Seeds 1 through 3
1. Golden State Warriors
This one should pretty much be a given. We all saw what the Golden State Warriors did last season and to think their regular season will be much different would be a foolish opinion. With two former MVPs and four legitimate All-Stars on their roster, there’s no question that the defending champs will continue to dominate the Western Conference next season.
Not to mention, as hard as it is to believe, it appears that Golden State might have gotten even better this offseason. Not only were they able to add promising rookie Jordan Bell for practically nothing even though they didn’t have a pick in this year’s draft, but they also added a couple of solid vets in Nick Young and Omri Casspi.
Neither of those guys will absolutely push the needle for Golden State (not that they need much “needle pushing” anyway), but they’re both solid three-point shooters – both have shown they’re more than capable of shooting upwards of 40 percent from beyond the arc – that should continue to make the Warriors’ offensive attack even more relentless (assuming that’s possible).
The Jazz were once considered a dark horse candidate to be able to challenge the Warriors, largely because of their smothering defense and the size and length of their frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Those two are still around and if Favors can get back to full health, then this duo could perhaps cause some issues for Golden State, but Hayward’s departure certainly hurts their chances and I’d be shocked if Utah is truly able to compete with them next season.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs always seem to find a way finish near or at the top of the standings and I don’t doubt that will be any different next season. Had Kawhi Leonard not gotten hurt in the playoffs this past season, we could very well be looking at a very different situation in the Western Conference. Assuming he gets back to full strength and LaMarcus Aldridge can bounce back from a dismal playoff showing, the Spurs should be in great shape.
Their point guard position is still a bit of a mystery. Tony Parker is aging, Patty Mills who was just re-signed has been utilized more off the bench and Dejounte Murray and recently drafted Derrick White still won’t have the experience to lead the team at that position. Nevertheless, I still believe San Antonio will be even better next season with the sneakily good addition of Rudy Gay as well as the underrated acquisition of Joffrey Lauvergne.
And as long as Coach Popovich is at the helm and Kawhi continues to ball out like the superstar he was last season, then the Spurs will be in very good hands.
If the Jazz had continued on their trajectory from last season, many believed that they would have a decent chance to match wits with the Spurs this next year. However, once again the Hayward departure likely diminishes those hopes, especially with no suitable replacement signing appearing to be forthcoming.
3. Houston Rockets
Quite frankly, after seeds one and two is where things get a little more tricky. I’m not all that thrilled about having each of the top three seeds remain the same from last year, however, I truly think that such will be the case. The Houston Rockets surprised me last year by winning 55 games and while I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around how James Harden and Chris Paul will coexist, that is a lot of talent to have on the floor and I believe they’ll get the job done well enough to net a top-three seed.
As head coach Mike D’Antoni recently stated, between Harden and Paul, the Rockets will be able to have a Hall of Fame caliber point guard on the floor for a full 48 minutes and that’s going to present quite a challenge for any team that opposes them. The Rockets may very well not be done making moves either as they look to position themselves such that they can compete with the likes of the Warriors and the Spurs.
In all honesty, the Jazz matched up extremely well with the Rockets last season and if Hayward had remained in Utah, I would have given this slot to the Jazz. However, with so many uncertainties now facing the Jazz, particularly on offense, a top-three seed definitely seems far out of reach. Could they surprise us and prove me wrong? I sure hope so. But that doesn’t mean I’m betting on it.