Monday, July 15

Hollinger: Lakers, Warriors, Grizzlies and more — predicting the top of the NBA’s West

Hollinger’s 2023-24 projections: West’s Bottom 8 | East’s Bottom 8 | East’s Top 7


So, how exactly are we supposed to make distinctions among the top seven teams in the NBA’s Western Conference? All seven went all-in on this year, more or less — even the Memphis Grizzlies surrendered two firsts to get Marcus Smart —and all project to be waaaay into the luxury tax either this year or next year.  Did I mention there are only six guaranteed playoff spots? Uh-oh.

News flash: Nobody made these moves to win 45 games and lose in the first round. Expectations are high all over the West, even for a few teams I don’t even project to crack the top seven. A few teams are going to be terribly disappointed come April, and that could have some serious ramifications for the next offseason.

In the meantime, get your popcorn and appreciate the race we might have. It projects to be close enough for the gods of randomness to have a field day. It’s theoretically possible we have 11 teams tied at 44-37 on the last day of the season.

More probably, factors like injuries, shooting variance and unexpected breakout years tilt the playing field in favor of a few teams and away from some others. Nonetheless, the margins among the top seven in particular project to be razor-thin, portending both a regular-season chase for seeds and home-court advantage that could go to the final day of the season, and another topsy-turvy postseason with little to distinguish “favorites” from underdogs.

I’m not picking a seven-way tie, although I was tempted, because I do see at least some small margin between first and seventh in the regular season. But with only five games separating these teams in my projected standings, the capriciousness of random variance could easily offset any difference:


The most interesting topic in the West for me is which, if any, of the Lakers, Warriors and Suns can muster enough regular-season wins to earn a top-three seed. Historically, that has been a pretty stark dividing line between the teams that have a realistic chance of winning a title and those that don’t. Finishing fourth or worse offers two separate obstacles: First and most obviously, that you probably weren’t good enough anyway, but second, that the path to blast through four rounds against elite teams without home-court advantage is just too hard.

The success of Miami and the Lakers last season, winning five series between them, might muddy this a bit for people, but the Heat were only the seventh team in the post-merger era to make the NBA Finals with their conference’s fourth-best record or worse. (I’m excluding the shenanigans that made a 60-win Dallas team the “fourth seed” in 2006 for this discussion.)

Only one of those teams, the 1995 Houston Rockets, actually won the title. With 10 teams a year over 47 years, that’s a 1-in-470 hit rate. The top three seeds in each conference share the other 98 percent of title probability each season; those champions include the 2020 Lakers (first seed) and the 2022 Warriors (third seed).

Last year the Suns, Warriors and Lakers finished finished fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively, and, although each advanced out of the first round, they combined for zero conference finals wins. All three share similar profiles at first glance: Led by aging superstars who may not be able to play the full schedule, shaky on second-line talent and overall depth while limited in resources to do anything more in season.

Of those three, you could argue the Lakers are in the best position to make some playoff noise, conditional on them getting that top-three spot. I’m still not sure they’re in great position — LeBron James turns 39 in December, Anthony Davis looks awesome for two weeks then moves like the tin man for the next two, and it’s hard to play their best lineup (James at the four and Davis at the five) with zero rotation-caliber small forwards on the roster.

But let’s stop and at least acknowledge the work the Lakers did just to make this an interesting conversation. The Lakers pulled themselves out of the self-inflicted Russell Westbrook mess with some inspired in-season work last year and ended up with a roster that was functional enough to break through a soft draw to reach the conference finals.

They did more good work this summer — and a lot of it, actually, first by crucially bringing back Austin Reaves on a bargain deal, then somewhat less crucially shelling out $51 million to keep Rui Hachimura. Gabe Vincent is a talent downgrade from Dennis Schröder but should provide more shooting, something this team desperately needs, while Taurean Prince and bargain backup Christian Wood should also help spread the floor. Jaxson Hayes will be an instant garbage-time legend with his dunks and might even help in the earlier parts of the game given how much this team runs. Cam Reddish? Don’t get your hopes up, but it was a flier for the minimum at a position of need.

