Part two of the end-of-season predictions, and we move onto the bloodbath that is the Western Conference. The West is absolutely insane; one of my bold predictions last season was that at least 4 teams would miss the Playoffs with a .500 record, and even though it didn’t happen, it really could this year. It’s pretty obvious which team will sit atop the Conference, but who sneaks into the final Playoff spots is up for debate; and who better to tackle that debate than me?*
*All predictions are being considered with 100% health
- Phoenix Suns
Projected starters: Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, Tyson Chandler
Key bench players: Tyler Ulis, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender
This spot is a toss up between the Suns and the Kings, but I think the Suns youth will cause them to lose a couple more games down the stretch. Devin Booker is an absolute stud, but he’s a sieve on the defensive end. Eric Bledsoe is underrated at this point due to him not being able to stay on the floor, and Tyson Chandler is so far over the hill that he is miles from it. T.J. Warren and Marquese Chriss are really nice young players, but they can’t provide much in the win department quite yet. The same can be said for Tyler Ulis and number four pick Josh Jackson, the latter having a lot of upside, but how much he’ll provide this year is to be seen. I can’t stand Alex Len, going back to when he was originally drafted. There were murmurs of him being a potential top pick, albeit in a horrible draft, but I would have lost my mind if he went number one overall. He’s a true seven-footer, yet he can’t grab more than six rebounds a game, and his defensive ability is sub-par. Dragan Bender didn’t get a chance last season, but if I were running the team I’d try playing Bender and Chriss together to see what I have. This Suns team will be hoping to get another good pick next year to team up with Booker and Jackson.
- Sacramento Kings
Projected starters: George Hill, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein
Key bench players: De’Aaron Fox, Vince Carter, Zach Randolph
The Sacramento Kings, a franchise I have had nothing good to say about for years, actually appear like they’re turning the ship around. Embracing a rebuild has given them a lot of good young assets; draft picks De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles, along with Buddy Hield. I’ve written about my thoughts on bringing in George Hill to play over Fox, but Hill will provide veteran leadership and a few extra wins along the way. Fox is one of my favourite rookies from this class, and hopefully he can learn how to shoot while not being expected to lead the team. Buddy Hield will never be good defensively, but if he can study J.J. Reddick film and learn to run off screens he can become a solid starting guard. Labissiere showed a lot of promise at the end of last season, and his partnership with Cauley-Stein appears to be the frontcourt of the future. Vince Carter’s career is coming to an end, and it’s a bit odd for him to spend a year in Sacramento, but he’s still good for a couple turn-back-the-clock highlights throughout the season. Zach Randolph is also a bit of an odd signing, but he must be ok with coming off the bench. The Kings are nowhere near Playoff contention, but their team might be just good enough to pick outside of the top five.
- Los Angeles Lakers
Projected starters: Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez
Key bench players: Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma
Sorry LaVar Ball, but your son won’t be able to lead the Lakers into the postseason in his rookie year. Look, I love Lonzo, but rookies just don’t come into the league and lead their new team into the Playoffs; unless they’re named LeBron James or Magic Johnson. Lonzo has the potential to be the Rookie of the Year, especially considering his Summer League performance. He’ll get the minutes, and will handle the ball for a majority of the minutes in the Lakers system, but he just doesn’t have enough talent to even push for the eighth spot. The signing of KCP is nice for both this season, and next, due to him having the same agent as free-agent-to-be LeBron James. He’s a great fit next to Ball due to his shooting touch, and defensive talents. Brandon Ingram with another year of growth should improve, and people are starting to sleep on Julius Randle. Brook Lopez is working on his outside shooting, but his inside scoring will be the main help for this Lakers offence. Jordan Clarkson will probably be in trade rumors all season because of the Lakers clear plans to sign two max players, and that’s unfortunate because he is a great talent off the bench. Larry Nance Jr. has been called the team’s “secret weapon” by Magic Johnson, but I’m still not too sure what he does other than throw down massive dunks (the best dunk of last season was Nance Jr. hammering it on new teammate Lopez, I wish I could know what the first thing they said to each other was at the first practice). Kyle Kuzma also showed out at Summer League, I doubt he’ll get a lot of opportunity, but he’s a nice piece going forward. LaVar will make his opinion heard all year, and it’ll be interesting to see how his mood changes as the losses start to pile up.
