By: Johnny Dahabra
Predicting the Western Conference Playoff Bracket For years the western conference has dominated the NBA. In fact, the last time a team wasn’t from the West or had LeBron James on roster won a championship was a decade ago when the Celtics ruled over the league. Now the West has arguably 10 teams deserving of playoff spots. As we all know there are only 8 spots, so let’s take a look at who makes the cut and who fails to propel them self into the postseason.
#1 Seed: Golden State Warriors
Let’s keep this one short and simple. Did you really expect another team in this spot? The championship Warriors added yet another all-star to their team and one of the league's top big men in Demarcus Cousins. The Warriors last season led all playoff teams in offensive and defensive rating. Though they seemed disinterested at times during the regular season still expect them to win close to 65 games and claim the best record in the west as well as home court. The star studded sharpshooting Warriors will once again be the favorites to win it all this season.
#2 Seed: Houston Rockets
Houston was just two wins and a healthy Chris Paul away from a finals birth and possibly a championship. Much like last season the Rockets barrage of three point shooting and stifling defense should help them finish top 3 in the western standings. Houston's 8.5 Net Rating last season was enough to lead the league giving them the highest margin of victory. The loss of Ariza is sure to hurt them. Last season Ariza was one of 12 players to average over two 3PM and 2STL, two others were Chris Paul and James Harden. Though it remains to be seen how Chris Paul will bounce back from his season ending surgery last season, he should remain in the higher tier of point guards and play a pivotal role this season. Capela will slightly improve and Harden will once again be in the MVP discussion. Now for the wrench in this equation. Carmelo Anthony. While he was once one of the leagues top scorers at one point, he only averaged 16.2PPG on 40.4FG% and 1.3AST in 32.1MPG, all being career lows for the 10 time all-star. While Melo brings Houston another perimeter threat his lack of defense could end up hurting the team more than helping it. With that being said Anthony could very well take a lesser role in the offense with the help of his good friend Chris Paul which would allow him to conserve energy and play defense. The Rockets might not be as defensively sound as last season, but they should still be in contention and will finish amongst the top of the standings.
#3 Seed: OKC Thunder
The Thunder's offseason can be summed up in three words: Addition by subtraction. It was clear last season that Carmelo, Westbrook, and George simply couldn’t coexist. Now with Melo gone and George here for the long term expect this team to make some noise. A key component the Thunder missed last season was Andre Roberson. Before his injury the Thunder were 3rd in DEFRTG, dropping to 10th after his injury. As a team the Thunder led the league in steals with 9.1 per game which will likely increase with Roberson back in the lineup. In theory the loss of Melo will also make their offense run more smoothly with Paul George averaging more points and increasing his FGA. This teams downfall will more than likely be it’s lack of shooting. Outside of George nobody on this team shot at least 40% from 3. On top of that they acquired Schroeder who shot 29% from 3 last season. His playmaking should help, it remains to be seen however what his role with the team will be given their lack of shooting and spacing. Oklahoma City will without a doubt be a team to watch with a high ceiling but also some bust potential.
#4 Seed: Utah Jazz
Yup, you read that right. The Utah Jazz are good, really good. Quin Snyder had this team surprising a lot of people last season, including myself. Donovan Mitchell had one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory. Here’s a graph of two players. I won’t say who’s who just yet. Just take a look here:
Player A has the slightly better stats and if you thought that was Mitchell then you would be correct. Player B is….. Rookie season Dwyane Wade. Mitchell should up his scoring by a few points along with increasing his efficiency. Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio will continue to play pivotal roles. Rubio will be the main playmaker and his chemistry with Mitchell will only get better with a season together under their belts. Ingles shot 44% from the 3 point line last season ranking him 4th in the league. The real MVP for Utah however is one Rudy Gobert. This is a completely different team when their 7’1 Center is holding down the paint. A DPOY candidate for the past couple seasons, he is without a doubt their most important player. Rudy had a DEFRTG of 97.7 ranking him third in the league among players who played at least 50 games. The Jazz as a whole had a DEFRTG of 101.6 only 0.1 behind the Celtics for 1st overall in the league. Utah also finished 5th in NETRTG posting a rating of 4.6 and finished 2nd in paint points allowed with 41.8. Expect this young time to improve this season and be in the top tier of teams. Their lack of star power will hurt them come playoff time, however their combination of a balanced attack, top defense, and excellent coaching from Quin Snyder should get them around the 50-win mark.
