Despite not being as deep from top to bottom as the Eastern Conference, the West is still loaded with championship contenders. The Los Angeles Lakers have reloaded with Russell Westbrook at point guard. The Utah Jazz earned the best record in the league last year and return with the same roster. The Golden State Warriors are healthy and have upgraded their squad. The Phoenix Suns essentially have the same team that just played in the NBA Finals.
Just as there are a number of title contenders, there are just as many questions surrounding other teams dealing with injuries to star players. Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray will miss a significant portion of the season. How will their teams manage without them? What will the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers do to upgrade their rosters to surround their MVP-caliber point guards?
All of those questions will eventually be answered but there are some under-the-radar teams in the West that could turn some heads over the course of the 82-game season.
Northwest Division – Minnesota Timberwolves
Utah remains the clear favorite within this division and Oklahoma City has begun its full-scale rebuild. There is a lot of uncertainty though, between two teams in particular. It is difficult to get a read on how things will play out in Denver and Portland, with Murray’s injury recovery and the status of Damian Lillard. Minnesota has a real opportunity to make some noise this year.
As long as Karl-Anthony Towns remains healthy, the Timberwolves will be in good hands. The fit next to his close friend D’Angelo Russell has not produced the results that many expected. While Russell will be aiming for a bounce-back season, there are a number of guards in their rotation that could see plenty of time on the floor with the departure of Ricky Rubio. Malik Beasley makes his return and Josh Okogie remains one of the more under-the-radar young talents in the league.
Only 5 NBA players attempted more than 6 catch-and-shoot 3s per game in 2020-21:
Duncan Robinson – 41.7% (191/458)
Malik Beasley – 41.3% (95/230)
Davis Bertans – 40.8% (158/387)
Nikola Vucevic – 39.9% (175/439)
Buddy Hield – 39.6% (177/447) pic.twitter.com/hP8qlN27wg
— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) September 8, 2021
Patrick Beverley arrives in Minnesota with a chip on his shoulder after being traded twice this summer. The scrappy guard will bring a much-needed defensive mindset to this team. Should Anthony Edwards continue to improve his shooting and avoid a sophomore slump, it could provide a clear direction for this group, as they have been stuck in the mud for the last few years.
Pacific Division – Los Angeles Clippers
Towards the end of last season, it appeared as though this division might have four legitimate championship contenders heading into the 2021-22 campaign. Then there was the knee injury to Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. Not only did it deflate their hopes of advancing to the Finals, it also puts a damper on the regular season as he continues his long recovery. With the Lakers, Suns and Warriors all expected to contend, the Clippers have already become an afterthought in the minds of many.
While the absence of Leonard will obviously lower expectations in the regular season, Los Angeles did a good job of filling the talent at his position. They brought back Nicolas Batum in free agency and signed Justise Winslow, who will provide solid defense. They selected Keon Johnson with the 21st pick in the draft, who could play more minutes at the guard position should Paul George slide into the small forward spot.
Keon Johnson is the pick – 48-inch vertical. Jay Bilas describes him as freak athlete, downhill driver who draws fouls but needs to improve his shooting. His highlight tape is filled with explosive dunks. Clippers adding more athleticism at the wing is needed with Kawhi rehabbing https://t.co/8HfGTg5Y9E
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) July 30, 2021
The Clippers have solid backcourt depth with Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and Eric Bledsoe, who is returning to Los Angeles in hopes of rejuvenating his career. Marcus Morris will likely see more minutes this season and a healthy Serge Ibaka could play more at the forward position with Ivica Zubac holding down the center spot. Whether or not Leonard returns this season is the ultimate question, but the Clippers should still be a playoff-caliber team without him.
Southwest Division – Memphis Grizzlies
This division is wide open, with New Orleans and San Antonio likely regressing and Houston in the early stages of their rebuild. Dallas will certainly be the team to keep an eye on with the star power of Luka Doncic but Memphis may very well be the best and deepest team in the Southwest. After knocking on the door of the playoffs for the past couple of seasons, this just might be the year that the Grizzlies begin their ascent.
It all starts with the one-two punch of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr but this team is so much more than that duo. Dillon Brooks has quietly molded into one of the top young scorers in the game. The emergence of De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Jarrett Culver give Memphis an absolute wealth of riches at the guard positions. After a promising start to his career, Brandon Clarke took a slight step back last year. They will need his production at the forward position alongside Kyle Anderson.
Grizzlies draft picks under Zach Kleiman/Tayshaun Prince
Ja Morant (there at #2)
Brandon Clarke (traded up)
Desmond Bane (traded up)
Xavier Tillman (traded up)
Ziaire Williams (traded up)
Santi Aldama (traded up)
They clearly will move up to get the guys they want
— Jon Roser (@Jon_Roser) July 30, 2021
The departure of Jonas Valanciunas hurts but they have filled that void with Steven Adams, who will be a much better fit alongside Jackson Jr. The combination of youth and talent with this team is unlike anything else in the league. The Grizzlies have been a team on the rise for quite some time and now could be their opportunity to fulfill those expectations.