2021 NBA Predictions: Semi-Educated Guesses on the Upcoming Season (Western Conference)
Why not write some words about possible outcomes for every Western conference team for this upcoming NBA season? It’s fun to take semi-wild guesses instead of studying advanced statistics and probabilities.
- Los Angeles Clippers
Tyronn Lue is a modern player’s coach. Tough love is not part of his approach. Doc Rivers is a player’s coach from a previous era. Tough love is very much part of his approach. Coaches are often given too much credit and too much blame. Doc Rivers did not create the Orlando bubble environment and Doc Hearing his public comments, Rivers did not initially know how to help his team through the isolation and mental grind of that bubble. It was a perfect storm for the Clippers. Kawhi and PG came home to LA and the combination of new teammates, injuries and mid-March hiatus through their season into a blender. From a chemistry standpoint, they were vulnerable. Kawhi is a quiet leader. He isn’t a KG-type igniter. He was perfect in San Antonio and Toronto, where motivation was not an issue. When Montrezl Harrell’s grandmother passed away and left the team, the team’s spark was gone.
All of this is to say: the Clippers are very happy to be home, fans or no fans — and will play with a renewed vigor this year. Serge Ibaka gives Kawhi and PG more spacing. Luke Kennard can shoot, pass and dribble (something that last year’s Clippers guards were rarely able to do). Marcus Morris fills in the gaps and adds physicality. The Clippers will be very good, winning 50–53 games. In this predicted playoff universe, they’ll meet the 8th-seed Mavs and dispatch them in 5 games. Then they’ll face the 4th-seed Lakers (who’ve been resting LeBron throughout the early season) in the West Semis. I’d like to say the Clippers will win the long-awaited battle of LA, but I think Anthony Davis and LeBron have too much help this year for the Clippers to advance. I’ll go out on a short limb and say they’ll meet again in June 2022 and at that point, LeBron’s age finally shows and the Clippers will get revenge.
2. Denver Nuggets
The inevitably overlooked Denver Nuggets will have another year to be proud of. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will continue to dazzle. Michael Porter Jr. will score easily, but will not improve much defensively, which will show in the playoffs. The speed of Monte Morris and Will Barton will continue to spark the bench. In the playoffs, the Nuggets will miss Jerami Grant’s defense and rebounding. Denver will advance past Phoenix in the most entertaining First Round series in the West. The Nuggets will meet Portland in the West Semis, and they’ll fall in a classic 7–gamer to Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic and the deeper Blazers, in part because of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones smothering Murray.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
A healthy Jusuf Nurkic. A better bench with the additions of Covington, Jones and Enes Kanter. The ever-resilient Damian Lillard and the heady C.J. McCollum. Like Denver, Portland remains an overlooked-yet-contending team. The top tier below Milwaukee and the two LA teams is crowded these days. Nurkic’ performance in the bubble should have West coaches nervous. Gary Trent Jr. shot 42% from deep last year. His looks will be even cleaner this year, as will Rodney Hood’s. If Nurkic stays healthy, expect the find the Blazers in the top half of the West for most of the season. For realistic fans, losing in the West Finals to the Lakers should not make the season a disappointment. And with great wing defense…the match-up might be much closer than most imagine. It’s just a fact of NBA life that LeBron is still LeBron and Anthony Davis is impossible to defend.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron will play 40–50 games. Anthony Davis will win MVP. The Lakers will lose in the NBA Finals in 7 to the Bucks. Getting excellent defenders Wes Mathews and Marc Gasol for close to nothing just makes the toppling of the Lakers that much more difficult. The offense is more balanced with Dennis Shroeder and Montrezl Harrell…but neither are known as defenders. In the end, the Lakers will miss the physicality they had last year.
5. Houston Rockets
Within a few weeks, Houston will trade James Harden to the Nets for the trio of Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen, along with future picks. The Rockets will relax and play with a giant motivating chip on their shoulders. With a healthy John Wall, Dinwiddie, LeVert, Eric Gordon. Christian Wood, Jarrett Allen, and DeMarcus Cousins, the Rockets will be one of the deeper teams in the NBA. They’ll ride that depth in this condensed and COVID-impacted season to a 4th seed in the West. Unfortunately, they’ll face the Lakers in the First Round and prolong the franchise playoff agony. Still, the Rockets will end the year having become the Redemption Rockets.
6. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are awesome. Nobody else on the Jazz is awesome. This becomes a problem against the best defenses. Bojan Bogdanovic and the aging-but-fun Mike Conley will have to play their best for the Jazz to advance. More likely, another very solid regular season will end in a tough opening round loss to the Blazers.
