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Sunday, October 08, 2017

2017-18 Western Conference Preview

It did not take much of an adjustment period for the Golden State Warriors to remain dominant after they acquired Kevin Durant last summer; the Warriors rolled to a league-best 67-15 regular season record and then went 16-1 in the playoffs to capture their second championship in three years. Durant was sensational during the postseason and he outdueled LeBron James to win the Finals MVP. During the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field, joining Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the short list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals.

The Warriors' tremendous combination of talent, depth and chemistry has the rest of the league scrambling to keep up. Several teams made huge, potentially risky moves to try to at least come close to matching the Warriors' star power. The Houston Rockets traded a lot of depth to acquire perennial All-Star Chris Paul, while the Oklahoma City Thunder gave up minimal assets to land both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The young Minnesota Timberwolves added veteran savvy and a two-way skill set by bringing Jimmy Butler into the fold. 

The San Antonio Spurs largely stood pat and it has become something of an annual ritual to write them off but somehow every year they manage to win at least 50 games and assert themselves as a legit championship contender.

Russell Westbrook's historic season-long triple double performance earned him his first regular season MVP and propelled the talent-thin Thunder into the Western Conference playoffs. George may still bolt for L.A. after one season and it remains to be seen how much Anthony has left in the tank but if George and Anthony are willing to accept their roles then the Thunder could be a very dangerous team.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has long been something of a point guard whisperer but it will be interesting to see how he tries to keep James Harden and Chris Paul happy, as both players like to monopolize the ball.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors looked like a potential dynasty in the making before they acquired Kevin Durant. With Durant in the mix, the Warriors often look unbeatable. They struggled briefly during the regular season when Durant went down with a knee injury but ultimately they went 16-4 when he was out of the lineup. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP caliber players who are both in their primes--and the Warriors are blessed to have not only Durant and two-time MVP Stephen Curry but also All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus a solid cast of role players, including 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (a former All-Star).

Barring significant injuries, there is no legitimate reason to pick against the Warriors to again win the West and to win their third title in four years.

2) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs had the Warriors on the ropes in game one of last season's Western Conference Finals but after Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury the Warriors cruised to a sweep. The Spurs proved that there is a game plan that can be effective versus the Warriors but even if the Spurs had won game one it is far from certain that they would have been able to successfully execute that game plan three more times; beating the Warriors is kind of like destroying the Death Star: it is theoretically possible but it requires a precise, focused plan targeting a very hard to access weakness.

Leonard appears to be completely recovered from the ankle injury but the Spurs are holding him out of preseason play due to a recurring right quadriceps injury. Leonard's health is obviously critical for the Spurs. If everything breaks right for the Spurs and if the Warriors are slightly off of their game then the Spurs could win the West but the most likely scenario is that the Spurs' season will again end in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook proved that he could be an All-NBA performer for a perennial championship contender. Then, after Kevin Durant fled Oklahoma City to join the Golden State dynasty, Westbrook proved that he could perform at a historically great level while carrying a bad team to a playoff berth. The next question, as his ever vocal critics are quick to point out, is whether Westbrook can successfully function as the number one option while flanked by two All-Stars. Paul George is an excellent two-way player who seems best suited to being the second best player on a contending team. The question is not whether Westbrook can play with George--Westbrook functioned quite well alongside a much better player (Durant)--but rather whether George can accept his role and flourish within it. Similarly, the onus is not on Westbrook to blend in with Carmelo Anthony but rather on Anthony to accept being the third option offensively while putting forth at least some effort defensively.

The Thunder now have enough offensive firepower to battle on even terms with any team. The key questions will revolve around defense and chemistry--and that is why I cannot rank this squad higher than third in the West.

4) Houston Rockets: James Harden is an All-Star whose skill set and leadership style are not well-suited for him to be the best player on a championship contender. Chris Paul has long been lauded as one of the league's best leaders and fiercest competitors. Unlike Harden, Paul plays hard at both ends of the court--but, at some point, the praise for Paul rings hollow when he repeatedly proves that he is unable to lead talented teams past the second round of the playoffs.

Both Harden and Paul are used to dominating the ball on offense, so that dynamic will be very interesting to watch. Paul is known for barking at his teammates and Harden is known for pouting when he is criticized, so that is another dynamic that bears watching.

