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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ranking the 20 best players in the Western Conference

Let’s just go right ahead and state the obvious here: this is not your father’s Western Conference. Not anymore. Gone are the days of sophisticated battles of equal parts brains and brawn. Dead and buried are the cordial, gentlemanly competitions of X’s and O’s that generations prior enjoyed and romanticized. With the defection of no fewer than four current or former Eastern All-Stars this summer to what was already the NBA’s far superior conference, the era of all-out war is officially upon us. Blitzkrieg strikes will illuminate the heavens, campaigns of attrition will be waged, and rivers everywhere will run red with blood as what had previously been known as the West now makes way for the Wild Wild West. But instead of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp, this battle will be fought be a more familiar cast of characters. And what a privilege you and I will have to enjoy front row seats as hostilities commence in 2017-18.

Ladies and germs, may I present a comprehensive ranking of the 20 best players in the Western Conference (with sincerest apologies and honorable mentions to DeAndre Jordan, C.J. McCollum, Andrew Wiggins, and newly-christened Westerner Carmelo Anthony, all of whose respective nits proved impossible not to pick when wading through a talent pool this deep). This is part of a series, as we also ranked the 20 best players in the Eastern Conference previously.

20. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies

When he’s not sashaying like Conor McGregor or slinging shade in Catalan, Gasol continues to further his standing as one of the more undervalued bigs in the NBA. The former Defensive Player of the Year quietly posted career-highs in points (19.5) and assists per game (4.6) last season while playing his usual stout D. Yes, Father Time’s kiss may not be far off with Gasol set to turn 33 in January. But for now, I say long live those paint-protecting fundamentals and them elegant sweeping hooks from the mid-post. Me encanta la Gasol-ina.

19. Nikola Jokic, PF/C, Denver Nuggets

If you’re a) an advanced stats/PER nerd, b) a point-center enthusiast, c) a fan of mellifluous European symphony, or d) any of the above, you may be rather fond of our Serbian stud. Capable of filling the stat sheet (Jokic’s six triple-doubles in 2016-17 were the most in a single season by a big man since Kevin Garnett in 2002-03) and the highlight reel (come get lost with me, friends), Jokic and his all-around offensive genius are a beacon of hope on a Denver team that always seems to be stuck in the marshes of mediocrity. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger ain’t got nothing on this Joker.

18. Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies

How did Conley respond to your repeated attempts to slander him on the TL after he signed his $153 million max deal last summer (which at the time was the largest in NBA history)? By putting together a career year and telling you to take that for data. Conley hit the 20-point-per-game mark for the first time in 10 NBA seasons and did so on career-best efficiency (46.0 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from three). The “underrated” label has stalked him for many moons now, but it’s high time to start calling Conley what he really is: one of the league’s elite two-way point guards. Tennessee got itself a good one.

17. Paul Millsap, PF, Denver Nuggets

Not one, not two, not three … but four. That’s how many consecutive All-Star teams Millsap has now made. You may not have realized it with him slaving away in obscurity as an Atlanta Hawk these last several years. But Millsap may be playing the best basketball of his life in his early-30s, and you will be hard-pressed to find another power forward who can beat you in so many different ways. Just pick an alter-ego. Maybe you identify with Maul Millsap, the menacing close-range scorer and rebounder. Or perhaps you prefer Paul Trillsap, the on-call three-point deadeye. Or what about Wall Millsap, the rugged and durable blue-collar defender? In any case, here’s some good advice if you’re looking for another reason to get excited about what should be an up-tempo, motion-offense-happy Nuggets team this season: Better Call Paul.

16. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard is here to spit bars and sauce on the haters. It was bombs away for Rip City’s leading man last year, as he upped his scoring output for the fifth straight season since entering the league. What’s new however was that he also managed to do so on a career-best 44.4 percent from the field, a solid mark given the volume at which he lets it fly. Lillard is just entering his athletic prime at 27 years old and another 82-plus games of him taking on the world with fellow backcourt incinerator C.J. McCollum should make for some must-watch content. All hail the almighty Dame D.O.L.L.A.

15. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers

After six seasons of lobs, inciting mobs, and early postseason sobs, Chris Paul has departed for Houston having succumbed to the advances of a new bearded beau. Now it is time for the L.A. metropolitan to bear witness to the rise of their one true basketball team, the only franchise that ever really mattered: the Los Angeles Blakers. Griffin’s return to pre-CP3 protagonist status comes with a fair amount of questions. Can the Clippers count on him to be their full-time lead creator? Will he have to shift out to the three-point arc to assuage the team’s spacing limitations? Is coughing up $173 million for a wrecking ball power forward with a troublesome injury history even remotely defensible? Click, click, your close-up moment has arrived, Mr. Kendall Jenner.

14. DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans were just 11-14 after Cousins’ surprise arrival last season, but it’s hard to blame it on the Boogie. Yes, he has a tendency to hijack the offense, and yes, he can be about as charming as an eel sometimes. But Cousins remains the most physically dominant big man in the NBA today, and he has begun to spice up that brute force with a legitimate outside game (a career-high 1.8 threes per game on a 36.1 percent clip last season) and increased playmaking capabilities (4.6 assists per game in 2016-17, also a career-best). Another year to get comfortable with his one-eyebrowed frontcourt partner (not to mention his heartwarming reunion narrative with Rajon Rondo) should help Cousins return to an All-NBA level of play.

13. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors

Things are going A-OKlay for the less-heralded Splash Brother — he’s now a two-time NBA champ, he’s still getting a healthy 17-18 shot attempts a night, and he appears to have achieved spiritual nirvana during his visit to China this summer. With his all-world teammates able to do most of the heavy lifting, Thompson can settle for backup vocals: a catch-and-shoot fireball here, a few minutes checking the other team’s top perimeter threat there, and so forth. In truth, it’s a role that may be selling Thompson’s talents short, but what matters is he’s out here living his best life and rack up the Ws while doing it.

12. Karl-Anthony Towns, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Don’t be fooled by Towns’ amicable 21-year-old demeanor: he will only be sweet on you before he beats on you. A guard trapped in a seven-footer’s body, Towns’ silky smoothness and all-around polish for his age is pure delirium. On any given night, he can slap up 30 and 15 with excellent percentages plus a smattering of defensive stats and, to this point of his career, has largely done it without proper three-point shooting around him. But fresh troops have arrived in Minny (more on this in a minute), so with Towns already asserting his rule over the paint and the perimeter, a third P may be next: the playoffs.

11. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

How do you say “coming out party” in French? Gobert’s 2016-17 campaign was a god dream. Not only did the Association’s marquee paint protector lead the league in blocks and earn All-Defensive First Team honors, but he secured top-five finishes in rebounding, field goal percentage, and double-doubles for good measure as well. Now on a revenge tour after Gordon failed to Stayward in Utah, Gobert is as mad as a Mars hare, and his terrifying eight-foot wingspan is coming for that booty, NBA.

See Nos. 10-1 on Page 2

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