7. Phoenix Suns
Suns fans will appreciate having a competent point guard in Chris Paul. After years of Kevin Johnson in the 90s and Steve Nash in the mid-2000s to 2012, the Suns will be fun again. Devin Booker could lead the NBA in scoring. Deandre Ayton will flourish. With Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, the Suns will not be afraid to launch. But will this team defend well enough to overcome the Nuggets in the First Round? If everything is clicking…and Jae Crowder can reproduce his best moments from the bubble playoffs with Miami…then they’ll push Denver…but can’t see them advancing this year. Still…that’s a positive step for Booker and Ayton. Chris Paul will be 37 in May, 2022. Perhaps his NBA farewell season will be the one in which the Suns make bigger playoff noise.
8. Dallas Mavericks
I’m far from certain the Mavs will finish this low, but I’m afraid of Porzingis’ health. He’ll return in mid-to-late January, but will he play back-to-backs? That leaves Dwight Powell and Willie Cauley-Stein. Not exactly floor-spacers. Luka Doncic may win the MVP. He’ll notch triple doubles with ease and do his best Harden-imitation with that step-back three. Josh Richardson brings grit and tenacity. In addition to Porzingis’ health, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Richardson have to knock down those open looks for Dallas to reach their ceiling. Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber defend and move the ball. Kleber has developed a corner three. Will Porzingis be able to stay healthy enough for the Mavs to climb up to the 4/5/6 range? In this condensed 72-game schedule, it’ll be tough. The Mavs are capable of winning a playoff series…but not against a fully-healthy, fully-motivated, more well-rounded Clippers team.
9. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry has the ball in his hands. Steph Curry will produce some huge nights. The Warriors will depend on the rejuvenation of Draymond, the rapid development of giant James Wiseman, and the support of Kelly Oubre, Andrew Wiggins and Kent Bazemore. The absence of Klay Thompson is a minor tragedy. The Warriors will fight to finish 6th and avoid the play-in tournament — but the Jazz, Suns and Mavs are all too good. After beating Minnesota in the 9 v 10 game, the Warriors will face Phoenix or Dallas for the 8th spot. Maybe they win. Maybe they lose. Maybe Steph and Booker both go for 40. Maybe Steph and Luka both go for 40. Either way, I will be watching that game. Those wide-open threes for Wiggins and Oubre will remain wide-open. Dubs fans will be very ready for Klay’s return next year.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
These Timberwolves are not a joke. They should be more functional and there will automatically be less drama than in recent years. Ricky Rubio, for all of his shooting flaws, is a playmaker and defender. D’Angelo Russell is a creative off-the-bounce force. Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the most talented offensive big-men in the game. Defensive progress and cohesion will dictate if the Timberwolves can scratch and claw their way into the play-in.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion is an explosive athlete and will go on scoring binges. This is not news. The hiatus wasn’t easy for many young players. Without a team-led training regiment, some didn’t enter Orlando hoops-ready. Zion’s defense was a problem. Brandan Ingram has moments that allow NBA fans to squint and see a young Durant. With the early career scrutiny, Ingram’s potential has been overshadowed by drama. Lonzo Ball is uneven and unorthodox, but has some special skills. More than anything, Steven Adams adds a relentless work ethic and physicality that might boost the growth of Zion, Ingram and Lonzo. Eric Bledsoe has been very good in the regular season for the last few years. J.J. Redick is still a constant perimeter threat. With some luck, this team could finish 7th. I expect there will be just a few wins separating 7th from 11th in the West. It’d be fun to see the Pelicans in the play-in.
12. Sacramento Kings
Like the Pelicans, the Kings have reasons for optimism. Switch them over to the East, and they would compete for the 8th seed. If healthy, Marvin Bagley will get a chance to announce himself to the non-diehard fan. Tyrese Haliburton may become the NBA’s magician. Hassan Whiteside, for all of his flaws, swallows rebounds. This is a more talented team than the Kings have had in a while…but this year the West is 14-deep, depending on what happens to the Rockets. Only OKC has booted the season.
13. San Antonio Spurs
This ranking is probably too low, but some teams have to finish near the bottom. The Spurs’ resilience and the possibility of Dejounte Murray’s potential could land them as high as 10th. In the bubble, the Spurs led the 8-game regular season finale in team pace, playing small with DeMar DeRozan as a point-power-forward. Throwing caution to the wind is probably the only way the Spurs can figure out if Murray can become the next in line to lead San Antonio to playoff prominence. Keldon Johnson is the latest Spur who was drafted because of his athleticism and tenacity…and the development of his shooting range will determine his ceiling.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant is tantalizing. Jaren Jackson is unique. Someone has to finish near the bottom. The Grizzlies don’t have much depth.
15. OKC Thunder
Sam Presti punted this season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will have the keys. Luguentz Dort is infectious and needs to showcase that defense in the playoffs again sometime soon.