(Not Terribly) Bold predictions for the Western Conference

On the heels off even less bold predictions for the East yesterday, we launch into the West today.

Remember, these rankings and records are for the regular season not the playoffs. However, if there’s time before the games tip off tonight, I’ll try to launch into my deep dive playoff predictions as well.

(15) Memphis Grizzlies

projected record24-58

Memphis fans are excited about their young core, especially the 1-2 punch with rookie PG Ja Morant and PF/C Jaren Jackson Jr. That said, that’s an extremely YOUNG core, with both players still only 20 years old. Typically, that’s a losing formula in the NBA. Morant may struggle with turnovers and his FG%, while JJJ still needs to learn to pick his spots defensively to avoid foul trouble. The future may be bright, but the present could be rocky. I’d project them to win well “under” their over/under of 27 wins.

But let’s stick to some positive here, as we did with Cleveland and Charlotte before them. With Zion Williamson banged up, Ja Morant has a very good chance to win Rookie of the Year.

In fact, I’d project him as a league leader. 

Ja Morant will have the most turnovers in the league, but also finish in the top 3 in total assists. After all, consider the league leaders last year. Russell Westbrook (10.7) should have less responsibility in Houston.

Kyle Lowry (8.7) and Chris Paul (8.2) will likely play less minutes as they age.

Morant’s biggest threat may be Trae Young (8.1 last year.)

Both Young and Morant will have the ball in their hands a ton, and should finish in the 8-9 assist range.

(14) Minnesota Timberwolves

projected record30-52

Ugh. I don’t want to spend much time here. I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. I previously wrote a long entry about how these Minnesota Timberwolves may be sleeping giant with the right offseason moves given the phenomenal talent of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Instead, they had a flop of a summer with hardly any moves of note aside from a trade-up to draft Jarrett Culver, a questionable shooter to go alongside their other questionable shooter in Andrew Wiggins. Meh. No bold prediction here aside to say I won’t be writing much about the team this year unless KAT gets more frustrated than I am and starts grumbling about a trade.

(13) Phoenix Suns

projected record31-51

It may feel like a lifetime ago, but the Phoenix Suns actually had a higher over/under than the Sacramento Kings last year. As the thinking goes: they had the better young big man (Deandre Ayton vs. Marvin Bagley) and the more proven SG scorer in Devin Booker. Eventually, the abundance of young talent would tip over to W-Ls. As it turns out, that happened in Sacramento instead.

I’m not projecting a similar upswing for Monty Williams and Phoenix here, but some modest gains are reasonable. And more than anything, Deandre Ayton should prove that he’s the real deal and much more than “not-Luka Doncic.” In fact, I predict that Deandre Ayton (and Marvin Bagley) crack the 20-10 mark this season. It’s an easier template for Ayton himself after he registered 16.3 PPG and 10.3 REB last year.

With extended minutes (only 30.7 per game last season) and extended responsibility on offense, 20-10 is clearly within his sights. The guy simply has a polished offensive game far beyond his years. I’d even estimate that he can get up to the 24-25 PPG mark as soon as next year, with possibly some All-Star appearances to follow.

(12) New Orleans Pelicans

projected record33-49

Prior to the news about Zion Williams’ extended absence (projected 6-8 weeks), the New Orleans Pelicans felt like a sleeper playoff pick. This is a talented team. In fact, it almost feels like TWO talented teams, squashed together. There’s the young rebuilding team (Zion, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Nickel Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes) and the solid veteran team (Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick, E’Twaun Moore, Derrick Favors.)

If coach Alvin Gentry and assistant Chris Finch could have found the right mix, this team may have won 40+ games. However, that appears a tall task now that Williamson will be out for a while. To take it a step further, I’m going to project that the Pelicans have serious internal debates about not playing Zion Williamson at all this season. That may sound like a wild panic move, but it’s not really. After all, you don’t want to mess with the health of your franchise player.

Moreover, this team may start slow (say 15-25) and put the playoffs out of the window anyway. And while we’re not supposed to factor these things in, shelving Williamson would keep him eligible for Rookie of the Year honors next season (a la Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons before him.)

