Of the two NBA conferences, teams have a tougher time winning in the Western Conference. This year, the Dallas Mavericks finished with a record of 49-33 and the eighth seed in the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, the Mavericks would have been the third seed. That is quite a difference.
The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have finished atop the Western Conference the past few seasons. With this year’s draft nearing, a few teams are on their way to becoming major threats to the powers in the west.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in a great position to vastly improve on the 2013-2014 season. First, Kobe Bryant is going to be back. Kobe’s work ethic is paralleled by very few players in the NBA, and he is always an option to score. With Kobe back, a much needed team leader will be on the floor for the Lakers.
Los Angeles has the seventh pick in the draft. All indications seem to favor the Lakers taking Kentucky’s Julius Randle. Randle is a 6’9” power forward weighing in at 250 pounds. What he lacks in height, Randle makes up in size and strength. Plus, Randle is a strong finisher and rebounder at the rim.
The Lakers are rumored to be pursuing Carmelo Anthony this offseason. With Bryant, Anthony, and Randle, the Lakers can get back to building championship teams.
The Utah Jazz, like the Lakers, were at the low end of the Western Conference this year. However, approximately $30 million in cap space and the fifth pick in the draft may be a big benefit to the Jazz.
With the pick, the Jazz are hoping Australian Dante Exum will still be available. That would make up an outstanding future backcourt of Trey Burke and Exum.
The Jazz already receive strong contributions from players such as Gordon Hayward, but they need a few more pieces to have a complete team. If the Jazz do decide to pursue a big man, they have the money to sign a good post player in free agency. If the recently injured Joel Embiid remains undrafted by the time the Jazz pick, Utah may find themselves with a new center instead of drafting Exum.
Finally, we have a team who was on the cusp of making the 2014 Playoffs. The Phoenix Suns, who finished a game behind the Mavericks for the eighth seed, will most likely be getting better.
The Suns have a core group of young players led by Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Bledsoe is a free agent, but Phoenix has a lot of money to spend. The Suns have the third largest amount of cap space in the NBA this offseason. They are solid at the guard position, but could use some improvements in the paint.
With three picks in the first round, Phoenix may package these picks to move up in the draft or use these picks and the rest of their roster for trading purposes.
The Western Conference is going to continue to improve. If teams like the Spurs and Thunder want to stay on top, they are going to have to pay attention and adapt.