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Saturday, October 01, 2022

2022-2023 Western Conference Preview

The Golden State Warriors surprised many people--including, if they are honest, themselves--by winning the 2022 NBA championship. Before the 2021-22 season, there were justifiable questions about the team's health, size, and ability to advance very far in the playoffs sans Kevin Durant; after Durant's departure for Brooklyn in 2019, the Warriors had not won a single playoff game. However, Klay Thompson returned to action as a valuable contributor, Andrew Wiggins emerged as a first-time All-Star, Stephen Curry overcame a midseason slump to have perhaps his best playoff run ever, and the Warriors benefited from implosions and/or injuries suffered by several of their most dangerous rivals. 

On paper, the Western Conference is very deep, but after the way that the Warriors played during the 2022 playoffs it is difficult to not choose them as the favorites. As the old saying goes, to be the champ you have to beat the champ--and if a team other than the Warriors wins the West in 2023 then that team will most likely have to beat the Warriors.

The Memphis Grizzlies have a dynamic offense (115.6 ppg, second in the league) and a solid defense (.455 defensive field goal percentage, 10th in the league). They are led by explosive point guard Ja Morant, who is surrounded by a strong supporting cast--and all of the team's key players are younger than 30, so there is room for growth and development for a squad that had the league's second best record (56-26) last season.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, which means that the L.A. Clippers should be championship contenders--and which also means that several of the teams that finished ahead of them in the standings last season will be moving down at least one notch.

The Dallas Mavericks suffered an important loss when free agent guard Jalen Brunson signed with the New York Knicks, but the continued MVP-level excellence of Luka Doncic plus the additions of Christian Wood and JaVale McGee should keep Dallas in the top four in the Western Conference.

The Phoenix Suns finished with the NBA's best regular season record in 2021-22, and they still have a talented team that should be effective at both ends of the court, but there is something amiss internally in addition to the Robert Sarver scandal--we saw it during the game seven meltdown versus the Dallas Mavericks, and we saw it during the offseason when the Suns dared Deandre Ayton to find a team willing to offer him a max contract; the Suns had to scramble after Ayton signed just such a deal with the Indiana Pacers. Although the Suns matched the Pacers' offer sheet and kept Ayton, it is obvious that he and at least one other team place a higher value on his services than the Suns do. When the Suns signed Chris Paul in 2020 they knew that they had a short window as a contender with him running the team, and that window most likely slammed shut last season.

Denver's Nikola Jokic is seeking to win his third straight regular season MVP, a feat previously accomplished by only Bill Russell (1961-63, NBA), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68, NBA), Julius Erving (1974-76, ABA), and Larry Bird (1984-86, NBA). Jokic has led the Nuggets to the playoffs for four straight years, and they reached the Western Conference Finals in 2020. Injuries have held the team back for the past couple years, but the team is starting the season healthy and with high expectations. If the Nuggets stay healthy then they could be a force, but injury-prone teams often stay injury-prone, and the Nuggets also have some work to do defensively.

The Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs for just the second time since 2004, and they significantly upgraded their defense by acquiring three-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2022 rebounding leader Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz. The Timberwolves led the league in scoring (115.9 ppg) but ranked 24th in points allowed, so even a slight improvement defensively could potentially add up to several more wins.

Meanwhile, the Jazz--who made the playoffs for the sixth straight season--appear to be yet another team that has succumbed to the tanking plague, trading Gobert and then trading three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell for a sack of beans, a stack of draft picks, and hopes/dreams that some day those draft picks will amount to something more than two three-time All-Stars. Good luck with that, Jazz fans, but don't hold your breath, because three-time All-Stars are harder to find than "stat gurus" seem to think.

Local and national media members covering the L.A. Lakers have vilified and scapegoated Russell Westbrook without merit or mercy. The extent of the vitriol is breathtaking, but the notion that Westbrook would be unfairly criticized does not surprise me; in fact, I predicted it eight years ago when I declared that Westbrook was poised to inherit Kobe Bryant's dual role as "best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar." Not long after I made that prediction, Westbrook set triple double records that may never be broken and then he won a much-deserved regular season MVP. The Lakers have an uphill battle to make the playoffs this season, and Westbrook will no doubt once again bear the brunt of the criticism for others' shortcomings.

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: I underestimated the Warriors last season, and perhaps I am overestimating them this season, but unless Curry suddenly gets old and/or this team is hit by a slew of injuries their offensive firepower combined with their underrated defense will make them very difficult to beat.

I did not think that the 6-3 Curry could lead the Warriors to a title versus teams featuring more physically imposing superstars who have an impact at both ends of the court, but the way things played out Curry did not have to outduel 2021 Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2020 Finals MVP LeBron James, or 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. That statement of fact is not meant to take anything away from what Curry and the Warriors accomplished: they beat the teams in front of them, and they earned their championship rings. 

