Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell predicts the order of finish in the regular season in the Western Conference:
1. Golden State Warriors: With most teams, there would be major pressure for a prominent free agent such as DeMarcus Cousins to excel. With the Warriors, Cousins (Achilles injury) can heal, blend in, and be ready for the playoffs.
2. Houston Rockets: The Rockets showed last postseason they present an authentic challenge to the Warriors. Now, they turn to Carmelo Anthony to add to their firepower. Is he ready for a supporting role?
3. Utah Jazz: A young, versatile star (Donovan Mitchell) and the best defensive center in the league (Rudy Gobert) is a great foundation. Also, coach Quin Snyder is creative and cerebral.
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4. Portland Trail Blazers: I think the size of Portland’s backcourt limits the Blazers in the post-season, but guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum do create lots of problematic matchups in the regular season.
5. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic might be the NBA’s most under-publicized player, relative to his talent. This might be a leap, but they look on the rise.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder: Getting a long-term commitment from Paul George was a coup; now the Russell Westbrook-George-Steven Adams core has to produce.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: This is quite the test of LeBron James’ ability to make any roster a playoff team. However, Brandon Ingram is going to love the open shots he’ll get. He better knock them down.
8. New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ patience is wearing thin as far as winning at the NBA level. So this is a pivotal season for this franchise’s trajectory.
9. San Antonio Spurs: Betting against any Gregg Popovich-coached team to miss the playoffs is heresy. However, serious injuries to Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker starts them in such a hole.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves: This Jimmy Butler situation took the Timberwolves hostage this preseason. No telling how this will affect them, but Butler’s behavior at Wednesday’s practice sure added drama.
11. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith, combined with rookie Luka Doncic, is going to create some exceptional playmaking eventually. Meantime, veteran Dirk Nowitzki does his thing.
12. Sacramento Kings: The Duke guys - Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles - become the Kings’ future, along with De’Aaron Fox. If Giles produces, after so many injuries, it’s a cool story.
13. Memphis Grizzlies: This team has experience and talent, but keeping point guard Mike Conley is huge and no given. You don’t want to waste the rest of center Marc Gasol’s prime.
14. Los Angeles Clippers: This season could be a holding action until the Clippers can replenish in the free-agency market. Rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a keeper.
15. Phoenix Suns: Plenty of excitement over No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton and Trevor Booker. But the made-over front office better find a point guard.