Last summer saw a flurry of blockbuster trades and signings that shook up the NBA landscape going forward. Particularly in the Western Conference, where a plethora of teams made bold moves to challenge the Golden State Warriors, who had just captured their second championship in three seasons.
The Warriors went on to re-sign Kevin Durant and retooled their bench depth to complement an existing trio of All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But rival teams weren’t intimidated by Golden State’s stronghold on the conference.
The Houston Rockets countered with a stunning sign-and-trade with the Los Angeles Clippers that netted Chris Paul to pair him with MVP candidate James Harden in the backcourt. The duo have many believing Houston might be the pick to reach the NBA Finals.
No matter how it ultimately shakes out, the Western Conference playoffs should be nothing short of entertaining.
“I think this year it’s more even than it’s been in a long time,” Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. “I could see a lot of teams coming out of the West right now.”
As injuries hindered the Warriors in the closing weeks of the regular season, the Rockets jumped them in the standings and officially clinched the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference.
The Warriors hold the No. 2 seed, and while they’re slowly returning to full health, figure to once again go deep in the playoffs. An unlikely team in the Minnesota Timberwolves, after years of rebuilding, find themselves on the periphery of a playoff berth as well.
With two games remaining in the regular season, they are tied with the Denver Nuggets for the eight seed in the Western Conference, and a chance to take on the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
This, after the Timberwolves pulled off a trade for two-way star Jimmy Butler at the 2017 NBA Draft. The Nuggets also made a splashy acquisition of their own in signing longtime Atlanta Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap last July.
Butler just returned to action after a leg injury sidelined him for a large portion of the second half. Still, Walton believes the Timberwolves could be a sleeper in the Western Conference if they go on to clinch the final playoff spot.
“With Jimmy Butler being back in Minnesota, they’re still fighting to make it but I could see them going deep in the playoffs as long as Jimmy is healthy,” he said.
Rounding out the Western Conference playoff race is the Portland Trail Blazers, who currently possess the No. 3 seed — just a half-game up on the Utah Jazz.
Then, a three-way tie between the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, who remain just one game up on the Timberwolves and Nuggets.
The Pelicans and Spurs have been decimated by injuries to star players in DeMarcus Cousins and Kawhi Leonard, but nevertheless remain in the hunt for a playoff berth.
The Thunder, meanwhile, have struggled to mesh together after adding Carmelo Anthony and Paul George last offseason to aid Russell Westbrook, who is nearly averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season.
“Oklahoma City, with the talent they have, they can get hot at the right time,” Walton said. “I think everyone is a threat to everyone in the West. That’s why the race has been so close. I’m excited to watch. I think it’s going to be a very entertaining playoffs.”