The key in all this was that they moved off Westbrook last year without having to sacrifice all their draft capital, and between the trades and offseason exception money they acquired enough rotation-caliber pieces (Hachimura, Russell, Vincent, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wood, Prince) that the depth chart doesn’t just say “LOL” after the first five names.

Adding Russell’s shooting was an underrated piece to the puzzle; he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the Lakers desperately needed a long-range threat like him. Finding and developing the undrafted Reaves into a fairly legitimate third option was obviously the capper, continuing a decade-long track record of draft wins for this organization.

Additionally, L.A. may have found another in-house solution in the backcourt after 2022 second-rounder Max Christie emerged with a strong summer league. The 20-year-old did little of note in his first season, at either the NBA or G League level, so his play in both Vegas and Sacramento was a revelation.

That said, the Lakers also lost Schröder and playoff dynamo Lonnie Walker IV this offseason, and questions about the quantity and quality of shooting persist. This was the league’s 20th-ranked offense a year ago despite leading the league in free-throw attempts; alas, they were 26th in 3-point frequency and 25th in accuracy.

GO DEEPER

Reloaded Lakers may have finally fixed their biggest weakness: 3-point shooting

Exchanging Westbrook for literally anybody helps that, obviously, as does adding perimeter threats such as Wood, Vincent and Prince. That said, the Lakers’ two best players present little trouble from the perimeter (James shot 32.1 percent from 3 last season, and while I don’t have the exact Second Spectrum stats, I’m pretty sure Davis hasn’t made a jump shot since he left the 2020 bubble). That puts more onus on the rest of the roster to goose the spacing.

The Lakers have left themselves in better position than the Suns and Warriors to make upgrades from here, however. Russell’s contract is likely the key, a $17.7 million cap number that include a player option for next year but, crucially, contains an agreement that he will not block a trade to another team (a new feature of the collective bargaining agreement for players who re-sign via “one-plus-one” deals like Russell’s). The other important piece is that the Lakers didn’t sacrifice their 2029 first-round pick in the Westbrook trade last spring and thus still have it to dangle at the trade deadline if a starting-caliber piece becomes available. No, that’s not getting them Damian Lillard, but maybe it could nab Buddy Hield?

L.A. is only $1.3 million above the luxury tax; while subject to the tax apron because of using the full midlevel exception on Vincent, the Lakers are enough below it that they shouldn’t feel restricted in any trade scenarios.

Deeper on the roster, the Lakers’ draft history is very strong, but this season’s selections didn’t exactly quicken my pulse. First-rounder Jalen Hood-Schifino is trying to thread a tight archetypal needle as “non-shooter who doesn’t really get to the rim much,” while Max Lewis is the more traditional second-round gamble on a toolsy wing whose production hasn’t matched his YouTube reel. Seeing either play in any of the first three quarters of a game this year will likely require a drive to El Segundo.

Overall, the biggest issue facing this team is the same as last year: whether there is enough regular-season juice to get their two superstars to a favorable playoff position. This feels like a much more coherent team from top to bottom than it did 12 months ago, and, despite James’ age, we’ve all learned to never doubt him in games that matter in May. That said, blasting your way out of the No. 7 seed is a tough way to live. Right now they’re in the mix for any outcome in the top seven, but if I’m splitting hairs (and the job requires I must), I’d put them seventh among those teams for the regular season.

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Derrick White isn’t used to being an ‘inspiration’, but he’s exactly that to D’Angelo Russell

How long can the Clippers keep this up? LA has theoretically been all-in ever since it acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019, sporting one of the league’s most expensive rosters every year, shelling out massive luxury-tax checks and shedding draft picks and expiring contracts for more veterans to keep it going another year.

The end result, after re-signing most of those veterans, is an old, expensive team that depends heavily on the increasingly frail Leonard and George to carry it. While the Clippers’ depth remains above average, the lack of either a third impact starter or an elite point guard leaves them at a disadvantage relative to most of their Western peers, especially in the many minutes that one or both of Leonard and George are, um, sidelined. (Do NOT say “load managed.”)

