NBA Preview: 2018–19 Western Conference Predicted Top 8: (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, OKC Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans)
From top to bottom, the NBA’s Western Conference got stronger and deeper this summer. Here’s a team-by-team recap of what happened and what’s in store for next year and my guess at the top 8 in the West.
1. Golden State Warriors
Finally, some talent for Golden State. It was laughable to most of the NBA when DeMarcus signed with the Warriors. Arguably the most talented 7-footer in the NBA, though he’s coming off a brutal Achilles tear, Cousins was forced to bet on himself with a one year deal…to the clear title favorites once again. Even if he doesn’t play until January or February, Cousins will get to prove he’s at least 80% of what he was and demonstrate his passing skills (and unselfishness) on the best passing team in the Association. This is similar to the 1985 Celtics adding Bill Walton.
The real question is where does Cousins end up next summer, when seemingly every team has major cap space but nearly half of the NBA’s rotation players will be free-agents. It could be Atlanta, Charlotte, or Brooklyn three rebuilding franchises that need a focal point.
Another real question is whether or not Klay Thompson’s impending free-agency means anything. Klay has said he very much wants to stay in the Bay Area. He’s got the most comfortable fourth-option spot in the NBA. As he ages, he won’t get any quicker off the dribble. My guess is the Warriors will keep Steph and Draymond indefinitely. Keeping Klay and Durant for the rest of their careers is less likely. My hunch is that Durant…sensing his legacy is asterisked by fans begrudging him for choosing to join a 73-win team…leaves after another title this June.
- Kevin Durant (2 years, $63m, but really one year-deal so he can opt-out next summer)
- DeMarcus Cousins (1 year, $5.3m)
2. Houston Rockets
Chris Paul has some rough luck. The timing of his hamstring injury couldn’t have been worse. Up 3–2 in their series with Golden State, it would be wrong to say the Rockets would have won the series (and the title), but it’d also be wrong to say they wouldn’t have. Just brutal to have CP3’s shot at playoff redemption snuffed out like that. At least Houston has three more years with both Harden and Paul. Now the Rockets are in a stalemate with their restricted free-agent center Clint Capela. Seems impossible that they won’t match, though there are virtually no teams capable of making an offer at this point. They’ve already lost perennially underrated defensive guru Ariza and the quietly important Mbah a Moute. Carmelo Anthony as a replacement won’t help their defense, but Melo will enjoy the passing of Harden and CP3, compared with the ball-dominant Westbrook. Though it was five years ago, it’s worth noting that Melo was great when the Knicks briefly had Jason Kidd. Carmelo may be a throwback to the iso-heavy 1990s, but he’s still capable of briefly taking over games, and he gives Houston oomph off the bench. Chris Paul should help ease the transition.
After the Melo minimum, the trio of other minimum-contract additions may also provide more than minor value. Old Celtics friend Gerald Green provided some splashy moments in the playoffs, and isn’t afraid to let it fly. James Ennis can imitate Mbah-a-Moute in switchability and moxie. Michael Carter-Williams…hmm…he’s got one last shot…but he can defend. Maybe a shooting coach can find a corner three in there. Any team with Harden, Paul and Capela is going to be dangerous, but the fact that Ryan Anderson can’t stay on the court against Golden State, and that Ariza is gone are both issues.
- Chris Paul (4 years, $160m)
- Clint Capela (5 years, $80m guaranteed, $90m with incentives)
- James Ennis (2 years, min)
- Carmelo Anthony (1 year, min)
- Gerald Green (1 year, min)
- Michael Carter-Williams (1 year, min)
Seeds 3–7 are all likely to finish with win totals in the low 50s and high 40s. The glut will be even thicker than last year.
