Who will make the playoffs in the crazy NBA Western Conference?
The NBA Western Conference playoff race is poised to be a flat-out brawl.
In a way, nothing is new. Of the last 20 championships, 14 went to a Western Conference team. The West has been the more formidable conference for a long time, and the divide seems to get wider year after year. Last season, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, and Paul George headed west, while Chris Paul solidified the Rockets as a true contender. This season, it’s Lebron James taking his talents to a previously irrelevant team that’s drawing attention.
Teams that seem deserving of a playoff spot are going to miss out. There just aren’t enough spots (unless, of course, the NBA ditches conferences…which will never happen). Trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out is a painful exercise.
A measly three wins separated the third seed from the ninth seed last season. A single win separated the fourth seed from the eighth seed. Basically, every playoff contender that wasn’t in Houston or the Bay was in a fight for its life.
I have no business telling you who will make it or not – nobody does. So, below is a list of the teams projected to be in that messy middle of the Western Conference, and arguments for and against them meeting expectations. You can decide for yourself which arguments you find compelling, and which teams you think will make it in.
Without further ado – the minefield that is the Western Conference, ranked in order of Westgate’s prediction for them this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 48-34 (4th seed) Westgate prediction: 50 (3rd in west)
Why they will do well: With Westbrook, George, and Adams on the court with Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder gave up 106 points per 100 possessions. With that same trio on and Carmelo off, they only gave up 94.1 points per 100 possessions; that’s the difference between a brick wall and wet toilet paper. Anthony was a bad fit on both sides of the ball, so losing him alone should be a big help.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George should benefit from another year together. If Andre Roberson comes back 100%, he might compete for a Defensive Player of the Year award. Dennis Schroeder gives them a young athletic backup point guard, and Nerlens Noel gives them a young athletic backup center (who is stylistically very similar to Steven Adams, which is nice for in-game continuity). They were eighth in the league in net rating in a year marred with chemistry issues; if things break right, they could be dominant.
Why they will not do well: We have no idea what Andre Roberson will look like when he comes back from injury. He is a very smart defensive player, but his defensive game is also very dependent on athleticism. His offensive game is very limited, so his defense really needs to be stellar to make him worth playing. Dennis Schroeder has a questionable locker-room reputation, and Nerlens Noel is considered a flat-out headache. Adding those two to a team that had chemistry issues last year may be asking for trouble. They still don’t have enough outside shooting. They still employ an offensive scheme that involves Russell Westbrook pounding the air out of the ball and launching contested midrangers, and there’s an argument that they’ll never be able to really take a step forward as long as that’s true.
Last season: 48-34 (5th seed) Westgate prediction: 49.5 (4th in west)
Why they will do well: This team boasts the rookie of the year, Donovan Mitchell, who was a veritable stud in his debut season. His efficiency wasn’t superb, but what do you expect from a rookie carrying a playoff contender’s offense? Rudy Gobert only played in 56 games this year, but it’s not as if he’s injury-riddled; he logged an 81 game season in 2016-2017 and an 82 game season in 2014-2015. When healthy, he is an absolute defensive monster.
Up and down the roster are players who excel in their roles. Among players shooting two or more threes a game who played in at least 60 games, Joe Ingles was fifth in the league in 3pt percentage (tied with Klay Thompson). Ricky Rubio fits in nicely and energizes the team with his passing. Jae Crowder came back to life and is playing like the 3-and-D wing we know him to be. The Jazz sported the 2nd best defense in the league despite their injuries; if they can stay healthy, their defense will basically be an electric barbed-wire fence with a fire-breathing dragon flying overhead.
Their Pythagorean win prediction (which takes into account how many points the team allowed and scored to make a prediction of how many wins the team should win, and is often considered a better reflection of the team than a win-loss record) was 55-27, a gigantic seven wins over where they finished. In a year marred by injuries, that’s incredibly impressive. Give them health and they should be the third best team in the Western Conference.