Leonard showed both sides of that coin during LA’s brief playoff run, dominating Game 1 in Phoenix to remind everyone how good the peak version of Playoff Kawhi remains, then sitting out the final three games with a knee sprain while the Clips humbly submitted. He’s played 52, 0 and 52 games in the three post-bubble seasons, while George has played 54, 31 and 56. Forget getting both of them to play 60 games in the same season; can they even get one?

As ever, this front office works the edges, and that’s where one hopes that help might be on the way. Yes, there are too many meh forwards making too much money, but the acquisition of Mason Plumlee brought in a much-needed backup center, and the version of Westbrook that showed up last spring can help them at both ends. Additionally, they can get back into the picks-for-players game if they so choose, sitting on multiple mid-sized expiring contracts of secondary players (Marcus Morris, Robert Covington) and able to trade first-round picks in 2028 and 2030.

Obviously, the name James Harden looms large here, and my numbers say replacing Terance Mann with Harden would add four wins over the course of the season if they acquired him tomorrow. Realistically, that number is likely smaller due to diminishing returns with Harden and the Clips’ three existing ball-dominant perimeter players, but there’s no question he raises both the team’s floor and ceiling in the most realistic trade scenarios.

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Clippers appear focused and vibing. So why is James Harden still in the chat?

The Clips even gave themselves a shot at some youthful injection, trading for Bones Hyland last season when the Nuggets decided to take 50 cents on the dollar for him and turning a small trade exception into high-flier K.J. Martin. (Martin can’t space the floor, but he might be the best weak-hand dunker in the league; some of his lefty smashes are extraordinary.) First-round draft pick Kobe Brown is yet another aspiring stretch four, one who likely will be able to drive from the practice facility to Ontario blindfolded by the end of the season. However, he also gives the Clips some outs if and when the contracts of Morris and Covington are put in play.

The best-case scenario version of this team still can hunt 50 wins and be a menace in the playoffs, especially if the Clips can come out with a viable third star in the trade market. The Clips, it should be noted, also have pledged to take the regular season more seriously this time around and have thus far backed up their words in the preseason.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to have too much faith in 70-game seasons from George and Leonard until we see it happen, and the organization seems to share our ambivalence. Note, in particular, that extensions for either haven’t happened yet, even though both can be free agents after the season.

Steve Ballmer isn’t writing nine-figure luxury-tax checks to the league so he can lose to Phoenix in the first round, and the Clippers could eject from their current stratospheric payroll situation with lightning speed if they so choose. I don’t expect this team to start slowly, but if it does, things could be awfully interesting.


Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become free agents after the season. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

5. Golden State Warriors (47-35)

Despite a rather uninspiring title defense that featured hailstorms of turnovers and internal pugilism, the Warriors are running it back with the league’s most expensive roster. At least this time they’re coming at it honestly, with the merciful death of Two Tracks and a renewed focus on maximizing the dwindling primes of the Steph Curry–Draymond Green–Klay Thompson triumvirate.

The Warriors lost one of the league’s top executives when Bob Myers moved on, but their offseason ran smoothly. For some reason, people acted as if Chris Paul was washed at the end of last season; he might not be an All-Star anymore at 38, but he’s still one of the league’s most effective two-way guards, especially in the regular season. Additionally, turning Jordan Poole into Paul does seem to alleviate many of the specific problems that afflicted the Warriors a year ago. The team ranked last in turnover rate and last in free-throw rate; Paul is an all-time great at avoiding miscues and grifts fouls in his sleep.

Golden State also helped itself at the margins with minimum deals for Cory Joseph and Dario Šarić; if the oft-injured Gary Payton II can make a healthy return as well, the second unit should be much stronger than last season’s despite Donte DiVincenzo’s departure.

While Two Tracks is dead, Golden State could also get more out of 2021 first-rounder Jonathan Kuminga, who was deep-sixed from the playoff rotation but is the Warriors’ best hope for an energy jolt this season. Despite playing two NBA seasons, he just turned 21 this month, and his top line offensive numbers (59.0 percent from 2, 37.0 percent from 3, 4.2 assists per 100 possessions) are notably good for a player this young.

