Western Conference Preview: Ranking the teams in tiers


Much like the East, the Western Conference is deep — but it may be even more brutal.

There are legit contenders at the top, but the depth means some solid teams that would be playoff locks most years could miss the postseason altogether — or pivot midseason to chase Victor Wembanyama.

Let’s break down the Western Conference by tiers to see just how brutal it is. (Note: These are tiers ranked by title contention, not regular season finish — I think Dallas could finish top four in the West but I don’t see it as a title threat.)


Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers

The Warriors are an obvious inclusion, and while they have some adversity and tension to overcome now thanks to Draymond Green‘s right cross, there should be no doubt the Warriors are in the mix to repeat as champions. Don’t be shocked if Stephen Curry puts up monster regular season numbers, even by his insane standards. The inclusion of the Clippers will have some readers shaking their heads — we see you, Lakers fans — but they absolutely deserve to be here. The Clips have the deepest roster in the West, a two-time Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, an All-NBA level player in Paul George, plus a roster filled with versatile, quality role players that gives Tyronne Lue options. The only question is will they finally be healthy? Will Leonard and George be ready to go in the playoffs? If so, the Clippers can beat anyone.


Memphis Grizzlies
Denver Nuggets
Phoenix Suns

These teams could jump up to the top tier and have the potential to come out of the West, but they have big questions to answer (more than the ones in the tier above). With Memphis, this feels like a season the team plateaus — progress is never linear. The Grizzlies lost depth with Kyle Anderson and DeAnthony Melton leaving, and are banking on internal improvement to make up for that, but will it be enough? Long term, no team in the West has a brighter future than Memphis (New Orleans is the only competition), but this feels like a speed bump season in the short term.

Denver is finally healthy with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back in the fold next to two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. They have quality depth with Aaron Gordon, adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the growth of Bones Highland, and others. The two questions are will Porter’s back hold up for a whole season, and can this team defend at a high enough level with Jokic at the five to win it all?

If Phoenix fans are ticked their team is not up with the full contenders, they have a legitimate argument — this team won 64 games last season, the one after reaching the Finals. But the defensive collapse at the end of the playoffs was a major red flag, Chris Paul is not getting any younger, there are questions about distractions with Deandre Ayton plus the team being sold, and around the Suns the West has gotten better. It just feels like they take half a step back. Maybe the Suns will prove me wrong and push themselves up a category by the end of the season, but I’m not entering the season sold they are a true contender anymore.


Dallas Mavericks
Minnesota Timberwolves
New Orleans Pelicans

These are teams fighting for the sixth seed (and avoiding the play-in), or at least getting the seventh or eighth seed and having an easier path through the play-in — anything less than making the real playoffs should be a disappointment for these three. The Mavericks, with Luka Doncic surrounded by good shooters and enough defense, may win enough regular season games to look like they belong in a higher tier, but I think the loss of Jalen Brunson really hurts them come the playoffs. I do not believe this team is a title contender, as constructed.

The Timberwolves have gone big and paid a steep price to plug Rudy Gobert into the middle of their defense — that will make them better. Minnesota will take a step forward. But come the postseason there will be big questions about if they can hang with the best in the West, teams that will target the weaknesses of a Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert front line. I think that lineup can be exploited in a series. The one wild card with Minnesota is how big a leap Anthony Edwards makes, he could change the dynamic.

No team may be more entertaining to watch this season than Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. CJ McCollum provides not only outside scoring but the locker room leadership this team needs, Brandon Ingram is a bucket, and they have quality role players. I’m not sold that their defense is championship level, but they are a team on that path in a few years.


Los Angeles Lakers
Sacramento Kings
Portland Trail Blazers

These are three teams fighting for the final two play-in spots. The Lakers are the one team capable of moving up a tier — we don’t question LeBron James‘ play, effort or commitment to winning, he will do his part. But is Anthony Davis ready to be the best player on both ends of the floor for a playoff team over 82 games? Can he stay healthy? And Russell Westbrook… he’s going to have to show with actions he fits in. Darvin Ham will be a good NBA coach, but this roster will test him.

The Kings are desperate to break their 16-year playoff drought and put together a solid roster around Domantas Sabonis and De’Aarron Fox, but I’m not sold they will defend well or consistently enough to make the playoffs. If Damian Lillard is all the way back in Portland he could lift this team to the playoffs, but it’s very heavy lifting with a nice-but-not-thrilling roster (again, in a brutal and unforgiving West).


Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs

Houston will be an entertaining team with Jalen Green and Jabari Smith, but the hard lessons of how to win in the NBA are coming. Danny Ainge made his intentions clear with this team and they are not done dealing — Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Michael Beasley and other veterans could be on the move. The Jazz will get weaker as the season moves along. The Thunder were going to lose a lot of games anyway, but the loss of Chet Holmgren for the season makes them a little less interesting to watch. Teams are going to call about a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trade. I like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell in San Antonio, but this is more about Gregg Popovich getting to teach, not wins.

Reactions from NBA players to White’s game-winning putback for Celtics


It was an all-time classic game, one that could be part of a legendary chapter in Celtics’ lore. Boston was on the verge of being sent home for the summer by the Miami Heat when Derrick White‘s putback as time expired won the Celtics Game 6 and forced a Game 7 Monday night.

NBA players were as stunned and excited as fans everywhere. Check out the reactions from players around the league — and a few others — to the Celtics’ dramatic win.

Three takeaways from wild night where Celtics force Game 7 thanks to Derrick White


You were not alone in being stunned, blown away or whatever other description you can conjure up for the finish to Game 6. Look at the reaction from around the NBA.

The Celtics won 104-103 on a dramatic putback from Derrick White to force a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

1) What. An. Ending.

When was the last time any of us saw a game this entertaining, this dramatic? Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, highlighted by the LeBron James chase-down block on Andre Iguodala? Game 7 of the 2019 second-round series between the Raptors and 76ers, the one with Kawhi Leonard‘s corner shot that bounced around on the rim three times before falling? There are others on the list, but whatever game you choose, this one enters the conversation of all-time greats.

On a night where they struggled from 3 — 7-of-35 for the game — the Celtics were still up 10 midway through the fourth quarter and seemingly in control. Then Boston gave it all away, slowing the pace down and not executing — or Miami seized the moment, depending on your perspective. While the Celtics got tight and struggled with their shot in those final five minutes, the Heat went on a late 15-4 run sparked primarily by Jimmy Butler (15 points in the fourth) and Duncan Robinson, with Miami attacking and pushing the pace, drawing fouls and getting to the line. It was a stunning turnaround.

Those drawing fouls included Butler drawing a three-shot foul on Al Horford with :03 seconds remaining. Butler drained all three free throws to put the Heat up one. Boston called a timeout to set up the final play, which didn’t go to plan — Marcus Smart took a turnaround 3 — but worked out thanks to Derrick White.

“I was passing it in. [Gabe] Vincent was on me, and he kind of was up top denying [Jayson Tatum], so I couldn’t get him the ball,” White said of the play. “And they did a good job of denying [Jaylen Brown], too and [Marcus] Smart flashed, hit him, and there really was nobody on me, so I just spaced to the corner, and when he shot it just tried to crash. Ball came to me, I made the shot.”

If Boston wins Game 7, White’s putback will be remembered in Boston sports lore like Dave Roberts stealing second for the Red Sox in their legendary 0-3 comeback against the Yankees. It was that kind of moment, that kind of play which capped off the wildest of nights.

2) The Heat will need more from Butler, Adebayo in Game 7

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. They were going to win because their role players stepped up — Caleb Martin (starting over Kevin Love) was the Heat’s best player on the night scoring 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting with 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

All of that made up for the fact Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not good enough for the first 43 minutes of this game. The two Heat stars shot a combined 7-of-35 up until that late run where Butler got a 3 to fall and got to the line a few times. It was almost enough, but the Heat need Butler to set a better tone in Game 7.

“Like I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said. “And I will be better. That’s what makes me smile, because those guys follow my lead. So when I’m playing better, I think we’re playing better as a whole.”

“Jimmy leads with everything — his spirit, his soul, his competitive nature,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler pregame. “It’s all out there on his sleeves. That’s what we love about him.”

Butler looks a little tired and a little less explosive, but give the Celtics’ defense credit, they have packed the paint and cut off Butler’s drives, and their length clearly bothers his shot inside. Joe Mazzulla, who drew the wrath of Celtics fans early in this series, deserved credit for his adjustments.

Butler and Adebayo have to rise above them in Game 7. Caleb Martin can not again be the best Heat player on the floor. Spoelstra is right, everything with the Heat starts with Butler and he has to summon up one more elite game.

3) Jayson Tatum owned the first half as Celtics’ best players stepped up

While Miami’s best players struggled, Boston’s best players stepped up.

At the front of that line was Jayson Tatum, who 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting with two assists in the first half. While he wouldn’t score in the second half until some free throws midway through the fourth, Tatum hit some clutch shots down the stretch and finished with 31.

