The Western Conference has ruled over the Eastern Conference for the better part of the last three decades. In 2021-22 things have changed. The east has finally pulled itself together and is deeper than the west. Still, the Pacific Time Zone features some of the most talented All-Stars in the NBA.
Our list is loaded with excellent playmaking point guards, athletes who can drop 50 points or dish out 15 assists on any given night. The center and wing positions are also represented with some of the best 3, 4, and 5’s of all time, suiting up out west and landing in our rankings.
Below we’ll rank the ten best Western Conference players of the year.
10. Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell is the lynchpin behind the Utah Jazz’s number one ranked offense. He works the pick and roll like a CEO in a three-piece suit seizing a smaller company in a hostile takeover: he’s ruthless and all business. Mitchell is fourth in the association in pick and roll possessions at 12.1 per game, and he’s scoring in the 92nd percentile among all players behind a dizzying array of spin moves, change of pace of dribbles, and crossovers around his screener (typically Rudy Gobert).
Overall, Spida is 10th in the NBA in scoring, dropping an easy 25.9 points per game. This season he’s improved upon his finishing skills at the rim, connecting on 72.4% of his shots from 0 to 3 feet, up considerably from his 2020-21 mark of 60.8%. He’s also flashed a much better mid-range game, hitting at a 51.9% clip from 10 to 16 feet, as he’s developed his ability to square his shoulders toward the rim while in the air, ensuring his shot always lines up toward the rim.
Mitchell’s offense is impressive, but what’s pushed him onto our list of best Western Conference players over the surging Dejounte Murray is his defense of late. During the first half of the season, Spida played parking pylon D, routinely getting burned by the opposition, but after coming back from a mid-year injury, he’s been one of the best lockdown defenders in the league, holding his assignments to a 4.0% under their average field goal percentage throughout his last ten games as the Jazz have gone 7-3.
If Donovan Mitchell brings his improved two-way play into the playoffs, the Utah Jazz could finally climb over their second-round hump and make some real noise in the NBA’s second season.
9. Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns came into the 2021-2 season with the reputation as a “soft like Charmin” (I love Kobe) center who was more interested in padding his three-point stats than doing what it takes to lead his team into the postseason. More than halfway through the year, he’s taken that narrative, stuck a few firecrackers in the center, poured oil on top, and blown it up.
Towns is taking pride in the less glamorous end. He’s going 110%, pounding his chest and yelling as he holds his assignments to a solid 47.2% clip from the field. KAT is also contesting 9.3 shots per contest, a top-30 mark in the league. After six seasons in the association, Towns is finally providing the Timberwolves with a legitimate defensive anchor.
KAT is still the best long-distance shooting center in the league, connecting on 40.8% of his three-point attempts and providing genuine “unicorn” floor-spacing for his teammates Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell. Towns is also a solid rim-runner on pick and roll actions, and he’s shown a much improved short game, hitting 57.3% of his attempts from 3 to 10 feet off an array of baby hooks and soft jumpers.
Minnesota is 38-29, and the five-man lineup of K. Towns, D. Russell, A. Edwards, P. Beverley, and J. Vanderbilt is third-best in the league at +109 points across 337 minutes of game action. Nobody wants to see KAT and the Timberwolves in the playoffs.
8. Rudy Gobert
It seems like most NBA fans are down on Rudy Gobert this season. Perhaps it was his silly COVID remarks, his feud with teammate Donovan Mitchell, or his non-existent post-game. Say what you want about The Stifle Tower’s attitude or offensive repertoire, but he’s the best defensive center in the league, and that alone lands him on our list.
Rudy Gobert uses his 7-9 wingspan, excellent instincts, and 110% effort to single-handedly patrol the paint on defense for the Utah Jazz, allowing his teammates to crowd their assignments on the perimeter, taking away easy three-point shots. He shuts down two-player pick and rolls by himself and alters more attempts at the rim than any other player in the league. Gobert is dominating the statistics battle as well. He’s second in the NBA in contested shots at 13.0 nightly, and he’s holding his assignments to an excellent 43.5 field goal percentage. After starting the season off slow and uninterested, the Jazz, behind their All-Star center, are up to 11th in the league in defense with a real shot at advancing in the playoffs.
