Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Western Conference is a gauntlet.
The projected bottom feeders of the conference are the Portland Trail Blazers, who have an exciting young core led by an explosive point guard in Scott Henderson, and the San Antonio Spurs, who have a Monstar masquerading as a human.
There isn’t a single team that heads into the season looking like a walkover for the other teams in the conference.
We’ve already taken a look at the players that might swing the Eastern Conference playoff race and defined the criteria for players we’re looking at for this exercise. So here are the players in the West that fit that mold.
Xavier Tillman Sr., Memphis Grizzlies
Already without Ja Morant for 25 games (suspension) and Brandon Clarke for a good portion of the season (two Achilles surgeries), the Grizzlies were dealt another blow when it was announced Steven Adams would be out for the season.
The Grizzlies traded for Marcus Smart to fill the point guard void without Morant and play alongside Morant when he returns. It will give them a decent amount of depth on the wing, with more star power on the perimeter in Desmond Bane.
But down low, the Grizzlies are now really thin without Adams and Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has only played more than 60 games once in his NBA career. When he plays, Jackson has been an elite defender (he’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year) but also can’t play high minutes due to frequent foul trouble. He’s never played 30 minutes per game in a season.
Even if Jackson gets to 30 minutes every night and doesn’t miss time, Memphis needs to fill another 66 minutes a night in the frontcourt. A good chunk of those should go to the steady Tillman, whose been a great backup that the team will now ask to do more.
Tillman is a bit like Joakim Noah light, in that he works well enough in drop coverage and switching to unlock most coverages while he’s on the floor, he communicates extremely well as the last line of defense, and he is an excellent passer out of the high post.
The rest of his offensive game isn’t as refined, but his passing should help an offense that is going to go through periods of struggle without Morant. And he’s not a complete zero as a scorer, either, as he can seal smaller players and play the angles well when he has the opportunity.
Overall, though, Tillman’s biggest value will be in allowing the team to retain its nasty defensive identity that’s allowed them to win when Morant hasn’t been available in the past. With Marcus Smart on the perimeter, the Grizzlies have the personnel to be one of the best defensive teams in the league again this year.
And Tillman will have to be an even bigger part of that than in years past.
Dante Exum, Dallas Mavericks
It’s pretty obvious what the Mavericks need around Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. With the two dynamic offensive players capable of bending the defense, the team needs players who can hit 3s, attack a closeout and defend multiple positions well to cover up for the deficiencies of their stars.
Dallas may have found one of those players in an unlikely fashion, as Exum tries to resurrect his NBA career. His first stint didn’t go well after being selected fifth overall in the 2014 draft, but he refined his shot and recalibrated his game for a lower usage while playing in Euroleague. He hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2020-21 season but could be thrust into a key role this year.
It’s sometimes difficult for high draft picks to succeed in lower usage roles when it’s clear they aren’t suited as go-to scorers in the NBA. More is expected of them offensively, and they aren’t trained as much to be effective off-ball players and secondary options. Lightening a load for these players doesn’t always lead to increased efficiency.
But that doesn’t mean some players can’t take on new roles and run with them eventually. Lonzo Ball might be the best example of a player who was expected to have the ball in his hands all the time redefining his game as a wizard shooter, defender and connector.
Exum’s skill level isn’t in the same conversation as Ball’s, nor is he expected to have a role near the same size, but he does look to be a player who can finally thrive in a different role than he was expected to have coming into the league.
Part of the struggles in Exum’s first stint was his lack of an outside shot, as he shot 30.5% on 3-pointers for his career. He shot 41.9% on 3-pointers in Euroleague last year (albeit with a shorter 3-point line) and upped his free throw percentage to 86.0%.
If Exum can truly knock down open jumpers and opponents have to close out, it should allow him to get into the paint easily against scrambling defenses. He also deploys a decent post-up game against teams that try to stick small defenders on him, something likely to happen with Irving or Doncic on the court alongside him.
Defensively, he’s always been active and uses his 6-foot-9 wingspan well. The Mavericks can definitely use Exum’s frenetic energy to jumpstart a defense that had major regression last year.
If Exum shoots well enough to unlock the rest of his game offensively, he’ll be able to stay on the floor and if he stays on the floor, he can make an impact defensively.
Shake Milton, Minnesota Timberwolves
Milton’s tenure in Philadelphia was a bumpy ride, as looked ready to be a huge part of the future after a really good year in 2020-21, only to take a step back in 2021-22.
It wasn’t just a jump-shooting blip, either, as Milton was less efficient from all over the floor. Last year started out well, as he filled in capably when James Harden and Tyrese Maxey both had injuries early in the year.
But Milton became less of a fixture in the rotation as the season went on and was out of the rotation by the time the playoffs came. The Timberwolves will be asking a lot more of Milton this year.
The Wolves are extremely deep in the frontcourt, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert being backed up by Kyle Anderson and the underrated Naz Reid. But depth is a question at both point guard and on the wing. Anderson will play minutes at small forward, but he is more of a modern power forward, and there are questions about Troy Brown Jr, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jordan McLaughlin.
Other than Anderson, the Timberwolves don’t have a single backup perimeter player who feels like a lock to make it through the season in the rotation.
Milton has the talent to be that guy. While he can be frustratingly inconsistent on defense, he has a massive wingspan near seven feet and, at 6-5, can play alongside Mike Conley Jr. and Anthony Edwards in three-guard lineups against a lot of teams when Jaden McDaniels has to sit.
