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New Orleans Pelicans will do well to stay in ultra powerful Western Conference playoff race

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The West is best. Again.

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans campaign was one of the most high-leverage seasons in franchise history.

Prior to last October, Anthony Davis had made the playoffs just once in his career, DeMarcus Cousins’ partnership with the franchise cornerstone was still underdeveloped and unknown, Jrue Holiday hadn’t yet turned into This New Version of Jrue Holiday and the team hadn’t turned on the afterburners to become the fastest team in the league.

Heck, Dell Demps was likely on the hot seat, with Alvin Gentry feeling just a tad warm under the collar, too.

It was a worrisome season.

Then the games started. Cousins got injured, the team got hot at the end and bulldozed through a four-game sweep of the third-seeded Trail Blazers before falling to the Invincibles...er, Warriors.

All in all, 2017-18 went about as well as could be expected, and yet the team STILL only finished as the number six seed in a terrifically stacked Western Conference. The West’s 3-10 seeds had between 49 and 42 wins.

I’m here to tell you, folks: get ready for more long nights in the Western Conference playoff chase. The summer upgrades in the West have come in many forms and odds are some of them are going to pan out to the detriment of the top eight from a few months ago.

  1. LeBron James. It’s rare that one player can single-handedly take a genuinely awful team to the playoffs — and this isn’t a ringing endorsement of the rest of their roster — but if there’s one guy to do it, it’s the best player of his generation. Having LBJ means getting open shots and winning games, it’s that simple.
  2. Dallas got their men. Luka Doncic, the MVP of the second-best league in the world, makes his way to the Mavericks, potentially taking the “best international player” torch from Dirk Nowitzki. DeAndre Jordan also came to town... and yes, he actually committed before teammates could lock him up and force him to stay with the Clippers.
  3. Phoenix sees the light. The Suns drafted Deandre Ayton at number one overall and this guy might be special. He’s a giant in a world of large men, has excellent touch around the rim, and might develop a mean streak, especially if Joel Embiid keeps talking ish to him on Twitter. Look out, I’d rather not poke this bear. He joins Devin Booker, who just became the richest, youngest player in NBA history; Josh Jackson, a playmaking forward, still also very young; and Trevor Ariza, who packs his bags yet again. They might only be two years away from being good!
  4. sAcRaMeNtO... no, really: Sacramento. Don’t sleep on cowtown! De’Aaron Fox is a fireball, they have multiple skilled bigs who may have value on the trade market, Marvin Bagley III looks like a dunk machine and our old friend Buddy Hield. They also re-acquired Ben McLemore, so maybe they’re not on such a good track, after all. Shoot, nevermind.
  5. OKC sans Melo. After re-signing Paul George and Jerami Grant, OKC was feeling great. After finding a way to rid themselves of Carmelo Anthony, and acquiring an overqualified, shiny new backup point guard in Dennis Schroder, Thunder fans might be able to think the way they did just a few summers ago: this team can realistically make the Western Conference Finals. I’m a believer.
  6. Memphis Back: Kyle Anderson! Garrett Temple! Dillon Brooks and JaMychal Green are a year older! A healthy Mike Conley! Putting exclamation points at the end of short sentences and phrases usually helps! But this team, regardless of “excitement,” has GOT to win more games than they did in a disaster year last year. But also, Jaren Jackson, the living, breathing definition of “potential,” might be the real thing if those eight three’s in his first summer league game mean anything.
  7. Gregg Popovich flips All-Stars. Kawhi Leonard is gone, but DeMar DeRozan will in time come to enjoy playing for a team that can’t help but ooze wins and doesn’t mind living in the midrange. The Spurs won 47 games without either guy — do nine games with a pouting, less than 100% Kawhi really count?

This is all to say that the Western Conference is geared up to present problems every night. Again. The Pelicans will give other teams headaches with star power, speed and defensive playmaking, but the pain will be felt year-round as hardships will probably be found in every Western city.