Warriors need time to navigate 2023-24 Western Conference gauntlet originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
SAN FRANCISCO – Consider Tuesday both the beginning of the NBA season and, also, the first page of a mystery that will take months to unfold.
“It’s going to [take] time,” Paul warned Monday, on the eve of opening night against the Phoenix Suns at Chase Center. “A lot of time.
“We’re going to have learn our identity. We know how we want to play, but we’re going to have to see it in real-game form. We’re going to have to see how we guard, how we defend. We’re going to have to see how teams defend us.”
That much can be said of nearly every legitimate contender, beginning with co-favorites Boston and Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics replaced Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon with Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. The Bucks swapped out Holiday for Damian Lillard. They’re both going to need time.
But the Western Conference is where the mysteries run deepest. There is a wealth of talent and very few “easy” wins. The opportunities for such last season – the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, and Warriors [on a load-management night] – have dwindled to one: Portland, in the first season of a full rebuild.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr considers the West deeper than any he can recall.
“I just base it on what I saw last year,” Kerr said. “The Lakers knocked us out the playoffs; they were really good. Denver won the title. Phoenix is loaded with talent. Sacramento won our division. We just saw San Antonio and can see what [Victor] Wembanyama can do and their other young players complimenting him.
“And I’m leaving out the Clippers and Memphis . . . just go down the list. The whole conference is deep. A lot of teams are all-in to try to win a tile. So, it will be very competitive.”
Wondering how many teams he did not mention, Kerr then added the Oklahoma City Thunder. He left out the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz and the vastly improved Rockets.
Most of the eight teams that made the playoffs last season underwent a significant change. The closest thing to “running it back” is found with the Lakers and the defending champion Nuggets.
That uncertainty around the Nuggets allowed the Suns to become the conference favorite when they added three-time All-Star Bradley Beal to a roster that has future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant and three-time All-Star Devin Booker, who is the only player remaining from the Phoenix roster that reached the conference finals 17 months ago.
What will the Suns need? Time.
The Warriors are projected to finish fourth, ahead of the Grizzlies, Mavericks and Clippers – in that order.
The Pelicans, pegged by oddsmakers for the eighth and final playoff berth, will get a healthy CJ McCollum – but must also confront the eternal mystery of keeping Zion Williamson healthy to enough to see if he’s real or imaginary.
Here is where the quality depth within the conference makes a statement. The Kings, who last season won the Pacific Division and earned the No. 3 seed, are projected to drop to ninth despite its rotation staying intact.
The Timberwolves, one of the scariest teams in the league, are projected to snag in the final play-in berth. This is a team nobody is eager to play – and the same is true of OKC, fortified with by the addition of a healthy Chet Holmgren. Houston will be better because it added quality veteran Fred VanVleet and because new coach Ime Udoka will demand it.
Add sneaky-good Utah, which has enough to add a five or wins to the 37 it totaled last season. That would make the race to the postseason exceedingly tight, with 13 teams trying to squeeze into 10 spaces All-Star break.
Hovering above most of those teams is a solitary question: Will our changes make us better?
Which brings us back to Paul and the Warriors, who must navigate a season rife with unknowns in a conference built to punish. It will be quite the escapade.