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The Year of Stress in the Western Conference

After a wild free agency, we expected the Western Conference to be a complete bloodbath. But with a month left in the season, there are more cautionary tales than contenders.

Over the summer, as the dust was settling on NBA free agency, basketball fans from coast to coast were preparing for a bloodbath in the Western Conference. Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap were each headed from East to West to help put their respective teams over the top, and they were joining a conference that already went 10 deep with star-studded playoff contenders. The East would be even more irrelevant than it usually is, but that was fine. The West would be a glorious thunderdome full of All-Stars and elite teams.

That's not quite how it's played out. While there's still plenty of room for west coast elitists to argue that the West is superior and the league needs playoff reform, this season has not been a seven month showcase for the most exciting teams in the league. Not like 2008 (12 of the top 14 teams were Western Conference teams), or even 2014 (eight of the top 10 in the West, seven playoff teams with 50+ wins). As good as this field looked on paper, it hasn't been quite as captivating in practice. What's actually happened is a little bit trickier to describe.

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More than anything, this year's West is a testament to just how impossible team-building can seem in the Warriors era. There's still a month left in the regular season, but even now, the conference has more cautionary tales than contenders. There have been two problems. First: None of these teams can touch the Warriors, and they probably can't even compete with the Rockets. That makes it harder to be impressed by the short-term progress of, say, the Blazers. Then: Once you realize that all these teams have gone all-in on rosters that can't make a dent at the top of the league, you begin to worry about what comes next.

I realized all of this when I was thinking through the playoff race in the West. Granted, that race is objectively dramatic right now. There are four games separating third place and 10th place and the playoff bracket changes dramatically every week. It should be fun. It should be thrilling. But it's really more ... Stressful? Depressing? Full of existential melancholy?

The Nuggets, for example, have spent the season watching Nikola Jokic's defense get exposed as a glaring flaw that raises questions about the ceiling for any team built around him. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris have been good, but not quite good enough to count on every night. Will Barton's a free agent who will likely be too expensive to keep. Wilson Chandler's age has begun to show at small forward this year, and Trey Lyles has been impressive for stretches, but he's very much not Donovan Mitchell, and he doesn't have a clear role when Paul Millsap's healthy. As the Gary Harris extension kicks in and Jokic gets paid, it'll be difficult to bring in much more help. So, even in the best case scenario where Denver rebounds to make the playoffs, will a sweep to the Warriors or Rockets really make the future look any brighter?


Or the Thunder. They'll probably make the playoffs—Denver's recent slide helps—but what does this team become if Paul George leaves this summer? Andre Roberson's injury has hurt them worse than anyone could have imagined, and suddenly the all-in bet on one year of George is becoming a more sobering proposition. Next year: Steven Adams will still be very good, but he's not good enough to play credible sidekick to Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony will be opting into the final year of his deal at $28 million. The luxury tax will make it very difficult to add additional pieces. And Westbrook's game is already aging poorly, a year before his $205 million contract extension kicks in. Even if George returns, the West will be an uphill battle. If he leaves, it begins to look impossible. 

In Portland, Damian Lillard has been incredible over the past two months. He's averaging close to 30 per game since January 1st, he's dominating fourth quarters on a nightly basis, and he's injected himself into the MVP race just as he's saved this Blazers season. One reason to worry: Portland is living this timeline for the third year in a row. It's the season where the Blazers start the year looking unremarkable, they falter halfway through, people begin to worry, and then Lillard puts them on his back and plays so well that everyone forgets what they were worried about. At some point reality will set in. Lillard is playing at an MVP level in the middle of his prime, but he doesn't have enough help to compete with elite teams. Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless are not moving the needle. So even as Portland charges up the West—currently in third place—it would surprise no one if they lost in the first round.


The Wolves' future in a similarly perilous state. Thibs just added Derrick Rose for the stretch run, the final jewel in his Timberbulls crown, but the real concern is Andrew Wiggins' looming extension—$148 million over the next five years—coupled with max money due to Karl Towns and an aging Jimmy Butler. The roster is going to get very expensive fairly quickly. It will be difficult to optimize the talent of Towns and Butler if the team can't afford help anywhere else. And, obviously, Jimmy Butler is hurt, so there's a real question about whether they will even make the playoffs this year.

The rest of the playoff race brings similar questions. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and the Jazz are great, but how does that team improve from here? The Clippers traded Blake Griffin and they're in a massive market, so they're the clearest exception to the rule of existential dread. They get to play with house money while they wait for 2019. The Spurs, though, are faced with a potentially restless Kawhi Leonard and few options for improving around him; you could argue they should be more stressed out than anyone. And Anthony Davis; all the dynamics described in the Blazers paragraph are just as true of Brow and the Pelicans, only New Orleans has had half the success of Portland.

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How did the West get here? It's tempting to blame this on the dominance and inevitability of the Durant Warriors (and to a lesser extent the Rockets). Golden State and Houston are so good that they've made it ridiculous for us to even pretend that most of the West competition has a chance. That's definitely part of what undermines the drama. But I think it's also a function of unforgiving cap conditions, rising superstar salaries, and the cost of doing business in today's NBA. 

It takes multiple stars to even have a prayer against superteams, but for any team that loads up with stars in today's cap environment, the margin for error becomes incredibly thin. One bad contract, one bad injury, and suddenly the future looks a lot more complicated. Teams like the Pelicans and Blazers took their risks a few years ago. Others saw KD's Warriors and took more risks this summer. The approach worked in Houston. Everywhere else, the results have been mixed, and hard questions will begin as soon as this summer.

For now, with a month left in the regular season, it's worth admitting that none of this has been as much as as fun as expected, and it's not because any of the West's teams are bad. It's just really difficult to enjoy them without wondering whether they're already doomed.