The eventual 2017 NBA Finals was a foregone conclusion before the regular season even started last year. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were on a collision course for their third straight Finals matchup, and nobody saw it going any other way. Needless to say, everyone was right. In fact, the two teams only combined to lose one playoff game heading into their matchup. While the new-look Warriors, led by Kevin Durant, defeated Cleveland handily, most NBA experts still believe that the two teams will meet in the Finals for a fourth consecutive season. As a result, NBA franchises have been scrambling to significantly improve their rosters in an attempt to challenge the reigning champs. Let’s take a look at the top contenders to challenge Golden State in the Western Conference next year.
To be honest, there are not many teams in the entire league that have a realistic shot at defeating the Warriors in a 7-game series, but based on overall talent, these three teams have the potential to create some noise in the West.
The Denver Nuggets made a splash in the off-season by signing coveted free agent Paul Millsap to join rising star Nikola Jokic and rebounding machine Kenneth Faried in the Denver front court. Denver also has a talented, young backcourt consisting of Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray. There is a good chance that playoff basketball will return to the mile-high city in 2018, but Millsap will not be enough to contend with the team in the Bay.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost two starters and their top bench player this off-season, yet by re-signing Blake Griffin and adding Danilo Gallinari, they remain a playoff contender in the West. No doubt, the loss of Chris Paul, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford will remove them from serious title contention, but the front court of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will still cause trouble for opposing teams.
One of the highest risers in the West this upcoming season will be the New Orleans Pelicans. After resigning Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans made a splash by signing playmaker Rajon Rondo to join the dominate front court of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Nevertheless, depth will be the Achille’s heel for New Orleans in 2018.
Portland Trail Blazers
Despite finishing eighth in the Western Conference last season, the Blazers possess more overall talent than most teams in the league. Of course, the most notable being the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lilliard and CJ McCollum. Also, there have been recent rumors that Carmelo Anthony would be open to a trade to Portland, which would increase their potential to contend in the West. Veteran big man Jusuf Nurkic will be joined by rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan to strengthen the front court, creating the balance needed to make a splash in the West.
The most active team in the NBA off-season has been the Minnesota Timberwolves. First, they took the NBA world by storm by trading for All-Star Jimmy Butler on draft night. This move immediately put the Wolves in playoff contention in the West, but Coach Thibodeau and company were not done yet. They proceeded to sign former All-Star point guard Jeff Teague and defensive stopper Taj Gibson to round out a starting lineup that also includes rising stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. On top of that, their bench will include former sixth man of the year Jamal Crawford, rookie 7-footer Justin Patton, and shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng to provide the depth needed to compete in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Arguably the top story of the 2017 NBA off-season, the Indiana Pacers traded All-Star Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for almost nothing. Of course, the Thunder lost a lot of depth in the process, which could prove to be costly in the long run; however, anytime you can pair two of the NBA’s best players, you certainly put yourself in a position to succeed. The trio of reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, super-skilled big man Steven Adams, and George will be a matchup nightmare for every team in the league.
The Houston Rockets have been in the headlines for a number of different reasons. First, the organization made a blockbuster trade to acquire All-Pro point guard Chris Paul from the Clippers. The team was forced to give up some big pieces in Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams, and Sam Dekker. It remains to be seen how Paul and superstar guard James Harden will work together, given that the Rockets just moved Harden from shooting guard to point guard last season and saw remarkable results. Now, they have a pure point guard in the lineup, forcing Harden to move back to 2-guard. Houston did bolster their lineup by acquiring PJ Tucker, and they are still trying to trade for Carmelo Anthony; therefore, they can still add to a depth chart that also includes Trevor Ariza and sixth man of the year Eric Gordon.
San Antonio Spurs
There is not much to be said about the NBA’s most consistent organization that hasn’t already been said. Gregg Popovich is arguably the greatest coach in NBA history, and he still continues to produce 50-win seasons year after year. The emergence of Kawhi Leonard, the return of Manu Ginobili, the addition of Rudy Gay, and the overall chemistry of the Spurs will keep them atop the list of Western Conference contenders until another team proves they can leap the 5-time champions.
Despite this lengthy list of potential contenders, it is an uphill battle for every team in the West. The Warriors still have four of the top 15 players in the entire NBA, and they were able to re-sign key contributors like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, while adding solid role players like Nick Young and Omri Cassipi. Barring injury, it seems like an impossible task to take down the defending champs, but we’ve seen crazier things happen before.