Of course, Kuminga could also help in another way. The Warriors can still send out a 2028 first-round pick and the juicy part of their 2030 first (it goes to Washington if it’s No. 21 through No. 30). If they want to make a significant addition, that and Kuminga would be a tempting package.

Alas, the Warriors lack large expiring contracts to help grease a trade, unless they’re willing to discuss moving Thompson … the type of thing they probably should be open to if we’re being coldly logical, but is a tough emotional hill for an organization to climb.

While we’re here, discussions about an extension for him on his expiring $43 million deal will be fascinating, as they provide a lens into the larger thought process about the team’s willingness to continue pouring money into this roster. Turning Poole into Paul gives them an out, as they can waive Paul’s $30 million for next year and possibly end up all the way below the tax, even with a Thompson extension.

Overall, it’s hard to get excited about the peak version of the Warriors as more than a puncher’s chance contender, one that could perhaps sneak through if everything breaks just right. The Warriors certainly have advantages compared to a year ago — Curry and Andrew Wiggins had extended absences last season, there is no pressure to force minutes to James Wiseman, Kuminga might break out and Paul is likely to give them more than Poole did a year ago. If a quality backup two emerges from recent draft picks Moses Moody and Brandin Podziemski, so much the better.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see the ceiling here. It’s been an amazing dynasty, but the youngest of the three key players behind it will be 34 in March, and Curry is the only one who projects to play at an All-Star level this season. It’s difficult to see this team missing the playoffs, but it’s also nearly as hard to see it getting past the second round.

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Chris Paul, a trip to San Quentin and a window into what he brings to the Warriors

It’s amazing yet true: One year after making one of the worst trades in NBA history, the Timberwolves are likely to be one of the league’s best teams.

While giving up Walker Kessler and five future firsts for the right to overpay Rudy Gobert through 2026 is an all-time stinker that will sting this franchise with a vengeance in the second half of the decade, they haven’t had to pay the piper yet.

Instead, this is the last year when everything is still fun: Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are each on the final year of their rookie deals, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ extension hasn’t kicked in yet. Minnesota was able to spend its exception money, re-sign Naz Reid and still keep a couple million in wiggle room below the luxury-tax line. That all changes a year from now, but the present looks good.

Partly, that’s because the front office did a tremendous job digging out from the Gobert disaster over the last 12 months. Trading for Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker stabilized the backcourt at midseason, while offseason moves to add Troy Brown and Shake Milton further solidified the bench. (Smart alecks will note that removing Chris Finch’s ability to play Austin Rivers should also help.) The Gobert trade also overshadowed a genuinely sharp move to ink the vastly underrated Kyle Anderson for the midlevel exception, a huge value at that price. (He, alas, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.)

Wolves president Tim Connelly also had an incredible draft record in Denver, so it will be interesting to see how some of his late-draft picks turn out in Minnesota. We didn’t see much last year: Wendell Moore was just a rumor, and Josh Minott was a raw one-and-done, but if those two and 2023 second-rounder Leonard Miller turn into real pieces, that makes the future a lot more palatable.

Of course, much of the reason for optimism is the emergence of Edwards, an elite athlete still figuring out how to use all his tools. This summer, the FIBA version of Anthony Edwards showed both the best and worst of his game — taking over as a go-to guy because of his ability to create a shot at a moment’s notice but finishing last on the team in true shooting because of his iffy ability to read the game and pursue high-percentage opportunities.

The other reason Minnesota started slowly last year was the poor frontcourt chemistry between Gobert and Towns, but they had seemed to work out many of the kinks by the time the playoffs started. It’s still an unnatural fit, with Towns shoehorned into a perimeter role on both ends of the floor and Gobert’s hands and finishing as a roll man having markedly declined from his peak in Utah. One still wonders if the best endgame for the Wolves is to move off Towns before his $216 million extension kicks in next year in exchange for somebody who is a better positional fit for this roster.