Gobert will not wow you with his offense. He can’t manufacture his own bucket, and he can’t spread the floor with his jumper. Still, he’s not useless on the fun end. He’s tops in the league in screen assists points at 15.9 per game, providing Donovan Mitchell with a bone-crunching wall to work with. He’s also an excellent role man with a soft touch at the rack, and he gobbles up offensive rebounds, helping extend possessions.
Rudy Gobert is the best defensive center in the world. His rim protection and screening ability give the Utah Jazz a real shot in the postseason.
7. Devin Booker
Devin Booker has come a long way since the days when he’d notch 70 points in a single game while giving back 55 points on defense in a loss. In 2021-22, Book drops 30 points in a contest so quietly it feels like he’s barely in double digits—the sign of a scoring genius—while also locking down his assignment on the less glamorous end.
Book leverages the threat of his first step to create space for his mid-range jumper like an in-his-prime Tracy McGrady. Booker’s happy to fire away from 10 feet out to the three-point line, where he takes roughly 40% of his shots, hitting a tad under half his attempts. He’s also a solid three-point shooter, connecting on 36.8% of his attempts in 2021-22. But most importantly, he’s improved his playmaking skills year after year, transforming from a reckless chucker in his younger days to an above-average passer with a solid drive-and-kick game who can swing the ball cross-court with precision to an open shooter beyond the arc.
The Suns are third in the league in defense, and while Book tends to hide on the opposing squad’s worst perimeter option, he’s playing his part on the less fun end, holding his covers to 43.6% from the field. He’s also become more of a disruptor deflecting 1.7 balls nightly and contesting an excellent 2.9 three-point shots per game, good for second on Phoenix.
During last season’s playoffs, Devin Booker showed that he’s one of a handful of players in the league who can be the best scoring option for a championship-caliber team. Nothing has changed this season. The Suns are the favorites to come out of the west for the second year in a row, with Booker providing their scoring punch.
6. LeBron James
It’s been a struggle for the Lakers this season. Last week’s 132-111 loss to the Clippers gave us a perfect example of what LeBron James has been dealing with all year long. The Lakers were down only three points at the half, but coming into the third quarter, Clippers head coach Ty Lue switched starting center Ivica Zubac onto Russell Westbrook. Zubac laid six feet off Brodie, daring him to shoot while clogging up the lane simultaneously. Westbrook predictably flopped, shooting 1-6 with enough space for a high school JV starter to get buckets, and the Clips outscored the Lakers 40 to 18 for the quarter.
Watch a Lakers game when Brodie’s on the court, and the first thing you’ll notice is LBJ spends most of his time going 4 on 5 as Westbrook’s man sags off him toward the key or simply ignores him completely.
Westbrook fits next to LBJ like a size 0 bikini on an elephant. Anthony Davis can’t stay on the court. The Lakers don’t have a functional center, a two-way wing, or a backup point guard. Despite it all, LeBron James is still a beast. He’s putting up MVP numbers, and after detonating for 56 “desperation-filled” points in a victory against the Warriors, King James is averaging 29.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.0 BPG while holding his assignments to 5.0% worse than their normal shooting average.
There’s been talk around La La Land that Frank Vogel is considering asking Russell Westbrook to come off the bench in a reduced role. Suppose Vogel acts rationally and has Brodie play a sixth-man role and Anthony Davis heals up. In that case, this Lakers team could do damage in the playoffs for one gigantic reason: they have one of the best players in the Western Conference in LeBron James.
5. Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic began the 2021-22 season slowly, hobbled by an ankle injury. As December rolled into the new year, the Slovenian sensation got back to 100%, and now he has the Dallas Mavericks 14 games above .500, firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Luka Doncic has the highest usage rate in the league by a country mile at 42.2%. He’s also second on the Dallas Mavericks in distance run, clocking in with 2.40 miles per game. He’s second in the association in drives, getting to the rack 22.3 times per contest. Doncic is notching 22.7 assist points created per game, good for 5th in the league. And he’s close to a triple-double for the season, averaging 27.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG, and 8.8 APG.
