How will the Western Conference Shape Out
In 2017-18, the third and eigth-ranked teams in the NBA’s Western Conference were separated by a mere 2 games, with another game separating the No. 9 team from the playoffs. Even more so than last season, the West is shaping up to be a veritable battle royale, with nearly every team slugging it out for playoff position. How will it all turn out? With the conference’s immense depth, a few solid teams are bound to miss the postseason. Let’s take a look at who might be in, and who will be taking an early vacation:
(A side note: For the purposes of this article, Golden State and Houston will be locked into the top 2 spots, as they are a clear step above the rest of the conference. Meanwhile, the Clippers, Suns, Kings, Grizzlies and Mavericks will all be on the outside looking in. Though these teams all contain either intriguing young talent or solid veterans, the West is just too strong this year. Better luck next time.)
Oklahoma City Thunder
Where to start with OKC? Last year, the much-hyped acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony only brought a 1-win increase over the previous season, as the Thunder took a while to hit their stride, and ultimately bowed out in the 1st round.
Now, Anthony is gone, and the team will miss his scoring that helped take pressure off of George and Russell Westbrook. However, Melo never seemed fully comfortable with being relegated to a third option and playing off the ball. His departure could prove to be addition by subtraction.
Meanwhile, a healthy Andre Roberson should boost a defence that already ranked 9th in the league, and if Patrick Patterson can recapture his Toronto form, he will provided the floor spacing that the team needs.
Ultimately, Westbrook and George’s chemistry should improve in Year 2, with the star duo bringing the Thunder into the postseason.
The Nuggets have been the odd man out in the Western Conference playoff picture the past 2 seasons, despite win totals of 40 and 46, respectively. However, the team seems primed for a breakthrough in 2018-19.
Only 23, Nikola Jokic is a bonafide star. One of the best passing big men the game has ever seen, the Serbian center became more aggressive as the season went on, with his usage percentage (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor) rising from 21% in the first 2 months of the season to 25% after the all-star break. His team’s play saw a similar spike, going from slightly-over .500 to a late-season 6-game win streak that brought them within an overtime loss of a tie for 8th in the conference.
If Jokic can continue to take matters into his own hands, Denver will be a threat.
The wild card that could heavily affect Denver’s season is Isaiah Thomas. Sure to have a chip on his shoulder after losing out on a big contract, Thomas, if he can return to something resembling what he was in Boston, could be the scorer that puts the Nuggets over the top. However, his lackluster play on the other side of the court won’t help matters for an already weak defence (25th-ranked). Still, with Isaiah, you take the positive with the negative (depending on how good the positive really is).
For Denver, the last 2 season have been close but no cigar. It says here that this will be the year the Nuggets finally return to the playoffs.
For Utah, last year was a tale of 2 seasons. Through 47 games, their record stood at an unimpressive 19-28. They proceeded to win 21 of their next 23 games, and buoyed by the return of Rudy Gobert, as well as the electrifying breakout of rookie Donovan Mitchell, they went 29-6 the rest of the way.
In the playoffs, Utah proved their turnaround was no mere hot streak, shutting down the Thunder in a 6-game first round victory. While they might not scale the heights of last year’s 2nd half, the Jazz should do just fine. With a full season of Gobert, the team’s 2nd ranked defence could be even better, while Mitchell should only improve in his sophomore season.
Utah will likely survive the war that will be the Western Conference. Their defence is too stingy too suggest otherwise.
Question marks abound in Minnesota. Reports have swirled around Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, with rumours that both are unhappy with the team. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins often struggled in his first season as the third option in Minnesota, and has yet to come close to justifying his hefty contract. Could a team with so much promise be breaking up before they really get started?
The T-Wolves are undeniably talented. Butler is one of the NBA’s elite two-way players, while Towns, only 22, already has career averages of 22 and 11. Meanwhile, veterans like Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are always solid, while Tyus Jones is a quality backup at the point guard spot. It is unclear how much Derrick Rose can offer in 2018 though.
Despite being coached by a noted defensive whiz in Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota still had the league’s 27th-ranked defence last season. Despite clear issues on the less-glamourous side of the court, the T-Wolves should manage to reach the playoffs. With their new faces having had a season to gel, they are too talented to miss out, assuming none of their stars get traded.
Los Angeles Lakers
Now we come to the big one. In case you haven’t heard, LeBron James is now a Laker. However, despite many expecting another star to be drawn to L.A. by James’ presence, the best that the Lakers have done so far are Michael Beasley and Rajon Rondo. Add in former LeBron nemesis Lance Stephenson and Javale McGee, and you have quite the cast of characters in Hollywood.
The Lakers’ season will be nothing if not entertaining. Still, they team does possess a wealth of young talent, which management thought highly enough of to decline parting with in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. At least one of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, none of whom are over 23, figure to take a decent step forward, providing some help for LeBron.
The Lakers could have trouble with floor spacing, as none of the new additions is known as much of a 3-point shooter. Meanwhile, the Lavar Ball circus doesn’t appear to be leaving town anytime soon. Still, this team now has the man who is probably still the best player in the NBA. Despite L.A.’s weaknesses, I can’t bring myself to bet against LeBron James when it comes to making the playoffs.
LeBron will lead the Lakers to the postseason, but it will be a tough road there, unless they bring in another star-level player.
Portland Trail Blazers
Despite the fact that they seem to be under the radar these days, the Blazers won 49 games last year. They bring back a similar team this season, with the underrated Ed Davis gone, while Seth Curry replaces Shabazz Napier.
Most importantly, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum return. So too, do Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu, crucial members of a defence that ranked 8th, despite the less-than-stellar defensive reputations of their star backcourt.
Portland is a definite step below the elite of the West (as are the other teams discussed here). However, they are a solid team which should be in the mix come playoff time, provided they stay healthy.
Who Misses Out?
“Provided they stay healthy” is the key here.
Though Davis is an elite player who could challenge for MVP this year, this Western Conference race is a game of inches. With so little margin for failure, a few missed games could sink a season.
This is where the Pelicans could fail. Though both were healthy last season, Davis and Holiday have both been injury-prone throughout their careers. From 2012 to 2016, Davis played an average of 65 games per season, while before last year, Holiday played 67, 65, 40 and 34 games, going back to 2013. Compared to the largely-healthy Blazers duo of Lillard and McCollum, New Orleans’ injury history makes them far from a sure thing.
If healthy, the Pelicans should be fine. However, that is a big “if”. Portland’s injuries (or lack thereof) represent more of a safe bet, even if a head-to-head matchup could be different, as we saw in the playoffs.
What about San Antonio? Could the Spurs really miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997? In today’s Western Conference, they just might.
However, it remains to be seen if DeRozan can coexist with LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end. Both largely eschew the 3-point shot, relying instead on the midrange game. With two ball-dominant midrange scorers, spacing could be negatively affected, causing points hard to come by.
So there you have it. The Thunder, Nuggets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Lakers and Blazers will occupy the 3-8 seeds in the West, though not necessarily in that order, while the Spurs and Pelicans will come up short. Of course, DeRozan and Aldridge could grind out 47 wins (though that might not be enough), while it seems foolish to bet against a Gregg Popovich-coached team. The Pelicans could stay healthy. This article could look ridiculous by April.
Such is the nature of the Western Conference.