The final part of our 50 Important Predictions series has a heavy focus on the Western Conference. Why? West Coast, Best Coast. There is so much drama and intrigue here; Almost six teams could legitimately win the conference, and therefore the title.
So let’s dive into a more nuanced, contender version of the bold predictions and see what could be in store for the teams with real championship aspirations.
34. Klay Thompson does not play a single minute
Having suffered a torn ACL before, I’m pretty sympathetic to the rehabilitation process and how gingerly a ligament injury must be dealt with. Klay Thompson tore his barely three months ago. That’s it. The most aggressive timetable for a return would be in mid-to-late March, just before the NBA Playoffs heat up.
At the very least, he’s out until the All-Star Break and will be evaluated with a clearer timetable by then.
Some conflicting reports and news have come out regarding the advice Klay is receiving on when to return. One surgeon actually mentioned a two-year absence, which seems like a gross mischaracterization of the competitiveness these guys are wired with. But there may be some merit to the claim for conservativism on his return.
Several players in the past have derailed their careers in the months following their return from an ACL surgery. Jontay Porter re-tore his ACL in the draft process this past winter and fell from a potential lottery pick to being undrafted. Jabari Parker experienced the pains of a second ACL tear just a few seasons ago, and his career has never been the same.
Thus, if the Golden State Warriors are in good shape as a group in late February, there’s no reason to rush Klay back. The Warriors are unique in the absolute insane mileage they’ve logged over the last half-decade. Five straight NBA Finals appearances leads to 100 games a season, plus their training camps, preseason, Team USA commitments and world travel. Thompson should be treated a bit differently with all the wear-and-tear he’s endured.
35. The Golden State Warriors finish as the 8-seed
And… the Warriors may not rush one of their snipers back because they’ll not be in title contention regardless.
This group may not skip a beat offensively, however. Zach Lowe of The Lowe Post mentioned some statistics about how the tandem of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry have performed, even in minutes without Thompson or Kevin Durant. They are absurd. The most potent offense may still be a motion, cut-and-screen approach built around a sniper like Curry and a playmaker like Dray.
Add All-Star D’Angelo Russell into the mix, and this team takes on a different element. Russell is nearly a 37 percent shooter from deep in his own right who put up 25.2 points per 36 minutes with the Brooklyn Nets. He is also a vastly underrated playmaker. While I’m fascinated to see if the Dubs run more pick-and-roll around D’Angelo (his best skill), they’ll be a uniquely unorthodox team playing two dynamic shooting point guards.
Defense is the worry in San Francisco, however.
Losing Durant, Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala changes the switchability of their wing core. Regardless of the many possibilities to replace them, an entirely new scheme will take hold. It will be a test to the brilliance of Draymond to see how he impacts games outside of switching and protecting Curry within those switches. It will also challenge Curry and Russell’s one-on-one defense against top guards.
Their lack of a center and rim protector will be evident unless Kevon Looney and/or Willie Cauley-Stein have career years.
Offensively, there’s enough firepower to win 50 games. That’s a massive compliment for Curry, Green and Russell as individual talents and offensive pieces. This is a league-average defense, at best, however, and with so many pieces that have to figure themselves out and mature to a high level, I’m not confident in this Warriors group. They have enough raw talent and good enough coaching to make the postseason, but they’re officially not a threat until Thompson comes back fully in 2020-21.
36. The Houston Rockets do not finish with a top-four record in the Western Conference
Outside of James Harden and Eric Gordon, this version of the Houston Rockets is three-point challenged.
Russell Westbrook is begging to be sagged off. Austin Rivers only shot 31.6 percent from deep last year. P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green are due a regression, and if they are taking a high volume of shots, it’s probably a win for the defense. The Rockets won only 53 games a season ago, sans Westbrook but with a more fitting supporting cast.
The Western Conference got a lot stronger this summer, too. Sure, Golden State is an enigma, but the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers all were recipients of massive star upgrades. The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers continue to build special teams with continuity. Are we sure Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets are still deserving of the “elite” mantle in the West?
Like the Clippers and Lakers, they have a core of two dynamic star players. But what of their supporting cast? Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, their two next offensive threats, play duplicate positions as their stars. New owner Tillman Fertitta has proven to be more interested in evading the luxury tax than competing for the top seed, so it’s hard to bet on the Rockets fixing their deficiencies at mid-season, despite the well-earned reputation of Daryl Morey as an elite general manager. I’m just not crazy about this group.