The core players are back, and the players who the Warriors lost to free agency--including Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., and Juan Toscano-Anderson--are valuable but hardly irreplaceable. Thompson figures to be more consistent offensively and more impactful defensively in his first full season back after suffering two serious injuries, and new additions Donte DiVicenzo and JaMychal Green should fit in seamlessly.

Casual fans can rave about "small ball" and three point shooting while debating how highly Curry should be ranked on the all-time greatest players list, but it should be noted that last season the Warriors ranked second in defensive field goal percentage, third in points allowed, fourth in rebounding differential, and seventh in rebounding. The Warriors won the championship by doing the dirty work in the trenches, and that reality is not altered by the distorted way that many media members describe what happened.

2) Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant earned his first All-Star selection and emerged as an MVP candidate last season, averaging career-highs in scoring (27.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.493), rebounding (5.7 rpg), and steals (1.2 spg). He missed 25 games due to injury and is slightly built at just 6-3, so his size and durability are question marks, but his talent is undeniable.

The interesting thing is that the Grizzlies did just fine--even better, statistically--during the games that Morant did not play. That does not mean that they are better off without him, but it does mean that this team is deep and well-coached.

Some teams rise up for one fluky season only to fall back into the pack--Portland, Atlanta, and New York are three recent examples of this--but the Grizzlies look like a team built for sustained high level success.

3) L.A. Clippers: This will be Kawhi Leonard's fourth season with the Clippers, and he has yet to lead the team to the NBA Finals after winning championships (and Finals MVPs) with San Antonio in 2014 and with Toronto in 2019. Leonard missed all of last season due to an ACL injury, and because of a combination of injuries and "load management" he has not played more than 60 games in a season since 2016-17. The most games he has played in a season is 74, and in an 11 season career he has played more than 70 games only twice. Therefore, it will be surprising if he plays more than 70 games this season--but if he plays in 60-65 regular season games and is healthy for the entire postseason then this team could be very dangerous. When healthy, Leonard may be the best all-around player in the NBA other than Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Leonard's running mate Paul George is a bit miscast as a number one option, but he fits in well as a second option. Ty Lue has already won a championship as a coach, and the supporting cast is solid--and could be excellent if newly acquired John Wall has anything left in the tank. Until I see Leonard make it all the way to June in one piece again, I cannot pick the Clippers to win the championship, but this is a dangerous team that clearly has championship potential.

4) Dallas Mavericks: Losing Jalen Brunson hurts Dallas, but let's not pretend that he is an irreplaceable superstar. Luka Doncic is a perennial All-NBA First Team selection and MVP candidate, and he has proven to be an elite playoff performer as well. He led the NBA in playoff scoring average in 2021 (35.7 ppg) and 2022 (31.7 ppg), becoming just the fourth player since 2000 to lead the league in postseason scoring in consecutive seasons, a list that includes Tracy McGrady (2001-02), Kobe Bryant (2007-08), and Kevin Durant (2013-14). Under the tutelage of Coach Jason Kidd, Doncic has improved defensively. I rank the Mavericks fourth because they have not closed the gap on the Warriors, and because at full strength the Grizzlies and Clippers are better, deeper teams.

5) Phoenix Suns: The Suns rode the momentum of a good closing run in the 2020 "bubble" all the way to the 2021 NBA Finals, and then they posted the NBA's best regular season record in 2022, but the playoff collapse versus Dallas followed by a tumultuous offseason during which the Suns did not strengthen their roster leaves this team poised to drop significantly in the standings. Even if the Suns finish higher than fifth in the regular season, I would not trust them in the playoffs, especially considering Chris Paul's track record of wearing down and presiding over multiple team collapses with multiple franchises.

6) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets play at an elite level when reigning two-time regular season MVP Nikola Jokic is on the court, but they are not very good when Jokic is off of the court. Jamal Murray is expected to make a fully healthy return this season after rehabbing his torn ACL. The health of Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are critical for this team, but there are also legitimate questions about depth and team defense. The ceiling for this team if everything goes well is to return to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2020, but I expect the Nuggets to struggle to stay in the top four and avoid a first round playoff exit.

7) Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves were one of the most surprising teams of 2022, reaching the playoffs on the strength of the league's highest scoring offense (115.9 ppg) and pushing the favored Memphis Grizzlies to six games in the first round. They did not stand pat in the offseason, instead going all-in by trading five players and five draft picks to the Utah Jazz for 2022 rebounding leader and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves ranked 16th in rebounding, 16th in defensive field goal percentage, and 24th in points allowed. Gobert should help the team improve in all three categories. 