Again, other gremlins lurk just over the horizon. Conley, Anderson and McDaniels are all free agents after the season, and the team will end up deep in the luxury tax if it keeps more than one of them. Also, there are no draft picks left to trade to replenish things, let alone to acquire any other young players. Even the good news is bad: Edwards’ emergence may well result in an All-NBA selection … and change his extension to a supermax, which would push the Wolves further into the 2024-25 luxury tax. But those worries can wait until next summer.

I feel like I might be alone here in my Wolves optimism: Not one of the 30 execs in the league’s GM survey picked the Wolves in the top four in the West. (Pedantic side note: I’ve listed this finish as a tie, but technically, the Suns projected with three-tenths more wins than Minnesota.) However, the logic pencils out: This roster has a really strong top seven, with some interesting depth pieces mixed in, and the key players are more likely to play more games than those of the other teams in this range.

So, Minnesota fans, enjoy these last precious days of your brief Edwards-era summer before the harsh winter comes. The 2023-24 season should be a fun party, at least, especially if you ignore the Arctic blast of salary-cap reality that’s about to blow in.

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Shake Milton comes to Timberwolves, where the chance he has been looking for awaits

3 (tie). Phoenix Suns (48-34)

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t seem to be quite as bullish on the Suns as the consensus, projecting them as one of the five teams to fall short of their Vegas over/unders.

We all know about the stars, and we’ll get to them in a second, but one of the key questions for Phoenix is whether the roster is now too top-heavy.  The Suns had a tremendous free agency in terms of identifying minimum-contract role players who could help them this season, but the depth still took some hits with the loss of Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Jock Landale and Torrey Craig. Keita Bates-Diop, in particular, looks like a tremendous value pickup, one who may ultimately have more impact than their big-name get (Eric Gordon) given his ability to play both forward spots.

The bench still won’t be good by any means, but the back end of it won’t be Terence-Ross-in-a-playoff-game hopeless either. Josh Okogie was an unsung hero last season who helped keep the team afloat during myriad midseason injuries, Drew Eubanks is a solid rim protector, and, in addition to Gordon, Damion Lee and Yuta Watanabe are secondary perimeter shooting threats who aren’t toast defensively. Acquiring Grayson Allen — who could be the fifth starter — adds another reliable shooter, one who has a bit more on-ball juice than the others I’ve mentioned. Keep an eye on Nassir Little too, who has struggled to stay healthy but offers an athletic jolt at either forward spot.

For deeper cuts, pay attention to guard Jordan Goodwin — stuffed into the Bradley Beal trade, he’s an athletic combo guard who made an impact in his second season with Washington in 2022-23. However, his presence underscores another issue: There is no real point guard here. Beal and Devin Booker are going to have to trade off in that role, with Goodwin an option when one of the others is out. Don’t be shocked if this team hits the low-end point guard market at midseason. Part of the idea of trading Deandre Ayton for multiple small contracts, and for trading future pick swaps for a raft of future seconds, was to generate the ability to make deals like this.

While the pairing of the Booker-Beal-Kevin Durant big three is the major story, the Ayton trade also was a significant organizational decision. Even with no subsequent trades, the Suns were looking at an obscene luxury-tax check next season if they hung on to Ayton. They now can land at something a bit closer to reasonable … but still, in all likelihood, have the league’s most expensive roster by a significant margin.

Ultimately, I’m more bullish on the postseason version of this team than I am the regular-season one. That’s where the 35-year-old Durant can go 40 minutes every night and team with Booker and Beal to put real heat on defenses. The first 82 games still have too many questions about depth and durability to predict an easy ride, however, especially with the addition of another historically frail player in Jusuf Nurkić. It’s pretty easy to see a scenario in which the Suns end up with a middling seed and then have to blast their way through a tough bracket — much like a year ago. The good news is that they have enough top-end talent to pull it off.


