There is an energy buzzing through the Western Conference that has laid dormant for years, ever since the Warriors racked up 73 wins in a season and then signed Kevin Durant. Every prohibitive favorite comes at a cost. Fascinating as it was to watch the most evolved—and most lavish—superteam yet in action, its very existence became a deterrent within the conference. The casualties of Golden State’s dominance went beyond teams like the Grizzlies, who were gritted and grounded, or the Clippers, for whom losses built resentments. There is an unquantifiable toll in a class of contenders that never existed: trades not made, courses recharted, and luxury taxes averted, all because Golden State loomed.
Injuries brought the Warriors back to earth, and Durant’s choice to sign with the Nets will keep them there. This new reality is reflected in the way an entire conference goes about its business. No longer are the Rockets an outlier in their ambitions. Teams out West seem to be operating under the assumption that a Finals berth is there for the taking. Those that took cover have resurfaced. Those who were biding their time are now seizing the moment. Even teams that could be tanking by season’s end have meaningfully improved. Before teams can even run the gauntlet of the West playoffs, they’ll have to survive the crucible of intra-conference play that gets them there.
A Lakers team that could have made the playoffs last season, if not for a mid-season injury to LeBron James, has overhauled its roster with Anthony Davis and could still add Kawhi Leonard. New Orleans will unleash Zion Williamson on the league, and has brought along a cadre of capable veteran (JJ Redick, Derrick Favors, and Euroleague import Nicolò Melli) with more moves still to come. One of the youngest teams in the league last season—the Sacramento Kings—was on the playoff bubble last season and ended up in ninth place. Now the Kings have stabilized their roster with Harrison Barnes (acquired at the trade deadline and then re-signed), Trevor Ariza, Dwayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph, and Richaun Holmes.
Dallas will have Kristaps Porzingis in the lineup for the first time since trading for him back in January, and found Luka Dončić a scoring complement in Seth Curry. Even the Timberwolves, who ostensibly struck out in their pursuit of D’Angelo Russell*, should be better this year with a healthy Robert Covington (Minnesota was 12-10 last season when Covington played) and without the kind of drama that derailed the start of their 2018-19 season.
*Russell will be a Warrior this season, but it’s telling that Golden State and Minnesota are, in a way, players on the same scale.
And those are just last year’s lottery teams. Half of the league’s players hit free agency this week and had to sign somewhere. What’s interesting isn’t how much they signed for, but where they landed. Every team operates on its own timeline, but so many have chosen to accelerate their plans or make their play in this particular moment. As a result, free agents flew off the shelves in the first official hours of free agency. Competitive balance makes for a competitive marketplace.
Even if we venture all the way down to the bottom of the projected standings, there appear to be fewer free wins on the schedule next year than last. Ricky Rubio joining the Suns is one of the biggest positional upgrades in the league, Deandre Ayton will be a year wiser, and Devin Booker should play more than 64 games. The nature of the Grizzlies’ moves has made clear that they don’t intend to be competitive this season, but with a full year of Jaren Jackson Jr., the return of Jonas Valančiūnas, the drafting of No. 2 pick Ja Morant, and the incidental addition of Andre Iguodala, Memphis could wind up stealing some games.
There are only so many wins to go around. Every team in the West plays 52 of its 82 regular season games within the conference, meaning that 390 wins will have to be split among them. A competitive division could cost a team a few more games. A long road trip—or some other quirk of the schedule—might feel even more painful than usual this season. Overall, this will be a deeper, flatter Western Conference where every game means more.
Don’t be surprised if continuity ends up being the difference in playoff seeding, and thus, in the result. Even though they haven’t made any waves, it’s not a bad thing to be Houston, Denver, or Oklahoma City in this climate. The only clear regression candidate is Golden State, which won’t be winning 57 games without Durant, Iguodala, or a healthy Klay Thompson. The rest of the field, with a few possible exceptions, has a case to either hold ground or play better. It took 48 wins to make the playoffs in the West last year. This year’s clinching total could be lower, but should last longer; there could be as many as 12 or 13 teams vying for the playoffs until the bitter end.
Teams are almost always eager to spend in the summertime, even for players who were never their first choice and on contract terms they know they’ll soon regret. This feels less like eagerness than opportunism—maybe a subtle distinction, but a meaningful one under the circumstances. It doesn’t stop here. The cap space will eventually run out, practically speaking, and the last of the relevant free agents will find their new teams. At that point, the pressure for these teams to improve doesn’t dissipate. It shifts. Tensions will mount over the course of the season, charging the trade market. Teams like the Raptors and Sixers made big moves around the deadline last season because they felt they were close to something. Imagine that same impulse spread across an entire conference with so much to play for.