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NBA Daily: A Summer Of Bizarre Proportions

Everyone has been pretty entertained by what has transpired this summer, but this may have the been the strangest offseason we’ve come to witness, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When Dwight Howard agreed to return to the Los Angeles Lakers, it was just fitting.

It’s not fitting because Dwight fits with the Lakers’ needs. It’s fitting because it’s yet another in what’s been a longline of bizarre storylines this offseason. Seriously, it’s been one after the next.

No, it’s not bizarre only because of Dwight’s disastrous tenure with the Lakers from six years prior. It’s bizarre because a case could be made that they really didn’t need Dwight. Or another center if we’re being completely honest.

Anthony Davis may not prefer playing center, but 96 percent of his minutes last year was played at the five. Also, remember the year before when the Pelicans went on that 21-11 run following both Demarcus Cousins’ Achilles’ injury and the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic? That all came from Davis playing center full-time.

And here’s a question you’d never think anyone would ask- Is it possible Javale McGee’s not getting enough credit? Statistically speaking, the guy is coming off the best season he’s had in years, and one of the best in his entire career. He and Davis should be good enough as far as center depth goes.

The rationale behind bringing Dwight back was replacing the tragically oft-injured DeMarcus Cousins. It makes sense, but the Lakers may not have needed Cousins either.

And that’s what’s happened throughout the summer. A lot of stuff happened garnered the reaction of, “Yeah… Okay, but-”

It’s hard to decipher exactly where to begin with this bizarre offseason. The best way to start would probably be the lack of a “superteam.”

With Golden State’s death lineup dissolving and only one current superstar to support LeBron James in LA, the NBA no longer has that designated “Big 3” anymore for the first time since 2010. There are certainly some well-designed teams. Truthfully, with all that transpired this summer, the NBA has the most its parity its seen in years. With no superteams assembled, there is no villain.

In fact, we’ve seen players actively defy the construct of an elite trio. Kawhi Leonard could have gone to the Lakers and formed possibly the most talented trio to ever grace professional basketball. Instead, he went to the Clippers, a team that had more widespread talent than the Lakers do. Instead of chasing rings with LeBron, Kawhi chose to continue running his own show.

The peculiar aspect of this new development has nothing to do with Kawhi going to the Clippers. It stems from the fact that we have become so used to these star players joining forces since “The Decision” that seeing them opt not to is now an entirely new feeling. Remember how astonished we were when LeBron went to Miami to form the Heatles? That’s how it felt when Kawhi had the opportunity to do the same and did the opposite… to a certain degree. Ahem, Paul George.

Where this defiance to be on a superteam gets really weird is what happened with Jimmy Butler. Butler was recently on the most talented team he’s ever played with. In Philadelphia, he could have played a supporting role on a team that has a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals for the next several years. As we all had speculated for months and has now been confirmed, that’s not what Butler wanted.

Jimmy wanted his own team. When you’re a multi-time All-Star, that makes sense. But of all the teams he could have chosen, Miami wasn’t exactly screaming championship with that team.

The HEAT were a team firmly stuck in no-man’s land before Butler’s arrival. Dwyane Wade may want to try a career in sales now that he’s retired, because it was awfully impressive of him to sell his good friend Jimmy on the HEAT knowing the state that they are in.

Even after adding Butler, they may be a shoo-in to make the playoffs, but they don’t measure up to the top of my conference. Outside of Jimmy Buckets, Miami’s roster – while having some nice young talent – is not all that special.

So for now, it looks like the days of the superteam are dead. In light of this, we’ve seen teams try to add their own variation of what makes a superteam. By doing so, these results have continued the theme of bizarre.

Let’s start with Houston.

Despite Daryl Morey vowing that Chris Paul was staying in Houston – in retrospect, Oklahoma City wasn’t in firesale mode at the time – he shipped CP3, plus a boatload of picks, for Russell Westbrook. A trade that everyone at the time smirked at.

Westbrook is overpaid, not the most reliable shooter, and he does not have a lot of playoff success tied to his name since Kevin Durant deserted him. Compared to Paul however, he has more years left of his prime, is a better athlete and James Harden wanted to play with him.