- Dallas Mavericks
Projected starters: Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel
Key bench players: Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrel, Dorian Finney-Smith
Just like the 14th and 15th spot, the Lakers could usurp the Mavs for this spot come the end of the season, but I’m betting on the Mavs to win more close games than the Lakers. It looks like Dennis Smith Jr. is going to make teams like the Bulls and Knicks regret passing on him, and coming into a system coached by Rick Carlisle will help him in his first season. Wesley Matthews wasn’t the same guy after his ACL injury, but he’s still capable on the wing. Harrison Barnes isn’t a top option, but he did show that he deserved more touches after leaving the Warriors. Dirk Nowitzki is a swinging door defensively, and he can’t rebound, but his spacing is still invaluable. Nerlens Noel’s offseason contract saga means that he has a lot to prove this year after signing only a one-year deal, he’ll still be seeking a max-offer next year from whoever is willing to offer it. Seth Curry proved that he serves a spot in the rotation, and the same can be said for the relatively unknown Yogi Ferrel. After that, the depth gets a bit questionable, but players like Dorian Finney-Smith and Salah Mejri will be asked to contribute in their bench minutes. Dallas fans, enjoy the twilight of Dirk’s career, and look forward to the future with the high-flying Dennis Smith Jr.
- New Orleans Pelicans
Projected starters: Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Ian Clark, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins
Key bench players: Tony Allen, E’Twaun Moore, Alexis Ajinca (Perry Jones III)
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are amazing players, but the surrounding talent just isn’t good enough to put this team in Playoff contention in my eyes. Jrue Holiday is a good point guard, but the signing of Rondo forces him to play off-ball, a role that doesn’t utilize his skills. The biggest issue with this team is the small forward position; with Solomon Hill’s injury the team doesn’t have a true wing on the roster. The recent acquisition of Tony Allen will help fill the gap for now, but long-term the team will need an answer. Ian Clark is my guess for the starting position just for a bit more spacing instead of Allen, but he’s not exactly a top-tier option. Alexis Ajinca is one of the most awkward players on the court, but he is a better option than Omer Asik; which isn’t saying much. The team is basically a bunch of point guards, big men, and non-spacing wings, not exactly how you want to construct a winning team. Cousins, and even Davis, could be in trade rumors throughout the year if things start going really poorly. (I added Perry Jones III to key bench players even though he might not even make the roster. They picked him up for training camp, and I really hope, especially with the lack of talent on the wing, that he makes the squad. Jones III is someone I’m still incredibly high on, even though he hasn’t shown much in his short NBA career. His length, shooting touch, and defensive potential makes him a good gamble for most teams, and I’ve wondered why nobody has taken a chance on him, so this chance makes me happy for him.)
- Memphis Grizzlies
Projected starters: Mike Conley, Tyreke Evans, Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
Key bench players: Ben McLemore, James Ennis, Brandan Wright
The grit and grind Grizzlies have been a playoff lock for years, but I think this is the year where they just miss out. The Grindfather, Tony Allen, is gone, along with Zach Randolph, and the gritty style seems to be a thing of the past. The Grizzlies problem has always been outside shooting, and the only newcomer who might be able to aid in that department is Ben McLemore, a less-than-average 2-guard. Tyreke Evans will probably slot into the starting lineup, and shooting has never been strength of his. Chandler Parsons knees may never fully recover, and it appears as if he is more focused on becoming a model than a successful ball player. James Ennis is interesting as a wing option, and Brandan Wright was intriguing just a short while ago. It’s tough to count out Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but the only way they could get this team into the postseason is if they were in the East.
- Los Angeles Clippers
Projected starters: Patrick Beverly, Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Key bench players: Milos Teodosic, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker
Lob City is no more after the trade of Chris Paul to Houston, but at least the Clippers got valuable pieces from that trade. Patrick Beverly is one of the best defensive options at the point, Lou Williams seemingly can catch fire at any time, and young guys Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell showed a lot of promise in their time as Rockets. I haven’t seen much of Milos Teodosic besides a couple of YouTube highlights, but word around the league is that he could supplant Beverly as the starting guard with his unreal passing skills. I definitely wouldn’t call myself a fan of Austin Rivers, but he has proved that he deserves a place in the league, even without his father as his coach. Gallinari will apparently be ready to go for training camp after punching an opponent during EuroBasket, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares come the start of the season. Blake Griffin was an MVP-candidate just a few seasons ago, but it’s unclear whether he has the talent to lead a team on his own. DeAndre Jordan is one of the best defensive centers in the game, but he won’t be chipping in to replace Chris Paul’s production on the offensive end. A lot of prediction posts that I’ve seen have the Clippers firmly in Playoff contention, but in my mind, they might struggle to put points on the board, leading to them narrowly missing the postseason.
