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Sunday, December 06, 2020

2020-21 Western Conference Preview

LeBron James added a fourth title and fourth Finals MVP to his resume, becoming the first player to win a Finals MVP with three different franchises. He had already established himself as one of the greatest players of all-time even before he led the L.A. Lakers to the 2020 NBA championship, and now it just remains to be seen how much more he will accomplish to add fuel to the never-ending conversations/debates about who should be ranked as the greatest player of all-time.

The L.A. Clippers were expected to be the biggest threat to the Lakers, but instead the Clippers squandered a 3-1 lead versus the Denver Nuggets and thus did not even face the Lakers in the playoffs. Doc Rivers left to coach the Philadelphia 76ers, and his assistant Tyronn Lue, who coached Cleveland to the 2016 title, now takes over the reins.

The Denver Nuggets have two great young stars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and it will be interesting to watch that team and those stars continue to grow.

The Golden State Warriors will be in the mix, even without the services of Klay Thompson.

On the other hand, the Oklahoma City Thunder surpassed expectations by qualifying for the 2020 playoffs, and then they pushed the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round, but during the offseason the franchise hit the reset button by trading Chris Paul and Abdel Nader to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, and a first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The Thunder also traded away Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari in separate deals. It is not clear yet if the Thunder are tanking, but it would appear that at the very least they are willing to accept having a worse regular season record this season while stockpiling draft picks. For the Suns, this deal signals that the team--fresh off of a league-best 8-0 record in the "bubble" that was not quite enough to earn the eighth playoff spot--is trying to win now, but with a limited definition of "win": as a diminutive, aging point guard Chris Paul's long-term value is questionable, but last season he demonstrated that he can still be a productive player. Acquiring Paul signals that the Suns are very much trying to qualify for the 2021 playoffs, but this deal is not likely to help much in terms of lifting the Suns into long-term championship contention, or even helping the Suns to win a single playoff series.

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. Lakers: LeBron James' first season in L.A. was a disappointment but he more than made up for that in year two, as the seemingly ageless superstar returned to MVP form while delivering the franchise's first title since Kobe Bryant led the team to back to back crowns in 2009-10. James led the league in assists while demonstrating that he can still be a great scorer as well. Anthony Davis was at times the best player on the team, if not the entire league, and he seems poised to be the team's best player after James slows down or retires.

The Lakers lost several players, including Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Avery Bradley (who did not play in the "bubble"), but they added Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, and Wesley Matthews. On paper, the changes look like a net positive, so there is no reason not to rank the Lakers as the top team in the West.

2) L.A. Clippers: The Clippers' season began with high expectations and ended with crushing disappointment. Kawhi Leonard has received a lot of criticism, and some of that is fair and to be expected because he is the team's best player--but he is also a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP who has proven that he knows how to win, while many of his teammates lack that championship pedigree. Leonard must take responsibility for perhaps doing too much "load management" to the detriment of team chemistry, and he obviously must take responsibility for not playing better in game seven versus Denver, but overall I would argue that his teammates failed him more than he failed them. Leonard's frustration with his teammates' lack of focus was quite evident at times, a departure from Leonard's usually implacable on court demeanor. I disagree with the notion that Leonard is not a good leader, and I disagree with the notion that a publicly reserved player like Leonard cannot be a leader. He has already proven his leadership capabilities at the championship level, and Tim Duncan is an example of a publicly reserved player who was without question a great leader.

It seems as if Doc Rivers was not able to reach some of the players last season, and not able to get them to play their best. It will be interesting to see to what extent Tyronn Lue is able to turn that around.

The Clippers should be the second best team in the West, but they will need to display a lot more focus and mental toughness than they did last season if they expect to beat the Lakers in a playoff series.

3) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets are very good, but perhaps not quite good enough, much like the Boston Celtics. The Nuggets will win a lot of regular season games, and they are fully capable of pushing the Lakers or the Clippers to the brink in a seven game series--obviously, as they actually beat the Clippers in seven games last season--but they seem to lack the necessary focus to be a championship team. Coach Mike Malone repeatedly had to publicly urge them to play hard which, as TNT's Charles Barkley noted during the playoffs, is baffling and troublesome; a coach should not have to beg professional players to put forth effort.

Nikola Jokic is incredibly talented, as is Jamal Murray. It is possible that this team will continue to grow, and possibly either win a title soon, or else win a title after LeBron James retires, but I do not see the Nuggets winning the 2021 championship, or even advancing to the 2021 NBA Finals.