It seems likely that Devin Booker and Bradley Beal will split point guard duties this season in Phoenix. (Rick Scuteri / USA Today)

2. Denver Nuggets (49-33)

The Nuggets have the best player in the league and the best starting five, which is a really good place to start a title defense. Nikola Jokić is a dominant, efficient, giant point guard who shreds any double-team and also shoots 64 percent from floater range; surrounded by knockdown shooters and a pick-and-roll point guard, good luck stopping these guys. Your only real hope against the Nuggets is to outscore them: Denver roasted opponents for 119.5 points per 100 possessions in the postseason and figures to be nearly as potent this time around.

However, losing Bruce Brown will leave a mark, and it’s fair to ask if Denver’s roster is just too thin to reach the finish line. The Nuggets effectively had six starters last year, with Brown playing 28.5 minutes a game in the regular season and 26.5 in the playoffs. Any lineup with five of the six good Nuggets in it smoked the opposition. When they went deeper, cracks appeared almost immediately.

Those cracks will come earlier and more often this season. With Brown and Jeff Green gone and Vlatko Čančar lost to a torn ACL, my numbers rated this as the worst bench in the league. The Nuggets are supporting their starting five with the very young and the very old, but it’s not clear if any of the other 10 players on the roster are truly rotation-caliber. The best hope is likely forward Christian Braun, a good defender and athlete who stepped into a minor role during the playoff run but is a non-threat from the perimeter and has limited utility as an on-ball creator. Don’t sleep on Peyton Watson, either. I wrote more about the 2022 first-rounder last week, but his defense could make an impact if he proves reliable enough as a shooter.

The Nuggets also brought in a couple of replacement-level veteran depth pieces. They paid 33-year-old Reggie Jackson their entire taxpayer midlevel exception despite hardly using him after he was acquired last spring; the hope is that he can straighten out his shot and give them competent backup minutes. Denver also brought in 34-year-old Justin Holiday, a theoretical 3-and-D guy who struggled mightily in Atlanta and Dallas last season (6.6 PER, 49.4 percent true shooting — yikes).

With Green gone in free agency, the Nuggets’ backup center is … Zeke Nnaji? I guess? He’s an undersized stretch big who has failed to establish himself during rotation cameos in his first three seasons. His greatest value this year may come as a $4.2 million expiring contract to use at the trade deadline. DeAndre Jordan also is back after playing a valuable role as the locker room Yoda, but his on-court impact is pretty limited.

All this puts a target on Denver’s 2023 draft, when they sent out a future first to get three late picks and selected Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther, Penn State’s Jalen Pickett and Clemson’s Hunter Tyson. If any of the three hit, it would alleviate some of the depth concerns, but the odds of a pick this late being good enough to contribute plus minutes to a playoff rotation are long.

On the other hand, the Nuggets were looking at a bigger picture: With a core young enough to have a multi-year contention run, the picks are a way to add talent for that window without the roster becoming gobsmackingly expensive and triggering the more stringent repeater tax constraints of the new CBA. Instead, the hope is that five players in their first or second season can add enough depth to make an impact within the timeline of the Jokić-Jamal Murray peak.

Strawther is the archetype Denver could probably use most as a catch-and-shoot small forward, one they’d hope could maybe be an upgraded version of Holiday by April. But Tyson, a stretch four who can also play with some physicality, looked the best in summer league.

Pickett, meanwhile, is an old-school point guard with a YMCA game in the Andre Miller mold; he may get chances to supplant Jackson. All three are older players. Historically, that hasn’t been a great way to bet in the draft, but it does mean that whatever contributions they make should come more immediately.

So, yeah, there are some questions. But circle back to the big picture: This is an elite starting five, one that may only look better as Murray comes into his own. He was still working his way back from an ACL injury last season, but the playoff version of him is an All-Star. On the down side, keeping all five starters healthy and in working order is critical for a realistic title defense, and Michael Porter Jr., in particular, will always be a concern on that front.

The Nuggets are a credible threat to repeat if they can make it to the postseason intact, but amassing wins in the regular season will be a slog due to their depth issues, and I can’t help but think this year’s roster is one player short of what they need. Denver could theoretically acquire that player in-season, but the resources to do so have been drained by other trades; their only tradeable draft assets are three second-round picks, they only have $10.5 million of expiring money to put in a trade and they can’t go over the second apron and are just $4.7 million away.