- Utah Jazz
Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
Key bench players: Dante Exum, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Johnson
The Utah Jazz lost their best player in the offseason, but their talent is enough to still squeak into the Playoffs. Rodney Hood will be asked to up his production in lieu of Hayward, with a lot of help from Summer League standout Donovan Mitchell. Offense won’t be the reason this team wins games; wins will come for the Jazz on the defensive end. Last year’s blocks leader Rudy Gobert heads what should be a top-5 defense once again. Ricky Rubio is a step down from George Hill, but it’s not a steep drop. Dante Exum is still the point guard of the future, and this year fans will be hoping for a breakout season from him. Joe Ingles looks like the least athletic player on the court at any time, but the Australian got paid after shooting 44% from downtown. Derrick Favors has yet to play a full 82-game season, and last year he took a step back after his injury; if he can’t bounce back I see a possibility of his name ending up in trade rumours. Iso-Joe Johnson is 36 years old, and if he can average 10 points-per-game I would be surprised. Congratulations Utah fans, your team should end up in the 8th spot, also known as the honour to be swept by the Warriors.
- Portland Trail Blazers
Projected starters: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic
Key bench players: Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard
It looked like Portland had a real shot at landing Carmelo Anthony, but unfortunately the recruiting efforts of Lillard and McCollum was for naught. Nonetheless, the Trail Blazers backcourt, along with Nurkic, is more than enough to will this team to a Playoff seed. Aminu is a great stretch-4 to pair alongside Nurkic, and his ability to switch out on pick-and-rolls is crucial with such a poor defensive backcourt. Moe Harkless will get an increased role following the trade of Allen Crabbe, but on this lineup he won’t be asked for too much on the offensive end. Evan Turner took a step back last year after a solid year in Boston, but with a lack of depth at small forward the Blazers will lean on him often. Meyers Leonard also needs to live up to the promise he showed a few short years ago, especially with rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan coming into the fold. Noah Vonleh should get more minutes early in the season, but I could see Collins usurping him as the first or second big off the bench. Here’s a question, what has the higher potential of becoming true; Portland makes the NBA Finals, or Damian “Dame D.O.L.L.A.” Lillard records an album that goes platinum? Depending on the odds, I might go for the latter.
- Denver Nuggets
Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Key bench players: Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried
This year’s Nuggets team is a must-watch for NBA fans. Their offence is going to be electric, after finishing 3rd in points per game last season they added Paul Millsap to create one of the best floor-spacing lineups in the game. Adding Millsap helps balance the loss of points from Gallinari, along with the presumed uptake of production from Murray and Harris. Emmanuel Mudiay has yet to live up to the hype, but if he becomes a decent backup to Murray then all wouldn’t be lost. Wilson Chandler should have been traded from this team in the last five years, but now that the team should be playing postseason ball he’s a great fit. Will Barton may end up on the trade block to open up time for Malik Beasley, but if not he’s a solid bench contributor. Kenneth Faried is still an animal on the boards, and as a bench big his energy can tear up most team’s benches. This is the year that Jokic fully passes Marc Gasol as the best passing big man, and if he were in the East he’d be a favourite to make the All Star Team. The Nuggets won’t make much noise come Playoff time, but look out for them in a couple of years to make their way up the standings board.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected starters: Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns
Key bench players: Tyus Jones, Jamal Crawford, Gorgui Dieng
I really thought Minnesota was going to make the jump last year, but with the acquisition of Jimmy Butler it’s a certainty this season. The Bulls reunion of Butler-Gibson-Thibs joining Towns and Wiggins is going to be really special. The person who should be the happiest about bringing in Butler is Andrew Wiggins. He now gets to cede the pressure to Butler, and can focus on growing his game. Wiggins made a jump last season in his offensive production, but his defensive potential has yet to be reached. Butler handling more of the offensive and defensive duties will allow Wiggins to learn underneath him without carrying the burden of the franchise. Now, having said all that, I think Karl-Anthony Towns should be the man on this team. Jimmy Butler is a vet, knows Coach Thibs style, but in my mind this is the year that Towns could break into the top-10 players conversation. Jeff Teague was a bit of an odd signing for this team, it was clear that they were pursuing Kyle Lowry and then settled for Teague. He’s an odd fit because he’s not a great defender, and lacks the outside scoring punch this team desperately needs. He’s a step up from Rubio in terms of shooting ability, but Rubio’s underrated defensive ability will be missed; George Hill would have been an amazing signing here. Tyus Jones should get a bulk of the minutes at backup point guard, but Thibs did just sign one of his old favourites, Aaron Brooks. Jamal Crawford is an interesting piece for them off the bench, along with Gorgui Dieng. I would be surprised if this team pushed the Spurs in the first round, but not completely shocked.
