Five Burning Questions: Western Conference – Basketball Insiders

After taking a look at the five biggest questions facing the Eastern Conference this year, Basketball Insiders now looks to the teams out West. There are more rebuilding teams out West but they are just as hungry as the title contenders and will factor into how the final standings play out.

This conference may not be as deep as the East but the teams at the top have just as much firepower. The Lakers have reloaded with a ferocious three-headed monster in LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. They are oozing with experience but have added some talented young players as well. The key for Los Angeles will be to get them up to speed as they pursue another championship.

After coming up short in the Finals last season, the Suns will have plenty of motivation to make a return. The Grizzlies are a team on the rise and have all the makings of a playoff team. That would mean another team has to take a step back. The Clippers are hoping that is not them, as they could have to play the entire season without Kawhi Leonard.

The situation in Minnesota will be one to keep an eye on if things don’t improve. Another interesting team to monitor will be the Spurs, who have finally embraced the youth movement they so desperately needed. With so many unknowns heading into the season, the West is still going to be wild. These five questions will help tell the story of the 2021-22 season.

Will the return of the Splash Brothers get the Warriors back into contention?

The most feel-good story of the season will take place in a couple of months when Klay Thompson makes his return to the court. After two devastating injuries in back-to-back years, the sniper is ready to join Stephen Curry in what is unquestionably the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game. The big question that nobody can answer is how will he perform? Will his defense regress? Can he still move off the ball with precision? He will surely ease into things, but the return of the Splash Brothers is imminent.

Should the Warriors have their big three running on all cylinders, the rest will be up to the unproven players like James Wiseman and their talented rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. If they are able to contribute and pick up the offense quickly, it could expedite Golden State’s return to the elite tier of teams in the West. Andrew Wiggins will be a major X-factor for this team if he is able to duplicate what he did last season. In addition to Andre Iguodala, they added three more valuable veterans in Avery Bradley, Otto Porter and Langston Galloway.

Will Portland be buyers or sellers at the deadline?

This is a make-or-break year for Portland. Frustration boiled over at the end of last season and it appeared as though Damian Lillard could be the next superstar on the move. The All-NBA guard is as loyal as they come, which is a rare thing in today’s game. While he has put his trust in the front office, he has made it clear that he is holding them close to the fire.

Lillard is entering his tenth year in the league and has plenty of accolades to his name. What he is after though, is a championship. Have the Trail Blazers done enough this offseason to catapult themselves into that elite tier in the Western Conference? The move to acquire Larry Nance Jr was great in that he is the perfect fit for this team, but it will take much more than that for them to become legitimate contenders.

Portland has a solid starting group with Lillard, CJ McCollum, Nance Jr, Jusuf Nurkic and either Robert Covington or Norman Powell. Their depth is a major concern, and that is a glaring weakness over the course of a grueling 82-game season. The team has also been linked to rumored deals surrounding Ben Simmons. Depending on what they have to give up, that might be enough to convince Lillard that they are serious about winning now.

Are the Jazz finally ready to make the jump?

After finishing with the best record in the league last season, the Jazz were unable to make it out of the second round as they fell to the Clippers in six games. It was a bitter disappointment considering how good they were all year. The roster has not changed much as the core group returns for another go-around. They did manage to make a couple of low-key moves by bringing in Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall.

Hassan Whiteside plays a very similar game to Rudy Gobert and should help when the three-time Defensive Player of the Year gets into foul trouble. Bojan Bogdanovic is due for a bounce-back year and the backcourt is in good hands with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Utah should again be one of the top teams in the regular season. They have all of the ingredients needed for a championship run, they just have to figure out how to avoid the playoff blunders.

Can the Nuggets survive and contend without Jamal Murray?

Everything appeared to be lining up for Denver last season. There was the monster deal at the trade deadline to acquire Aaron Gordon, the emergence of Michael Porter Jr, and of course the league MVP Nikola Jokic doing damage on a nightly basis. Just as they were gearing up for a long postseason run, Jamal Murray went down with a season-ending knee injury. Devastation swept through the locker room and although they made it out of the first round, the Nuggets were swept by the Suns.

Now Denver faces the possibility of doing it all over again, without their star guard. The good news is that Facundo Campazzo has been a solid contributor at the position. His high IQ meshes very well with Jokic and the two have established great chemistry. Will Barton looked great towards the end of the last season after returning from injury and even Austin Rivers has been a pleasant surprise.

The key for the Nuggets this season will be the leap that Porter Jr does or does not make. Should he take the next step in his development, he should be the frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award. Denver needs his scoring with Murray out, but he must improve on the defensive end of the floor. If by chance Murray is able to return in time for the playoffs, it would be the ultimate boost, and possibly an incredible storybook ending.

Does Dallas have enough?

Jason Kidd has his hands full in his first season replacing Rick Carlisle. The former Mavericks point guard now takes over as he tries to mold Luka Doncic into the leader he must become. The reported relationship issues between Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis should be a thing of the past, and it appears as though the big man will no longer be playing at the center position.

Depth has always been a concern with this team, and that was not addressed in the offseason. They did manage to bring back Tim Hardaway Jr, who is coming off a monster season. Reggie Bullock is a nice addition to this team, giving them some more perimeter shooting. He should get plenty of open looks as Doncic drives and creates for his teammates. Much like the situation in Portland, there just may not be enough on the roster to get them into the top tier in the West.

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