It was one thing for the Los Angeles Clippers to win the summer, landing the prize free agent and a sensational trade piece. But it’s another thing to turn those fantasy basketball dreams into a championship parade.
But even in the stacked Western Conference where the strong remain strong while the also-rans are gaining ground, the Clippers have assembled the pieces to rise above a very strong conference race.
With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George added to the roster, they are instant contenders. But more important is that the Clippers are pairing those two up with a solid, young nucleus and a coach with a championship pedigree. What will make Doc Rivers' job easier is that in those two newcomers as well as holdovers Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers have a defensive core that should smooth any learning curve for the newly-built roster.
But the biggest problem for the Clippers isn’t how this talented group will come together, but if they can survive the gauntlet that is the West. The Los Angeles Lakers have been nearly completely rebuilt, doing it around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as good a duo as there is in the league.
And before we even focus on who will challenge at the top, consider the depth of this conference by noting that a team such as the Portland Trail Blazers could be on the outside of the playoff picture and you could make a pretty strong argument that they could win the conference. The Sacramento Kings boast a potent young core and could miss the playoffs, too. The Golden State Warriors have a two-time MVP in Steph Curry, a defensive player of the year in Draymond Green and a coach of the year in Steve Kerr and people wonder if they can hang onto a playoff spot while waiting for Klay Thompson to return from a torn ACL.
We’re not even giving a spot in the playoffs to Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans -- a team that has transformed quickly into a solid unit. The reality is there could be 11 teams with a .500 record or better in the West.
So who really can win the West? The Clippers and Lakers are rightly drawing much of the attention, but the Denver Nuggets still seem to be sneaking up on folks even with 54 wins last season -- a total that had them atop the conference for much of last season. They bring back nearly their entire team -- a young group that the experience of last year’s postseason will only help -- and have added Jerami Grant and maybe just as important, expect to have last year’s top draft pick, Michael Porter Jr., healthy this season.
The other team worth mentioning is the Houston Rockets and the consensus around the league is mostly a shrug of the shoulders. The franchise parted ways with Chris Paul and replaced him with Russell Westbrook. So now the Rockets boast a pair of former MVPs in James Harden and Westbrook and will try to fit them together in Mike D’Antoni's system.
Somehow, the Clippers changed everything and still seem stable next to the Rockets. And that should be enough to survive the West..
Top 8 teams in the West
1. Los Angeles Clippers: Sometimes it takes a year for a newly-formed nucleus to meld. Three defensive stoppers -- Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley -- should ease that learning curve.
2. Denver Nuggets: They return nearly intact from last year’s 54-win team and if Michael Porter Jr. is healthy, Michael Malone might have a title contender in Denver.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: The revenge of LeBron? With Anthony Davis along for the ride and James intent of reclaiming his place as the best in the game, the Lakers figure to be much improved, but there are still holes in the roster.
4. Houston Rockets: Pair James Harden with Russell Westbrook, two-ball dominant players, with a lame-duck head coach in Mike D’Antonio who wants a fast-paced fluid offense and watch the fireworks.
5. Utah Jazz: Adding Michael Conley Jr. to an already potent squad could push the Jazz into championship contention. Quin Snyder has created one of the NBA’s best defensive units and now could push into the upper echelon of the NBA offensively.
6. Golden State Warriors: Don’t count the Warriors out even with the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala and the injury to Klay Thompson. Thompson should be back this season and even with nagging injuries to others, Steph Curry and Draymond Green should hold the fort.
7. San Antonio Spurs: Speaking of not counting out a team, the Spurs continue to roll along. Dejounte Murray returns after missing all of last season, a huge boost to the always-steady franchise.
8. Dallas Mavericks: How fast do Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis blend into a power duo? Is it fast enough to get this spot ahead of the Blazers?
Best of the West
Best player: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers — He led the Raptors to an NBA championship while in the East last year and he returns to the West as the best two-way player in the game.
Best duo: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers — An argument can be made that Leonard and Paul George are the top duo, but let’s give it to a motivated James and Davis, who give them size and skill that are hard to match.
Best defender: Leonard, Clippers — He already was the most versatile defender in the game and now benefits from the help of a stellar defensive cast around.
Best rookie: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies — With Zion Williamson expected to miss 6-8 weeks with torn miniscus in his right knee, Morant — the No. 2 overall pick — moves to the top of the list.
Best bench: Los Angeles Clippers — Lou Williams is as explosive as any second unit player and if Landry Shamet isn’t starting he is a tremendous young shooter. Add in JaMychal Green and Mo Harmless and you’ve got a group better than some starting lineups.
Best coach: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs — Popovich will try to guide a squad without the talent some other teams boast into the playoffs. He will do what he’s always done — take that group and coax the most out of them.
Popper’s NBA Finals prediction: Clippers over Sixers