Opening night was yesterday, but today kicks off the full slate of NBA games, really getting the season underway. And with that, here are my predictions for how the 2022 Western Conference standings will shake out.
1. Utah Jazz – Yes, the Jazz are somewhat of a joke in the playoffs. But they’re a proven regular season juggernaut that is largely running back the one seed from last year that had one of the largest positive point differentials in NBA history. Rudy Gobert singlehandedly guarantees a strong defense, while their whirring, ball-movement-heavy brand of offense is devastating in the regular season. It’s very possible they’re a paper tiger once more in the postseason, but there’s no reason to think they won’t be one of the top teams in the Western Conference in the standings.
2. Phoenix Suns – The Suns may have been my pick for the one seed before the news about Deandre Ayton not getting an extension broke. He doesn’t seem like the pouting type, but decisions like that can put a cloud over a team, even one as good and put-together as the Suns. The Suns were on a mid-50s win pace last season, and should match that again this season with decent health and barring an age-related fall-off from Chris Paul. Even if he declines, they have enough young guys who can take steps forward to counterbalance that. Make fun of them all you like for their Finals run, they’re a very good team with starpower and excellent depth.
3. Los Angeles Lakers – I’m overall a Laker skeptic, but as long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis stay mostly healthy, they’ll win a ton of regular season games. Russell Westbrook is an odd fit with those two, and his recent playoff struggles are legendary, but he should also help them win regular season contests, especially when LeBron is injured or resting. The less said about the rest of their roster, the better, but they probably have just enough competent vets to cobble an acceptable rotation. I do like their regular season chances fine, but am a lot more doubtful of their playoff potency.
4. Denver Nuggets – This might seem high for the Nuggets considering that they will miss starting point guard Jamal Murray for most of the season, but they held up *ok* without him last year after his injury and also upgraded their bench in the offseason. More importantly, they have reigning NBA MVP, Nikola Jokic (whose name somehow does not get mentioned frequently when it comes to best player in the NBA), a guy who I believe can carry a team to home court advantage without another star. Mike Malone is a good coach, the team is stocked with competent veterans, and they have a great homecourt advantage.
5. Portland Trail Blazers – The Blazers are incredibly boring and a playoff fraud, but their core has been together for years, and that helps with regular season consistency. Damian Lillard is outstanding, CJ McCollum can carry them to wins on his dozen scorching games per season, etc. etc. We know what the Blazers are (though they do have a new coach in Chauncey Billups), which is a very good regular season team that will likely win in the upper 40s if healthy.
6. Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks are mostly at this level because of Luka Doncic. The Jason Kidd hire was atrocious for a wide variety of reasons, and he will almost certainly be a worse coach than Rick Carlisle. However, the roster is somewhat better than last season’s, and Luka is still at the stage of his career where some improvement is likely. He’s already so good that further growth is hard to comprehend, but he’s probably going to be such a dominant game-in, game-out presence that he will drag them out of the play-in muck. Still, if they disappoint, it won’t be too shocking with Kidd at the helm and Kristaps Porzingis (meh as always) as the number two.
7. Golden State Warriors – The Warriors are only this high because of the majesty of Steph Curry, who had an unbelievable 2021 campaign and seems ready to repeat his performance this year. I’m skeptical on the rest of the roster, especially the availability and potency of Klay Thompson after two+ missed seasons, but Draymond Green is still good enough to anchor a top five defense, and the Warriors have better depth than last year when they were a 9 seed. I don’t buy them as a top threat like some pundits, but Steph is enough to get them here.
8. Los Angeles Clippers – Look, the Clippers could be higher than this. I think they’re going to be very good. But with Kawhi Leonard out for much of the year, they lack the true superstar presence of most of the teams above them, and don’t have the consistency of the Suns, Blazers, or Jazz. If Kawhi Leonard can work his way back earlier than expected, or some of the young guys break out, the Clippers could easily be out of the play-in. But right now, the 7-8 range seems about right for them.
9. Memphis Grizzlies – I did not like the Grizzlies offseason. Swapping Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams is a fairly major downgrade, and moving Pat Beverley after getting him from the Clippers was puzzling considering how good a fit he would be. They have a lot of depth, and will be a lot of fun to watch. If Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. make leaps (very possible), they could be higher up on this list. But right now, their lack of a truly transcendent star keeps them on the bottom half of the play-in.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves – After years in the wilderness, I kind of like the Wolves this year. Karl-Anthony Towns is primed for a huge season, Anthony Edwards showed immense promise down the stretch of last season, Pat Beverley has infused the team with his spirit and toughness, and Chris Finch is a very promising head coach. The depth isn’t quite what it could be, and D’Angelo Russell is incredibly underwhelming as a second (or even third) option, but an inkling feeling tells me the Wolves will be decent this year.
11. New Orleans Pelicans – The Pelicans are just a mess. Zion Williamson is one of the biggest stars on the planet, and already one of the most unstoppable forces in the NBA. However, the roster around him is an odd mix of young prospects not ready for primetime and mediocre at best veterans. Willie Green has rave reviews, and a stellar coaching job + Zion health could get them into the playoffs, but their defensive prospects are shaky and one of the pieces don’t fit quite right. The Pels have more upside than any of the teams in this tier, but their floor is also extremely low if things don’t go right.
12. Sacramento Kings – I might be somewhat higher on the Kings if they had a good coach. Alas, they are led by Luke Walton, one of the worst head coaches in the NBA, and therefore slot in outside the play-in. De’Aaron Fox is very good, Tyrese Haliburton is awesome, and they have a cadre of solid role guys in Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, and Richaun Holmes. But ultimately, coaching and lack of a true star (barring a Fox breakout) will keep them down.
13. San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs barely snuck in the play-in last year (where they promptly lost), and lost floor-raising vets in DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Rudy Gay. They have fun young players and a decent core of in-their-prime starters in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl, but no stars or outstanding prospects. It wouldn’t be a shock if they snuck into the play-in again, but they have the least top-end talent of any team trying to win games in the Western Conference.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder – The main reason I have the Thunder in this spot rather than last is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a burgeoning star who Clippers’ fans need no reminder of. I like what Coach Mark Daigneault did last year before the tank was engaged, and the Thunder have some intriguing youngsters. But with how young the Thunder are, they’re going to be bad and inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.
15. Houston Rockets – The Rockets have more talent and veterans than the Thunder, but I also think that means it’s more likely they trade away guys like Daniel Theis, Eric Gordon, and Christian Wood mid-season for future assets. They’re going to be very, very bad barring their young guys looking like stars out of the gate.