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Thursday, October 03, 2019

2019-20 Western Conference Preview

The Golden State dynasty is over after the Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn in free agency, and lost Klay Thompson for most, if not all, of the 2019-20 season due to a knee injury. While the Western Conference is more wide open than it has been for quite some time, there is still a clear separation between the contenders and the pretenders; what has narrowed is the yawning gap that used to separate the (healthy) Warriors from everyone else.

Kawhi Leonard took his talents from Toronto to the L.A. Clippers, and he persuaded the Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George to join him. The Clippers won 48 games last season despite injuries to key players, the midseason trade of leading scorer Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. and not having a single All-Star on the roster. Now, the Clippers have added arguably the league's best two-way player, plus a perennial All-Star. This is a team that could win 60-plus regular season games and must be considered the preseason favorite to win the NBA championship. Doc Rivers has already won a championship while coaching the 2008 Boston Celtics and he has proven his chops with multiple franchises.

Two other Western Conference contenders made headline-grabbing moves.

The L.A. Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, after months of maneuvering and shenanigans. It remains to be seen if LeBron James can stay healthy as he ages, if the often injury prone Davis can stay healthy, and if the Lakers possess the necessary mentality and focus to win a championship.

The Houston Rockets acquired 2017 regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, who has an ongoing record-setting streak of three straight seasons averaging a triple double. Westbrook is also the only player in NBA history who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018, 2019). The Rockets now have a player who is good enough to relegate James Harden to being an off of the ball second option; unfortunately for Houston fans, Daryl Morey thinks that Harden is a better offensive player than Michael Jordan, and if the Rockets base their game plan on that concept then they will not win a title.

The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are two other teams that will battle the three teams listed above for a top four seed and home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.

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) L.A. Clippers: Kawhi Leonard does not produce flashy highlights or headline-worthy soundbites. He just makes winning plays at both ends of the court. Leonard won the 2014 Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat's "Big Three" and last year he won the 2019 Finals MVP after leading the Raptors to their first championship by beating the two-time defending champion Warriors. Leonard is a dynasty killer; in between killing the dynasties built by the Heat and the Warriors, he killed the Spurs by forcing his way out of San Antonio. Leonard dictated to the Clippers that he would only come to L.A. if he could play with Paul George, and the Clippers delivered. Offseason surgeries to both shoulders will keep George out of action until at least November, but with Leonard leading the way the Clippers should be able to start the season on a strong note before hitting their full stride after George returns.

2) Houston Rockets: The Daryl Morey era in Houston began in 2007, amid much hype and fanfare. Here is my take: "During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?"

Morey took a huge risk when he overpaid Chris Paul, but he rectified that mistake this summer by swapping Paul for Russell Westbrook. If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders.

If the Rockets continue to be the James Harden show then they will not win a game of consequence.

It really is that simple. The Rockets now have enough talent to win a title, but they need to have the right mindset from the top of the organization down. I am not sure what to expect from this team, but three scenarios seem most likely, in this order: (1) 55-60 regular season wins, playoff flameout as Harden pulls his usual disappearing act; (2) 45 regular season wins and first round exit because Harden will not give up the reins, relegating Westbrook to standing in the corner watching the Harden show; (3) 55-60 regular season wins and a championship as the Rockets give up on the delusion that Harden is a "foundational player," let Westbrook run the show, and follow Westbrook's lead in terms of playing hard all of the time.

3) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets posted the West's second best record in 2018-19 before losing at home in in the seventh game of the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers. Based on seeding, that was an upset, but Denver only won one more game than Portland during an 82 game season. Denver did not make any blockbuster moves during the offseason, but the acquisition of Jeremi Grant improves the team's depth and helps at both ends of the court. The Nuggets will again fight for the top seed, but the question in the playoffs will be whether or not Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray can outduel the superstar duos from the conference's other elite teams.