3. Utah Jazz
Record with Rudy Gobert: 37–19. Record without Rudy: 11–15. It’s good for the NBA to have Rudy Gobert healthy. There just aren’t many dominant defensive centers in the modern, switch-heavy NBA. Gobert is the rare behemoth who can make his way out of the paint to defend anyone. Utah’s playoff series win over OKC was contagious. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio played beautifully off of each other. Joe Ingles and Crowder hit just enough open threes to keep OKC off balance. It was a shame Ricky Rubio’s hamstring impacted the next round against Houston, enabling Houston to focus even more on Mitchell. Still, Jazz fans have to be happy with how things turned out after Hayward left. Mitchell and Gobert form a wonderful 1–2 punch. Derrick Favors is easy to diminish if we focus on big men who have to stretch the floor to be useful. Favors may be the rare old-fashioned big whose rebounding, versatile defense, and general toughness outweigh his lack of 22-foot range. Utah did well with Gobert and Favors together, in part because Gobert sucks defenders into the paint with his rolling rim runs, and in part because Favors defends bigs well enough to let Gobert do more roaming. Utah gave Favors a solid $18m/year one-and-one deal where the team can opt out after next year. If Favors proves his health, he gets a second year at a high price, if not, he hits the market again. Adding Dante Exum for three more years is a bet that his offense gradually comes around, even though his range hasn’t developed as hoped. It’s also a hedge against Rubio leaving next summer. Lastly, Celtic hero Jae Crowder has two more years on his deal. I’ll be rooting for Utah as well as Denver among the West’s second tier.
- Derrick Favors (2 years, $38m, team option 2nd year)
- Dante Exum (3 years, $33m)
- Raul Neto (2 years, min)
- Georges Niang (3 years, min)
4. Denver Nuggets
Put Denver in the Eastern Conference and imagine how many more games they would win. This would mean 52 vs the East instead of 52 vs the West: this year that could mean a dozen or more extra wins. In the coming season, 26–26 against the West would be a success, whereas 38–14 against the East wouldn’t be out of the question if these Nuggets stay healthy. Last year, Denver went 28–24 vs the West, and 18–12 facing the East, and Jokic missed 6 of those games against the East. In short, the Nuggets would have gone from 46 to 50+ had they been in the East. Looking at last year’s standings, you could say the same about OKC, San Antonio, and the Clippers. Sometimes it’s just a question of when the injuries happen. Western conference teams in the playoff hunt have to hope they clean up against the East. Anyway, let’s talk about these Nuggets, because they are fun and will be even more watchable if Isaiah Thomas’ hip holds up and he comes storming off the bench, proving he can still score after signing a minimum one year deal. Starting with the draft, the Nuggets landed a high-risk/high-reward prospect in Michael Porter Jr. Despite coming into last year as the nation’s #1 collegiate prospect, back issues enabled the Nuggets to scoop him at at #14. Porter’s size (6’11”) and smooth scoring ability have me thinking of Jayson Tatum. We’ll see how his back holds up.
July hit and re-signing Nikola Jokic was priority number one. Accomplished quickly. A max extension keeps the Jokic in Denver thru 2023, his age-28 season. Denver has the potential to be a contender once the Warriors age out or disassemble. Thanks in part to Gary Harris, signed thru 2022, and the newly-extended Will Barton, thru 2022 as well. Barton’s speed is ideally suited to the altitude, where opponents have been run off the Denver court for years. Paul Millsap’s health is a question after a topsy-turvy season. Millsap’s deal comes off the books next summer, when Denver may hope to extend the steadily rising Jamal Murray. As is typically the case in Denver, defense will be the question. Here’s hoping they break through this season, despite the glut of contenders in the West. The front office made two trades to duck under the luxury tax. Giving up next year’s top-12-protected first rounder on such a young team is tough, but makes sense when you consider they shed Faried and Arthur’s salary and avoided the tax. Also, Whitehead is a clever backup PG.
- Nikola Jokic (5 years, $148m)
- Will Barton (4 years, $54m)
- Traded Wilson Chandler and 2nd Rd picks to Philadelphia (cap relief)
- Traded Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, 2019 1st Rd pick to Brooklyn for Isaiah Whitehead (cap relief)
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George choosing to stay in OKC saved Sam Presti from possible Westbrook-0nly extinction and saved Paul George from Lakers-related worries. Kyrie knew what he was doing: there’s something to be said for not having to deal with the shadow LeBron casts. The microscope isn’t friendly. The Thunder have two or three very good defensive players in Steven Adams, Andre Roberson (whose knee injury impacted their playoff run) and Jerami Grant. Adams has developed some skills around the basket, Roberson is now almost decent from the corner, and Jerami Grant is the wild-card-do-everything type. But offense is another story with the Thunder. The Westbrook-George-Melo trio didn’t click like they’d hoped mostly because Melo isn’t a consistent catch-and-shoot threat and has been playing solo in NYC as long as Westbrook has been playing solo in OKC. George can fit in on any team, but had his best stretch of the season when Melo came off the bench. This team doesn’t make a ton of sense with Melo on it, which is why he will probably be heading to the Rockets, who are looking to make-up for the free-agency losses of Ariza and Mbah-a-Moute.