Jaylen Brown added 26 points despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart finished with 21.

All of that made up for a dreadful night shooting from 3, the Celtics were 7-of-35 on the night. Shoot 20% from 3 in Game 7 and they will lose, that Boston got away with a win on an off-shooting night like that is lucky.

However, their stars are used to stepping up in elimination games, they have just done it three times in a row, and they did it in Game 7 against these same Heat a year ago. Do Boston’s stars have one more great game in them?


Watch Derrick White putback force Game 7 as Celtics edge Heat


What. A. Game.

In the best game of these playoffs — as good as one in any postseason — it looked like the Miami Heat were going to get a culture win on a night their star Jimmy Butler was off his game until the final minutes. Three Butler free throws with :03 remaining put the Heat up by one, but the Celtics got one last chance. Marcus Smart short-armed that chance, but Derrick White was hustling along the baseline.

Miami gets the 104-103 win to even the series 3-3 and force a Memorial Day Game 7 back in Boston.

This was the kind of ugly, gritty game the Celtics tend to give away. They were certainly not at their peak in this one, shooting 7-of-35 from 3 as a team — usually a stat that leads to a loss for this Celtics team, which leans into the 3-pointer.

What saved them was a brilliant first half from Jayson Tatum, some solid play from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in the second half, and an off night at the worst time for the Heat stars.

The first half was the Tatum show as he scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting, with 11 free throws and a couple of assists. He was attacking and aggressive, and the rest of the Celtics offense flowed off that and they got the lead up to 11.

However, the Heat closed that lead down to four at the half, 57-53, thanks largely to 9-of-15 shooting from 3.

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not the stars the Heat needed — they shot a combined 7-of-35 until the final minutes of the game — but the Miami role players stepped up. Caleb Martin got the start over Kevin Love and was the Heat’s best player on the night with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting plus 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

With their stars off their game the Heat struggled to score in the third, starting the quarter shooting 5-of-24 (20.8%), yet by the time the quarter was over the Heat were still only down seven. Miami was hanging around in a game they should have been blown out of.

That’s because the Celtics shot 5-of-25 from 3 through 3 quarters, plus Boston had 11 turnovers through three (compared to four for the Heat).

Tatum finished with 31 points to lead Boston, Jaylen Brown had 26 despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart added 21.

Boston had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but gave it away with missed shots and sloppy play under pressure. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler hit a big 3-pointer, kept attacking, and got to the free throw line with the chance to put his team ahead in the final seconds. And did. It looked like a classic, gutty, Heat culture win.

And then Derrick White happened.

And now there is a Game 7.

Milwaukee Bucks reportedly to hire Adrian Griffin as head coach

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Buzz had been growing for a week that Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin was the favorite Bucks coaching candidate of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nick Nurse had his backers in the organization, but in a superstar-driven league, the wishes of players like the Greek Freak hold a lot of sway (especially with him up for a new contract in a couple of years).

The Milwaukee Bucks are reportedly hiring Griffin as their next head coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This reaction from Fred VanVleet should tell you all you need to know about how the Raptors players felt about Griffin.

This hire is a gamble by the Bucks, turning the keys of a contender over to a rookie coach, but Griffin is more than deserving of a shot. Griffin spent eight years as a role player in the NBA — after going undrafted out of Seton Hall hand having to play in the Philipines — and then got into coaching, starting as an assistant in Milwaukee from 2008-2010. Griffin is seen as a defensive-first coach with a strong player development background (he worked with Jimmy Butler in Chicago). He’s been at or near the top of the “guys who deserve a shot” list for years and was in consideration for the open Raptors job in Toronto.

Instead, he now takes over a contender, although with a roster that is getting older and more expensive fast (free agent center Brook Lopez turns 35 this year, Khris Middleton is 31 and has a $40.4 million player option, Jrue Holiday is 31 and extension eligible come the fall).

Griffin will replace Mike Budenholzer, who was let go despite winning a championship with this team in 2021. Budenholzer is a process guy and was considered too rigid and slow to make adjustments in the playoffs, and this year’s first-round elimination by the No. 8 seed Miami Heat was seen as the culmination of that (even though Antetokounmpo missed two games due to a back injury). Griffin will bring a different voice and some new looks to a Bucks team still in its championship window.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucks hire a former NBA head coach to be Griffin’s lead assistant, to give him a veteran voice as a sounding board.

Nurse had been considered one of the frontrunners for this job, but now looks like someone destined to land in Philadelphia or Phoenix.