#5 Seed: Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James. Is there really any other way to start this? This team won 35 games last season with Ingram and Kuzma being the leading scorers with slightly over 16PPG each. Now factor in the league's best player (no, it’s not Kevin Durant) and the fact that the Lakers were crippled with injuries this team will only improve. Also add in that James finished 2nd in win shares with 14.0. Expect LeBron’s assist numbers to drop with Lonzo and Rondo on the roster but his scoring and efficiency to get better along with rebounding given the lakers lack of rebounders. The key to the Lakers season will be Ingram, Kuzma, and Lonzo improving and one of them solidifying themselves as a number 2 option next to James. Expect all three to be better players but not necessarily increase their stats drastically due to the other roster additions. Lance and Rondo provide this team with some extra perimeter defense and veteran experience with McGee giving them a big body. After the all-star break last season the Lakers finished 12th in DEFRTG and 15th in OFFRTG respectively. They could make a push to be top 10 in both categories this season if healthy. While it remains to be seen if the Lakers will make any other moves before the trade deadline this roster as is will make the playoffs, and any team with an MVP candidate like LeBron James on it is a contender. Check out my Lakers article here.
#6 Seed: San Antonio Spurs
Now that the Kawhi Leonard era is over in San Antonio it’s time to usher in the DeMar Derozan era. Derozan along with Aldridge are two of the league's premier iso and mid-range threats and both will average over 20PPG this season. Last season they each averaged 23PPG. The spurs also won 47 games last season without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. They essentially have the same roster as last season without Kawhi but have DeMar instead of Danny Green which is a clear upgrade though they will miss Greens 3-point shooting as he shot it at 36.3%. Pau Gasol is only getting older however his high basketball IQ cannot be understated for this team as he provides them with a playmaker out of the post. In addition, Dejounte Murray is getting better by the year and is poised to have a breakout season one both ends of the floor. With all that being said the real MVP for the Spurs is Gregg Popovich. Ever since he’s been a head coach the Spurs have won 50 games every season breaking that streak last year. Popovich will get the best out of all his players including DeMar Derozan this season as the Spurs could finish the season with two all-stars on the roster. They may not be contenders but given his track record it’s tough to bet against any Spurs team when Popovich is at the helm.
#7 Seed: Denver Nuggets
The last two seasons for the Denver Nuggets have been nothing short of disappointing having been eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season in back to back years. Let me make one thing clear about this team, Nikola Jokic is a stud. Arguably the league's best passing big men and only 23 years old Denver's future is in his hands. He posted an impressive 18.5PPG to go along with 10.7RPG and 6.1AST last season, leading the team in all three, on an eFG% of 55.4 solidifying himself as one of the games best rising stars. Barton, Murray, and Harris all averaged over 15PPG and can go for 20+ on any given night. Add in Isaiah Thomas to this deep backcourt and it’s easy to see how this team can possibly be a top 5 offense this season. If he plays Michael Porter Jr will also provide this team with yet another scoring wing and someone who can flat out score the ball. That being said, the main reason this team will make the playoffs this season is a healthy Paul Millsap. Milsap has been one of the league's most underrated players for quite some time now. Though he only averaged 14.2PPG his value doesn’t come from scoring. It comes from defense. When healthy Milsap is one of the league’s best and most underrated defenders. His DRPM (defensive plus minus) was 2.14 ranking him 36th in the league last season. On top of that his 6’8 frame and 7’2 wingspan make him a lengthy and versatile defender able to guard almost any position. While this team is oozing with talent at every position they’re still too young to compete with the NBA’s top dogs. This is the year they finally make the playoffs but they’re still a few years and a superstar away from truly contending for a championship.
#8 Seed: Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers finished as the 3rd seed last season however only two games separated them from the 8th seed. Lillard remains one of the games best point guards and scorers averaging 27PPG on 44% shooting. Him and CJ McCollum are one of the league’s best backcourts and combined average nearly 48PPG as a duo. The problem with this team is that outside of their two stars they don’t really have much. Sure Nurkic is a solid big man and rebounder but he is by no means a star. Other than Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic nobody on this team averages double figures. On top of that nobody averages double digit rebounds or assists. For all the Blazers fans out there, there is a silver lining, their defense. The Blazers last season posted a DEFRTG of 104.2, good for 8th in the league. Portland also tied for 3rd in opponents points in the paint with 42.1 and 7th in blocks with 5.2. With the West being as strong as it is it’s hard to see this team being a top 4 seed like last season though you shouldn’t count them out due to their ability to get extremely hot over stretches of games. While the Blazers are a sound defensive team, their heavy reliance on CJ and Dame to carry the offense along with a general lack of talent outside of those two makes it hard to rank them higher given the all the rosters in this stacked conference.
Some arguments could be made for teams like the Timberwolves and Pelicans. Had this been written before Jimmy Butler requested a trade perhaps these predictions would be different. As of right now however it’s not possible to know how the Timberwolves will look come tip off. In a stacked west Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins without much help seem slightly overmatched at this stage and their respective careers. As for the Pelicans their overall lack of talent will keep them out of the playoffs this season. Anthony Davis is a top 5 player and MVP candidate, however outside of him, Holiday, and Randle this roster is lackluster. The loss of rondo will hurt them since they don’t really have a true point guard and Jrue Holiday was much better playing without the ball with Rondo on the floor. Expect Davis to put up historic numbers but just not have enough to get this team into the playoffs considering how steep the competition is.
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