The Nuggets’ offseason moves were quite possibly the best way to maximize the entirety of the next half decade, but it’s hard to argue they maxed out their odds of repeating this year. Certainly the Nuggets have to be on the short list of title contenders, with the best player in the league and an unstoppable Murray-Jokić two-man game. In a highly competitive West, however, it’s fair to question whether they’re deep enough to glide through four straight rounds the way they did a season ago.

1. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

OK, Memphis. I got into some of this already when I talked about teams that I like better than the consensus, but the Grizzlies racking up a solid regular-season win total should not be a terribly controversial take. Yes, Ja Morant needs to get his act together, but even in the games he misses, a Marcus Smart-Desmond Bane-Jaren Jackson Jr. core would be likely to win more than half its games. The Grizzlies also still have chips they can put in play to make upgrades in-season, including all of their own future first-round picks, which is something few West contenders can say.

In a conference that may not have a single dominant team, a win total in the low 50s might be all that’s required to earn the top seed. A year ago, Denver did it with 53, and, if anything, this year seems even more balanced. Additionally, Memphis’s top-end talent is legit. With the addition of Smart, Memphis has four of the top-50 players in the league by BORD$, a valuable starting center as long as Steven Adams can come back strong from his knee injury and enough depth pieces to survive the 82-game slog. Maybe Jon Konchar, Luke Kennard and Santi Aldama aren’t household names, but the numbers say they’re very effective players who each project to play at the level of a low-end starter.

Where I worry about Memphis more, as ever, is in the postseason. The Lakers showed how the Grizzlies’ key weaknesses — outside shooting, scheme variability, big wings — can be exploited in a short series, and the heavier reliance on starter minutes in the postseason means their depth won’t save them. Swapping out Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones for Smart still leaves the Grizzlies awfully small on the perimeter in crunchtime; inserting Kennard solves the shooting problem but creates even more size issues.

If the Grizzlies do end up as the top seed, they’ll almost by definition have a decent chance of winning the West, especially since Morant and Adams should be back at full speed by then, and Brandon Clarke might even be playing too.

Here’s where I’ll slow my roll, though. Regular-season Memphis still seems far more imposing than playoff Memphis. In particular, to advance past the other contenders, they likely need to cash in one more chip for a big wing. (Ergo, their pursuit of O.G. Anunoby at the last trade deadline.) The Grizzlies’ struggles against L.A. were underscored by their total inability to get Anthony Davis out of the paint; this happened partly because the adjustment of playing Jackson at the five left them woefully undersized at one through four. A pathetic 104.0 points per 100 possessions in the series, including a ghastly 46.3 percent on 2s, sealed their doom.

The fingers-crossed hope for this season is that one of Ziaire Williams, David Roddy or Jake LaRavia can fill that role, but last year didn’t provide much comforting evidence on that front. Williams, in particular, will get every chance to show he’s the answer, but one suspects 50 games of reality smacking them in the face compels the Grizzlies to cash in some of those draft picks for a more immediate solution.

Other concerns linger, and without much margin of safety. Even as my projected top seed, the Grizzlies only stand five games above the Play-In cut line — that’s how tight the West is. Morant needs to stay on the straight and narrow once he returns from suspension, especially with Smart as the only other viable point guard option. (Derrick Rose is here too, but likely mainly as a mentor for Morant.)

While we’re here and discussing trades, here’s another factor to keep an eye on: Next year’s Grizzlies project to be about $20 million over the luxury-tax line, pushing into second-apron territory. Are the small-market Griz willing to spend that kind of money? If so, is that willingness contingent on a certain degree of success this season?

For a great many reasons, this feels like a big season in the trajectory of this version of the Grizzlies, and the regular season is only part of the story. But even with Morant sitting out the first 25 games, I like the Grizzlies’ odds of emerging from the regular season at or near the top of the West standings.

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Hollinger: 13 bold NBA season predictions, including All-Star Wembanyama and a Celtics title


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(Photos of Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Jaren Jackson Jr.: Kirby Lee, Gary A. Vasquez, Petre Thomas: USA Today)