Last week, we analyzed one defining number for every team in the Eastern Conference as the 2022-23 season approaches. Now it’s the West’s turn.
Presented below is one key fact or figure that can help explain every Western Conference team’s outlook this season, for better or worse. Teams are listed in order of their over/under win totals from FanDuel.
Phoenix Suns: 59.3
The vibes aren’t great in Boston, which has the highest over/under in the Eastern Conference, and they’re just as dire in Phoenix, which has the highest over/under in the West. Suns owner Robert Sarver is exploring a sale of the team. Jae Crowder seeks a trade. Deandre Ayton apparently didn’t speak with head coach Monty Williams for months following a disastrous, embarrassing Game 7 loss last May. And the Suns just gave up 134 points to Australia’s Adelaide 36ers in the first preseason loss to a non-NBA team in six years.
But the roster that went 64-18 last season is still mostly intact, with the top four players—Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul—all in place, plus sharpshooter Cam Johnson ready to take Crowder’s place in the starting lineup. History is in the Suns’ favor, after they became the 32nd team in NBA history to lose fewer than 20 games in an 82-game schedule—because those 31 previous teams won, on average, 59.3 games in the next season.
In fact, not a single one of those teams that went 63-19 or better declined even to mediocrity the following year, as the worst of the bunch still won 51 games the following season. So if the Suns win 50 or fewer games this season, that will represent an unprecedented collapse—and even 50-32 is good enough to compete for a top-four seed.
Golden State Warriors: 46.8
As the Warriors’ championship core ages, and as depth players like Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II depart, they will have to increasingly rely on the team’s youth contingent, which includes Jordan Poole plus a trio of recent lottery picks. James Wiseman remains a giant question mark, after missing his entire sophomore season due to injury—but the summer league performances of Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga had to fill Warriors brass with confidence about their potential to contribute in their second NBA seasons.
Over an admittedly small sample in Vegas this summer, Moody led all players by averaging 27.5 points per game while Kuminga added 19.3, for a combined 46.8 points per game from the two youngsters. Granted, both players collected all those points by shooting a lot—take the under on Kuminga averaging 17.3 shot attempts per game in the regular season—but they also displayed the steps they’ve taken to become NBA-ready players since last season.
The Warriors won the title without receiving much help from their lottery rookies: Kuminga and Moody ranked 10th and 12th on the team, respectively, in minutes last postseason. But they will receive the opportunity to play much more this season—and imagine how well the Warriors might mesh if their past and future leaders all combine their powers at once.
Los Angeles Clippers: 9
Nine Clippers have a cap hit of at least $10 million this season, the highest number for any team. It’s no wonder these Clippers—along with this season’s Warriors—are on track to pay one of the highest luxury tax bills in NBA history.
Yet this stat isn’t about Steve Ballmer buying a title or any such nonsense—it’s about the incredible depth the Clippers have constructed behind Paul George and returning star Kawhi Leonard. All nine of those players, plus lesser-paid teammates like John Wall and Terance Mann, should contribute this season.
Count all the Clippers guards and wings who belong in an NBA rotation, and you reach double digits. This kind of top-to-bottom roster quality is absurd in a 30-team league—and probably necessary, at least in the regular season, as the team load-manages its stars. Leonard’s return to form is the most important factor that will drive the Clippers’ success this season, but the supporting cast around him is the best in the league.
Denver Nuggets: 89
Jamal Murray didn’t play at all last season as he recovered from a torn ACL. And Michael Porter Jr. played only nine games before undergoing surgery, scoring just 89 total points.
Last season displayed the hard ceiling these Nuggets face without Murray and Porter, as the Warriors rolled them in a gentleman’s sweep in the first round. That’s not a knock against two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, who led all players in the first round with 31 points per game. But without Jokic’s top two teammates, Denver’s second-leading scorer in the series was Monte Morris (who was traded to Washington in the offseason).
At full strength, though, a starting five with Murray, Porter, Jokic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Aaron Gordon could be the best in the league, while Bruce Brown Jr. was an underrated addition for the bench. With so much talent on the roster, Denver could compete for its first Finals trip since it played in the ABA in 1976—but it needs Murray and Porter to play, and play like their pre-injury selves, to have any hope at achieving that hypothetical.
Dallas Mavericks: 69
The Mavericks are in an odd position as they try to consolidate the gains they made last season, when they won 52 games and reached the conference finals for their best regular-season and postseason performances since 2010-11, when they won the title. But Jalen Brunson left in free agency, and Luka Doncic is the rare superstar without a star teammate.