4) L.A. Lakers: To say LeBron James' first season in L.A. was a disappointment is a vast understatement. James left Cleveland for ostensibly greener pastures, but the Lakers won just two more games with James than they won the season before without him. The Anthony Davis saga fractured the locker room and, although James put up superficially impressive statistics, James' effort level was suboptimal--particularly on defense--and his teammates followed his lead in that regard.

We are supposed to believe that the acquisition of Davis and the firing of Coach Luke Walton will cure all of the team's ills. Maybe, but there are reasons to be skeptical: James is an aging player who seems more focused on his other interests than on basketball, Davis has never won anything of consequence, and it is far from certain that James will respect new Coach Frank Vogel any more than he respected Walton (or David Blatt or Mike Brown).

Placing the Lakers fourth is a bit of a compromise; if everything goes perfectly, this could be the best team in the West--if not the entire league--but if everything goes south the Lakers could be in the bottom half of the playoff picture. So fourth may end up being wrong, but it represents the middle of a wide range of possibilities.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: After making their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2000, the Trail Blazers are fully committed to Coach Terry Stotts plus their ace backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, Portland made significant changes to the rest of the roster and will rely on newcomers Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver in particular to quickly fit in and make meaningful contributions.

How far Portland advances will mainly be determined by how well Lillard and McCollum perform versus the other top duos in the West. Portland's Western Conference Finals run last season looks like an outlier; based on skill set and size, it is difficult to picture Lillard and McCollum consistently outdueling the likes of Leonard/George, Westbrook/Harden (if Houston plays in optimal fashion), Jokic/Murray or James/Davis. Yes, Portland beat Denver's Jokic and Murray in seven games last season, but Denver appears to be a team on the rise while Lillard and McCollum have likely peaked.

6) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs will receive a major boost with the healthy return of guard Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season because of a torn ACL. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are an excellent 1-2 scoring punch, with each averaging over 21 ppg last season. Rudy Gay is a solid third scoring option who shot a career-high .504 from the field in 2018-19. San Antonio pushed second seed Denver to seven games in the first round last season, so regardless of how the Spurs rank in the regular season they will likely once again be a tough out in the postseason.

7) Utah Jazz: Last season, I overrated the Jazz, who finished fifth in the West and lost in the first round after reaching the second round each of the previous two seasons. The Jazz reloaded by acquiring Mike Conley, Emmanuel Mudiay and Bojan Bogdanovic and they may in fact have a better roster this year than they did last year. However, the teams ahead of them last year improved to a greater extent, and even a couple of the teams behind the Jazz last year look better than the Jazz now (Lakers, Spurs). Utah is heading toward a second consecutive first round exit.

8) Golden State Warriors: We heard a lot of noise during last year's playoffs that the Warriors are a better team without Kevin Durant because they have better ball movement and because they are able to fully exploit Stephen Curry's "gravity." This is no longer a theoretical exercise on someone's spreadsheet; now we will be able to test that hypothesis with a full sample of 82 games. Even without Durant, and with Klay Thompson sidelined for most--if not all--of the season due to an ACL injury, the Warriors have two-time former MVP Curry and three-time All-Star/2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green leading a strong supporting cast. The Warriors acquired 2019 All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the sign and trade deal that sent Durant to the Brooklyn Nets. There is no excuse for this team to not at least make the playoffs--but, as the 82 game season will demonstrate, the notion that the Warriors are better without Durant is absurd.

The Western Conference has several teams that could push for a playoff berth before falling short. The Dallas Mavericks are one of those teams. Their future, anchored by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, looks bright. The New Orleans Pelicans are a chic pick to qualify for the playoffs despite losing Anthony Davis, but they are a bit too young and inexperienced. The Sacramento Kings finally seem to be moving in the right direction after many years of being adrift, but they are not quite good enough to crack the top eight.

