After five years of dominance, the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty finally came to an end. The Toronto Raptors accomplished what most people thought was impossible, defeating the juggernaut that the Warriors had built. But there’s just one catch. The Warriors weren’t the same juggernaut anymore by the end of Game 6. Kevin Durant returned for Game 5 and gave the Warriors a boost, only to suffer a ruptured Achilles tendon. During the third quarter of the last game, Klay Thompson suffered a similar fate in the middle of a 30 point performance, tearing his ACL. Without Durant, the Warriors were barely hanging on after the first four games. It would take a miracle to win two games in a row, and especially a Game 7 in Toronto. Once Thompson went down, they just didn’t have enough to beat the Raptors.
We all knew that the dynasty would come to an end at some point, but nobody could imagine it happening like this. And it’s definitely over. Thompson and Durant will miss most or all of next season, and they certainly won’t be at full strength for the playoffs. As a result, the Warriors are unlikely to advance past the second round in 2020. When everyone is healthy in two years, Stephen Curry will be 33, Durant will be 32, and Thompson will be 31. The Warriors will have to pay them all significant money, leaving little room to build a supporting cast. I haven’t yet mentioned Draymond Green, who already seems have to declined this year. The future of the Warriors looks quite bleak, at least by Warriors standards.
It’s going to feel strange next year without a dominant Warriors squad. Ever since Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors in 2016, the one thing we knew for certain before each NBA season began was that Golden State would be the best team in the league. That doesn’t even include the previous two seasons when they had the best record in the NBA, although they weren’t such heavy favorites then. It was the same way for the Eastern Conference during LeBron James’ eight consecutive years in the Finals. There was always a sense of inevitability that LeBron’s team would emerge from the East no matter what. When LeBron joined the Los Angeles Lakers last offseason, it cleared the way for new contenders in the East. We’re going to see the same thing happen in the West next season.
So, with the Warriors being severely weakened, who are the new favorites in the West? There are a few teams I want to highlight.
I have to start by talking about the Lakers. They agreed to a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis, who might be better than any teammate LeBron has ever had. At the start of next season, the Lakers will probably be the favorites to win the championship. There isn’t much of a supporting cast around the two stars at the moment, so the Lakers will have to sacrifice either depth or star power to finish the roster. Still, they will have the best pair of stars in the league, and there isn’t a team in the West near the level of the superteam Warriors. It’s usually the safe bet to pick LeBron’s team to win the conference.
The team with the brightest future in the West is the Denver Nuggets. They’ve got an exciting young core led by star center Nikola Jokic and a some talented guards. After finishing in ninth place in the West the previous two seasons, the Nuggets had a huge breakout season in 2019, securing the 2 seed. Their inexperience showed during the playoffs, however, as they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the West semifinals despite holding a 3-2 series lead after five games. This is a very promising team, but the question remains whether they can live up to their potential. Because of their youth, they will remain a contender for several years, so they aren’t facing a lot of pressure to win immediately.
While their window to remain a contender may be closing, the Houston Rockets are still a major threat to reach the Finals. After all, they were the toughest Western Conference opponent for the Warriors in the last two seasons. James Harden is an offensive machine and should maintain his level of play for at least the next couple years. Chris Paul’s age is a concern though. He is already 34 and on the decline, which means 2020 may be the last shot at the title for this current Rockets team.
Those are the three teams I think have the best chance to win the West next year, but I’d like to throw in a sleeper team too. Despite finishing second-to-last in the conference this season, the Dallas Mavericks could be very dangerous next year. Luka Doncic had a sensational rookie season for the Mavs, and trade deadline acquisition Kristaps Porzingis returns from injury. Together they could form a deadly one-two punch for the next decade. If the Mavericks can surround them with good role players, they can compete with the top teams in the West.
The list of contenders doesn’t end there. I barely mentioned the Trail Blazers, who just made the Western Conference Finals. They’re behind the other teams, but only slightly. With some luck involved they can reach the Finals. The Utah Jazz are up there too, after trading for Mike Conley to boost their offense. And there’s still room for a team like the San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers to leap into the conversation.
With all that being said, the Lakers are my pick to win the championship. After trading such a massive haul to get Davis, any outcome besides winning the title would be a failure. But free agency begins in a few days, and that could change everything. We also can’t forget about the East, where the Bucks, Raptors, and 76ers should be the top contenders. I think the Lakers would beat all of those teams in a series, but we’ll see how things change on Sunday. No matter what happens, the NBA will look drastically different next season.