The Rockets are going to score a ton of points. On some nights, they are going to look unbeatable--but, ultimately, they are basing their hopes on two stars who are just not suited to being the best player on a championship team. The Rockets will not make it past the second round of the playoffs--and could possibly fall in the first round, depending on matchups.

5) Minnesota Timberwolves: Adding veteran two-way All-Star Jimmy Butler is a move that should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings. Chalk up at least another 8-10 wins based on the continued improvement of the team's young core players and this is a team that could threaten to obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Veteran NBA coach Hank Egan once told me that it takes "deep into your second year" before a team fully absorbs the defensive principles of a new coaching staff. Tom Thibodeau is one of the premier defensive coaches in the league and Minnesota figures to make a significant improvement defensively during his second season at the helm.

6) Denver Nuggets: The acquisition of veteran All-Star Paul Millsap solidifies the rotation and should be enough to push this young team on the rise to a secure spot in the West's top eight. Millsap is a perfect complement for Nikola Jokic, who emerged as a star in his second season. The Nuggets likely do not have enough depth or experience to advance past the first round but the franchise is headed in the right direction.

7) L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul never managed to lead the talent-laden Clippers past the second round of the playoffs, so now the franchise is clearly built around Blake Griffin--who was, in fact, always the team's best player, even though Paul has a stronger and more vocal personality. The Clippers are not a championship contender but they never really were one even with Paul in the fold. Assuming that Griffin avoids injuries--the one factor that has been his biggest downfall--the Clippers still have enough talent to make the playoffs.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: Now that Anthony Davis will have the opportunity to play a full season with DeMarcus Cousins plus new addition Rajon Rondo, it will be interesting to see if he is truly a superstar in the making (as many observers believe) or if he is what TNT's Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot" (a player who can put up great individual numbers for a mediocre or bad team but who is not able to lift a team to playoff contention). The Pelicans' roster has some chemistry questions and skill set limitations but there is enough talent here to at least grab the final playoff spot and it should be considered a disappointment if this team again fails to qualify for postseason play.

There are some solid teams in the West that just do not have quite enough to qualify for the playoffs in the league's top conference. The Portland Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum managed to sneak into the playoffs last season but this season I think that rising teams such as Minnesota and Denver will push Portland just out of the postseason mix.

Lack of shooting has been a problem for Memphis for several years. They barely made the playoffs the past two seasons, only to lose in the first round both times. The departure of Zach Randolph indicates that the team is shifting from the "grindhouse" style to a more uptempo philosophy but this is a flawed and declining team that is no longer among the West's eight best teams.

Before the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz looked like a team on the rise but now they are a team that will struggle to stay in the playoff race.

The rest of the West is in bad shape. 

Mark Cuban bet nearly $100 million that Harrison Barnes could become a superstar. Barnes had a solid first year in Dallas but he will not be leading this team to the playoffs any time soon.

Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players during his farewell tour in 2015-16 but Magic Johnson's moves make it very clear that he understands what should have been apparent all along: the Lakers have yet to acquire a legit star and the players that Bryant supposedly held back are role players at best. Without Bryant in 2016-17, the Lakers were still terrible, so Magic Johnson hit the reset button and got rid of D'Angelo Russell, one of the players whose development Bryant had supposedly been stifling. The Lakers have some decent young players but it does not appear that they have any future All-Stars on the roster, unless rookie Lonzo Ball's play eventually equals all of the hype that has been generated about him--and the answer to that will not be clear until he plays real games, not just summer league and preseason contests. 

Phoenix and Sacramento are two rudderless franchises that need significant changes before they will qualify for the playoffs again.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2017 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2017 Total: 77/96 (.802)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 PM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Monday, October 09, 2017 11:51:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I mostly agree. I think you're a little more optimistic on New Orleans than I am, but I hope you're right as I like their stars (Boogie headaches aside) and their coach and want them to do well.

I also think OKC has no excuses. If RWB is a true "top 5" guy, having a viable top 15 #2 (George) and a third star (Anthony) plus a couple gifted two-way frontcourt starters (Adams and Patterson), they should be better than everyone but GSW, even despite their thin bench.

