NBA Western Conference: Grizzlies' time to shine | Inquirer Sports

NBA Western Conference: Grizzlies’ time to shine

/ 08:53 PM October 14, 2022

If you’re going to win the West this season, you’re going to have to beat the best — the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

Surprisingly, eight teams will tip off their seasons at least somewhat expecting to do just that.

Their rationales are wildly varied, but somewhat believable, beginning with one team that would have been a big favorite over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals if it had won just one more game in order to get in. Then there’s the up-and-comer who seemed to have older, slower Golden State’s number until its star got injured in their playoff showdown.


And let’s not forget the two teams that remained remarkably competitive despite each being down two star performers for all or most of the year; two surprise postseason entrants who have bulked up big-time since we last saw them; and two superstar-driven clubs who spent the offseason looking for the best way of assembling a championship-level supporting cast.


So who will claim the West in 2023? That depends how you define “win.” The real winner might be one of the other six teams — the one that positions itself best to win the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. And in that case, winning might mean losing 70 games.

So let’s play ball … well, except when a top-nine team plays a bottom-six club. Then it might not qualify as basketball at all.

(Teams listed in projected order of regular-season wins)


Dillon Brooks #24 and Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrate a 114-106 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals after Game Six of the Western Conference First Round at Target Center on April

FILE–Dillon Brooks #24 and Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies. David Berding/Getty Images/AFP 

To dominate the West like Phoenix did last regular season, it takes star power, an ability to get along, injury luck and, as much as anything, a desire to do so. The Suns already have disqualified themselves, which makes last year’s surprise the Next Man Up. If not for Jaren Jackson Jr.’s foot injury, the Grizzlies would be an obvious choice to ascend to the top, especially given the way they handled the Warriors in the regular season and while Ja Morant was healthy in their playoff series. Count on this: Morant will push harder from Day One than most (if not all) other playoff-dreaming Western superstars. And that’s how you win the West.


NBA Finals Golden State Warriors

FILE– Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Draymond Green believes he’s the best defensive player in the league. He wants a contract extension and doesn’t understand why a limited backup seems to be a higher priority. With $100 million at stake, wouldn’t you punch somebody? For all the talk about the Warriors’ wave of the future, last year’s title was carted off on the broad shoulders of Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney. The Warriors coasted to 53 regular-season wins and really have no incentive to go for more this year, which will make keeping up with the motivated Grizzlies unlikely. What happens in the playoffs depends upon the mindset and whereabouts of Green, with no guarantee he hasn’t already turned into this year’s Ben Simmons.


Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers warms up before the start of Game Four of the Western Conference second-round playoff series against Utah Jazz at Staples Center on June 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, California

FILE–Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP 

If the Clippers compete for the Western crown — and on paper, they should — they’ll have to throw an assist to the Trail Blazers. Last February, the Clippers pulled off the heist of the year when they stole Norman Powell and Robert Covington from Portland. It was enough to allow the seriously compromised club to finish with a winning record, while also paving the way for a smooth transition into the return of stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Throw in Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson and … well, anything they get out of John Wall, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. will be gravy. The scary part about the Clippers is they’re good enough to challenge for Western supremacy even while babying Leonard and George.



Jokic Nuggets

FILE–Aaron Gordon #50 and Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets. Cole Burston/Getty Images/AFP

You can’t do better than a healthy Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope anywhere west of Brooklyn. But having Porter and Murray mostly healthy in November is far less important than having them fully healthy in April. So while making up five games in the regular season on the Warriors seems reasonable, it also is meaningless. With the Jazz having gone to the dark side, no team is more of a lock to claim a division title than the Nuggets, no matter how much they rest Porter and Murray. Keeping Jokic healthy and finding dependable depth among Christian Braun, Bones Hyland and the trade deadline likely will determine the club’s ultimate fate.


