I’ve been reading through a lot of NBA power rankings and articles grading the offseason for each team. Whether it’s from NBA.com, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer or any other number of outlets, I think staying up-to-date on how the league is viewed from the national standpoint is a good practice.
There’s no problem with these ranked or graded systems — they help provide a benchmark for expectations before a season begins. But I don’t really go into a new NBA season thinking about each team individually and how they stack up against the rest of the competition.
Instead, I usually lump teams into tiers. So I made a tiered list of how I view each team in the Western Conference heading into the 2021-22 season.
I divided the teams into four groups, the good teams, the teams that will probably be good, the teams that should be good but have a lot of unanswered questions and the teams with zero expectations.
As with any other grading or ranking system, it’s important to remember that these can change from one day to the next, and nothing is set in stone.
The good teams
Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz
Great news, Jazz fans! The Utah Jazz are pretty widely expected to be one of the top teams coming out of the West. They are running things back for the most part, with some small tweaks to the second unit, and they’re hoping health and continuity will take them farther than a second-round playoff exit.
Before any games have been played and without seeing how everything shakes out during the 2021-22 season, the only thing that could seemingly be in the Jazz’s way are the other very good teams in the West. As it stands, that’s the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Suns, like the Jazz, are for the most part bringing back the team that competed with the Jazz for the top seed in the West and took them to the NBA Finals last season. That’s smart. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Lakers, might have won it all for a second straight season if injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis hadn’t derailed their postseason. There are plenty of criticisms about the the new-look and veteran squad the Lakers will field this coming season, but the time to count out James and Co. has not come yet.
The teams that will probably be good
Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks
It’s hard to imagine that head coach Mike Malone won’t be able steer reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to another successful campaign. Though Jamal Murray is expected to miss a significant portion of the season, the Nuggets are still going to be a good team.
The Clippers are facing a similar situation with Kawhi Leonard expected to miss most if not all of the 2021-22 season. But the Clippers still have Paul George and a host of versatile players who know how to get the job done.
The Dallas Mavericks are a perfect candidate for this tier. They’re probably going to be good because Luka Doncic is the kind of player that gives them a chance no matter the circumstances. But until we see more from the Mavericks’ other players, there’s no reason to think they should be bumped up to the next tier.
The teams that should be good but there are a lot of unanswered questions
Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans
The Warriors haven’t had a fully healthy squad for years and though many expect for them to be right back at the top of the West once Klay Thompson returns, there are too many questions that need to be answered before we can do that.
Is Thompson going to be the same player he was more than two years ago? We don’t know. Is Andrew Wiggins playoff ready? Who knows? Is adding Andre Iguodala to the roster once again something that can help get the younger players like James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga ready for a championship run? Your guess is as good as mine.
Memphis is the team that upended the Warriors in the play-in tournament last season, and they have one of the most fun and talented young rosters in the league. They should be good again, but it doesn’t really feel like they’ve done anything to be more than a play-in team.
Jonas Valanciunas was with the Grizzlies last season but now he’s with the Pelicans, and Steven Adams has taken his spot in Memphis. I have no idea if that swap is going to make a difference for either team, and the other big move the Pelicans made was adding Devonte’ Graham to the mix. Will any of this move the needle? We have yet to see Zion Williamson really flourish and there are a ton of question marks in New Orleans.
The Blazers are a huge question mark of a team. They still have one of the most impressive and talented backcourts in the NBA with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but they didn’t make any splashy moves this offseason. There’s a new coach and a ton of rumors swirling around whether this team is even intact by the time the trade deadline rolls around. They should be good, but there’s a lot that can change.
Two of these teams are likely to round out the top eight of the Western Conference, and then there seems to be a significant drop-off to the final tier in the West.
The teams with zero expectations
Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves might have a chance to move up into a good tier in the West, but to this point they are an unproven team. They had some good momentum near the end of the season last year with Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns looking like a pretty dynamic duo, but the Wolves have made just one playoff appearance since 2005 so the expectations are pretty low.
The Thunder are all young and draft picks so we’re probably looking at another tanking season in Oklahoma City.
The Houston Rockets had trouble fielding a team that didn’t include G League players last season so they’ll probably be happy just getting through the year.
The San Antonio Spurs had probably the most turnover of any team so they’re just going to be working toward chemistry and development.
And finally, the Sacramento Kings. They have good players. But they never seem to do anything right. If they can even fight in the play-in, it will probably seem like a successful season.