Why they will not do well: The Jazz started 19-28 last year. They ended the season on an insane 29-6 run, which is remarkable and can’t be taken away from them. But whenever a team’s record is propped up by a run like that, you have to wonder if they are as legit as they seem. The Jazz have an offense centered around a kid – one with questionable efficiency and some injury history, to boot. What if he hits a sophomore slump? The Jazz won on the back of cohesion and grit, which is great, but they simply lack the firepower of other teams in their tier.
Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 35-47 (11th place out of playoffs) Westgate prediction: 48.5 (5th in west)
Why they will do well: When LeBron James went home to Cleveland, the Cavs jumped from 33 to 53 wins. The Cavs won 50 last season, and Westgate predicts that they’ll win 30.5 in their first year without him.
When you’re the greatest player in the world, you have that kind of impact.
LeBron had perhaps the best offensive season of his career last year, and more than ever, proved to be a clutch finisher. He’s a truly dominant offensive player.
The Lakers actually had the league’s 13th best defense last year, and a rejuvenated LeBron plus internal improvement should help bolster that. Meanwhile, Lebron alone would catapult the offense significantly forward – that’s before you even get into the offseason signings. Rajon Rondo is a decent shooter and remains a prolific passer, Michael Beasely has consistently been a solid and efficient bench scoring option for years, and Javale McGee looks like a world-beater in short stints. Add those guys into a developing young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, and you have a team that looks very promising, however strange they are.
Why they will not do well: This team is flat-out weird and full of questions. The model with LeBron has always been to surround him with shooters and let him do his thing: collapsing defenses and being one of the best passers in NBA history. The Lakers now employ Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, and Lance Stephenson, three guys who like to hold the ball and who project as questionable shooters. Playing Lebron off the ball will spare his legs, sure, but are you maximizing your offense if you’re taking the ball out of a generational talent’s hands to give it to…Lance Stephenson?
There are just so many questions. Who the heck is going to play center? JaVale McGee is their only starting-caliber center, and his asthma limits how long he can play for (they might have to get spot minutes from Lavar Ball). Will the defense be able to hold on? Lance Stephenson thinks of himself as a defensive stopper, but grades out terribly by the metrics. Kyle Kuzma was similarly horrible on defense. LeBron’s Cavs were the worst team in the league on defense, and he, through a combination of aging and poor effort, was a big part of the problem.
Their offseason additions are nothing short of headcases. Rondo drives coaches nuts and takes his foot completely off the gas if he’s not happy. Stephenson loses focus more than the 8-year-old in little league picking dandelions. McGee, to his credit, makes a solid effort to be engaged, but his attention-to-detail really suffers when his very limited stamina starts to fail. Michael Beasley is another space cadet (seriously, did they go out looking for as many of them as possible?).
On the plus side, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope probably won’t be commuting back and forth from prison this season, so that’s good.
This is more a circus act than an NBA team, and the potential for problems on and off the court is too overwhelming to take them seriously.
Last season: 46-36 (9th place, missed playoffs) Westgate prediction: 47.5 (6th in west)
Why they will do well: The Denver Nuggets have one of the most enviable young cores in the league. Center Nikola Jokic averaged 18.5 points on 50-40-85 shooting, and his passing is transcendent, if streaky. Gary Harris (23) and Jamal Murray (21) give him two elite shooters in the backcourt to find with those water polo-passes.
Isaiah Thomas is only a year removed from garnering MVP votes, and he has a ton to prove. If he looks like even 70% of what he looked like in Boston, he’s going to be huge for them. Paul Millsap only played in 38 games, and was impaired for a lot of the games he did play in. He is a versatile defender whose ability to quarterback the defense shouldn’t be ignored; he’s called “The Anchorman” for a reason. His presence over the course of a full season should significantly bolster the defense.
Why they will not do well: While they boasted the 6th-ranked offense in the league last year, the Nuggets also had the 26th-ranked defense, the worst among all Western Conference playoff hopefuls. Their 5’9 offseason addition will not help on that end, and banking on Millsap (who will turn 34 during the season) to turn around their entire defense might be asking for too much. This isn’t a new problem; the last time they finished outside of the bottom third in the league in defensive rating was 2012-2013. How much of a leap can they make with offense alone when they’re already so good at it?
