The NBA season, a time of gravity-defying dunks, halfcourt three pointers, and ankle-breaking crossovers, is upon us. For the first time in five years, the championship race is wide open, especially in the West. However, some teams invariably have better odds than others. So without further ado, here are my predictions for the Western Conference playoff spots:
- LA Clippers
- Denver Nuggets
- Utah Jazz
- LA Lakers
- Houston Rockets
- San Antonio Spurs
- Golden State Warriors
- Portland Trail Blazers
The Clippers are basically a no-brainer. Last season, they finished 48-34 without any All-Stars on their roster, and took the Warriors to six games in Round 1 of the playoffs. Over the offseason, they added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, without losing many core pieces. Kawhi Leonard is fresh off a Finals MVP award, and is in superb physical condition after his aggressive load management last season. Paul George finished third in MVP voting last season. Both Leonard and George are top-5 players on both ends of the floor, scoring efficiently and defending with equal effort. Supporting pieces Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell can reliably make shots, ensuring that Leonard and George don’t just get double-teamed every possession. This team is a rare team that has both depth and star power.
The Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. They finished second in the West last season, on the back of Nikola Jokic’s MVP-caliber season. Nikola Jokic is a triple-double machine who doesn’t stat-pad; his triple-doubles benefit his team. Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton are solid pieces to complement Jokic’s superb playmaking skills. In addition, they have Michael Porter Jr., a promising young prospect who has faced injury troubles over the past few seasons; if he can stay healthy and realize his full potential, he will be a great asset to the team. They also have Paul Millsap, a stabilizing vetern presence who plays tough defense.
As for the Utah Jazz, they just work well as a team. They play solid, coordinated defense, and the players are focused on winning, not shot-hunting for themselves. Rudy Gobert will certainly live up to his nickname of the “Stifle Tower”, and Donovan Mitchell seems primed to take a third-year leap after showing lead scorer potential over his first two seasons. Mike Conley, an offseason acquisition, is a veteran who shoots well, passes well, and defends well. He also knows what it is like to be in the playoffs. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic are good “3 & D” players, who can take some burden off of Donovan Mitchell, while preventing opponents from scoring too many points. Also of interest are Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay, two young guards who were drafted high in previous years, but have not yet lived up to their promises. Perhaps in this positive environment, they will show the league why they were drafted so high.
However, I am less optimistic about the LA Lakers. Outside of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the roster is dubious at best. Kyle Kuzma, for all his shot-making gifts, has not learned to play defense yet. Danny Green can shoot the three and play defense, but does not provide much value outside of those two skills, and has been known to be inconsistent over his career. As for their centers Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, there’s a reason why Dwight Howard keeps switching teams, and there’s a reason why JaVale McGee always appears on Shaqtin a Fool. DeMarcus Cousins is injured. Rajon Rondo was a plus defender and playmaker in his younger days, but his effort level has since decreased. For all of LeBron’s gifts, his body has to wear down at some point from playing into June all of these years, and last year already showed signs of wear and tear. His defense has declined, and he can no longer overpower opponents with his athletic ability the way he used to. Anthony Davis is good, but he is notoriously injury-prone. That being said, LeBron and Davis should be enough to take this team to a four-seed, but their expectations may perhaps be a bit too high.
The Houston Rockets have been good in recent memory. James Harden still plays like an MVP, and his team still practices Moreyball, the mathematically-based method for efficient shot selection. They still have Clint Capela, who can rebound, defend, and catch Harden’s lobs. However, the acquisition of Russell Westbrook may actually do more harm than good. Russell Westbrook, plainly speaking, does not fit into their system. He is an atrocious three-point shooter with the confidence of a marksman, which means that he unnecessarily bricks shots that easily could have went to his teammates. He is also a stat-padder and ball hog, which is especially bad when Harden, a fellow ball hog, is on his team. Westbrook is not very effective if he does not control the ball, but unfortunately for him, this is Harden’s team. Harden has already proven that his ball-hogging ways can take this team to success. Tension between Westbrook and Harden is imminent, and I see this partnership collapsing the same way Harden’s partnership with Chris Paul collapsed.
Looking elsewhere in Texas, I think that the Spurs will be good. It’s not that DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge will carry the team with their star power. Rather, it’s that the Spurs have made the playoffs for the last 22 seasons, and as long as Popovich is in control, I don’t see their system failing any time soon. Popovich is an optimizer, who can coax the best talents from his players. Additionally, DeJounte Murray and Derrick White are two young guards with long arms and great potential on both ends of the floor. I know it’s boring, but I think the Spurs will remain on their steady path and make the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season.
Going West to San Francisco, the Warriors are a team who will have a rough adjustment period. Yes, they still have Steph Curry, who is the best shooter to ever live. Yes, they still have Draymond Green, who is possibly the most versatile defender in the league today. Yes, they have D’Angelo Russell, who is a rising star. Yet, beyond these three players, the team is basically the scrap heap. Klay Thompson is good, but he’s out for the season, due to an ACL injury. They have a combination of unproven rookies, like Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall, and fringe NBA players, like Glenn Robnson III and Damion Lee. Even among their stars, Steph Curry and D’Angelo Russell have long been poor defenders. That being said, once Willie Cauley-Stein, Kevon Looney, and Alec Burks come back from injury, they should provide some much-needed solid veteran defense and offense for the team. Furthermore, Steph Curry and Draymond Green are still champions in their prime, and they won’t let their team lose too much. They’ll struggle to make the playoffs, but they’ll make the playoffs.
For the final playoff spot, I have the Portland Trail Blazers. They have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a high-scoring backcourt. They also picked up Hassan Whiteside, a rebounding and rim-protecting ace. Yet, my issue with the Blazers is that even as they have been decent over the past few regular seasons, they have fallen short year after year in the playoffs. They didn’t add that player who could take them to the next level over the offseason, while other teams either added that player, or focused on internal development. The Blazers are an aging team who may soon have to rebuild. Yet, Lillard and McCollum should still be enough to take them into the playoffs, even if they don’t go very deep.
Although the other teams have promising young talents, like Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, my skepticism towards them is based on their relative youth and inexperience. Perhaps future seasons will prove more fortunate for them, once the current playoff teams age.
So, these are my Western Conference playoff seeding predictions. What are yours?