OK. That’s enough stats to get your brain reeling, but here’s the point: Luka Doncic does more heavy lifting for his team than Arnold Schwarzenegger in the late 60s when he was training for one of his five Mr. Universe titles. No player does more for his squad than the Mavericks superstar point guard. He’s creating roughly 45% of his team’s point production through his scoring or passing.
Luka Doncic has somehow stepped up his offensive game this season by becoming the best rim slasher in the league. He doesn’t blow by his defender for highlight jams like the uber-athletic Ja Morant. Instead, he uses some of the best mid-range footwork we’ve seen since Kobe Bryant graced the court, along with pass fakes and subtle shoulder dips to scoot by his man. Once Doncic gets into the lane, he leverages his height and passing ability to finish 54.6% of his chances at the rim, one of the highest marks in the league.
Luka Doncic’s ability to attack the rim, hit tough shots off-the-dribble, and laser pinpoint dimes to his teammates scare the crap out of the rest of the Western Conference. Last season Doncic notched 35.7 PPG and 10.3 APG in an epic seven-game first-round battle against the Clippers. Doncic lost, but he’s grown since then, and nobody wants to see him and the Mavericks in this year’s playoffs.
4. Ja Morant
After Ja Morant dropped 46 points in a win against the Bulls, followed by a 52-point eruption in another win against the Spurs, he’s placed himself squarely inside the MVP conversation. Morant is averaging 27.7 PPG, 6.6 APG, and 5.8 RPG for a Memphis Grizzlies squad that finds itself in second place in the Western Conference. Simply saying Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are ahead of schedule is like saying your plane flight will take off a few minutes early. The Grizzlies snuck into the playoffs last season as the eighth seed, and Morant didn’t make the All-Star team. One year later, Memphis and their superstar point guard have blown the schedule off the wall.
Morant has helped convert the Grizzlies (the most surprising team of the year) into a genuine title-contender behind his ability to ruin the rim. Ja Morant features a nasty bag of moves, from spins in the lane to behind-the-back dribbles and a ridiculous crossover. Once he gets into the lane, he’s nailing 70.8% of his attempts at the rim, one of the highest marks among all point guards.
Ja Morant has also revealed an improved outside stroke this season. He’s upped his three-point percentage to 34.7%, a vast advancement over last year when he shot only 30.3% from deep. Morant isn’t taking spot-up looks either. Most of his deep shots are of the Stephen Curry variety, off-the-dribble, or from two feet beyond the arc.
The Grizzlies are the youngest team in the league, with a real shot at making noise in this year’s playoffs, and that’s primarily because of Morant’s ascension toward a genuine gravitational-forced superstar who can drop 50 points on any team.
3. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry’s at it again this season, making the extraordinary look commonplace. Just because we’ve gotten used to Curry’s ridiculous shot-making doesn’t make it any less special.
Stephen Curry leads the league in three-pointers this season with 270 total makes. He launches from anywhere on the court, constantly pressuring defenses and opening up clean looks for his teammates (Curry pretty much single-handedly turned Andrew Wiggins into a household name this season). Steph also has some of the best handles of the last decade, keeping the ball on a string as he blends his patented step-back-jumper fake with a crossover to blow by his defender.
Still, Curry’s had a lot more help this season than Luka Doncic and Ja Morant. Draymond Green and Maple Jordan are All-Stars, Klay Thompson is back, and Jordan Poole has become an excellent playmaking shooting guard in his own right. Stephen Curry lands third on our list above nearly all his Western Conference peers despite his superior teammates because of his little-mentioned defense.
This season, Stephen Curry has been an excellent defensive disruptor, averaging 2.3 deflections per game and 2.6 contested three-point shots nightly. He’s also holding his assignments to a superb 44.0% clip from the field against 10 attempts per game.