I don't think they will be. I'll be shocked if those three stars get along given their very different work ethics (Russ is incredibly intense generally (but gives no shits on D), Paul George is 80% intense on both ends but deflects responsibility and seems to think he's better than he is, and Melo might as well wheel a recliner onto the court on defense). I think it'll be difficult to survive defensively in the West unless RWB and/or Melo play at a higher level than we've ever seen from them before (I like RWB's chances here better than Melo's, but I don't like either of their chances). I don't think Melo's brand of offense makes sense in the modern NBA, and I don't like the shot selection of any of their three stars.

I think Houston has tire-fire potential as well. Look for a strong first half of the season, and then diminishing returns.

Utah's got sneaky playoff potential because they still play defense and may have a chip on their shoulder.

Minnesota may not gel, and I'm not sure Teague/Wiggins/Butler make sense on the court together.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 11:46:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I think Blazers tend to play better than their roster suggests and Pelicans the other way around. It will be interesting if this trend continues.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 3:39:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Great write up David. Been looking forward to this for several weeks. Here's a few of my thoughts.

After the Warriors (whose bench unit with one of their all-stars, could push for a playoff spot in the East), the rest of the western conference teams have major questions/concerns.

San Antonio has been a rock of consistency under Popovich, but this current iteration is a team built on Kawhi flanked by a collection of proven, but old/aging/past-their-prime players and young, inexperienced, but potentially talented players. Bertans, Murray, and Anderson especially could break out this year and surprise some people. I like you trust in Pop. Five years ago, Pop said Kawhi was going to be one of the best players in the league. Most pundits ignored that and wrote Kawhi off. Pop was right of course. Still…relying on Lamarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay must make Spurs fans queasy. That Gasol contract probably makes em sick.

As Nick pointed out, on paper and based on history, attitude, and skillsets, the Thunder appear to have very real chemistry problems with their big three. That said, all three of them have something to prove. Westbrook is very close to Kobe Bryant in terms of attitude and play style. It’s tough for me to bet against him finding a way to the Western Conference Finals (at least).

The potential tire fire in Houston doesn’t have to do with Harden/Paul (though, in terms of mentality, they are polar opposites). In my opinion, it revolves around health. Last year, the Rockets enjoyed surprisingly good health. Yet, look up and down the roster and many of their key cogs are no strangers to the Inactive list. Paul is 31 years old, and outside of the 82 he played 3 seasons ago, he’s averaged only 65 games over the 5 years sandwiching that season (taking a huge huge huge risk by not signing the 5-year extension w/the Clips. The history of 30+ year old players 6 feet and under falling off a cliff right around 31-32 is long). Injury-prone luminaries like Anderson, Gordon, and Nene (who is 35) are being counted on as key contributors. I also am dubious that the Rockets are “deep” (though D’Antoni’s system can make mediocre players look a lot better as can Paul/Harden). One other wrinkle, if the NBA truly does crack down on the Harden 3-point foul flail and offensive players initiating contact, then Harden is no longer an MVP-caliber player (it's been debated ad nauseam on this here blog whether he was one regardless). Of course, the NBA has said it was going to enforce rules more harshly before…so I’m not holding my breath. Thought it was worth mentioning as Harden will probably be flying sans Paul for 15ish games.

I am not high on Minnesota. I think their route to being elite is via defense, yet defense is what takes teams the longest to develop. Too many new pieces. Too many ball dominate players. Not enough 3-point shooting. A new alpha coming into a situation where two 20-somethings believe they are alphas (jury is out on both of them). Trying to break down this roster to its absolute ideal outcome…is something I can’t do. Wiggins becomes an elite catch-and-shoot marksman? Butler plays 80 percent of games off-ball and can take over in crunch time? Do they work inside out? Outside in? I can’t see what this team will be on offense. I can’t even define their offensive potential. Teague is a strange fit. I actually think an injury to either Wiggins or Butler may improve the chemistry. My guess is they struggle to make the playoffs. I think there is a real possibility they miss the playoffs all together.

I like the Nuggets. The roster fits together well. I agree with your assessment.