What does Presti bring back for the relief of unloading Melo, who becomes a free-agent next summer? That’s just been answered. Enigmatic and twitchy point guard Dennis Schroder to bolster their previously thin reserve unit and add some dynamism to their roster. Buying out Carmelo’s contract and then trading him saves them a ton of money as they were far over the luxury tax. Still Schroder will be paid like a starter ($15.5m thru 2021). Ideally, coach Billy Donovan will find creative ways to play Schroder and Westbrook together.
- Paul George (4 years, $137m)
- Jerami Grant (3 years, $27m)
- Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot acquired from ATL for Carmelo Anthony, Justin Anderson and 2022 1st Rd pick
6. San Antonio Spurs
The Hitchcockian drama of Kawhi and the Missing Quadriceps has ended…or at least Act One has finished. Act Two takes place in Toronto, starting in October. Act Three is TBD.
Popovich gets to coach for a couple more years with DeMar DeRozan in Kawhi’s place. At least he knows who will be on his roster this year. It will be a genuinely new chapter for Pop. No Parker or Manu. No Kawhi or Danny Green. In a conference that counts 12 or 13 teams with legit playoff aspirations, the Spurs will be looking to build on the 47 wins they earned without Kawhi. Getting past 50 next year will be more difficult than ever. Fans of the 2013–14 Spurs title team that took out the Heat in 5 games, thanks to Kawhi’s annihilation of the scouting report which said he couldn’t be a “go-to” scorer, are left to wonder what might have been if not for Zaza Pachulia’s perilously planted toes.
DeRozan to the Spurs. What will reassure fans, other than the orchestrations of Pop? Davis Bertans and Marco Belinelli can shoot! Pau Gasol hasn’t retired yet! And we forgot to mention the very serviceable young center Jakob Poeltl is also going to become a Spur. He’s not altogether different than a young version of Tiago Splitter. Patty Mills is still in town to run circles around opposing point guards! DeJounte Murray is crazy long and can slither around like Derrick McKey used to! Some are focused on Murray as he looks to play off of DeRozan and Aldridge. Murray’s defense and length will help, but he’s still likely a year away from taking on more of the offensive burden. Popovich will turn 70 in January.
The Spurs will provide some drama in the first round of the playoffs come April. They just aren’t the Spurs anymore, but then again, that was inevitable. We like to believe there are franchises in sports which exist as exceptions, whether we laud them as doing things “the right way,” or “creating the best culture.” While the Spurs have been remarkably consistent over the last twenty years (my entire adult life), maybe it all came down to getting Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. Maybe it was all enhanced by a loyal, small-market fan-base (similar to what’s happened in Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Portland. Continuity allows chemistry to flourish.
DeRozan is often thought of as a regular season player, because he can’t get the same free-throws in the playoffs he gets during the year. Without consistent range, his throwback game doesn’t translate well to the physicality of the second season. But last year, he did shoot more often from deep, and was hitting them during the first half of the year. He’s also more of a playmaker than most give him credit for. Maybe Pop has some unique sets designed to make him the threat prime Tracy McGrady was. Or maybe DeRozan will simply be a really good scorer on a good team in a completely ridiculous Western Conference. Maybe 1st round pick Lonnie Walker will become a legit scorer in five years. Lots of maybes. No Kawhi, Parker, Ginobili or Danny Green. New Spurs.
