NBA season preview: Expect another Wild West playoff chase

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Suns Coach Monty Williams hugs guard Chris Paul as teammates Jae Crowder and Devin Booker (1) watch final seconds of a win.
Suns Coach Monty Williams hugs guard Chris Paul as teammate Devin Booker, right, watches the final seconds of a series-clinching win over the Clippers to advance to the NBA Finals. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In the NBA’s Western Conference, the fight for supremacy will have more than its share of challengers.

The Lakers were the last team from the West to bring home the crown, claiming the franchise’s 17th NBA championship in 2020 while playing in the bubble near Orlando, Fla.

The Utah Jazz had the best record in the league last season at 52-20, but got bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the spirited Clippers, who reached the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

The Phoenix Suns had the second-best record in the league last season at 51-21, but lost in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Denver Nuggets featured the league’s MVP in center Nikola Jokic, the Golden State Warriors received outstanding play from Stephen Curry but lost their second play-in game to the rising Memphis Grizzlies and missed the playoffs, Dallas had the wonderous Luka Doncic and Portland had the masterful Damian Lillard.

Here’s a peek into how things are expected to shake out in the once-again loaded West this season.

Conference favorites

The Lakers reloaded around stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, bringing in Russell Westbrook to form a Big Three. They also added Carmelo Anthony, brought back Dwight Howard for the third time to play center, signed DeAndre Jordan, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza and re-signed Talen Horton-Tucker. Even with preseason injuries to Horton-Tucker (right thumb), Ariza (right ankle), Monk (groin), Kendrick Nunn (right ankle) and Ellington (hamstring), the Lakers are the favorites to come out of the West.

The Jazz still have two All-Stars in guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert, the reigning defensive player of the year, plus plenty of three-point shooting. They probably will win 50-plus games again this season, but will those outside shots fall in the playoffs and will someone else on the Jazz step up besides Mitchell?

The Suns remain loaded with one of the best backcourts in the league in All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker as well as improving center Deandre Ayton. They have nice role players around them in Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. The road back to the NBA Finals won’t be easy for the Suns, but they won’t go away easily.

Conference contenders

The Nuggets have the goods in Jokic, emerging star Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon to be championship contenders. Since they won’t have high-scoring guard Jamal Murray back until midseason while he recovers from left knee surgery, the Nuggets could start slow.

With Klay Thompson returning after missing the last two seasons with Achilles tendon injuries, the Warriors are poised to make some noise with him joining his Splash Brother to form a dynamic backcourt. Draymond Green remains the all-around man. Getting second-year center James Wiseman (torn meniscus) healthy will be important for a playoff run.

Dallas will be just fine as long as it has Doncic, whom the Mavericks locked up with a five-year, $207-million supermax extension. Now new head coach Jason Kidd has to get Kristaps Porzingis to reach his full potential for the Mavericks to do some damage in the playoffs.

While the Clippers wait for Kawhi Leonard (knee surgery) to return this season — if he does at all — they’ll rely on Paul George to carry the load like he did during their successful playoff run. With Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, a healthy Serge Ibaka (back) and Terance Mann, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who proved to be one of the best in the business during the postseason, has plenty of resources.

Lillard can’t keep dragging the Trail Blazers along if he and backcourt mate CJ McCollum don't get more help. New Portland coach Chauncey Billups and his focus on defense will help. Will having Norman Powell for a full season and a defensive big in new addition Larry Nance Jr. be enough to keep Lillard happy?

What’s not to love about watching Ja Morant play for Memphis? He’s exciting, fearless and helped the Grizzlies reach the playoffs last season. The young talent of Jaren Jackson and Dillon Brooks makes the Grizzlies a team to keep an eye on in the West.

Chasing the pack

The New Orleans Pelicans were viewed as a young team on the rise, but they are no longer, especially with forward Zion Williamson expected to miss the start of the season after having right foot surgery. They still have All-Star Brandon Ingram, but that won’t be enough to become a playoff contender.

For the first time in franchise history, the San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t have any stars to lean on now.

Sacramento has a good young point guard in De’Aaron Fox and a solid shooting guard in Tyrese Haliburton, but expect the Sacramento Kings to struggle.

Interestingly enough, the Minnesota Timberwolves have some talent in Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, but they will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.

Oklahoma City has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has a lot of potential, but otherwise, the Thunder keeps stockpiling draft picks for a continuing rebuild.

The Houston Rockets are starless and have placed their future in youngsters Jalen Green, Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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