4) Golden State Warriors: The season-ending injury suffered by Klay Thompson when he was on the brink of returning from a previous season-ending injury is a devastating blow to Golden State's championship hopes, but with a healthy Stephen Curry this should still be not just a playoff team but a very good playoff team. Two-time MVP Curry was the best player on the record-setting 73 win Warriors team even prior to Kevin Durant's arrival, and Curry was the best player on Golden State's first championship team in this era, though Curry has yet to win a Finals MVP despite capturing three titles overall.

5) Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis will miss the start of the regular season as he continues to rehab his ACL injury, but Luka Doncic emerged as an MVP caliber player last season as the Mavericks made a surprising run to the seventh seed in the West. This is not a championship caliber team, but there is no reason to expect regression from the seventh seed, and good reason to believe that the Mavericks can move up a couple more spots in the standings.

6) Utah Jazz: The Utah Jazz signed franchise cornerstone Donovan Mitchell to a five year contract extension, but did not make any moves to upgrade the roster. The Jazz pushed the Nuggets to seven games in the first round of the 2020 playoffs and they can be a threat to any team on a given night, but they just do not have quite enough talent to be ranked among the top four teams in the Western Conference.

7) Phoenix Suns: The Suns were the only team to go 8-0 in the "bubble," but that is not why I am picking them to qualify for the playoffs. Chris Paul cannot carry a team to a title, but he has proven that--even at a relatively advanced age for an undersized point guard--he can still have an impact on regular season winning. The Suns have some young and talented players who will benefit from his presence and his playmaking. They missed the playoffs by one game last season, and it is not difficult to believe that Paul will be worth more than one win.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: Teams 8-13 were separated by just four games in the Western Conference standings after "bubble" play concluded, so it is obvious that there will be several contenders for the final playoff spot this season. I am going with New Orleans because I am assuming that Zion Williamson will be reasonably healthy and that, like many young stars before him, he will be even more productive in his second season than he was as a rookie. The Pelicans replaced Coach Alvin Gentry with Stan Van Gundy. Gentry is not a bad coach, but Van Gundy is arguably a better coach. Losing Jrue Holiday hurts but adding Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe helps a lot. 

As mentioned above, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture figures to be very competitive. 

The Houston Rockets finished fourth in the Western Conference last season, but after losing to the Lakers in five games in the second round the franchise has experience major upheaval with the departures of General Manager Daryl Morey, Coach Mike D'Antoni, and All-NBA guard Russell Westbrook. Morey built the Rockets around James Harden dribbling a lot and everyone--including Harden--shooting a ton of three pointers. I suspect that new Coach Stephen Silas is going to at least tweak that approach, and I also suspect that Harden is going to resist--i.e., pout about--any attempt to reduce his touches and shot attempts. While I hope that John Wall will be healthy and productive, that is a lot to ask of a player who has missed more than two years of action due to serious injuries. Further, even if Wall returns to peak form his peak form is essentially equivalent to an average Westbrook season, and thus it is difficult to picture the Rockets being nearly as good as they were last season even in the best case scenario. If Harden pouts and Wall is not as good as he used to be--both of which are very likely--then there are several teams in the West that are fully capable of vaulting past the Rockets in the standings. The race for the eighth seed will be competitive, and the Rockets will be in the mix, but I no longer see them as a top four team in the conference.

The Portland Trail Blazers made a somewhat fluky run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals before losing in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. It would not be shocking if they capture the eighth or even the seventh seed, but they are first round fodder at best, not a championship contender. 

The San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1997 but they made no significant offseason moves while other teams in the West improved, so they will likely miss the playoffs again; team culture matters a lot, but so does talent, and the Spurs just have ordinary talent right now.

The Memphis Grizzlies would have qualified for the playoffs had they not completely collapsed in the "bubble" but, like the Spurs, they did not make any meaningful improvements in the offseason while other teams in the West got better. 

The Sacramento Kings are another team that was in that 8-13 mix but did not improve during the offseason.

The Oklahoma City Thunder surprisingly ranked fifth in the West last season and they pushed the Rockets to seven games in the first round, but the losses of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Steven Adams are way too much to overcome.

The Minnesota Timberwolves only finished ahead of the injury-decimated Warriors last season, and the Timberwolves seem like they are headed straight to the bottom of the standings this season.



I correctly picked six of the eight 2020 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2019: 7/8
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

2006-2020 Total: 96/120 (.800)

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 PM



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