On paper, Oklahoma City has enough talent to compete for a playoff berth, but the reality is that Chris Paul will probably get injured, get traded or both. The Thunder are focused on acquiring draft picks, not on winning games this season, and their final record will reflect that focus.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot of young talent but Jimmy Butler not so subtly suggested that the young talent lacks drive/focus, and the team's arc after Butler's departure to Philadelphia seems to confirm that.

Six years after the firing of Coach Lional Hollins after he led the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference Finals, Memphis fans are still waiting to see the benefits of the front office's "forward-thinking" analytics--but perhaps the franchise took a step in the right direction in April by reorganizing the front office and putting Zach Kleiman in charge. Kleiman will not be able to turn around this long-sinking ship in one year, but maybe better days are ahead.

The Phoenix Suns have turned into the New York Knicks West, with Robert Sarver playing the role of James Dolan.



I correctly picked seven of the eight 2019 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: 6/8
2017: 7/8
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

2006-2019 Total: 90/112 (.804)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM



At Thursday, October 10, 2019 5:54:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...


The Leonard-George tandem could be this century's (so far) version of Jordan and Pippen, if everything breaks out right for them and the Clips. Clippers games--especially against the Lakers, Rockets, Warriors, and Spurs--have become must-watch TV.

Spot-on about the Rockets, it really is that simple. Harden may have matured enough to willingly cede the primary playmaking role to Westbrook, and even if true, the false but forced narrative will be to minimize Westbrook's contributions and exalt Harden's "selflessness".

The Lakers: Howard was once the most dominant physical force, and still is a productive rebounder and shot-blocker; Davis is arguably the best big today; Cousins (if he was available) was the best center until he got hurt; and McGee has championship experience and is ostensibly a taller version of Howard. Amusingly, I hear nothing but silence vis-a-vis LeBron having at least 2 of the best centers of his generation on his team, and being a demerit on James's part (it should not be), compared to the stupid critique of Kobe playing with Shaq / Gasol / Bynum / Dwight used to diminish Bryant's accomplishments (the 2013 first-round sweep of Howard and Gasol, sans Kobe, being the ultimate vindication of Bryant on that score). LeBron now has his 3rd or 4th All-Star team to deploy for the playoffs, just like in Miami and Cleveland (both tenures there). At this point, James should be camping in the low block, allowing Davis to face up and attack slower defenders, but James would prefer to run point and rack up assists, instead of deferring the initial playmaking to his guards.

The Warriors should probably finish middle-of-the pack, if not higher. The idea of Steph Curry’s “gravity” (LOL what is he, a planet?) will indeed be tested in full this year.

At Thursday, October 10, 2019 6:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Leonard is not quite Jordan, not is George quite Pippen, but I agree that the Leonard-George tandem could be the best perimeter duo since Jordan-Pippen; they would need to win a couple rings, though, to at least match James-Wade, and then their superior size could very well put them in the category you proposed.

The false media narratives about the Rockets this season will probably be almost unbearable, regardless of how the Rockets are performing. Harden will be the narrative's hero and Westbrook will be the narrative's goat, with facts not permitted to get in the narrative's way.

Yes, James once again has a lot of talent around him, and it will be interesting to see what he makes of it. In his younger days, he maximized that talent in the regular season but not always in the playoffs; as he got older, he entered self-described "chill mode" during portions of the regular season but often lifted his game in key postseason moments. Overall, he is on the back end of his career trailing Jordan by three rings and trailing both Bryant and Duncan--the premier players for the first part of his career--by two rings. Curry is tied with James, while Durant trails James by just one--but if the Lakers go on a five game winning streak, all of the "James is the greatest player of all-time" narratives will be dusted off and polished for public consumption.

The Warriors' season will also have a predetermined narrative; no matter what, Curry will be depicted as the singular force carrying the team--if the other players perform well, he will be the reason, and if the other players don't perform well then Curry will get credit for the team's wins while being absolved of responsibility for the losses.

Of course, here I will cover what actually happens, and why it is happening, so readers who are interested in that kind of analysis know where to turn.


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