His playmaking quietly took a step forward last year, and he rebounded from his nadir of 2021-22 efficiency-wise and has always shown an impressive package when finishing at the rim.
Sasha Vezenkov, Sacramento Kings
We’ve tried to stay away from rookies for this exercise, but Vezenkov is a rookie in technicality only as he’s 28 years old and is the clearest swing piece off the bench for a Kings team that chose mostly continuity.
Chris Duarte will be part of the rotation as well and JaVale McGee will get minutes as a backup big, but Vezenkov is the most exciting of the new players in town. He was a sharpshooter in Europe, shooting 39.5% on 3-pointers and 86.0% on free throws and winning the 2022-23 Euroleague MVP.
Vezenkov will likely be a good shooter in the NBA, but the question offensively is if he can be an elite one. If he becomes the kind of shooter that has a ton of gravity, it’ll provide a ton of space for Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, two players who thrive with extra room to maneuver.
Defensively, Vezenkov needs to prove he is passable against NBA power forwards, and there will likely be some struggles to start. But the bar to defending in the regular season for the Kings wasn’t exactly set high last year, as the team was 24th in adjusted defensive rating during the regular season. Vezenkov just needs to prove he won’t be played off the floor when the playoffs arrive.
If he holds up defensively and is the kind of shooter his success in Europe suggests, he could be a really valuable player this year. The Kings don’t have a lot of obvious candidates for shooting regression this year, as most of their snipers seemed to be legitimately good last year.
Sabonis took a huge step forward in percentage, but he only took 1.1 3s per game so a 3-point slump from him wouldn’t affect the overall offense that much. But the Kings need to take and make a bunch of 3-pointers to be successful and having Vezenkov will insulate the team from any slumps from the other high-volume shooters.
Isaiah Joe, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are a team full of interesting young players and several players fit the bill as possible swing candidates.
However, if there is one thing the Thunder are lacking, it is enough perimeter shooting around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. For a team that has a four- or five-out offensive scheme engineered by a maestro in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder weren’t able to convert on enough of their open looks from deep. Oklahoma City finished 17th in 3-point percentage last year and tied for 15th in offensive efficiency.
The Thunder have a talented starting five and should be better at shooting with improvement in Year 2 for Jalen Williams likely and Chet Holmgren at center opening the floor up even more. But a lineup with Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort will always have shooting limitations, even if those players make up for their lack of jump-shooting success in other ways.
Joe finally looked like a guy realizing his potential as a shooter when he got to Oklahoma City last year and the Thunder need him to build on that. Joe always looked the part of a sniper with a quick release and a great-looking shot, but the results weren’t there in limited showings with the 76ers his first two years.
That changed last season. Joe hit 40.9% of the 5.4 3-pointers he took per game – the third most 3s per game of any qualifying player off the bench. Oklahoma City generates a ton of open looks, and Joe only needs to be open for a moment to make defenses pay.
Even if there are more talented options, Joe might be hard to keep off the court in big moments because of how natural his shooting fit is in the offense.
And if he continues to thrive in his role, he’ll be one of the most valuable players for a team looking to take the next big step.
Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have been a team flushed with interesting young talent the last few years, but key injuries have left them thin on the bench to start the season.
Trey Murphy III looked like a breakout candidate this year and is projected to be a huge piece for the Pelicans, but a meniscus injury will keep him out well into the season. Jose Alvarado and Larry Nance have been dealing with nagging injuries as well and Naji Marshall will miss the beginning of the season with a bone bruise.
The injuries have changed the role of Daniels from a luxury to a necessity, and the second-year guard must convert the flashes he showed as a rookie into consistent production.
Daniels is a great defender and ascending playmaker, showcasing both skills last year. His defense was ahead of schedule for a rookie and he showed an advanced understanding of NBA defensive principles.
Willie Green helped mold the Pelicans into a top-10 defense last year (third in adjusted defensive ratings) and Daniels fits right in as a player who understands the scheme and has the size and athleticism to thrive.
Ochai Agbaji, Utah Jazz
Agbaji was a pleasant surprise as a rookie on a team of pleasant surprises, as the Jazz rookie guard looked much more polished on offense than anticipated.
He shot an acceptable 35.5% on 3.9 3-point attempts per game and showed an advanced understanding of when to time his cuts. He was one of the best rookie cutters in the league.
Defensively, Agbaji looked like a rookie most of the time. His off-the-ball defense in particular needs to be cleaned up and he needs to be more consistent in navigating his way through screens. All of this is true for 95% of rookies, though. The second year is crucial for defensive advancement in the NBA and Agbaji needs to take a step forward on that side of the ball to realize his potential.
As encouraging as the offensive signs were, Agbaji will likely never be a high-volume offensive player, so he’ll need to be a good-to-great defender to be a valuable player.
Unlike the Pelicans, the Jazz have a ton of options on the wing to start the year. This means Agbaji won’t be as needed right away as Daniels, but it also means he’s more replaceable if he struggles.
With John Collins in the fold along with rookies Taylor Hendricks and Keyonte George, there is a ton of competition for minutes at shooting guard and both forward spots. Agbaji will be one of the first players to get a crack at consistent minutes, though, and his style of play fits Utah’s offense well.
If he continues to develop on both ends, he could cement himself as a piece of a bright young core.