Ben Kuchipudi ‘25
The True Contenders
In my opinion, there are two definite contenders for the NBA title. The Los Angeles Lakers are the clear favorites to come out of the West after adding Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and Kendrick Nunn; nothing else to really explain there. The Phoenix Suns made a run to the NBA Finals last year, but they had some skeptics because each team they beat had a major injury. Even though Chris Paul isn’t getting younger, Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges are more than capable of leading this team back to the Finals.
The “Could Be” Contenders
These two teams definitely have the talent to be contenders, but it depends on if they can stay healthy. The Denver Nuggets are led by MVP Nikola Jokic, but they lost co-star Jamal Murray in April to a torn ACL. If Murray can come back for the playoffs in preinjury form, the Nuggets should be challengers to the Lakers and Suns. Similar to the Nuggets, the Golden State Warriors also have a key piece coming off a major injury. Splash Brother Klay Thompson hasn’t played since the 2019 NBA Finals after tearing his ACL in Game 6 and tearing his Achilles before the 2020-2021 season. With a healthy Thompson, the Warriors have one of the most potent offenses in the NBA, but their success relies on Thompson’s health.
The Western Conference is extremely competitive, so there are only three teams (besides the ones mentioned above) I see as a lock to make the playoffs. The Utah Jazz disappointed as a one seed last season, losing in six games to the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers, and I don’t see them getting a top seed again this year. Nonetheless, Utah is still very talented and should be seeing postseason basketball for the sixth straight season. The Dallas Mavericks should also be a playoff team in 2022. Even though they made a questionable hire in Jason Kidd and there seems to be turmoil surrounding Kristaps Porzingis, the presence of Luka Doncic makes them a tough team to beat. The Los Angeles Clippers should also make the playoffs this year despite not having Kawhi Leonard for the foreseeable future. Paul George showed that he can lead the Clippers, and even though they may not be a top seed, they will still be a formidable team in the playoffs.
This section of the West seems like it can be the most competitive, as there are four teams that are in this position. The Portland Trailblazers are always going to be competitive with Damian Lillard, but they haven’t done anything in the offseason to improve the roster, and with a rookie head coach in Chauncey Billups, this may be the year Portland underwhelms and Lillard finally requests a trade. Like the Blazers, the Memphis Grizzlies have been a solid team with Ja Morant, and they should be a playoff team if they stay healthy, which may mean a rematch of the 2020 play-in game against the Blazers. The Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans seem like playoff teams on paper, but their stars have struggled to stay healthy. D’Angelo Russell has been injured often for the Wolves, and Zion Williamson has only played 85 games in two seasons and is currently recovering from a foot fracture. They have the talent to make the playoffs, but it’s contingent on their key players staying healthy.
These next two teams are closer to the basement of the West than play-in material, but I figured I’d put them here because why not? The Houston Rockets were the worst team in the league last season, but their roster isn’t bad. They have a borderline all-star in Christian Wood and an improving scorer in Kevin Porter Jr. They also have second overall pick Jalen Green and three other first round rookies, as well as All Rookie 1st Team member Jae’Sean Tate. This is a rebuilding year for the Rockets in the post-James Harden era, but this team has the talent to make the play-in. The Sacramento Kings, on the other hand, have been rebuilding since 2006, and this year will likely be their sixteenth year in the lottery. De’Aaron Fox is a star and Tyrese Haliburton is trending towards that, but a weak supporting cast and an awful coach in Luke Walton will be their downfall.
Better Luck Next Year
The San Antonio Spurs are finally in rebuild mode after 22 years of dominance. After losing DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, they are now led by Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson. The Spurs will be bad this year, but they get their chance to land their next Tim Duncan in 2022. Finally, the Oklahoma City Thunder have collected a plethora of first round picks over the next few years after blowing it up in 2019 and 2020, and now they will rely on sixth graders in the 2027 draft to lead their team. All jokes aside, Sam Presti has set the team up for long term success in the future. Aside from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder don’t have much proven talent, and they may be the worst team in the league this season, but that should be okay for the Thunder and their fans.