Kevin Durant's ruptured Achilles and Klay Thompson's torn ACL could be catastrophic to the Golden State Warriors' success next season, but they're just two of the reasons why the Western Conference could have an entirely new feel in 2019-20.
Durant, even without the injury, was reportedly on his way out of Golden State. But without Thompson, the Warriors won't be favored to reach a sixth consecutive NBA Finals. Other sweeping changes could impact the West:
– Lakers have cap space to sign one max player and have the No. 4 pick in the draft.
– Clippers have the cap space to sign two max players in free agency.
– Rockets are reportedly willing to deal anyone but James Harden.
– Anthony Davis is unlikely to return to New Orleans and could be headed to the East.
Here's how I see the West before the draft and with rumors galore leading up to free agency in July.
1. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets finished second in the West this season and return everyone next season. The only player who might not be back is Paul Millsap, whose $30 million team option might be too rich to offer considering he turns 35 years old next February.
A starting lineup featuring a really good trio of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic should again be very good next season.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
With Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams, anything is possible. But the key to OKC's success next season could be the return of former All-NBA defender Andre Roberson, who hasn't played since Jan. 27, 2018 because of a ruptured patellar tendon. If he can resemble the defender he was in 2016-17 and the first half of the 2018-19 season, he'll be a massive upgrade to what was already an above average defensive team.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
The majority of the Blazers' roster is back next season, led by the steady backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, with Jusuf Nurkic lurking in the paint. Portland could get in on the rich free-agent class if they're able to trade some of their expiring contracts: Evan Turner ($18.6 million), Maurice Harkless ($11 million), Meyers Leonard ($11 million).
4. Golden State Warriors
Durant might've left the Warriors anyway, but they still would've been elite with Steph Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. Now they're without Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins is a free agent, so the pressure lies on Curry and Green to lead the way. They'll still be good, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they host a first-round playoff series.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
If we're all honest about the situation, the Clippers, who can afford two max players when free agency opens in July, are probably going to be among the favorites in the West once we all know which superstars they sign.
If Kawhi Leonard leaves Toronto and goes to the Clippers, they'll immediately be a favorite in the West. But remember, L.A.'s roster is in flux with only key players set to return being Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrel.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers' summer appears to be head one of two ways: They trade for Anthony Davis or they land one of the best free agents with a max contract. If they don't trade for Davis they could easily team LeBron up with Leonard, Jimmy Butler or another top-flight free agent.
7. Houston Rockets
James Harden makes the Rockets a contender no matter what, but Houston's situation looks rocky from afar with head coach Mike D'Antoni possibly in his last year and every other player on the roster reportedly available in trades. If they trade Chris Paul, Clint Capela or Eric Gordon – or perhaps more than one of those three – they'll have an entirely new look in 2019-20. It's hard to predict what will happen, but Houston could easily find itself out of the top four.
8. Utah Jazz
Another team with plenty of questions heading into the summer, especially with Ricky Rubio unlikely to return (he's a free agent) and the Jazz reportedly interested in trading for Memphis point guard Mike Conley. A trio of Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert would be better than Rubio/Mitchell/Gobert, which was good enough for the No. 5 seed in the West this season.
9. San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge return and the Spurs will get an big-time defender in Dejounte Murray back from injury. Murray was an All-NBA Second Team defender a year ago, and his offensive game was developing before he tore his ACL in a preseason game last fall. San Antonio doesn't have the cap space to do much in free agency, so the No. 10 team on the list could easily pass them up.
Karl-Anthony Towns seems to be the only sure thing on the roster, although Minnesota should be able to trust in high-quality minutes from a healthy Robert Covington on 2019-20. Dario Saric will be a nice offensive weapon as a stretch power forward, but the Wolves still have to get reliability and consistency from Andrew Wiggins, avoid a sophomore slump with Josh Okogie and figure out who the heck is starting at point guard, be it Jeff Teague or someone they trade for.
If Minnesota can find a way to work out a sign-and-trade with the Nets for D'Angelo Russell, the Wolves will slide up this list and into the top eight.
Sacramento, Dallas, Memphis, Phoenix and New Orleans are all likely to again be in the bottom five of the West.