(11) Oklahoma City Thunder

projected record35-47

After trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Sam Presti and the Thunder organization were supposed to embrace a full-on tank. While their boatload of R1 picks is a nice start, those mid-to-late R1 picks tend to be the most overrated assets in the NBA. To launch a true superpower, you need super talent at the top of the draft. Given that, it makes sense for OKC to trade away their veterans and plummet all the way down to the bottom 5.

But the clock is ticking and ticking and nearly run out.

And here the Thunder are, with Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams still on the roster. This team is simply too good to lose 50+ games right now. In fact, I predict that the Thunder are above .500 over the first 40 games of the season. The “Ewing Theory” potential is off the charts. There’s a real chance the Thunder follow the “rebuilding” Clippers template from last year and win 45 games despite themselves. However, the reason I said .500 for the first 40 games is because I’m not 100% sold on Chris Paul’s durability or his interest in staying there for the long haul. Gallo is also injury prone. If they go down, the team may sag, and the fire sale may begin.

(10) Dallas Mavericks

projected record39-43

The Dallas Mavericks are another trendy pick to make the playoffs. And there are some good reasons for that. While they only won 33 games last season, their expected W-L record was actually closer to a 38-44 team. If you add a healthy Kristaps Porzingis into that mix (along with solid additions like Delon Wright and Seth Curry), it’s easy to imagine 43-44 wins.

That said, higher expectations usually come at a cost. If the team does not make a “leap,” it may be seen as a disappointment. And if that happens, some heat may come the way of Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle is clearly a great coach, but it’s debatable whether he’s the right coach for Doncic and Porzingis and company. These aren’t your standard Spurs-Euros who are happy to be good soldiers; they’re younger, hipper, and potentially more difficult to manage.

And if Mark Cuban feels like there’s a generational divide here, he has to side with the players over the coach. Sadly, I’m predicting that this will be Rick Carlisle’s last season in Dallas.

(9) Sacramento Kings

projected record40-42

While advanced stats suggest that the Dallas Mavericks were actually better than their record last year, the Sacramento Kings were arguably worse. In fact, their point differential (-1.1) was nearly identical to Dallas (-1.2) despite a big difference in the standings. And that, despite some hot shooting that may regress.

Buddy Hield is a good bet to stay above 40% from three, but I wouldn’t count on a repeat performance of that from Harrison Barnes (40.8% for the Kings) or Nemanja Bjelica (40.1%).

While I do think the Kings will stagnate in the W-L column this season, their future is still bright as hell.

I’m a big Marvin Bagley III fan, partly because I believe that he’s capable of sliding over to the 5 and unlocking a potentially devastating offensive lineup (De’Aaron Fox, Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Barnes, Bagley.) However, if Vlade Divac and Luke Walton don’t share the same fanciful vision that I do, then you’d have to expect the Kings to trade Bogdan Bogdanovic this season. Bogdanovic should get $15M+ on the open market, and that’s hard to justify for a player that you don’t see in the starting lineup. If the Kings get off to a slower-than-expected start, a deal like that may happen sooner than later.

(8) San Antonio Spurs

projected record44-38

Prior to Kawhi Leonard’s infamous Zaza injury, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs were on an incredible run where they won 50+ games for 18 straight seasons. Over the last two years, they’ve “only” won 47 and 48 games respectively. Can they get back to that 50 win mark?

Maybe.

Getting Dejounte Murray back should help the Spurs’ defense, which surprisingly sagged down to # 15 last season. Still, I’m not sure that Murray changes their ceiling at the end of the day. This team looks ticketed for 45-ish wins and a R1 exit.

For most franchises and most coaches, that’s a fine place to be. But is that enough for Popovich? Now at 70 years old? Will he keep the eye of the tiger for much longer?

He recently signed a 3-year contract extension, but Adrian Wojnarowski also gave the caveat that he’ll still take his future on a “year-to-year basis.” Exiting after this season and after the 2020 Olympics in London feels like a fitting send-off for Pop.

