We’re about a week into the 2020-21 regular season and, while it’s still early, there’s been a number of interesting developments across the league. And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking those developments into account as we set out to rank each team within their respective divisions. Yes, most teams have only played between 4-5 games, but we can make some seriously educated guesses as to how the rest of their season’s might shape up.
We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern Conference — the Atlantic, Central and Southeast Divisions — and now we’ll turn our attention to the Western Conference and, more specifically, the Pacific Division.
Golden State Warriors (2-2)
How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago that the Golden State Warriors were automatically penciled in as the West’s representative in the NBA Finals. Then Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry got hurt, and the Warriors found themselves in the lottery for the first time since 2012.
Despite those setbacks, the team looked healthy and, with James Wiseman in tow, like they were ready to jump right back into the playoff mix. But it wasn’t to be — Thompson suffered a season-ending injury just before the season began. Meanwhile, Draymond Green has yet to play due to a sore foot and Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. have not made near the impact on the court the team hoped they would. Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick, has shown flashes of his talent, but he’s still a rookie adjusting to the NBA game with no summer league and no real preseason or training camp.
Obviously there’s still plenty of time for Warriors to turn this around. With Green’s return, if the team can jell and find a flow on offense, they could even make a run at the postseason. But, as of right now, that would not appear to be in the cards — the Western Conference is too good, with too many teams already vying for a playoff spot.
Sacramento Kings (3-1)
The Sacramento Kings are in an interesting spot. They currently hold the NBA’s longest active streak of missing the playoffs at 14 seasons. They mishandled Bogdan Bogdanovic’s free agency and he ended up leaving for nothing.
But, they did manage to make a huge, long-term move this offseason as they signed De’Aaron Fox to a max contract extension. As their franchise face and a borderline All-Star, it was imperative the Kings’ brass avoid a similar scenario to Bogdanovic’s at all costs. And, this season, Fox has rewarded them for that effort with some outstanding play which, in turn, has fueled a strong start to the season for Sacramento.
In four games, Fox has averaged 20.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, a block and a steal per game. Meanwhile, he’s upped his three-point and free throw percentage by more than 10 points each, as he’s shot 40 percent and 80.8 percent, respectively, to start the season. That strong play (and continued growth) is exactly what the Kings wanted to see from their rising star and, if he can keep on track throughout the season, the Kings may very well find themselves in the postseason hunt as the season winds down.
Of course, there’s more reasons for optimism beyond Fox. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento’s most recent lottery pick, has looked solid in the early goings. Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes, both of whom missed time last season due to injury, appear healthy and more than ready to contribute. In Bagley’s case, it could be his make or break season as he looks to prove himself worthy of being the No. 2 overall pick back in 2018.
Now, with that said, the Kings are still a major question mark. They could easily end up slipping behind the Warriors in the division, or — and this is what management can only hope for — they could just as easily find themselves neck and neck with the Phoenix Suns as one of the West’s newest competitors.
Phoenix Suns (3-1)
The Suns made arguably the best move this offseason, bringing in multi-time All-Star Chris Paul. Last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul showed he was still capable of elite level play and now, for Phoenix, he’ll look to do the same. Not only should Paul make the game so much easier for the Suns two young building blocks, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but he’ll improve the team’s ability to close out games in the fourth quarter and should bring an attitude to the locker room that it has sorely lacked in recent years.
In addition to Paul, both Booker and Ayton looked poised to continue their upward trajectory. Booker has come out firing on all cylinders while Ayton, who put on a strong performance in the NBA Bubble back in July and August, is still getting warmed. Whatever Paul may bring, the Suns’ postseason dreams sit primarily with these two — if they struggle, it this season may not be the franchise turnaround everyone expected after they went 8-0 down in Orlando.
A welcome development for the Suns so far has been the play of Cameron Johnson. A year ago, some questioned his high selection in the draft, which he followed up with a decent, but not great, rookie season. That said, Johnson’s been on fire to start the 2020-21 season, especially from three-point range.
Alongside Paul, the team also added veterans Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twuan Moore, among others. Crowder was instrumental in the Miami HEAT’s NBA Finals bid last season, while Galloway and Moore should help create plenty of space for the offense to operate.
Los Angeles Clippers (3-1)
The Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove. A proverbial favorite to win the title last season, Los Angeles flamed out against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, despite the fact that, at one point, they held a commanding 3-1 series lead. Paul George has since been signed to a max-extension, but Kawhi Leonard could hit free agency as early as the coming summer, should he decline his player option.
It’s entirely possible that this season represents the Clippers best and, more importantly, last shot to win a championship with their current group. And, that said, it hasn’t been the best start to the season.
After an impressive 2-0 start against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nuggets, the Clippers suffered their worst loss as a franchise, a 124-73 drubbing by the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, Leonard took an inadvertent elbow to the face, from his own teammate, mind you, and has yet to play since — not exactly what want to see in an all-0ut bid to win a title.
Still, the majority of Los Angeles’ offseason acquisitions have been positive. Namely, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard have all looked like solid adds, while each of them has added a new dimension to the offense and defense that they just didn’t have last year.
And, despite those early season mishaps, the Clippers still present the biggest challenge to the Lakers coming out of the West again. Their defense remains a strength, while Tyronn Lue has moved away from the isolation heavy offense Doc Rivers ran last season. And, save for the Dallas game, it has done the trick. If they can keep it up on that end, and get Leonard back on the floor, Los Angeles may very well prove the favorite everyone expected them to be a season ago.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-2)
Somehow, the 29 other teams let the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers get even better. Not only did they upgrade the frontcourt, replacing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrel (also hurting the Clippers in the process), but the backcourt additions of Dennis Schroeder and Wes Matthews should give the lineup a bit more energy than Danny Green and Rajon Rondo were able to bring, even if Matthews hasn’t gotten going yet.
In the early going, Gasol’s playmaking at the center position has enabled LeBron James to play even more off ball. Meanwhile, Harrell has picked up where he left off before the bubble as one of the NBA’s top reserves. Schroder’s offensive punch is something the Lakers severely lacked at either guard spot, while he has been the same, if not better, defensively than what they got from the position a season ago.
Health would seem the only major obstacle that could keep Los Angeles from another Finals berth. Anthony Davis tweaked his ankle in their Christmas Day win over the Mavericks and later sat out of their contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves and looked limited against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Laker loss. James, while he has yet to miss any time, has also looked slightly hobbled with an ankle injury.
Still, as of now, the Pacific is the Lakers to lose. Barring something drastic, expect them to once again make a deep run into the postseason.
The Pacific Division is home to arguably the two best teams in the NBA in the Lakers and Clippers. Meanwhile, the Suns and Kings are much improved, both looking to climb back into the postseason for the first time in a long time. And, despite their tough start, it’s still far too early to write off the Warriors, as well. The West is going to be tough this year and the Pacific is going to be a good reflection of that.
Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years
According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).
Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.
The Jazz will be pressing hard to re-sign Mike Conley, league sources say, and are preparing an offer estimated in the three-year, $75 million range.
More coming soon in my This Week In Basketball column you can get directly by signing up here: https://t.co/A6ycVm5PUQ
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 30, 2021
On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.
The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.
However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.
Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder
First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.
The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.
He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.
The trade puts Utah $13M below the luxury tax. Will likely still be a tax team if Mike Conley Jr. is brought back but at a lesser financial penalty. https://t.co/9dB6xPLUK8
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 30, 2021
Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.
According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.
Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal
The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.
On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.
Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”
I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you! #thedistrict
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 30, 2021
In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.
Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.
He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.
Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).
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