This is not your older brother’s Western Conference. Or your uncle’s. Maybe not even your father’s.

The West has never looked this way in the history of the NBA. From the Denver Nuggets earning their franchise’s first No. 1 seed to all four California teams making the postseason for the first time (while all three Texas teams were sent home), this season has been unlike any other.

Which prompts the question: Is this flipping of the Western Conference a true changing of the guard or a one-off anomaly?

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are deeply invested in a roster in which the average age is 27 — right in its prime. All of their core players are signed to long-term contracts — including the defending two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, signed through 2028.

This season, for the first time since 2010, the Kroenke Family greenlit spending into the luxury tax, clearly signaling their belief this roster can win at the highest level. That enabled the team to sign key veteran free agents Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, which helped with depth and versatility.

It also led to an extension for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after he was acquired from the Washington Wizards via trade last summer.

Just how long ownership is willing to spend into the tax — the Nuggets have done so in back-to-back years just once — could determine how long Denver is able to stay atop the West. Jokic has many prolific years ahead and with backing, the Nuggets probably remain contenders.

The Memphis Grizzlies started this season with the sixth-youngest roster in the league with an average age of 24. For the second consecutive season, they earned the No. 2 seed.

In 2021, Jaren Jackson Jr. signed a $105 million extension. Last year, Ja Morant signed a deal worth at least $193 million with escalators that could carry it to $230 million. This summer, the team will attempt to do it again with a nine-figure deal for Desmond Bane to keep their core locked up long term.

Owner Robert Pera has shown a willingness to spend in the past when the team is a contender, once ranking in the top five in payroll. New rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement make being just into the low levels of the luxury tax more palpable for small-market teams, which could make it more comfortable for the Grizzlies to be there. As long as they remain healthy, the Grizzlies are in position to stay near the top.

The Sacramento Kings made the playoffs for the first time since 2006, breaking a drought that was one of the best storylines of the regular season. They started the season with the ninth-oldest team in the league but the average age of the roster is still under 28. Star point guard De’Aaron Fox is just 25 and signed through 2026.

Forward Domantas Sabonis, whose arrival from Indiana via trade last season was a key moment in the team’s upswing, has only one season left on his contract. Veteran forward Harrison Barnes, who has the bulk of the team’s playoff experience, is a free agent this summer.

Retaining these key players and developing recent draft picks, especially rookie Keegan Murray, will be a factor in whether the Kings can stay ahead of the deeper-pocketed teams just behind them in the West.

They do have the most salary cap flexibility of the top three seeds, which potentially gives them more options. Owner Vivek Ranadive has never paid the luxury tax but, then again, the team hasn’t had a roster where it’s made sense to do so for decades (the last time they paid it was 2004).

Cost Per Win

The Grizzlies paid about $2.4 million in salary per win this year — the best efficiency in the league — though they benefited from Morant and Bane being on their rookie contracts. The Kings were right behind them at $2.8 million. The Nuggets, despite paying $14 million in taxes, came in at $3.2 million for each of their 53 wins.

The Golden State Warriors paid about $8.1 million including luxury taxes, per victory. The LA Clippers paid around $7.5 million. The Los Angeles Lakers paid about $4.6 million to finish in the play-in tournament. The Dallas Mavericks, who won just 38 games and finished 11th, spent $6.5 million per win.

These numbers underscore just how terrific of a season the Nuggets, Grizzlies and Kings executed.

There were all sorts of factors from injuries to trades to luck that are baked to the final standings, of course.

The Kings, for example, lost players only for a combined 76 games due to injury — the lowest in the league. Meanwhile, the Suns, Warriors, Clippers and Lakers all saw multiple stars knocked out for large swaths of the regular season.

Bottom Line

In the end, the three fresh faces at the top built a better mousetrap … this season.

A year after the Warriors won the title with a $345 million payroll, triggering a wave of new rules in the forthcoming CBA that limits the highest-spending teams, it is notable how this played out.

No set of circumstances in a complex 30-team league is repeatable. Money often does win out. The injury bug relocates. But there’s no doubt this season served as a palate cleanser in the West and will likely change the natural order for at least some time.

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