In ESPN’s ranking of the top 100 players entering this season, Doncic placed third overall—but his top teammate, Spencer Dinwiddie, placed 69th. Conversely, every other player in the top five has at least one teammate, if not multiple, in the top 50:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (no. 1), Jrue Holiday (no. 26), Khris Middleton (no. 31)
- Nikola Jokic (no. 2), Jamal Murray (no. 50)
- Joel Embiid (no. 4), James Harden (no. 11), Tyrese Maxey (no. 44)
- Stephen Curry (no. 5), Andrew Wiggins (no. 32), Klay Thompson (no. 37), Draymond Green (no. 43)
Unlike the other stats on this list, this is a subjective measure, and there are definitely quibbles with some individual rankings. (I wouldn’t even say Dinwiddie is Doncic’s best teammate; Dorian Finney-Smith would be in my top 100.) But it emphasizes just how far ahead of all his teammates Luka is—and how much less help he might receive this season than all his MVP-caliber peers.
Memphis Grizzlies: 18.9 and 32.7
How does a team that ranks 22nd in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in free throw rate (per Cleaning the Glass) manage to post the fourth-best offensive rating in the league, as Memphis did last season? Two ways. First, the Grizzlies led the league in transition frequency, starting 18.9 percent of their possessions on the run. Second, they led the league with a 32.7 percent offensive rebound rate, giving them an unorthodox path to offensive proficiency.
Given improvements across the rest of the conference, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Memphis take a step back from the no. 2 seed this season, and it remains something of a concern that Desmond Bane is the only above-average 3-point shooter in the starting lineup. Yet with Ja Morant flying and Steven Adams pounding the glass, Memphis should still score enough to win games, and remain one of the league’s most exciting spectator experiences in the process.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 4.25
The best individual defensive stat over a large enough sample, according to a bunch of analysts I interviewed for a feature on defensive data, is called RAPM, or regularized adjusted plus-minus, which essentially adjusts on/off ratings based on the identity of teammates and opponents. And over the past three seasons, per NBA Shot Charts, new Minnesota center Rudy Gobert leads the league in defensive RAPM. The stat says he improves his team’s defense by 4.25 points per 100 possessions by himself; no other player is even at 4.
The Timberwolves might have overpaid in their trade for the 30-year-old Gobert, but it’s hard to overstate just how perfectly he addresses Minnesota’s biggest weakness. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, the Timberwolves should score at a top-10 rate, at minimum. And now they have the most impactful regular-season defender in the sport to buoy them on the other end.
Los Angeles Lakers: 22.7
One main reason the Lakers won the 2019-20 title is that Anthony Davis caught fire from behind the 3-point line in the bubble. But that performance increasingly looks like a blip, compared to his much longer track record of ineffective long-range shooting. Over the past two seasons, counting playoffs, his 3-point percentage has plummeted to a ghastly 22.7 percent.
Anthony Davis 3-Point Percentage
In his regular-season career, Davis is a 30.3 percent 3-point shooter. That ranks 208th among 213 active players with at least 900 attempts—one spot behind teammate Russell Westbrook, a notoriously inefficient chucker.
Given the team’s roster construction and dearth of depth, the Lakers need LeBron James and Davis to play like top-tier superstars to have a chance to compete this season. Continued 3-point problems won’t necessarily prevent Davis from reaching that level—Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks 212th on that 3-point accuracy list—but they certainly reduce his margin for error. Plus they mean the Lakers’ projected starting lineup includes three non-shooters in Westbrook, Davis, and a true center, and that experiment failed dramatically last season.
New Orleans Pelicans: 9
The Pelicans were a pretty good team after trading for CJ McCollum last season, as they surged to the play-in round, won consecutive games to reach the actual playoffs, and gave Phoenix a six-game scare. And they took all those steps despite Zion Williamson’s foot injury keeping him out for the entire season.
With so much time off, it feels like the majesty of Zion’s last season on the court has been a bit forgotten. So it’s worth a reminder that at just 20 years old, the former no. 1 pick made an All-Star team, scored 27 points per game, and established himself as the premier interior offensive force in the entire league.
In 2020-21, Williamson averaged nine makes per game from inside the restricted area. That’s the highest mark since at least 1996-97 (the first season with granular play-by-play data at NBA Advanced Stats). Williamson’s abbreviated 2019-20 campaign is tied for second on the list.
Most Per-Game Makes in the Restricted Area (Since 1996-97)
The Pelicans have a middling over/under this season, and the West features a lot of other good teams. But New Orleans has a chance to blow past expectations this season, because every important player from last season’s team is still around, and now one of the closest modern equivalents to prime Shaq is joining the squad.
Portland Trail Blazers: 30
Over the past three seasons, the Trail Blazers rank 27th, 29th, and 29th in defensive rating, per CtG. Over the last three seasons combined, they rank 30th, meaning at this point, they’ve had the NBA’s worst defense over a very large sample.
The shame for the Trail Blazers is that a healthy Damian Lillard is practically a top-five offense unto himself, so their defense just has to be better than terrible. The last time Portland’s defense was anywhere near average, it reached the conference finals.