- San Antonio Spurs
Projected starters: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol
Key bench players: Dejounte Murray, Manu Ginobli, Rudy Gay
Is putting the Spurs at the four-spot “counting them out”? People, including myself, have thought the Spurs would inevitably take a step back for years, and the Spurs have proved us all wrong. Coach Popovich remains the best coach in the league, and will go down on the Mount Rushmore of coaches in any sport. Kawhi Leonard is a top-3 player, probably the best perimeter defender you could find, and yet with all this I still think they’re only the fourth best team in the West. Why do I think that? Well, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, 35 and 40 years old respectively, just aren’t what they once were. A front-line of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol is an absolute turnstile on defense. Joffrey Lauvergne and Davis Bertans are the only backup options, options that aren’t striking fear into many, if any, teams in the league. Danny Green is still a good 3-and-D option, and Dejounte Murray is their future at the point, but right now they aren’t making an incredible difference on the floor. The big signing of the summer for San Antonio came in the form of Rudy Gay, a small forward who’s coming back after tearing his Achilles tendon. Rudy Gay gives the Spurs options to play small with him and Leonard manning the forward spots, but he isn’t exactly known for his ability to stretch the floor. Gay is one of my more interesting players to watch this year, to see how he fits into one of the best systems the league has ever seen. It might sound crazy, but come Playoff time I don’t think I’d pick the Spurs over any of the three teams I have currently ranked ahead of them.
- Houston Rockets
Projected starters: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela
Key bench players: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Nene
After the trade, much like most in the media, I questioned the fit between Paul and Harden. But after seeing countless videos of them putting in work together over the summer, I don’t think it’ll be tough for the two to mesh together. The Rockets lost quite a bit of their depth in acquiring Paul, however they quickly bolstered their bench with the signings of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. You’d think that losing Beverly would hurt them defensively, but Paul isn’t exactly a slouch on that end. This team is going to be terrifying in transition, especially when playing small with Ariza at the 4-spot; Paul or Harden bringing the ball up with Eric Gordon and Ariza running the wings, and Clint Capela thundering up the middle. Mike D’Antoni’s system will lead to them to being one of the most exciting teams to watch all year. Ryan Anderson is slow and lumbering, but in what should be fewer minutes this season his floor spacing will still be a massive help. Don’t forget about Nene either, he finished more games last season than Capela, and his veteran savvy will be leaned on once again this year. Houston was my pick as the 2nd seed right after the Paul deal, but after the deals made by another Western contender, I had to slide them down a spot.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected starters: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams
Key bench players: Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson
That Western contender is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sam Presti’s business cards should say, “Sam Presti – General Manager of the Thunder, and Full-Time Magician”. Presti somehow turned Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott and Domantas Sabonis into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer. Yes, he turned four rotation players into a superstar in Paul George and a star in Carmelo Anthony to form one of the most formidable big-3’s in the NBA. Skeptics could say that while the Thunder may have won the offseason, they did so at the cost of team depth. However, I see a solid 9-man rotation in Oklahoma City, something you can’t say for more teams. Their starting five is menacing, and when staggering the three stars there should never be a relatively poor lineup on the floor. Andre Roberson, known for being a defensive savant, will be asked for even less on the offensive end, which is a good thing for Thunder fans. Also, with George in the fold, Roberson won’t have to guard the other team’s best player every single night, allowing him to have more energy on the other end running the baseline for alley-oop dunks. Steven Adams appears to be the forgotten man in all Thunder discussions, and the argument could be made that the Thunder has a big-4 including the Kiwi. Adams has improved greatly each season, and offensively he’ll only be asked to set picks and roll to the rim. Alex Abrines still needs to put on size to be somewhat dependable defensively, but his outside shooting is key to the Thunder’s bench success. Jerami Grant might be playing some minutes at center, which should be interesting to see, and Patrick Patterson was a great fit to start next to Adams before the Anthony deal, but him coming off the bench just improves the Thunder’s potential that much more. Look out for my 10 bold predictions post, I have a feeling the Thunder will be mentioned in some form.
- Golden State Warriors
Projected starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
Key bench players: Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, Andre Igoudala
There’s no debate on this one, the Warriors are just too good. My biggest question for them is could they potentially win 75 games? It sounds insane, but so does 73 wins, and they did that two season ago…WITHOUT KEVIN DURANT! I don’t even know what needs to be said, Stephen Curry is incredible, Klay Thompson has one of the nicest shooting strokes I’ve ever seen, and KD is a cupcake (just kidding Warriors fans…not really). It appears that Draymond Green has stopped kicking players in the nuts and focused on being a defensive anchor. Shaun Livingston is probably still the best backup point guard in the league and Andre Igoudala will be in the 6th Man of the Year discussions. I’m still mad that the Bulls were dumb enough to just sell Jordan Bell to the Warriors, it was clear after his March Madness performance that he will have a role in the NBA for years to come, yet another awful move by the Bulls and a great move for Golden State. But the best part of this year’s iteration of the Warriors? Reuniting Nick Young and JaVale McGee!!! These two put out one of the best NBA videos with their cinnamon challenge video back in the day, I hope they get back to putting up online content. Warriors fans, enjoy another incredible season. Meanwhile for the rest of us, let’s just hope the bloodbath that is the Western Conference can slow them down just enough to make the Playoffs interesting.