CAMDEN – This summer, a ton went down out West, from a blockbuster trade that resulted in the forming of what figures to be another explosive backcourt duo, to the arrival of two more All-NBA stars. In the aftermath of these transactions, popular sentiment remained that not only does the Western Conference still represent league’s top power, it’s gotten stronger.
Scan the list of the 15 teams from the West. About two-thirds of them boast at least one mainstream marquee player, compared to the Eastern Conference, where an argument could be made that less than half the other 15 clubs do.
The key question, though, is whether any of the off-season tweaking in the Western Conference will be enough to put a chink in the armor of a franchise that, for the most part, stood pat We’re referring to, of course, the squad in blue and gold that’s made it to the Finals each of the last three years, and, after re-upping with multiple superstars, doesn’t seem like it will be loosening its grip any time soon.
From the Sixers’ perspective, none of this matters much. They dwell in the East, and their performance against the West really won’t come into play unless post-season tie-breakers are necessary (or, should the Sixers reach the Finals). Nonetheless, the Sixers’ pairings with their Western Conference counterparts present an opportunity for the team, and its fans, to see how the group stacks up against high-caliber competition.
Below, find brief profiles on each Western Conference team, and the dates when they’ll be squaring off with the Sixers.
Dallas Mavericks: 10/28 (A), 4/8 (H)
Why Watch: At the time this piece was published, former Sixer Nerlens Noel still hadn’t come to terms on a new deal with Dallas, which acquired the restricted free agent via trade last February. On the heels of the swap, Noel posted 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.1 block in 22.0 minutes in 22 games for the Mavericks. Guard Dennis Smith was viewed as one of the top prospects available in this year’s draft, and in six summer league outings for Dallas, the No. 9 pick didn’t disappoint, averaging 17.3 points, 4.8 boards, 4.2 assists, and 2.2 steals. Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA’s all-time active scoring leader, is set for his 19th campaign.
Denver Nuggets: 12/30 (H), 3/26 (A)
Why Watch: Nikola Jokic certainly came into his own during the 2016-2017 season, establishing himself as a versatile frontcourt threat by tallying 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game. He helped guide Denver to a seven-win improvement, and a 40-42 record that, given the state of the Western Conference, was respectable. The Nuggets added to their young-ish core of Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jamal Murray this off-season by acquiring Trey Lyles from Utah. They also incorporated a veteran All-Star into the mix, signing Paul Millsap.
Golden State Warriors: 11/11 (A), 11/18 (H)
Why Watch: Golden State made it two titles in three years this June, steamrolling past Cleveland for a five-game series victory in the Finals. Then, in July, the Warriors’ front office ensured the club’s championship nucleus will remain intact at least in the short term, inking Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Andre Iguodala to extensions. Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, and David West all got new deals, too. Noteworthy newcomers to Golden State’s roster include Nick Young, and Jordan Bell, that latter of whom the Warriors made an aggressive move for on draft night.
Houston Rockets: 10/25 (H), 10/30 (A)
Why Watch: In Coach of the Year award-winner Mike D’Antoni’s first season, Houston thrived, ripping off 55 wins, and making it to the second-round of the Western Conference Playoffs. James Harden was particularly successful, adjusting to lead guard duties (he averaged a career and NBA-high 11.2 assists per game, and scored a personal-best 29.1 points per game), while making a compelling MVP case along the way. With the Rockets having landed Chris Paul in a late-June mega-trade, a leading storyline in the league this season figures to be how he, Harden, and D’Antoni will deploy the Rockets’ backcourt. Free agent P.J. Tucker should add some extra grit to Houston’s roster.
LA Clippers: 11/13 (A), 2/10 (H)
Why Watch: It was a summer of change for LA, which not only decided to part ways with Chris Paul, but pass off Doc Rivers’ personnel duties to Lawrence Frank, too. The Clippers, though, did get decent talent back in the Paul trade, obtaining from Houston Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams. The Clips also doubled-down on Blake Griffin, who had opted out of his previous contract. LA used a sign-and-trade to get Danilo Gallinari, and brought EuroLeague standout Milos Teodosic over from Moscow. The franchise added Jerry West to its executive team, luring him away from Golden State.
Los Angeles Lakers: 11/15 (A), 12/7 (H)
Why Watch: Spoken into fruition or not, the vision indeed became a reality. Lonzo Ball was drafted by his hometown Lakers, and went on to enjoy his fair share of solid moments during Los Angeles’ run to the NBA Summer League championship in Las Vegas. The No. 2 pick posted 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game, en route to earning the tournament’s MVP award. With Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka now steering the ship, the Lakers made a noteworthy swap with the Nets right before the draft, shipping D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez, plus the 27th pick in the draft. Los Angeles then used the pick on Utah’s Kyle Kuzma. Veteran shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signed with the Lakers in free agency.