- Acquired DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, 2019 1st Rd pick from Toronto for Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green
- Davis Bertans (2 years, $14m)
- Marco Belinelli (2 years, $12m)
- Rudy Gay (1 year, $10m)
- Bryn Forbes (2 years, min)
- Dante Cunningham (1 year, min)
7. Los Angeles Lakers
Splash, indeed. The Lakers used their Hollywood aura, their mystique, and their general Lakerness to sell LeBron on moving to the place where he already lives. In short, they didn’t have to do much. I thought this was the most likely scenario. He gets to do what he wants again after giving Ohioans their title. I don’t blame him. It seems to make logical sense. He sets himself up for post-NBA life. Maybe he wins a title in LA. Maybe not. More likely they compete with the Warriors and Rockets in the 2020 or 2021 playoffs than next year. Rondo’s passing is always fun to watch, though his defense is an issue if he’s getting more than 20 minutes. The front office knew Lonzo Ball’s knee wasn’t right coming into the summer and they also kept their options open with all the one-year deals open if a superstar becomes available mid-season or next summer. Also, the Lance Stephenson-LeBron goofiness is the odd icing on this summer’s free-agency cake. Brandon Ingram ready to make a leap? Will Lonzo’s knee injury linger and be an issue throughout his career? That’d be a shame. LeBron will play more center in order to save his legs at times. LeBron cannot really protect the rim. JaVale McGee can, though his offensive limitations are severe.
- LeBron James (4 years, $153m, escalating each year)
- Rajon Rondo (1 year, $12m)
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1 year, $9m)
- Lance Stephenson (1 year, $4.5m)
- JaVale McGee (1 year, min)
8. New Orleans Pelicans
It was exhilarating to watch Anthony Davis flourish during the last two months of the regular season. Brow found a way to play with DeMarcus and the team started to gel before Cousins went down, but the addition of shooting (Mirotic from Chicago) opened things up for both Davis and Jrue Holiday, who had his best season as a pro. The weighty decision on whether or not to re-sign Cousins was made weightier by the uncertainty of his post-Achilles career. How will such a giant man (6'11", 270 lbs) return from an Achilles tear? The other NBA players who’ve returned from the same injuryhave mostly been non-bigs. Two big men, Elton Brand and Anderson Varejao, have openly described the difficulty in regaining their explosiveness. So…if Cousins is indeed ground-bound, how effective can he be? Still effective, but likely a huge risk for anything close to a max-level contract. The Hornets replace Cousins with the mercurial Julius Randle, who was renounced by the Lakers in order to make room for a certain former-Cav. Randle signed a one-and-one deal for about $18m, which means he can pursue free-agency next summer, like everyone else. Randle has had stretches of high-level play, but his minutes paralleled the questions about his mental toughness. He’s still only 23 and I’m hoping he stays in NOLA, next to Davis and Holiday. At the moment, Mirotic is listed as the 6th man, which makes sense as he can help bolster a second-unit that now includes another Jekyll-and-Hyde-type in Elfrid Payton, who returned home to Louisiana on a very modest one year deal. The Hornets are enticing. If they could land a shooter like Kyle Korver to create even more spacing, they’d be that much more enticing. It’d be disappointing if they can’t build on last year’s run, but they will have to fend off the Blazers, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Clippers just to make the playoffs. Uphill climb indeed, though the athleticism and shooting of Davis/Randle/Mirotic make for an intriguing climb.
- Julius Randle (2 years, $17.7m)
- Elfrid Payton (1 year, $2.7m)
- Ian Clark (1 year, min)
The West will be a bloodbath/nightmare/impossibly tough.
The West is a nightmare. I hate leaving the Grizzlies, Blazers, Wolves, and Mavs out of the playoffs. Of those four, two might finish with better records than the Pelicans or Lakers. An injury to a star player on anyone other than Golden State will certainly shift the balance of the West slightly. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Memphis in the 7th or 8th spot. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are still young enough and Kyle Anderson slow-motion craftiness fits well. Jaren Jackson’s gigantic wingspan will keep opponents on edge. Smart defense wins a team many regular season games.
Adam Silver would be wise to push for the long-talked about playoff format change to 1–16. This would do away with the conference structure and the imbalanced schedule. As noted with the Nuggets section, the West teams face an entirely different journey to the playoffs.
As a Celtics fan, this would obviously make the C’s path the Finals much tougher. The NBA owners won’t approve of the change (the bottom 2/3 of the East teams would vote “no” immediately because they’d lose playoff revenue and the status of “playoff team.”) Still, the playoffs would be better and we would have more of an honest account of the top 16 after 82 games.