Much speculation has been made about his eventual replacement, whenever that may be. Assistant Becky Hammon would certainly be the biggest storyline, but my money is on Will Hardy getting named as the eventual replacement for Pop. This is obviously total speculation, but it makes sense in my head. Hardy is barely 30, but he’s a bright rising star who could potentially take the reins for the next 20+ years himself in an ideal world.

The fact that top assistants (and potential rivals) Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina left for other jobs adds more fuel to that conspiracy theory fire. And since we’re just speculating wildly, let’s give an even wilder theory.

My podcast co-host Tyler Laurie predicted that the Spurs 2020-21 coach will be Brett Brown (after an exit from Philly.)

(7) Portland Trail Blazers

projected record47-35

Once a team gets within sniffing distance of the Finals, it’s hard to go back to the end of the line again. With their boogeyman Golden State depleted, Portland should at least feel like they have a puncher’s chance of winning the title. After all, they beat everybody’s darling Denver Nuggets in the playoffs last year.

While this team is very good, “greatness” may still be one piece away. Specifically, the PF spot. Zach Collins can give them some minutes, but he’s more likely a backup PF/C at this stage. Anthony Tolliver is underrated, but he’s 34 years old.

This team may need a more dynamic presence at the 4, and they may need to take a wild swing to make it happen. Danilo Gallinari (on a 1 year deal) is a dream option, but even if they can’t make that happen, I can see Portland gambling on a Kevin Love trade. Love’s contract is scary, but he makes a lot of basketball sense as someone who can rotate between PF and C and add a third scorer to the mix. Is it risky? Sure. But Damian Lillard is 29 years old right now, so there’s some sense logic to take your swing while you still can.

(6) Los Angeles Lakers

projected record 48-34

Remember L.A. fans, this is a prediction for the regular season records, not the best teams overall. The Lakers and Clippers will absolutely be title contenders (and I may pick one of the two to win it all), but I’m less bullish on their ability to rack up wins in the regular season for different reasons.

For the Lakers, there’s a concern about the various new pieces and how well they’ll fit together. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be too hard. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are top 5 talents. If you put solid 3+D wings around them, they can absolutely win the title. Danny Green can absolutely fulfill that role. Avery Bradley should do a decent job (provided he guards PGs.)

After that?

It’s hard to say.

The most notable name is Kyle Kuzma, but I’m less sold on his ability to fill that 3+D function. His defense is shaky, and his 3-point shooting is as well (30.3% last year, 33.5% career.) In theory, Kuzma would fulfill a nice role as a complementary scorer, but if the Lakers stagger LeBron and AD’s minutes, that virtue becomes less important as well. In fact, I’m going to say that Kyle Kuzma becomes the scapegoat for a lethargic start and gets traded for a veteran. Despite what he may say to the press, patience is not LeBron James’ strong suit.

(5) Los Angeles Clippers

projected record51-31

The mere fact that I’m predicting the title favorite Clippers to only win 51 games (barely more than their 48 last year) qualifies as bold enough, thank you.

So what’s with the skepticism/ridiculousness? A few reasons. The Clippers are loaded this year, but I don’t anticipate them unlocking all those bullets in the regular season. Doc Rivers can afford to give Paul George an extended rehab, and he can afford to manage Kawhi Leonard’s game load. I imagine Leonard will play more than the 60 he did last year for Toronto, but not too many more than 70. Remember, this is a player who’s only averaged 62 games / 82 over the course of his career. Getting Leonard and George to the playoffs at 100% will be the most important goal this regular season. As long as they do that, the team should be happy.

(4) Golden State Warriors

projected record52-30

52 wins and the # 4 seed may be too ambitious for this limited roster, but I need an ambitious record to justify my prediction here.

That is: Stephen Curry wins MVP (again).

Consider this: the last time we saw peak Steph Curry (prior to Kevin Durant), he scored 30.1 points per game and launched 11.2 threes per game (making 45.4%). I wouldn’t necessarily say that Curry took a backseat to Durant over the last three years, but he at least took turns driving the bus.