Karl Anthony-Towns has MVP-level talent, but he has made the All-Star team just three times in seven seasons and he has yet to be selected to the All-NBA First Team or the All-NBA Second Team. Anthony Edwards averaged 21.3 ppg in his second season, and he looks like a player who can become a perennial All-Star. 

The Timberwolves have a lot of individual talent, but TNT's Charles Barkley bluntly said that they are "dumb as rocks" because of the way that they repeatedly waste possessions and squander leads. This team has to mature a lot in order to be a legit contender, but talent alone will carry them to the playoffs and make them a tough out.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: I don't fully trust the Pelicans, but I trust the teams listed below even less. The midseason addition of CJ McCollum turned things around and enabled the Pelicans to sneak into the playoffs after starting the season 4-16. The return of Zion Williamson no doubt excites the team's fans but can he stay healthy? Also, will he use his athleticism to do anything other than score? He has a lot of room for growth as a rebounder and as a defensive player. Brandon Ingram is a dynamic scorer and playmaker. 

Herbert Jones, Larry Nance Jr., and Jose Alvarado have bought into Coach Willie Green's emphasis on defense, but the Pelicans are not going to advance very far in the playoffs until the team's best offensive players also commit to playing defense consistently. 

The remaining Western Conference teams are deeply flawed and/or fully committed to tanking.

The Sacramento Kings should improve under new Coach Mike Brown, who will no doubt implement a game plan to bolster the team's defense, which ranked 29th in points allowed. If Brown can lift that ranking to top 20 status, the Kings could sneak into the Play-In Tournament. Brown is the Kings' 12th coach since their last playoff appearance in 2006. None of the previous 11 coaches lasted more than three seasons or won more than 39 games in a season. If the Kings give Brown a fair shake, he can reverse those trends.

The L.A. Lakers receive much more coverage than a mediocre team should, and many of the assertions made about this team and its players are so absurd that I am compelled to devote more coverage to a mediocre team than any mediocre team should receive.

The narratives swirling around the Lakers' acquisition of Patrick Beverley are bizarre. People act like Russell Westbrook has some kind of petty beef with Beverley, but the reality is indisputable and is public knowledge: in game two of the first round of the 2013 playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, Beverley plowed into Westbrook as Westbrook called a timeout. Former NBA player and current NBA commentator Tim Legler recently called it one the dirtiest plays he has ever seen. How would you feel about a person who does a reckless and dirty act that threatens your health and your livelihood? Not only that, but Westbrook's Thunder were the defending Western Conference champions who had posted the best record in the West. They went 2-0 in the playoffs before Beverley ended Westbrook's season, and then they struggled to beat Houston 4-2 before getting waxed 4-1 by Memphis. Westbrook has every right to be furious at Beverley, and it says a lot about Westbrook's character that he has warmly welcomed Beverley as a teammate.

Westbrook became the scapegoat for the Lakers' disappointing 2021-22 season, but all of the propaganda directed against Westbroook does not change the reality that the Lakers' biggest problem--literally and figuratively--is that Anthony Davis (whose penchant for missing games led Charles Barkley to aptly dub him "street clothes") is satisfied with his career: he won a championship ring alongside his childhood hero LeBron James, he has made the All-Star team eight times, and he even fooled the voters into selecting him to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, which means that his status as a legend of the game is secure. Some players--Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant immediately come to mind--spent their careers obsessed with winning as many championships as possible. That, to put it mildly, is not how Davis thinks or--more importantly--how he acts. 

Although Davis' style of play is different than Pau Gasol's, their mindsets are very similar: Gasol was a bit more motivated and focused than Davis (and Gasol had the benefit of Bryant pushing him every step of the way), but--after winning two championships and reaching three straight NBA Finals--Gasol was satisfied, as Kevin Ding brilliantly and repeatedly noted. While other media members constructed ludicrous narratives about Kobe Bryant's shot selection and the supposedly optimal number of shots for Bryant to attempt, Ding was one of the few writers who kept the focus--and the blame--where it belonged: Pau Gasol was content with winning two rings, and when the team's second best player is not going to push himself there is only so much that the best player can do to overcome this. 

Jeanie Buss told the truth in a recent interview when she called Westbrook the team's most consistent player, but it is doubtful that Davis will get the message that he was brought to the Lakers to eventually become the number one option and not just to ride James' coattails until James retires.

On any given night, James can still be the best player on the court, but he cannot sustain that over 82 games without either going into "chill mode," getting injured, or both. We know how much (and how little) to expect from Davis. The Lakers do not have the right personnel or mindset to maximize Westbrook's ability to grab a defensive rebound, push the ball up the court, and wreak havoc. The Lakers have name brand talent, but the product on the floor will likely not be good enough to make the playoffs. 