Paul wasn’t getting any younger, and with Golden State down for the count, the Rockets needed a boost. If they were going to be overpaying for a star point guard, it had to be for one that can stay the same for the duration of his contract. That wasn’t happening with Paul.

This would have been a bizarre trade if it was just Westbrook for Paul straight-up, but the picks added to it only puts more pressure on both Houston and Westbrook to stay a Western Conference power. Talent-wise, this makes sense. Fit-wise, it’s a little hazy. We know why Houston did this. We also know why this could backfire.

Then there’s the 76ers. Their offseason was bizarre, but not because they swapped Butler for Josh Richardson, or that they paid Tobias Harris superstar money. Their offseason continued the theme of strange because they used their available cap space to bring in Al Horford.

Horford at 33 is still a great player. This writer has gushed about him in the past because of all the skills he brings to the court. He would have been a good addition for anyone, but since he’s best used as a center at this stage in his career, his fit in Philly, or next to Embiid, is not a great one.

When teams give players max contracts, it’s usually because they want the skills that player has on their team. The Sixers signing him to that contract may not have been about helping them as much it was about hurting the Celtics. Horford established himself as an Embiid stopper last season, so by taking him away from Boston, it knocks a division rival out of contention.

This next part should make you a little suspicious. Horford’s best position is center, but he’ll be playing at power forward. Harris’ best position is power forward, but he’ll be playing at small forward. If you put those guys in their natural positions, this is a team that fits perfectly around Ben Simmons. Not so much with Joel Embiid.

There has been a lot of talk from media outlets that maybe those two aren’t the best pairing. Bringing Horford to the city of Brotherly Love could be a hint that the Sixers believe the same.

Enough about the teams that hauled in some talent albeit perhaps not the right talent. There are teams that went through pivotal changes who, on paper, would change their fortunes for better or worse.

Boston would be a team that in the wake of what it’s lost, should be worse next season. The Celtics don’t have the same level of talent with Kyrie and Horford both gone. Since they underperformed with high expectations, is it crazy to say that, in a weaker Eastern Conference, they could be much better with lower expectations?

It wouldn’t have much to do with adding Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. We could see major improvements from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward when you take their performances last season into account. Expectations surrounding Boston are nebulous, but as a whole, they shouldn’t be completely ruled out.

A team whose expectations are a little more certain is Brooklyn. It wasn’t too long ago that if you added players as good as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, you were the biggest winners of the offseason. Brooklyn’s ceiling should be much higher after adding those three alone.

But are the Nets going to be much better? Kyrie turned his back on a good situation for the second time in his career. Is he going to be a good soldier with the Nets? Kevin Durant is likely not going to be playing this season. Will he be back to normal when he returns? DeAndre Jordan has looked like a shell of himself over the last two years. Is he magically going to return to form?

Even though the organization took necessary risks, Brooklyn may not be in the clear from adding those three.

It sounds weird that Boston and Brooklyn could go in completely different directions than what’s expected of them. We won’t know if the moves they made were the right moves, but even for the teams who seemingly made all the right moves, there was a hint of bizarre for their summers turned out.

The Clippers may have been the biggest winners of the offseason from what they brought in and what they kept. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can be your two best players on a championship team. Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Mo Harkless are guys you can surround your best players on a championship team.

The only oddity is that they invested so much in what could be a two-year window. All of their picks belong to Oklahoma City from now until 2026. Even if they win the next two championships, should both Leonard and George leave, this could blow up in their face much like it did for the Nets in 2013. The Clippers made excellent moves, but they paid a hefty price even if they are the title favorites.

The Jazz did absolutely nothing wrong as far as offseason moves go. For a team that needed upgrades in the playmaking, shooting and depth department, the boys in Salt Lake made all the moves that they should have. It’s really just where their priorities were at that comes into question.