Pt. 1/2

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 3:54:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Pt. 2/2

I like the makeup of the "new" Clippers and have always agreed with your assessment that in order for them to become a championship caliber team, the best player would have to be Blake (while a Point God, CP3's religion hasn't worked in the playoffs). If this team can enjoy the health that Houston enjoyed last year, I think they can push their way into the top 5 in the West (especially if Blake’s 3-ball is real). Team has more depth this year, has shooting, has athletes, and has players willing to give up the rock to get the ball flowing. That said, injuries are a major, major concern (Beverley, Gallinari, Blake).

I don’t think the Boogie / Brow partnership will work. Too many variables have to go right for this team to be successful. Health. Figuring out spacing (AD’s 3-point shot). Keeping Boogie and Rondo issueless. Lack of NBA talent depth. Defense…

The Jazz are deep and elite defensively. It may take some time to integrate Rubio and truly take advantage of his unique skillset, but I don’t see their loss of Gordon Hayward as fatal at all. At least not when it comes to the regular season. The potential loss of Exum hurts like hell, but they’ll have Alec Burks back healthy; a healthy motivated Favors; and a conscienceless Hood. I think they are in and the Pelicans are out.

If the situation in Minny unfolds like I think, or if the Clips/Rockets run into injuries, here are the other teams that could sneak into the playoffs:

I think this is the year Damian Lillard makes the all-star team (yes…in this stacked West. Consider that he’s the only all-star talented guard out west that doesn’t play with another top 25 player). Defense remains a looming issue. But, I think Portland gets back into the playoffs.

Like the Pels, everything has to go right for the Grizzlies including the miracle recovery and sustained health of Chandler Parsons, a fully healthy Gasol/Conley, development from their youth, and a continuation of winning close games. Is all that likely? No. But possible? Yes.

There is a pipe dream scenario where the Lakers (who are surprisingly deep and versatile, though extremely young) make a miracle run at the playoffs. I give this a .001% chance of actually happening since their defense is atrocious.

The same could be said for the Kings, who I disagree with you that the franchise is still rudderless. The overall organization might, but Divac has done a good job of building a roster. There is legitimate young talent (Hield, Fox, Labissiere), and each of the veterans (Hill/Carter/Randolph) acquired this offseason are ideal tutors for that young talent. ZBo at least has shown POTential in that regard. I'm a believer in Fox and Labissiere.

Those two unlikely cases being made, the Lakers, Kings, Mavs and Suns are realistically a year or more away from the playoffs.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I probably am a bit more optimistic about NO than most and I could very well be wrong but I don't buy the idea that it is not possible in the "modern" NBA to build around two talented big guys.

If the Thunder fall short, it will not be because of Westbrook. The onus is on PG and Melo to prove that they can accept and fill appropriate roles (as opposed to aspiring to the number one spot, which clearly belongs to Westbrook on this team).

Houston is overrated by most and will flop in the playoffs, regardless of what the Rockets do in the regular season. Harden and Paul have a long track record in that regard.

I may be underestimating Utah. The West is very interesting. I think that my predictions are logical but that does not mean that I will turn out to be right about everything.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 6:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

You have a good point about Portland and NO. I may turn out to be wrong about those two teams.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 6:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

You make good points about other issues with the Rockets but the main issue is that the top two guys are second or third options who both think that they should be the number one option. If games are late and close in the playoffs, look for Harden to hide (paradoxically, despite wanting to be the number one option he also often hides in the playoffs) and look for Paul to take (and usually miss) the big shot. If Houston were a stock, I'd be selling big-time now.

We agree that defense is the key for Minnesota. I believe that in the second year under Thibodeau, there will be more buy-in and that the Butler acquisition will be huge at that end of the court.

I agree that the Hayward loss may not hurt as much as some people think--for the reasons you listed--but I still don't see Utah quite making the cut, though they will be pushing for a playoff spot right up until the end in my estimation.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 6:39:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I agree with you that it's possible to play with two big guys (and that may actually be the "answer" to teams like the Warriors if perfectly deployed), and play well... but i don't think the rest of NO's roster is set up to accomplish that. I've never been a Jrue Holiday believer and I think they're too thin at the wing positions.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2017 6:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand your reasons for doubting NO and you may be right. My comment about two bigs was directed toward "conventional wisdom" about the "modern" NBA, as opposed to being a response to anything specific that you wrote.

 

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