With KD gone and Klay Thompson injured, Curry will be getting all the work that he can handle. If Curry ups his three-point bombs in the same fashion that James Harden has done in the last few years (remember, going from 8.0 to 13.2) then what will that look like? Will Curry launch 14-15 threes a game? If he does, the records and MVP buzz will surely follow. Game to game and shot to shot, he can be even more of a cheat code than James Harden himself.

That said, the most underrated element of James Harden’s game is his durability; the dude is a steel robot who can play 35 minutes a game for 80 games a year. Can Steph Curry do the same? At this stage of his career? TBD. That’s the biggest hurdle that Curry will need to overcome to win MVP again, now at age 31. If he misses time, this season and this prediction could get ugly.

(3) Denver Nuggets

projected record53-29

Veteran teams like the L.A. Lakers and L.A. Clippers usually coast through the regular season, figuring that they can turn on the gas in the playoffs. That’s usually less true of young teams, who tend to go pedal to the medal (see: Milwaukee last season.)

The Denver Nuggets have the luxury of making that type of effort, given all their young legs and all their depth.

Given that, I’m expecting the, to push themselves in an effort to grab the # 1 seed, although I expect them to fall a little short of that goal.

However, the Nuggets should achieve some unique feats in the process. Among them, I’m predicting the Nuggets will have the most balanced scoring in the NBA, with EIGHT players averaging 10+ points. 

It’s not as wild as it sounds.

The Nuggets actually had 7 players achieve that mark last year, although PG Monte Morris barely made the cut with (10.4). Even if Morris slips under 10, we still may get up to 8. New addition Jerami Grant averaged 13.6 PPG for OKC last year, although his minutes should dip from 32.7 closer to the 25 range.

Conversely, 25 minutes a night would be more than enough than Michael Porter Jr. would need to hit 10 PPG. He’s such a natural scorer that he could go for 10+ PPG in 20 minutes in a reserve role.

(2) Houston Rockets

projected record56-26

The fact that the Houston Rockets get so little hype (compared to the L.A. teams) as a title contender is odd to me. After all, they have the most dominant offensive force in the game in James Harden (on a 3-year stretch where he’s averaged 31.8 points and 9.2 assists a game.) And while their supporting cast isn’t perfect, it’s been good enough to average 57.7 wins in the regular season over those three years.

Why shouldn’t they be expected to win 55+ again?

I suppose some of the concern comes from Russell Westbrook and a perceived poor fit next to Harden. And to be honest, I’m as big of a Westbrook “hater” as anyone.

That said, I recognize his talents.

Among them: incredible effort and drive to succeed night in and night out. In fact, Westbrook has averaged 900 more minutes than Chris Paul over the past 3 regular season (average, not total.) That alone should buy James Harden a lot of rest. Although with that may come a decline in raw stats. To that end, I’m expecting James Harden to score 400 less points than last year. His scoring should sink down from 36.1 to the 31-32 range, partly due to reduced usage and partly due to increased rest. Harden may be an iron horse capable of playing 36 minutes a night, but hopefully he doesn’t need to do that anymore.

(1) Utah Jazz

projected record57-25

Again, our bold prediction ties into the record, as Utah will grab the # 1 seed in the West.

How? Shooting. Spacing. Finally.

Ricky Rubio: out

Mike Conley: in

Derrick Favors: out

Bojan Bogdanovic: in

It’s hard to under-sell how major of an impact that may have on their offense this season. If you combine their averages, Rubio + Favors hit 1.4 of 4.7 threes per game last year (29.8%). Conley + Bogdanovic combined to average 4.2 of 10.9 (38.5%). Not only will those long bombers score on their own, but they should also create more space for Donovan Mitchell to work with inside.

If the Jazz can improve their offense (ranked 15th and 16th these last two seasons) closer to the top 10, Rudy Gobert and their defense should be able to do the rest. They’ve ranked in the top 3 in defense each of the last three years. The Jazz check all the boxes of a team that should roll through the regular season; they don’t have many holes at all.

— u/ZandrickEllison

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