New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 48-34 (6th seed) Westgate prediction: 46 (7th in west)
Why they will do well: Demarcus Cousins was always a questionable fit. While he was individually fantastic, there was always a question as to how elite they could be starting two traditional centers in today’s NBA. His replacement, Nikola Mirotic, was a perfect fit from day one. Lineups sporting Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis were 1.5 points per 100 possessions better with Mirotic on the floor than off. Expand that out to the non-Cousins starters (Rondo, Holiday, Moore and Davis) and they were 6.6 points per 100 possessions better with Mirotic on the floor.
Another season with Mirotic in the fold learning to play with Davis and Holiday bodes well for them. Julius Randle was an awesome signing at two years, $18 million. He’s a big who switches effectively, grabs boards, relentlessly attacks on offense, and is a phenomenal passer for his position, especially in transition. He can’t shoot threes, but had a very efficient shooting season despite not being placed in a position to succeed in LA. Elfried Payton fits in well offensively with their system.
They play with pace, grade out well on both sides of the floor, and have a legitimate top-5 player in Anthony Davis. That’s a recipe for a strong playoff team.
Why they will not do well: Demarcus Cousins was a weird fit, but you’re still taking a truly dominant offensive weapon and replacing him with Mirotic, a shooter with streaky shooting and no other exciting talents, and Julius Randle, who for all his strengths, couldn’t gain traction on a non-playoff team. Jrue Holiday was incredibly efficient, and you wonder if it was an outlier season due for regression. Rajon Rondo made things easier for both Holiday and Anthony Davis; losing him and replacing him with Elfrid Payton might hurt. Payton can score the ball, and you can argue Rondo’s style is outdated, but his passing opened play for New Orleans. Payton is also a defensive sieve.
While the Pelicans don’t have huge glaring questions like the other playoff contenders, you wonder if the others just improved enough relative to the Pelicans to push them out of the playoff picture.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 47-35 (7th seed) Westgate: 44.5 (T-8th in west)
Why they will do well: (I went into the Spurs significantly more in-depth here). They got by last season with exceptional defense despite their questionable defensive personnel, a testament to Popovich’s schematic ability. They relied on LaMarcus Aldridge in the high post a shocking amount, which was actually a pretty efficient way to conduct their offense thanks to his phenomenally-low turnover percentage. DeMar DeRozan made a big leap last season as a playmaker, took more threes than ever, and generally looked as good as he always has at the most important part of the game: putting the ball in the basket. Dejounte Murray was a defensive stud and should look better on offense with another year of development. Jakob Poeltl is a sneaky-good player on both sides of the ball. They have good young system players and a rookie, Lonnie Walker, who projects as a high-upside athletic freak. There are good signs here.
The final argument on this is simple enough: they’re the Spurs. They have been doing this for 20 years. They won 47 games last season even without their superstar, Kawhi Leonard. They’re basically adding DeRozan, an all-star, to that team in exchange for Danny Green. Popovich gets the most out of his talent, and there’s more to work with this year than last. They’ll play great defense, keep their turnovers down, do the little things, and win; probably a lot, like they always do.
Why they will not do well: This ain’t your grandaddy’s Spurs team. Manu Ginobili is gone. Tony Parker is gone. Kawhi Leonard, a truly transcendent player on both sides of the floor, pushed his way out. The expectation is that they’ll run an even more midrange-reliant offense this year. It was okay last season, but isn’t there a limit to how good you can be on offense playing an archaic style that’s less efficient almost inherently? Swapping out Danny Green for DeRozan is a big downgrade on the defensive end. They simply have less firepower than the other contenders, and they’re old as dirt.
Just because they have been good for a long time doesn’t mean it’s going to continue by default. Success in 2002 has nothing to do with success now, and at the end of the day, it’s not sorcery – it’s basketball. And the Spurs seem to have a lot less basketball talent than other teams.
