Where Kings rank among West contenders on 2023-24 playoff tiers

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Where Kings rank among West contenders on 2023-24 playoff tiers originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

Year after year, it seems as if the Western Conference is up for grabs. There are hyped-up teams that don’t live up to their expectations while other teams sneakily surpass them.

The champs of the West over the last four seasons have been a different team each time: The Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. Those same teams are contenders to win it all in nine months.

Denver is fresh off celebrating its first NBA championship in its 47-year history, and the Nuggets remain the title favorites entering the 2023-24 season. But contending for a title is a challenge within itself, especially with star-powered teams seeking vengeance and rising young teams hungry for more.

The Kings snapped a 17-year playoff drought last season on the backs of All-NBA duo De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, but can they sustain and build upon their success or was it all a fluke?

Meanwhile, there’s a new Big Three in the desert, and Chris Paul is on… the Warriors?

Yes, the offseason was a bang, which means fans are in for a treat when the regular season begins in just over a month. The Western Conference is always wacky and unpredictable, but this might be the toughest in the last several years to navigate.

Here is our list of different tiers in the Western Conference, from the ground up.

Tier 4: Just Keep Tanking

San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers 

Victor Wembanyama traded in his beret for a cowboy hat after packing his bags and moving from North-Central France to South-Central Texas, but for now, the cape and heroics will have to wait. Not even the 7-foot-5 No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft can take the worst team in the West last season to championship contention – at least not yet.

While the Spurs likely won’t make the postseason in 2023-24, they should still give San Antonio fans something to be excited about in the foreseeable future. After the Dejounte Murray trade, Keldon Johnson became the team’s top scorer and stepped up admirably last season. Add second-year players Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham into the mix and you have a promising young core on the horizon.

The Blazers, with star guard Damian Lillard in the driver’s seat over the last 11 seasons, haven’t made much of a playoff impact besides getting swept by Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 conference finals.

But Lillard’s future in the Pacific Northwest is a blur after the seven-time All-Star requested a trade to pursue a championship elsewhere. So without Dame Time, Portland’s championship – and even playoff aspirations – are a long shot.

Tier 3: The Wild Card

Minnesota Timberwolves
OKC Thunder
Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets

This is the “meh” tier. Rosters with undeniable talent, but a lot to prove.

The Timberwolves have a 22-year-old All-Star with NBA MVP potential in Anthony Edwards. But the Karl-Anthony Towns-Rudy Gobert junction has yet to prove it can work. In the meantime, Edwards, KAT and Gobert will take turns having big nights, but until they learn how to play as a team, they can continue to cry wolf in the Midwest.

The Thunder have a slew of young players who are just jump-starting their NBA journeys. Even without their 7-foot-1 2022 No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren, who missed the entire 2022-23 season with a foot injury, Oklahoma City made the postseason with one of the youngest teams in league history. With Holmgren set to make his NBA debut this season alongside All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Kenrich Williams, it’s clear that something special is brewing in OKC. For now, though, the coffee beans still need lots of grinding.

Lauri Markkanen gave Utah fans something to watch last season. With the addition of John Collins, the Jazz have a young core eager to compete for a playoff spot. But with the way the rest of the West is shaping up, that’s likely all they’ll do – compete.

The Rockets are coming from the bottom but aren’t poised to last there much longer. Their come-up got an interesting boost from a couple of offseason acquisitions. Houston’s busy summer was highlighted by the huge three-year, $130 million contract it gave veteran point guard Fred VanVleet. Dillon Brooks also signed with the Rockets in free agency, and both Brooks and VanVleet will bring championship and playoff experience, knowledge and energy to pair with Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.

Until they prove they can mesh well as a unit, it’s safe to say: Houston, we still don’t have a problem.

Tier 2: Knocking on the Door 

Sacramento Kings
Memphis Grizzlies
Dallas Mavericks 
New Orleans Pelicans 

It started with a victory beam and ended with a historic offense that helped snap a nearly two-decade playoff drought, but the Kings still have much to prove. Luckily for them, they’ll be running it back with the same core of De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, Harrison Barnes and Domantas Sabonis – who played more minutes together than any other starting five last season – along with some promising reinforcements such as a EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov and three-time NBA champion JaVale McGee.

A big reason for Sacramento’s success last year was its offensive prowess, but if the Kings can tighten up their defense, the once-called “playoff rookies” could give the big dogs of the West a run for their money.

The Grizzlies finished last season as the No. 2 seed, but they can’t seem to escape the constant negative narratives around them. Ja Morant, one of the most athletic guards in the league, has shown what he can do on the court. But can he keep himself there? A series of foolish mistakes will refrain him from playing with his team for the first 25 games of the season after the 24-year-old appeared to flash a gun on social media.

And whether it’s Morant’s ignorant decision-making or [former Grizzlies forward] Dillon Brooks running his mouth without backing it up, it’s clear that the team desperately needs a leader in the locker room. Morant hasn’t proven to be that. Could it be Marcus Smart, who was acquired by Memphis this offseason via a three-team trade? Who knows, but the high-flying dunks and pregame Griddy dances can only take you so far.

Dallas has two of the most offensively potent stars in the league in Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Many agree that the Mavericks are poised to be better than they were five months ago when they missed the postseason for the first time in four years. The only real question is, how much better will they be? Defense and depth were big concerns last season, but with the key offseason additions of Grant Williams, Seth Curry, Olivier-Maxence Prosper, Dereck Lively II, Dante Exum, Richaun Holmes and Derrick Jones Jr., it’s not hard to envision Dallas outperforming last season’s underwhelming showing.

This is where things get weird. The New Orleans Pelicans snuck into this tier because despite missing their best players for a large majority of the 2022-23 season, including Zion Williamson for the final 45 games, they still somehow finished with a 42-40 record. Williamson will play, and likely play well next season, but his health and condition are a growing concern. New Orleans will give the pairing of Williamson and Brandon Ingram another shot, but at the very least, if healthy, this is a solid play-in squad and at the very best capable of winning a playoff series.

Tier 1: The Highly Favored 

Denver Nuggets
Phoenix Suns
Los Angeles Lakers
Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers

All eyes will be on Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to see if they can run it back next season. With mostly the same squad, the only thing in their way is a championship hangover.

The Suns parted ways with Chris Paul and brought in Bradley Beal to team up with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. They should be a better team than last year, as long as Durant can stay healthy. The 34-year-old forward still seeks his first ring not tied to Steph Curry, and he hopes he can get it in the upcoming season with Phoenix.

The Lakers had one of the best offseasons of the summer to get LeBron James and Anthony Davis some championship help. Even late-season moves made a significant difference in 2022-23, as Los Angeles moved on from Russell Westbrook and others in order to go on a shopping spree at the trade deadline and improve the roster.

Los Angeles brought in D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley and suddenly went on a run to claim the No. 7 seed in the West. After getting swept by the Nuggets in the conference finals, the Lakers added Gabe Vincent, Christian Wood, Cam Reddish and others to help provide some depth to a team whose stars sit a lot.

And can we ever count out a team led by Steph Curry? The answer is no. Despite ruling the West for the majority of the last decade, Curry and the refueled Warriors want to prove that their core still has gas left in the tank. After trading away young guard Jordan Poole to the Washington Wizards for Chris Paul, the Warriors can’t make it any more clear that their intentions are to win, and to win now.

The Clippers, solely because of how the team is constructed on paper, always should be listed as contenders for a title. With that being said, they have never won a championship, much less made it past the conference championship. They have two of the best two-way players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but the injury bug in Los Angeles also includes the Clippers organization.

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