The Phoenix Suns huddle during the second quarter in Game Seven of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks at Footprint Center on May 15, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

FILE–The Phoenix Suns. Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP

Can’t we all just get along? When that question has to be asked in the NBA, usually the answer is no. And that’s why the Suns, whose mix of chemistry and talent had them in the fast lane to a title last season, can be listed no higher than fifth in the West this season (and potentially quite a bit lower). Almost 100 percentage points better than anyone else last season, the Suns have turned into Brooklyn West, with Deandre Ayton a complete mystery man and Jae Crowder — Jae Crowder, for crying out loud — wanting out. A great coach and the emergence of Cameron Johnson into an All-Star-type player could salvage the season, but equally likely is this question being asked sometime in February: Why didn’t we just go all-in on Kevin Durant?


Brandon Ingram Pelicans

FILE–Brandon Ingram #14 high fives Jose Alvarado #15 of the New Orleans Pelicans. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images/AFP 

With a stronger supporting cast than ever, this is the year we get an answer to the question: Is Jayson Tatum really better than Brandon Ingram? That probably will come down to just how much the national media fall in love with arguably the league’s most entertaining team and stop gushing over the bad-shot-taking, turnover machine. A healthy Zion Williamson (remember him?) gives the Pelicans a Big Three along with Ingram and C.J. McCollum that rivals any in the West. Now mix in postseason darlings Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, along with Willie Green’s magic on rookie Dyson Daniels, and look out.


Lakers NBA

FILE–Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers. Harry How/Getty Images/AFP

Projecting LeBron James to finish seventh at anything is likely to get your analyst’s card revoked, but even that was four spots too high last season despite James having another All-NBA-type year in just 56 games. So what’s his reward for the hard work? Believe it or not, it appears the Lakers got worse. This could get REAL ugly unless Anthony Davis, co-captain with Tatum on the All-Overrated Team, turns back the clock big-time; Russell Westbrook gets dealt for a Jazz giveaway to be named later; and Patrick Beverley refrains from ever giving LeBron instructions. And they brought back Dennis Schroder, too? You’ve got to be kidding.


May 24, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) is congratulated after a play against the Golden State Warriors during a time out during the third quarter in game four of the 2022 Western Conference finals at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

FILE–Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Grizzlies, the Mavericks bowed out of the Western playoffs last spring demanding a rematch with the Warriors. Unlike the Grizzlies, the Mavs had no reason to believe they belonged on that stage … and still don’t. The plan to build a wall around star Luka Doncic failed. Christian Wood was added, while Jalen Brunson was lost. That’s not building. That’s destroying. The only good news for Dallas is that the NBA landscape is as volatile as ever, including several teams where the bottom could fall out at any time. The needy Mavs would be wise to pick up some pieces. Their work is not close to being done.


Karl-Anthony Towns #32 celebrates recording an assist on a basket made by D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves against the Milwaukee Bucks in the fourth quarter of the game at Target Center on March 19, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves defeated the Bucks 138-119. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. David Berding/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by David Berding / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

FILE–Karl-Anthony Towns #32 celebrates recording an assist on a basket made by D’Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. David Berding/Getty Images/AFP 

The last time the Timberwolves threw first-round picks around, it wound up costing them the No. 7 pick in the 2021 draft in a trade where they were already giving up more (Wiggins) than they were receiving (D’Angelo Russell). You’d have thought they’d learned their lesson, but no. In fact, the Timberwolves doubled-down when they sent four firsts and some useful players to Utah for land-locked Rudy Gobert, effectively pointing powerful big man Karl-Anthony Towns to the 3-point line and green-lighting one of the league’s greatest wastes of talent. What’s next: A 1-2-2 zone defense? Now that his sons have turned pro, where’s Jim Boeheim when you need him?


