continue to get) in the Lillard trade — whether that be the one that sent Lillard our or the subsequent ones involving players they acquired for him — the most important piece of the puzzle is his successor, who will now get the opportunity to spread his wings and fly from the jump.
There’s a solid core around Henderson, and those players should help take some of the pressure off of him as he finds his way in the league. That might take a while, because being a rookie point guard is just not easy. But between his natural ability and the way he’s wired, it makes sense to want to bet on Henderson in the long-term — remember, while the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft was never in doubt, there was a school of thought that Henderson would have gone first overall in plenty of prior Drafts, as he’s the sort of guard prospect worth building your team around. This year is a chance for him to lay down a floor, and even though there are going to be obvious growing pains, the flashes he’ll probably show are what the Blazers are banking on.
Sacramento Kings: How Do They Handle A Season With Expectations?
With the playoff race in the West seemingly getting more crowded this year with expected improvements from teams like the Suns, Lakers, and Warriors, the continued presence of the Nuggets, and last year’s Play-In squads all hoping for a leap, the Kings face a tall task replicating their success from last season. Plenty of people have pointed out how much they got out of their main rotation a year ago, as their top 8 all played 73 or more games, which rarely happens in the NBA — although Kings fans will also be quick to note that doesn’t take into account Domantas Sabonis playing much of the second half through a thumb injury. However, health plays a big role for every team and I’m more interested in how this Kings team deals with being a team other teams are getting up to play.
Last year the Kings put up an historic offensive season, absolutely blitzing teams by using De’Aaron Fox’s speed, surrounded by shooters, to get out and run in transition, while also being able to dominate in the halfcourt with the Fox-Sabonis two-man game (again, surrounded by shooting). It’s rare to have that kind of balance, and it’ll be rather fascinating to see how teams approach those two differently on defense after their sensational year with two earned All-Star appearances. Slowing Fox is much easier said than done, but teams should have more defined game plans for this Kings team and will look to try and shift at least some of the creative burden to the Kings wings to put the pressure on them, especially late in games when Fox has been so dominant.
Fox proved in the postseason last year that he isn’t shaken by additional defensive attention and pressure, and that’s going to be critical for the Kings getting back into the playoffs. Teams will be much more aware when the Kings come around on the schedule this season, and Sacramento figures to have their full attention in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case for all of last year. If they can nab a top-6 spot in the West this year, that would be an incredibly impressive verification of last year.
San Antonio Spurs: How Good Will Victor Wembanyama Be Right Away?
The eyes of the basketball watching world are going to be on the Spurs this season explicitly because of Wembanyama. Even his highlights in the preseason make clear that we’ve never quite seen someone like this before — he might already be one of the 10-best defenders in the NBA, as his length, athleticism, and instincts are all things that completely change how an offense wants to attack on that end of the floor. Seriously, what on earth is this?
Just dribbling around him is a recipe for disaster, let alone trying to challenge him at the rim. But the thing that will dictate how good Wembanyama is from the jump in the NBA is his play on the offensive end of the floor. We’ll have to see just how much he’s asked to do right away, especially considering that San Antonio will presumably put him in the starting lineup with two guys who were effective scorers last season in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. It’s not hard to imagine a universe where Gregg Popovich decides to bring Wembanyama along slowly, let him get his feet under him, and let him get used to the stuff that you just can’t get used to until you’re actually dropped into an NBA basketball game for the first time.
Having said that, the early returns in the preseason indicate that the Spurs aren’t going to take things easy on him. Through four games, Wembanyama (who has played in three of them) leads San Antonio in points (19.3) and field goal attempts (12.7) per game. His five attempts from three per game is second on the team, behind only Vassell. His usage percentage of 35.2 percent leads the team by a lot. It’s all small sample size stuff, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll dive head-first into being a No. 1 option once the regular season starts, but it at least suggests that Popovich is willing to let him learn on the fly. And if that ends up working out? Perhaps we will, indeed, see a rookie make an All-Star team for the first time in more than a decade.
Utah Jazz: How Much Better Can Their Young Guys Get?
Both Lauri Markkanen and John Collins will be 26 at the start of the season. Collin Sexton will be 24. A number of guys who you can reasonably expect to have roles on the team — Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbaji, Talen Horton-Tucker — are all 22 or 23. They have three first-round rookies (Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, Brice Sensabaugh) who are all 19. Obviously, the team will see what it has with those rookies, but as Markkanen showed last year, Utah under Will Hardy puts guys into an environment where they can grow into the best version of themselves.
Sexton, for example, is a fascinating player to watch. While it’ll be interesting to see Kessler continue to establish himself as one of the league’s most intimidating defensive presences and Agbaji try to build on his close to last year, the Jazz have questions at point guard, both this year and in the future. Sexton, the former Cleveland Cavalier who played in 48 games last year with 15 starts, had an up-and-down season in 2022-23 as he looked to get back up to speed following a torn meniscus the year prior and appeared in one game after the All-Star break. Can he, in year two of a four-year contract, find his form and establish himself as a crucial piece of the puzzle in Utah? If not, can a guy like Horton-Tucker take a step forward as a jumbo playmaker? Can George get up to speed and run the point? Will they have to rely heavily on a grizzled veteran like Kris Dunn?
No matter what, there is plenty of young talent here, and it’s a lot of guys who are not yet (and, in some circumstances, nowhere near) the prime of their careers. With how the team is building towards a future where they will compete for championships, development is the single most important thing to watch this season.