Utah may have signed Bojan Bogdanovic, who should be an excellent fit next to its top tier players, but remember that the original target was Nikola Mirotic. They were going to pay him good money, too. Everyone in the Utah area has known about the team’s long-standing interest in Niko, but paying top dollar for him following a playoff performance so bad that Milwaukee benched him before being eliminated might’ve backfired.

Utah should count its lucky stars that Mirotic opted for long-term security overseas. Sure, it worked out for the best since the team got the better player in Bogdanovic, but the team’s fascination with Nikola when Bojan was the better option is sort of a weird subplot to an otherwise excellent summer.

The next abnormality in this summer came from teams that lost their best player(s). Usually losing an All-Star caliber talent or two is the worst fate possible in the summer. The following teams proved otherwise.

New Orleans lost Anthony Davis, the most talented big in the West. They lucked out when they won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, but in order to avoid the same mistakes they made in the Davis era, new GM David Griffin chose to both rebuild and retool.

On top of Williamson, the Pelicans brought an ocean of promising youth in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. On top of that, they brought in solid veterans who should serve as good locker room mentor in the young guys like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.

Losing a talent as generational as Anthony Davis would usually destroy a franchise, but for the Pelicans, they couldn’t be excited to move on. Should it also be brought up that they own the Lakers’ future too?

Oklahoma City lost both Westbrook and George. With them gone, this will be the worst Thunder team in a decade. Even if it’s not a contender, this team is currently in pretty decent shape.

CP3 may be declining, but he should be a good influence for Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. Danilo Gallinari will be in a contract year, and Steven Adams is still one of the toughest bigs in the league. As far as roster changes go, it could have gotten a lot worse for OKC.

Best of all, now Sam Presti is swimming in draft picks from LA, Houston, Miami and even Denver. No matter what direction they go in, we all know Presti’s reputation with draft picks. If we see him do his magic again, it shouldn’t be long before the Thunder are back in business.

Memphis lost Mike Conley Jr. not too long after losing Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies didn’t get the same returns that New Orleans and Oklahoma City did for their stars, and yet it had one of the better offseasons that it’s had in years.

The Grizzlies now have a ton of cap flexibility, accumulated a lot of draft assets, and if their summer league championship is indicative of anything, its that this new youth movement in Grind City could have something promising on its hands.

They may have effects from the Jeff Green trade still looming over their heads, but the Grizzlies can take solace in that- though Grit-and-Grind is dead – the future is alive and well in Memphis.

In a rare change of pace, the teams who had to trade their superstars seem to have embraced the next chapter in their franchise. The journey they took to get to this point may not have been the way they would have wanted, but their prospects look a lot better than anyone could have expected.

The final stamp of this bizarro offseason is looking at the reigning NBA champions. With the Toronto Raptors, we also saw something we’ve never seen in possibly the entire history of sports. We’ve never seen a player leave a team after leading one to a championship like we just did with Kawhi Leonard.

We’ve seen LeBron leave teams after making The Finals on two separate occasions. We’ve seen Michael Jordan retire from basketball after winning the finals on two separate occasions. We knew Kawhi had interest in going back home. It just seemed preposterous that he would leave Toronto after winning it all there.

Now that he’s left, the Raptors are going to be the weakest defending champion since the 2006 Miami HEAT. Canada can’t complain because Kawhi gave it his all for the Raptors and it paid off, but we may never see something like this happen again.

The NBA has never been immune to odd storylines. In the past 10 years, we’ve had the Chris Paul vetoed-trade, the DeAndre Jordan backstabbing in Dallas and even last year, we had the Colangelo drama in Philly. We’ve never seen the level of weird dialed up as high before.

Bizarre can make for some good entertainment. What we’re going to find out this season is if these changes will fit under “good bizarre” or “bad bizarre.”

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NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?

The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Chad Smith

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The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.

The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.

This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.

Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.

Miami HEAT

After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.

Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.

Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.

Atlanta Hawks

After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.

After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.

The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.

The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.

One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.

Boston Celtics

It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.

Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.

The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.

On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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NBA

NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch

The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.

Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.

The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.

The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.

The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.

Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.

New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.

If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.

One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.

The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.

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