Damian Lillard Portland Trail Blazers

FILE–Head coach Chauncey Billups and Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers. Steph Chambers/Getty Images/AFP 

One of the biggest questions to be answered probably sometime before Christmas is: Will Damian Lillard sign off on the plan to tank the season? And if not, would the Trail Blazers try to pacify him with a rewardless run at the final play-in spot rather than dealing him and joining the Wembanyama chase? After getting fleeced in deals with the Clippers and Pelicans last season, the Trail Blazers seemed primed to compete for Worst in the West honors before buckling under to Lillard pressure and upgrading with Jerami Grant in the offseason. With Anfernee Simons developing and Gary Payton II lured to Portland in another good move, this team indeed appears headed upward. But to where? And why?


Buddy Hield #24 and Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Sacramento Kings reacts after Hill made a thee-point shot against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half of and NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on February 02, 2022 in Sacramento, California.

FILE–Buddy Hield #24 and Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Sacramento Kings. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images/AFP 

Here’s the problem with hiring a veteran coach like Mike Brown: The team is bound to try hard and, gulp, win a few extra games. While that sounds like a good thing when you haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, it hasn’t been a recipe for the Kings to make any headway in the league’s toughest division for a decade and a half. Say this about the Kings: They’ve drafted well in recent years, which is good news for Keegan Murray, as likely as anyone to capture Rookie of the Year honors. Having added underrated Domantas Sabonis last season, the playoffs-starved Kings could find themselves buyers again in a buyers’ market come February. Anyone interested in De’Aaron Fox?


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Thunder

FILE – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder.. Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images/AFP 

Remember how the Spurs got great? They used a David Robinson injury as an excuse to go from a 59-win team to a 62-game loser, which put them in a position to draft Tim Duncan. Is it possible we’re seeing history repeat itself here, with standout big man Chet Holmgren already ruled out for the season with a foot injury? Can you imagine Holmgren and Wembanyama on the same team? It appears the Thunder can. Heck, star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already showed up for the start of camp with a sprained MCL. Here we go again with a team that has a proven ability to play this game … and starts off with a modern-day Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili combination in Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey.


Dejounte Murray Spurs NBA

FILE–Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs congratulates Doug McDermott #17 of the San Antonio Spurs. Ronald Cortes/Getty Images/AFP 

Yes, the Spurs are back at Square One, which is where Gregg Popovich devised the Duncan caper and turned them into the league’s most consistently outstanding franchise for two decades. Pop doesn’t have Robinson to sit out this time around, but he does have a roster so devoid of talent, it won’t have to be told to tank in order to lose 70 games. It’s Keldon Johnson’s turn to become Pop’s next developmental success in the mold of Leonard and Dejounte Murray. And keep an eye on Zach Collins, who will need to be healthy and on top of his game if he’s to be to Wembanyama what Robinson was to Duncan.


Jalen Green Rockets NBA

FILE–Jalen Green #0 of the Houston Rockets. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images/AFP 

No, there are not two teams in the West worse than the Spurs. But there are two — maybe more — who will try less hard to win. With promising rookies Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason joining a core of Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and K.J. Martin, the Rockets could make a legitimate run at a play-in spot in the West if they really wanted. But they, like everyone else, want Wembanyama, and if that means dealing Eric Gordon and Garrison Mathews before they deliver more wins than the script calls for, then put buyers on alert to start lining up.

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Jordan Clarkson #00 of the Utah Jazz reacts after he made a three-point shot against the Sacramento Kings during the third quarter at Golden 1 Center on October 22, 2021 in Sacramento, California.

FILE–Jordan Clarkson #00 of the Utah Jazz. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images/AFP 

The Jazz lead the league in one category this season: Members of the Get-Me-Outta-Here starting five, which features their own Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson alongside Draymond Green, Lillard and Crowder. If the Jazz are a team to watch this season, it’s only to see where Conley and Clarkson wind up. Fortunately, both conferences are wide-open, meaning chances are good that several — if not all — of the teams that are actually trying to win should have the Jazz on speed dial. Two wins-killing trades could prove to be the difference for the team trying hardest to be the Worst of the West — the Jazz.

–By Dave Del Grande, Field Level Media
TAGS: Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, NBA Western Conference

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