Expect Big Changes in the NBA Western Conference

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Kevin Durant’s choice to join the Golden State Warriors as a free agent was the NBA’s biggest offseason happening. But he may not wind up as the most important domino to fall this summer in terms of overall impact on the NBA Western Conference.

Indeed, Durant will make a great Warriors team even greater, but the rest of the Western Conference could be in for some major changes to its hierarchy.

Thank Tim Duncan for that.

When he officially retired on July 11, he created a void in the San Antonio Spurs that won’t be easily filled. At 39 years old and with 19 seasons under his belt, Duncan wasn’t his usual prolific self at the end offensively. His 8.6 points per game were the lowest of his career, and longstanding knee and shoulder trouble made him increasingly immobile. His 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game were also the lowest of his hall-of-fame career.

But when he was on the court, his experience paid dividends for the Spurs, especially on the defensive end. They relied on his court vision, rim protection and smarts to post one of the best defensive seasons in league history, allowing just 92.9 points per game with a defensive rating of 99.0. Though it doesn’t show up in his stats, Duncan was the quarterback of that defense, constantly communicating with his teammates and directing them to the proper spots on the floor.

During an interview with SiriusXM’s Bleacher Report Radio Thursday, former teammate Sean Elliott summed up what Duncan’s retirement could mean for the Spurs going forward.

“I have to feel we’re not going to be quite as good,” the longtime NBA forward said. “That’s my honest opinion without Timmy. He’s more than just numbers. His presence, what he brings to the locker room. Teaching the young players how to conduct themselves on the court, away from the court. How to prepare. All that is going to be missed. All that is lost.”

The Spurs are still a very good team, and will maintain a heavy veteran presence in the form of guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They recently signed free agent center Pau Gasol, an all-star and former champion in his own right, to step into Duncan’s place. Kawhi Leonard is the best individual defender in the league. And don’t forget about Gregg Popovich, arguably the best coach in the sport.

But Duncan was so good for so long that the team could be in for a harsh new reality: their consistency as one of the Western Conference’s elite teams could be in jeopardy. The Spurs have won 71 percent of their games since Duncan was drafted in June of 1997. That’s the best winning percentage over that timespan in all of North American sports. Gasol and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge are both excellent players, but neither can come close to matching Duncan’s defensive impact, which could lead to Leonard having to fend for himself against the best scorers in the league most nights. Parker and Ginobili are not players known for their defense, either.

It will be tough for the Spurs to come close to last season’s 67-win output, but how far short of that mark could they fall? They certainly won’t be alone in their looming descent.

Expect Big Changes in the NBA Western Conference

The Los Angeles Clippers, who went 53-29 and finished as the 4-seed in the West, lost to Portland in the first round of the playoffs and could be entering a state of flux. Blake Griffin has been mentioned in recent trade discussions, and head coach-general manager Doc Rivers has only made minor changes to the roster this summer, signing forwards Brandon Bass and Marreese Speights, and resigning reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and backup point guard Austin Rivers. The Clippers remain a playoff team, and could likely still finish in the West’s top four, but a Griffin departure could be the beginning of the end for Rivers’ current core of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and D’Andre Jordan.

When Durant chose Golden State, he did serious long-term damage to the Oklahoma City Thunder. How does one go about replacing a former league MVP and scoring champion? It could be next to impossible for a team that was 55-27 last season and came within mere minutes of upsetting those same Warriors in the conference finals. The Thunder still boast one of the NBA’s top five players in Russell Westbrook, and added a defender-scorer on the rise in Victor Oladipo, but Durant’s near-30 points per game production is an absolute load to replace. And adding Oladipo and backup forward Ersan Ilyasova from Orlando cost them arguably their third-best overall player in Serge Ibaka. It will be up to the new guys, and returning big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, to find a way to help Westbrook maximize wins without Durant, an offensive fail-safe for nine seasons, in the lineup. Like San Antonio and L.A., the Thunder could be headed downward in the standings.

But as the West’s hierarchy begins to shift, there are several teams in line to benefit. During the 2016-17 season, look out for the Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz.

Portland surprised many last season by finishing 44-38 and winning a playoff series over the Clippers. They posted the league’s sixth-best offense, averaging 105.1 points per game and got there with a total team effort. Star point guard Damian Lillard led the way with 25.1 points per contest, but C.J. McCollum (20.8), Al-Farouq Aminu (10.2) and Allen Crabbe (10.3) all averaged double-figure points, and got help from Mason Plumlee (9.1), Gerald Henderson (8.7), Mo Harkless (6.4) and Ed Davis (6.5). Meyers Leonard played in just 61 games, but averaged 8.4 points when in the lineup. So far this summer, they lost Harkless and Henderson, but retained Crabbe and signed center Festus Ezili from Golden State and swingman Evan Turner from Boston. They will still score plenty of points, but if they can improve on their 20th-ranked defense, they could rise to the West’s top four.

Memphis has long been in the playoff picture with an increasingly veteran team, but a rash of injuries to all of its best players derailed its chances of truly contending, leading to a 42-40 record and an unceremonious first round playoff exit at the hands of San Antonio. The Grizzlies have proven to be one of the league’s best defensive teams in recent years, but have long been in need of additional scoring. The signing of forward Chandler Parsons (15.7 points per game last year with Dallas) could serve as a remedy. The team managed to retain its core by resigning center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley in back-to-back summers, and still has power forward Zach Randolph and defensive ace Tony Allen under contract. Second round draft pick Deyonta Davis is raw, but has a lot of upside as a two-way player. Though the bench could use more depth, a healthy Grizzlies roster could make a case for entering a new Western top four.

Utah, which was 40-42 and just missed out on a playoff spot last season, could be one of the most exciting young teams in the league and in line for a big increase in the win column. The Jazz’ 95.9 points allowed per game was second only to San Antonio, and their 103.9 defensive rating ranked seventh in the league. The roster, with a core of bigs Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, forward Gordon Hayward and guards Alec Burks and Rodney Hood are long, athletic players who can only improve on last season’s disappointing 97.7 points per game. The Jazz have put together one of the best summers of any team, trading for Indiana guard George Hill and signing veteran scorers Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to bolster a bench that will include Trey Lyles, Shelvin Mack and Dante Exum. If their scoring numbers jump, the Jazz could instantly become a top-three seed in the West.

In the end, the quiet Duncan’s retirement could signal a loud restructuring in the NBA’s Western order.