Trail Blazers’ Imbalance
|Season||Offensive Rank||Defensive Rank||Outcome|
|Season||Offensive Rank||Defensive Rank||Outcome|
|2021-22||27th (Lillard hurt)||29th||Missed playoffs|
It’s possible that personnel upgrades could help Portland climb the defensive rankings this season, because Jerami Grant and Josh Hart are stout on the wings. But Jusuf Nurkic has lost a step at the center position, and Lillard and Anfernee Simons might form the worst defensive backcourt in the league. (Remember defensive RAPM, the stat we discussed in the Timberwolves’ section? Simons ranks 760th out of 775 players over the past three seasons.) Portland might once again be in for a lot of high-scoring games—on both ends.
Sacramento Kings: Minus-2.7
Much of the optimism surrounding the Kings’ push for a play-in spot—their chance at their first postseason since 2006!—concerns the double-lefty leadership of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, who meshed after the trade deadline last season. Sabonis was basically the same All-Star-level player he was in Indiana, Fox’s production exploded, and the Kings scored 116.2 points per 100 possessions with both players on the court, per CtG. For context, that figure would have ranked third in the league, behind only Utah’s 117.6 and Atlanta’s 116.3.
Yet the bad news is that the Kings were still outscored in those minutes, by 2.7 points per 100 possessions, because they allowed 118.9 per 100 when Fox and Sabonis shared the floor. Neither player is a strong defender for his position, and unlike, say, in Cleveland, where Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley can cover for any Donovan Mitchell mistakes, Sacramento doesn’t have defensive anchors who can carry the defense alone.
A negative-2.7 net rating usually ranks in the 22nd to 25th range in the league—which means early returns on the Sabonis experiment suggest the team will once again finish just on the outside of the playoff race, attempting a new strategy only to receive the same rotten result. Perhaps Portland won’t be the only mid-tier Western Conference hopeful that both scores and allows a ton of points this season.
Utah Jazz: 13
As part of their summer trade spree, the Jazz acquired the equivalent of 13 new first-round picks either outright or via swap rights. And because all but one of those picks are unprotected, they now have more future draft equity than any other team in the league.
Utah added four future firsts plus a pick swap from Minnesota, in the Gobert trade; three future firsts plus two pick swaps from Cleveland, in the Mitchell trade; and a future first from either Brooklyn, Houston, or Philadelphia, in the Royce O’Neale trade that started a million memes. That comes out to 11 picks, plus two 2022 first-rounders who joined Utah in those trades: Walker Kessler (drafted by Minnesota) and Ochai Agbaji (by Cleveland).
This far out from their conveyance, it’s unclear how many of those picks will land in the lottery. The future of far-off traded picks is mostly random. But after tearing down a roster that had run its course with playoff failure after playoff failure, the Jazz now have more clichéd bites at the apple than anyone else.
Houston Rockets: 20.7
There are various reasons to be excited about the Rockets’ rebuild—Alperen Sengun is delightful; rookies Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason could be studs—but first and foremost is the play of Jalen Green in the second half of last season. As a rookie, the no. 2 pick scuffled through the end of January, but from February on he recorded more points, more assists, and fewer turnovers, while his shooting percentages rocketed (sorry) upward.
Jalen Green’s Rookie Season
|Statistic||Through January||February On|
|Statistic||Through January||February On|
Green took a slightly better shot diet in the second half of the season, but he mostly just made more of the shots he was already taking, based on an analysis of Second Spectrum data. Through January, Green was underperforming his expected effective field goal percentage—based on factors like shot location and defender distance—by 7.7 percentage points, the worst mark in the league (minimum 400 shots). But from February on, he overperformed his expected eFG% by 3.5 percentage points.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 34.8
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 34.8 drives per 100 possessions over the past two regular seasons, according to Second Spectrum, by far the highest mark in the NBA. Only three other players were within 10 drives (per 100) of SGA:
- Gilgeous-Alexander: 34.8 drives per 100 possessions
- Doncic: 30.8
- Morant: 29.2
- Trae Young: 26.5
The Thunder aren’t all of a sudden going to be a sneaky contender this season. With so much youth on the roster, and with no. 2 pick Chet Holmgren out because of a foot injury, this will be another season at the bottom of the standings. Instead, this stat is relevant because Gilgeous-Alexander’s might be the next name to enter the rumor mill.
It’s unclear just how good Gilgeous-Alexander is because he’s been playing in a relative wasteland for the past two seasons, but at least his ability to slither into the paint is a definite strength. Imagine how much better his assist numbers would look if he weren’t throwing kickout passes to OKC’s shooters, who ranked 30th in 3-point percentage last season and 29th the year before. Maybe we’ll get a better sense this season even if he’s not traded, because the Thunder hired shooting guru Chip Engelland away from the Spurs this offseason.
San Antonio Spurs: 1997
As Gregg Popovich told reporters on media day, the Spurs aren’t winning the title this season. The franchise has a different goal in mind. But the last time the Spurs landed a top-eight pick in the NBA draft came all the way back in 1997, when they selected a college prospect named Tim Duncan. That turned out OK.