Charlie Krumsiek ‘20
The Western Conference is absolutely loaded this year, with six teams that have an argument for being able to bring home an NBA Championship. However, there is a lot of parity, with many contenders this year having super star duos, rather than a few superteams dominating the conference. Here’s how I think the playoffs will look in the West.
1. Utah Jazz: 57-25
The Quin Snyder led Jazz have been either among the best defensive teams in the league for the past three years, and I would expect this trend to continue. They were able to pick up three-point specialists Bojan Bogdonavic and Mike Conley. Their offseason acquisition of Conley was a massive win for them, trading away limited role players like Grayson Allen and protected first rounders. Conley has been quietly one of the best point guards in the league for his entire career and should fit perfectly next to Donovan Mitchell, who has struggled to be the Jazz’s entire offense at times. Mitchell has hit 40% of his catch-and-shoot threes, which is very promising now that he has a playmaking guard next to him to distribute. Conley is also a very capable defender, an incredible leader, and grew his game under the “Grit & Grind” Grizzlies, so he knows how to win in the Jazz’s style: low scoring and very good defense. This is without mentioning their two time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert who, while limited offensively, will likely enjoy a boost from having such an efficient distributor. That trade also allowed them to retain a few other trade assets like Dante Exum if they need to acquire a missing piece for the postseason run.
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 56-26
This team is loaded, a hard playoff out for the Warriors last year and they got much better. They added Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and didn’t lose too much for it. They did gamble their franchise’s future, losing what looks to be a burgeoning star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a ton of future first-round picks, but they were able to retain much of the core that pushed the Kevin Durant-led Warriors to six games and needed a 50 point explosion from Durant to end it. This team looks very dangerous, with enough offensive weapons to outshoot every team and defensive studs to stifle any offense in the league. Both George and Leonard do have injury histories which leads me to believe that head coach Doc Rivers will allow them to manage their own workloads, sitting out a few “load management” games. For a team that is this ready for the postseason, they will be able to see how they play without their two superstars but it will likely cost them the top spot in the conference. However, this team knows that they aren’t playing just for the regular season, they have their sights set on a championship.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: 55-27
The Lakers have been one of the most discussed teams in the league over the past few years, after acquiring LeBron James and most recently pairing him with Anthony Davis. Davis has been discussed as one of the potential usurpers of the King’s throne of “best player in the league” for years and now he has the chance to play next to him. Those two alone make this an easy pick for a home court advantage in the playoffs, and when LeBron is in the playoffs, he can make magic happen. They re-made their entire roster after missing the playoffs last year and added a number of established veterans like Danny Green and Avery Bradley. They do, however, suffer from a lack of reliable ballhandlers and playmakers. It has been reported that LeBron will be playing point guard and his incredible talent at distributing will hopefully fill that void. I do see LeBron taking games off to make sure that he doesn’t suffer another injury like he did last year, which effectively dashed the Lakers’ playoff hopes. They also hired Frank Vogel and Jason Kidd which may cause tension later in the season, but both are effective coaches and know how to win.
4. Denver Nuggets: 54-28
The Nuggets were the two-seed last year and just locked up their young building blocks in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Their strength remains their depth as Jokic is far and away their best player and Murray isn’t quite there as a number two option. They did disappoint in the playoffs last year, going seven games against both the Spurs and the Trailblazers, and not looking great while doing it. This experience will definitely help this very young roster, but they still need to show that their regular season success can translate. They have a chance to be an incredibly fresh team going into the playoffs this year as their depth is among the best in the league, but with the limited star power they possess now, they might need Michael Porter Jr. to become a reliable scorer in order to take them to the next level.
5. Golden State Warriors: 52-30
This ranking would be blasphemous any of the past five years, but the Warriors are not the same team that has been in the Finals each year in the last half-decade. They lost Kevin Durant to the Nets and Klay Thompson to an ACL tear late in the Finals. Reports say that Thompson will be out for most of the season and is targeting a post All-Star break return. They did pick up D’Angelo Russell in the offseason which will take some of the sting from these losses out but they have a much lower ceiling than in previous years. Their experience and talent will bring them to the postseason, but it will likely be the first time in a long time that they haven’t had a home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
6. Houston Rockets: 52-30
The Rockets retooled in a major way after another disappointing postseason, trading for Russell Westbrook. The eight-time All-NBA player and 2015-2016 MVP will be a major boon for this team after their past season was peppered with reports of tension growing between Chris Paul and James Harden. He and Harden played together in Oklahoma City when they were both in their early 20s, and now their complementary play styles will elevate both of them. They have one of the best backcourts in the league and were able to keep most of the team that they brought to the playoffs last year together. This group is talented enough to make a lot of noise in the playoffs, but I could see that there may be some early season growing pains, putting them in an early hole, which in the West can cost you big in the playoff hunt.
7. Portland Trail Blazers: 50-32
The Trail Blazers picked up Hassan Whiteside in a very confusing Jimmy Butler trade earlier this summer, but outside of that, they are going into the season with the same roster that took them to the Western Conference Finals last spring. One of their greatest strengths in years past has been that they have one of the best backcourts outside of Oakland, but now there may be three teams with a better backcourt in just the West. A scary Jusuf Nurkic injury darkened their playoff hopes and with no clear return date for him, Whiteside will hopefully fill the void left by him. Whiteside has had a disappointing career in Miami so far, but this move could be a reinvigoration for him and he needs to take the opportunity as such. The Blazers will be looking to him and some of their young players such as Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Zach Collins to make big steps if they are to succeed in such a talented West this year.
8. Sacramento Kings: 46-36
The Kings – finally – looked impressive last year and with their very young, talented roster, they should be hoping to get to the postseason. They fired their coach and hired former Lakers head coach Luke Walton, who while very talented fell out of favor in LA after a disappointing year with LeBron. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are some of the very best young guards in the league and with the other talent on this roster, they should be playing great basketball this season. Hield quietly had one of the best all time seasons from behind the arc last year and if Fox makes another leap, then they could become contenders. They picked up Trevor Ariza in the offseason and added some strong draft picks in Kyle Guy and Justin James. While they don’t have as much star power as much of the rest of the West, they have a load of cap room and draft assets that they could turn into some players during the season if they were to make a playoff push.