Memphis Grizzlies: 1/22 (A), 3/21 (H)
Why Watch: Memphis’ off-season was underscored more by departures than additions. A symbol of the gritty identity the Grizz built up in recent years, Zach Randolph left the Grindhouse for Sacramento, ending an eight-year stint in Tennessee. His influence on the franchise was so great, it’s already decided to retire Randolph’s No. 50 jersey. Like Randolph, Vince Carter chose to head to California’s capital. Tony Allen, as of the first week of August, remained a free agent. With Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Chandler Parsons still in the fold, Memphis could very well remain a playoff contender, but the club will need health.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 12/12 (A), 3/24 (H)
Why Watch: To augment a talented tandem of back-to-back Rookie of the Year award winners in Andrew Wiggins (2015) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2016), Minnesota brought in several established veterans this off-season, none of whom is currently bigger in stature than three-time All-Star and Olympian Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves’ draft night trade with Chicago cost them youngsters Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen, but will result in Butler reuniting with former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Minnesota wasn’t done there, though. Later in the summer, the club signed free agents Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague. The Wolves had the 16th pick in the draft as well, nabbing big man Justin Patton.
New Orleans Pelicans: 12/10 (A), 2/9 (H)
Why Watch: After being sent to New Orleans in late February, DeMarcus Cousins, who was traded by Sacramento, appeared in 17 contests for the Pelicans, manufacturing 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. He and fellow big man Anthony Davis averaged over 23 minutes together per game, with New Orleans producing a plus-4.9 rating with the All-Star frontcourt duo on the floor. In addition to re-signing former Sixer Jrue Holiday, who’s been with the Pelicans since 2013, NOLA dipped into the free agency pool for point guard Rajon Rondo.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 12/15 (H), 1/28 (A)
Why Watch: In Oklahoma City’s first season without Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook responded by putting up historic triple-double numbers that paved the way for him to win the NBA’s 2017 MVP award. Now, thanks to the Thunder pulling off a trade that, all things considered, cost the club relatively little, the resilient, feisty point guard will once again find himself paired with an All-Star, this time in Paul George. To get the deal done, OKC sent Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis – two quality prospects, but nowhere near the proven talent that George is – to Indiana. On draft night, the Thunder chose Terrance Ferguson 21st. The Tulsa native spent last year in Australia.
Phoenix Suns: 12/4 (H), 12/31 (A)
Why Watch: Although Phoenix didn’t make considerable collective strides last year, the club did continue to receive encouraging returns from Devin Booker, the promising, potent shooting guard who averaged 22.8 points and hit 147 3-pointers during his sophomore season. By taking Josh Jackson with the fourth pick in this year’s draft, the Suns further balanced their roster with young talent. The Kansas swingman will join a core that also consists of big men Dragan Bender and Marquiss Chriss, two of the top eight picks in 2016. Phoenix’s roster also features a stable of proven veterans, led by Eric Bledsoe.
Portland Trail Blazers: 11/22 (H), 12/28 (A)
Why Watch: Thanks to a strong month of March, Portland managed to sneak into the Western Conference Playoffs last spring, only to be promptly ousted by eventual champion Golden State. The summer, however, brought little tinkering for the Blazers. Their most noteworthy move, arguably, came on draft night, when they sent the 15th and 20th overall picks to Sacramento in order to grab versatile Gonzaga freshman big man Zach Collins. One year after signing Allen Crabbe to an extension, Portland decided to move him to Brooklyn for forward Andrew Nicholson.
Sacramento Kings: 11/9 (A), 12/19 (H)
Why Watch: Turnover was indeed a prevalent theme for Sacarmento this off-season, both in terms of the roster and front office. Let’s start first on the player side of things. Gone are veterans Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Rudy Gay, Ty Lawson, and Ben McLemore. In are rookies De’Aaron Fox (No. 5 in the 2017 draft), Justin Jackson (No. 15), Harry Giles (No. 20), and Frank Mason (No. 34). So too are proven commodities Vince Carter, George Hill, and Zach Randolph. The executive who had a major hand in making these moves, however, had a quick stint with the Kings. Scott Perry signed on as Sacramento’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations in April, only to take the New York Knicks’ GM job in mid-July. That chain of events helped create an opening in the Kings’ front office for former Sixers’ Vice President of Basketball Operations Brandon D. Williams, now one of Sacramento’s assistant GMs.
San Antonio Spurs: 1/3 (H), 1/26 (A)
Why Watch: San Antonio lived up to its billing as the No. 2 seed in the West, fighting all the way to the conference finals. But against Golden State, MVP finalist Kawhi Leonard sustained a season-ending injury, and the Spurs bowed out in four games. At one point, San Antonio’s exit from the post-season was also thought to coincide with the end of Manu Ginobili’s 15-year NBA career; however, rumblings emerged in July that the All-Star could be back in the fall. The Spurs re-upped with Pau Gasol and Patty Mills over the summer, and acquired Rudy Gay through free agency. This year, San Antonio will attempt to extend its playoff streak to a 21st consecutive season under Gregg Popovich.
Utah Jazz: 11/7 (A), 11/20 (H)
Why Watch: A pleasant Independence Day it was not for the Utah Jazz, which, along with its fanbase, sweated out several days of agonizing free agency suspense before homegrown All-Star Gordon Hayward decided to move on to Boston. The sting of Hayward’s decision came fresh on the heels of a breakthrough season for Utah, which, with 51 victories, posted its highest win total and reached the second-round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. With Hayward gone, Rudy Gobert, the 2016-2017 league leader in blocked shots, assumes the Jazz’s face-of-the-franchise mantel. For as much pain as the Hayward saga may have caused, Donovan Mitchell, drafted No. 13 this June, gave plenty of reason for hope during summer league.