There’s no shortage of storylines in the NBA’s Western Conference heading into the 2022-23 season.
And as is tradition, we’re starting in Los Angeles.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers are back to improve after an injury- and drama-filled season that resulted in a failed run to the West’s last play-in spot. But after showing off a bevy of veteran roleplayers in 2022-23, the franchise has gotten much younger this offseason as it pursues a bounce-back campaign.
The Lakers’ rivals, meanwhile, are returning to the title fight thanks to a healthy Kawhi Leonard reuniting with her two-time superstar Paul George.
The reigning two-time MVP is also bringing the band back together, as Nikola Jokic is expected to welcome Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back to the Denver Nuggets line-up.
Oh, and the Golden State Warriors are on a title run that reignited a dynasty, while the Phoenix Suns are returning most of the roster that won the NBA’s best 64 games last season.
Is Phoenix likely to be the West’s No. 1? Will the Lakers make the playoffs again? Which teams are still refueling?
Our panel of experts predicts the win-loss records for all 15 teams in the West.
Note: Our 2022-23 NBA Summer Prediction continues Wednesday with our East, West and NBA Champions predictions.
Western Conference rankings
1. Phoenix Suns: 56-26
2. Warrior of the Golden State: 55-27
3. Denver Nuggets: 53-29
4. Memphis Grizzlies: 51-31
5. LA Clipper: 50-32
6. Dallas Mavericks: 49-33
Though the defending champions won the title last season and look set to start next season with a fully healthy roster for the first time in three years, the defending champions are not favorites in the ESPN Summer Forecast to set the 2022-23 season’s best regular season record exhibit west.
But that’s not to say Golden State doesn’t have great things ahead of them. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are playing their first full season together in three years. Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney and Jordan Poole will continue to build their careers. James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody will have greater opportunities for growth. If anything, the Warriors should be on track for another deep push in the postseason and have a successful regular season along the way.
However, it’s the Suns we’ve chosen to repeat as the West’s No. 1.
Sure, Phoenix pulled off a surprise meltdown against the Mavericks in the second round. And they didn’t make any major roster additions over the summer. In all honesty, they probably don’t need to. They need Chris Paul to be sane, Devin Booker to play at an MVP-caliber level, and for any animosity between Deandre Ayton and the franchise to be erased.
The Nuggets, who finally have two of their key players back, are expected to finish third. Jamal Murray missed the final season and a half while recovering from a cruciate ligament tear, and Michael Porter Jr. was sidelined with another back injury as the Nuggets failed to capitalize on a second straight MVP season for Nikola Jokic.
The Grizzlies, who became the NBA’s ultimate dark horse last year as No. 2 West, will have a harder time next season not necessarily because they did anything, but because the conference overall will be better than teams like Denver and the LA Clippers get well.
Speaking of the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are reunited, while the addition of John Wall should complement one of the deepest teams in the NBA.
Dallas’ offseason was highlighted by the loss of free agent guard Jalen Brunson, although they added Christian Wood, Jaden Hardy and JaVale McGee. They’re counting on Luka Doncic to have another stellar season, but it’s clear he needs help – something coach Jason Kidd emphasized during Dallas’ run to the finals in the West.
– Kendra Andrews
The play-in group
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: 49-33
8. New Orleans Pelicans: 43-39
9. Los Angeles Lakers: 42-40
10. Portland Trail Blazers: 35-47
Note: Dallas finished our panel’s forecasts ahead of Minnesota by percentage points.
The Timberwolves were closest to making the top flight as they shared a predicted record with the Mavericks. The panel was high over Minnesota overall but ultimately felt the trade in Rudy Gobert and his pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns will result in just three more wins for Minnesota, who went 46-36 a year ago and took the seed No. 7 secured. With this prediction, the Timberwolves get a few more wins, but the seeding stays the same.
While figuring out the Gobert-Towns pairing will be crucial for trainer Chris Finch, another factor that could help Wolves is Anthony Edwards’ next move. The former No. 1 overall improved his points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks to averages from his rookie year while improving his shooting efficiency across the board.
New Orleans is expected to finish seven wins ahead of last year’s total – no doubt coupled with the expected return of a healthy Zion Williamson. Williamson couldn’t play in a game last season, but New Orleans made a late attack to earn a play-in berth and then won two games to take the No. 8 seed.
There was no other roster move for the Pelicans other than adding Dyson Daniels with the No. 8 overall pick, a pick originally owned by the Lakers. The Summer Forecast Panel expects LA to barely surpass 0.500 in 2022-23.
The Lakers stumbled to a 33-49 mark a year ago as LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a host of other players struggled with injuries, while Russell Westbrook shouldered much of the burden — and the blame. The Lakers are heading into the new year with a new coach in Darvin Ham, and so far they’re much younger on their free agency signings.
Another team looking to bounce back from a bad year is the Portland Trail Blazers. With Damian Lillard struggling with an abdominal injury, Portland slowly took their foot off the gas before going full force into recovery mode late last season.
The Trail Blazers added Jerami Grant with a future they first picked from the CJ McCollum trade. Portland also picked up Gary Payton II in free agency. Between a healthy Lillard, Grant and the addition of No. 7 overall Shaedon Sharpe, there is hope in Portland that moves will match more than the 10-win jump the panel predicts.
The bottom five
11. Kings of Sacramento: 34-48
12. Utah Jazz: 26-56
13. Thunder from Oklahoma City: 25-57
14. San Antonio Spurs: 24-58
15. Houston Missiles: 22-60
In the west, there’s a clear division between teams trying to win now and those with an eye — or maybe both — on the 2023 NBA draft. Our panel has a seven-game gap in projections between the 11th-ranked Kings and the bottom four teams, which are forecast to win 27 games or fewer.
The Rockets and Thunder are predictable members of this group in the midst of rebuilding around young talent. The Rockets (37) and Thunder (46) are two of the four teams in the NBA to have won fewer than 50 games over the past two seasons.
Though the two teams both add top-three picks (Chet Holmgren to Oklahoma City at No. 2, followed by Jabari Smith Jr. to Houston at No. 3) and two other first-rounders each (Ousmane Dieng and Jalen Williams) for the Thunder; Tari Eason and TyTy Washington Jr. for the Rockets), they are at least a season away from moving up the standings.
After losing in the play-in tournament the last two seasons, the Spurs signaled their intention to join Houston and Oklahoma City in the ping-pong hunt by beating All-Star Dejounte Murray against three future first-rounders Picks traded to the Atlanta Hawks in a swap.
Like the Rockets and Thunder, the Spurs drafted three rookies in the first round (Malaki Branham, Jeremy Sochan and Blake Wesley). Their development and 2021 first-round winner Joshua Primo will be the focus ahead of his winning games this season.
That leaves the Kings the only team projected outside of the top 10 and actively hoping to finish in that group. With Sacramento’s playoff drought (16 seasons and counting) reaching driving age, even a play-in appearance in the California capital would be cause for celebration.
There is reason to believe that this could be the Year of the Kings. They’ll get a full season with Domantas Sabonis after earning the two-time All-Star before the trade deadline and firing with newcomers Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk in backcourt to complement Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox. Most importantly, No. 4 overall Keegan Murray impressed this summer, winning MVP honors for the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
If Sacramento jumps into play-in and the other four teams in this group go into the lottery first, there’s a good chance everyone can be happy with this season.
– Kevin Pelton