Assessing the rest of the West
David Thorpe on the Thunder, Mavericks, Pelicans, Wolves, Jazz, Blazers, Rockets, Spurs—and this year’s MVP
BY DAVID THORPE
Can you hear it? That rumble on the horizon? It’s still a ways off, but it’s fast-approaching.
In a very crowded Western Conference battlefront, it’s unlikely these teams will threaten the status quo. Well, save one, perhaps: the Thunder, led by rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, enter this season as one of the league’s most exciting squads.
Others are on the cusp, including the Mavericks and Pelicans. Luka Dončić looks amazing after a fitness-focused offseason. A healthy Zion Williamson will make the Pelicans relevant. Even the Jazz, led by All-NBA forward Lauri Markkanen, could put pressure on struggling contenders.
With teams appearing in terms of highest playoff probability, here’s what I’m seeing out West:
How will the Thunder handle the pressure of success?
I’ll do you one better: Are the Thunder ready to make a run at the top eight?
The Thunder no longer have the privilege of losing 10 of their first 15 and thinking everything will be fine. They have a budding superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, fresh off a first-team All-NBA nod and a phenomenal FIBA World Cup, who’ll want to win sooner than later. Check that. Now. Will his ascension force Thunder GM Sam Presti to target an established superstar—like maybe one from Greece? (Yes, I thought the Bucks should have done it before trading for Damian Lillard.)
At some point, Presti will have to assess his surplus of young talent and determine which are going to help SGA in the long run. Josh Giddey has All-Star potential, especially if he can improve defensively and from 3, and he’s young enough to be optimistic on both fronts. Both Jalen and Jaylin Williams are real finds. Jalen could also be an All-Star someday; Jaylin is giving off Kevon Looney vibes. But guys like Tre Mann and Ousmane Dieng could be packaged with picks and moved for someone who can help now, like a lockdown defender. The Thunder have the salary flexibility to shop for anyone in the league—in fact, I’d bet on a big move this year.
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