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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.

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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.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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