The Portland Trail Blazers do not have enough size, enough talent, or the right defensive mindset to make the playoffs, let alone contend for a championship.

The Houston Rockets had the worst record in the NBA last season, and they only figure to have a better record than the tanking teams this season--and not by much. It is not clear if the Rockets are tanking or just not very good.

The three remaining Western Conference teams appear to be tanking: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Utah. 

"Stat gurus" sagely declare that a three point shot is worth more than a two point shot, and that tanking is an analytically correct strategy for a team that cannot contend for a championship as currently constructed. I am waiting for some genius to combine these two brilliant insights and figure out that an optimal strategy for a team that cannot contend for a championship is to shoot three point shots at their own basket. After that happens, it will be fascinating to watch teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs set up their defenses to prevent the opposing team from making three pointers at their own basket. Perhaps we will even see the creation of a new statistic called "true winning percentage." Since "stat gurus" see no value in coaching other than a coach's willingness to blindly follow the whims of the "stat gurus" in the front office, this new statistic will be a metric applied to general managers: any general manager of a team below .500 will receive bonus "true winning percentage" points for each loss that places his team further below .500, with the idea that any sensible GM of a losing team is trying to lose every game. 

What "stat gurus" and the media members who slavishly adore them fail to grasp is that teams losing on purpose are not only ripping off home fans who are buying tickets to watch a substandard product, but they are also striking a blow at the integrity of the sport overall—and one is right to wonder just how far some teams will be willing to go. If it is analytically correct to lose on purpose, why shouldn't a team shoot at the wrong basket at the end of a close game? Or, if that is too brazen, why shouldn't a team just let the other team score? What if two tanking teams square off in a late season game? Will both teams shoot at the wrong basket while being "analytically correct"? Such hypothetical questions may sound farcical or outlandish, but they are the natural outgrowth of the distorted thinking that now holds sway in the NBA. Even if tanking were a good strategy—and objective evidence demonstrates that no team has ever tanked its way to a title—any true basketball fan is disgusted by the nonsense that masquerades as a forward-thinking strategy. 



I correctly picked five of the eight 2022 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2021: 6/8
2020: 6/8
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

2006-2022 Total: 107/136 (.787)

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 PM



At Sunday, October 02, 2022 8:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Safe to conclude from this and the other piece your pre-season Finals guess is Milwaukee vs. GSW, with Milwaukee going over?

At Monday, October 03, 2022 6:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, my preseason NBA Finals pick is Milwaukee over Golden State.

At Wednesday, October 05, 2022 10:52:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's the Lakers, of course they're always going to get a lot of coverage. And they have James, arguably a top 5 player all-time, Davis-a current top 5 player when healthy and engaged, Westbrook-former MVP and fringe AS-caliber player, and some other nice pieces. They should be much better than mediocre, too.

Beverley is a character, though Westbrook kinda is too. I'd think any player would be upset by another player who caused an injury whether it is regarded dirty or not. I don't understand why we're applauding Westbrook for welcoming Beverley. He's doing what he or anyone should do. That play was 9 years ago. It's time to move on. And regarding that play, the bottomline is that it was a freak injury and Beverley barely hit Westbrook. Beverley played right up until the whistle with Westbrook continuing to dribble, almost getting the steal. Why it's not ok to play right until the whistle is beyond me. If it was a dead ball situation, Westbrook didn't need to turn into Beverley shielding him from the ball and shouldn't be dribbling anymore. If he didn't do this, Beverley never makes contact with him. It's just an unfortunate result. Legler talks more nonsense than sense.

At Thursday, October 06, 2022 2:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As someone who has played a lot of basketball--albeit not at the NBA level--I thought that Beverley's play versus Westbrook was a dirty and unnecessary play. At best, it was "fake hustle," like Dennis Rodman flying through the air to chase a ball that is already far out of bounds. Legler played guard in the NBA for a long time, so I think that he has a basis to know whether or not a play is dirty--and he did not say it was borderline, he said it might have been the dirtiest play he has seen. I trust my eyes and Legler's informed opinion.

At Sunday, October 09, 2022 5:15:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Excellent analysis, although I do not share your high opinion of the Mavericks - now talent-poor after giving away Brunson, and not upgrading their roster by much this offseason.

It does not matter how well Doncic performs - he needs more than what the Mavericks provided in order to get a high seed in the Western Conference.

He can turn it on in a playoff series or the entire playoffs, but not the entire regular season. Not just yet.

At Monday, October 10, 2022 3:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that we can agree that Dallas took a step back, but we disagree about how much the Mavericks stepped back relative to the other West contenders. I would say that Doncic has proven that he can carry a team to at least the WCF, and I would also say that the offseason additions at least somewhat make up for Brunson's loss.


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