Nobody is saying Steph has become a lockdown wing. The Warriors are the top-rated defensive squad in the league, though, and Curry’s been much better on the less fun end than the other point guards on our list, grinding hard on every possession despite his 31.6% usage rate on offense. Overall, he’s one of the best defensive point guards out west.
The Warriors are in a slump right now but don’t overthink things. Steph Curry + the best defense in the league = a championship contender.
2. Chris Paul
Before Chris Paul went down with a thumb injury, the Phoenix Suns destroyed the league behind their point guard’s two-way play. Now, not so much. With CP3 in the lineup, the Suns are the favorites to come out of the west; without him, I’d pick the Grizzlies, Warriors, and Mavericks in a seven-game series. It’s funny how one man’s first digit can determine the fortune of the entire conference.
Earlier in the season before CP3 was sidelined, I would tune into Suns replays on NBA League Pass, focusing entirely on Paul, and man, it was hilarious. He’d turn half-court possessions into a work of art. Let me give you a perfect two-play example:
Play Number One: Paul dribbled above the key, surveying the court, and called over Deandre Ayton for a screen 20-feet out. He worked around his center as he dribbled a few feet closer to the basket before faking a pass toward the rim, smiled (literally) when he saw both defenders lunging toward the rack, and calmly sank a mid-range jumper.
Play Number Two: CP3 called over Deandre Ayton again for a screen outside the key, but this time he dribbled harder around his center, stopped on a dime, pump-faked the same shot as the last play, sending both pick and roll defenders up in the air. Finally, he lofted a perfect lob to Ayton for an easy 2. And he did it all with the same smirk.
This season, CP3 is hitting 72.7% of his shots at the rim and 57.7% of his attempts from 10 to 16 feet while leading the league in assist points created at 27.0 per game. You cannot come up with an answer to that type of production; it’s just not possible.
Chris Paul, 36, is still an excellent defender as well. He takes pride in not only embarrassing his man on offense but also shutting him down on the less fun end. CP3 ranks in the 94th percentile among all players in steal percentage and is an important cog in the Suns’ number three defense.
If Chris Paul comes back healthy for the playoffs, the Suns are the team to beat in the NBA.
1. Nikola Jokic
What Nikola Jokic is doing this season is Michael Jordan-like. The Nuggets second best player, Jamal Murray, has been out the entire year, and their third-best player, Michael Porter Jr, has missed all but nine games. Still, Joker has his squad 14 games over .500 at 40-26, good for sixth place in the Western Conference.
What other superstar could lose his two best teammates and still drag his squad into the postseason?
Not LeBron. We’ve seen how he’s done this season without Anthony Davis.
Not James Harden either. The Nets looked hopeless after Durant went down.
Stephen Curry’s Warriors have also looked lost without Draymond Green.
The sign of a true league-altering superstar is his ability to get his team into the playoffs no matter what. LeBron James used to be that type of player. Kobe Bryant also guaranteed his squad a trip into the league’s second season.
And now, Nikola Jokic looks poised to join the ranks of some of the all-time greats with his 2021-22 performance in Denver.
The advanced stats love Jokic. He leads the league in win shares (12.0), box plus/minus (13.9), and value over replacement player (7.7). Joker clocks in with a 125 offensive rating and a 104 defensive rating, and the Nuggets are +19.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Nikola Jokic is unique because he’ll destroy you from beyond the arc, bludgeon you on the block, and leave you bloody with his passing. He can kill you in every way possible on the basketball court.
If the Nuggets get Murray and Porter Jr. back towards the end of the season, they could win a title with Nikola Jokic.
The Western Conference Is Loaded With Talent
Compared to past years, the Western Conference might be down, but it’s still stacked with superstars.
Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul are six of the best guards in the league, all capable of winning big in the playoffs. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert are two excellent big men, and LeBron James is still doing his thing at 37-years-old.
Nikola Jokic is the best of the bunch, a generational talent playing at another level than every other player out west.