Last season: 47-35 (8th seed) Westgate prediction: 44.5 (T-8th in west)
Why they will do well: The Timberwolves, for all their dysfunction, are one heck of a talented team. They sported the fourth best offensive rating in the league last season despite Jimmy Butler missing significant time. Karl-Anthony Towns is an absolute stud. He turned in a 42.1% season on threes, scoring 21.3 ppg, and dominated the boards on a nightly basis. He’s everything you want in a modern big on the offensive side of the ball, and he’s only 22. Jimmy Butler is a bonafide star and one of the best two-way wings in the league. Taj Gibson is a solid glue guy who comes up with winning plays. Andrew Wiggins is a very impressive young scorer. Their core should benefit from another year together. And, again, they simply have a lot of talent, and talent wins games.
Why they will not do well: Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic and Matt Moore of The Action Network went into the chemistry issues plaguing the Timberwolves in a July episode of Spread the Floor. A quick summary, based on that podcast and also on the myriad of reports flying around this team:
- The base conflict at the bottom of everything is the seriousness of the old Bulls guys vs. the young guys, who are less intense about winning and have other interests.
- Andrew Wiggins is an aloof airhead.
- Very basic communication (literally just college intramural level communication) does not happen at all.
- Nobody is happy. The bad vibes are permeating up and down the roster.
- Communication between coach Tom Thibodeau and ownership is not good right now.
Their chemistry is a flaming mess, Wiggins is still the same one-dimensional player he was when he entered the league, and their only solution seems to be hiring more players from the 2011 Bulls. Derrick Rose is stealing minutes from the more-capable Tyus Jones and stunting his growth. Their defense is atrocious. This team looks ready to implode.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last season: 49-33 (3rd seed) Westgate prediction: 41.5 (10th in west)
Why they will do well: One bad playoff series really makes people freak out, huh? Portland was the 3rd seed last season, and their formula looked legit. Damian Lillard looked like a serious MVP candidate. They had the eighth best defense in the league with Nurkic looking like a true anchor. They play with toughness and energy. Their Pythagorean win prediction was exactly the same as their record; there’s no smoke-and-mirror trick here. They have top-tier talent and continuity, and should find themselves at the top of this pack again.
Why they will not do well: Losing Ed Davis is a bigger deal than casual observers realize. He was arguably the best rebounder in the league last season, and fit what the system on both sides of the ball. They’ll also miss Shabazz Napier, a capable floor spacer and floor general. But they have bigger issues than that.
Everything went right for the Trailblazers this year. They stayed healthy. Lillard played inspired defense and put up the same incredible offensive numbers as always. McCollum had a rough shooting year under the radar, but still looked elite. Nurkic looked like a defensive beast.
None of it mattered when they hit the playoffs. They were the third seed and you can’t take that away from them, but in a tight conference, how much stock can you really put into the two wins that separated them from the eighth seed?
There are real structural problems that they have no obvious solution to. Jusuf Nurkic is in the 90th percentile (high) among bigs in usage, but 15th percentile (very bad) in points per shot attempt; both numbers are consistent with his career averages, per Cleaning the Glass. Their depth is questionable thanks to their alarmingly-compromised salary sheet; Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard will earn a combined $40 million this year. Barring a massive jump from their own players (which seems unlikely) or a highway-robbery trade, where is the improvement supposed to come from?
Maybe they’d still be fine if the Western Conference didn’t improve. But it did, significantly. Even if things go as well as they did last year, you’d expect a significant dropoff just because of how much the other contenders improved.
The sheer amount of good teams in the Western Conference is both alarming and exciting. Only six of the eight teams listed above can make the playoffs. Meanwhile, multiple cellar-dwelling teams from last year project to be relevant this year. The Grizzlies made high-IQ additions around the margins to support the still-impressive duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and Dallas’s (hilarious) signing of DeAndre Jordan signifies that they’re trying to be competitive now. The Clippers seem to have the same goal. Judging solely off of each team’s offseason activity, it doesn’t seem like there’s a single team in the Western Conference that’s actively trying to tank. In spite of how bleak the season looks for everyone but Golden State, everyone in the west is seriously trying to win games.
It’s the wild, wild west. Get excited, NBA fans.
Follow Joe DeFerrari on Twitter to see everything he writes for both Quibbl and Hardwood Houdini.