37. They Finish First in PPP after timeouts (ATO)
Being the ATO fanatic that I am, something had to be thrown in here regarding the efficiency of scoring sets after a timeout. In case you missed it, check out my prior pieces on how analytics of ATO situations are measured.
But this is where the wizardry of D’Antoni comes into play. He’s always been an innovator, and with a scary downhill threat like Westbrook, their playbook is going to be bonkers: Fake handoffs, two-man speedy actions between he and Harden that are treacherous. Impeccable spacing on the weak-side. Capela screening and diving to the rim. “Magic Mike” has got so many unique toys to play with.
D’Antoni loves getting Harden a free look through backdoors after timeouts, as well as using misdirection from their regular offense to catch opponents napping:
The Rockets were third in ATO scoring efficiency a season ago and now have a second juggernaut scorer. Even if Houston suffers a shooting setback, D’Antoni can stave off the impact by creatively controlling how they score post-stoppage.
38. Andre Iguodala winds up with the Portland Trail Blazers
Match made in heaven.
Andre Iguodala being the cagey veteran on an upstart contending team, helping stabilize the wing rotation and unlocking a new style of play. The ball handler in sets when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum zip off screens. The defensive-minded wing that takes on some of the best scorers at the 3 or the 4 in the West.
Culturally and competitively, this is the right move and would come off as a very Iguodala decision to make. Call it wishful thinking, but this would be an awesome coup for the Portland Trail Blazers.
39. Terry Stotts (Finally) Wins Coach of the Year
Third in offensive rating in 2019. Eighth in defense in 2018. Six consecutive playoff appearances, four series wins and three fifty-win seasons. Can we give Terry Stotts some freaking credit?
He and his staff always develop talent, overachieve and have a system in place that maximizes every player on the roster.
If Portland can win 48 games or more in a season where the Western Conference is stacked, Stotts can’t be denied any longer. Give this man his due.
40. Portland (Almost) Wins Another First-Round Series
After getting the perfectly paved path last year to the Western Conference Finals, I was among many worried about the Trail Blazers seeing false signs and going all-in on a competitive move to reshape their roster. After all, the Lakers and Clippers were bound to be better and ready to squeeze Portland out of that top spot.
General manager Neil Olshey has built this team the right way nonetheless. He added veteran shooters and defenders on the wings and has an incredible blend of options.
Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood are good pieces at the 3. Hassan Whiteside is the perfect backup or fill-in for Jusuf Nurkic. There are a ton of young players that really excite, including Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.
Zach Collins should continue to make positive strides. Nassir Little was an awesome value pick, and he won’t be depended upon from the jump. There’s just so much to like about this team.
The Blazers aren’t quite elite in their talent to nab a first-round advantage in the playoffs, and that likely will prevent them from advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals. Based on their well-rounded wing group and the upside to enter the postseason with Jusuf Nurkic back, the Blazers are nonetheless the type of team that can push any opponent into a seven-game series.
41. The Milwaukee Bucks finish with the Eastern Conference’s top record, but not all is well
For some reason, I have this feeling that the Milwaukee Bucks already missed their best title window.
Think about it. A season ago, they had MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great shooting season from Brook Lopez, the top defense and a massive void in the Eastern Conference around them. Now they enter this season without Malcolm Brogdon, (one of the unsung heroes of that 60-win group), plus stretch bigs/ wings Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic, who provided key spacing around Giannis.
Sure, they have a full season of George Hill and signed Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews—two shooting threats that help mitigate those losses to some extent. But the value of stretch bigs around Antetokounmpo was about distorting matchups and preventing teams from putting a center on the MVP and sagging off him away from the hoop.
The absences will bleed over to their defense, too. Snell was a valuable stretch defender, and Brogdon is a premier perimeter defender. Hill and Matthews’ best days on defense are behind them, not ahead.
On sheer brilliance of Giannis and Mike Budenholzer’s scheme, the Bucks will likely win 55 games again and plow through the Eastern Conference. But they’ve definitely taken a step backward, and the defensive scheme provided by the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Playoffs served as a blueprint for limiting Giannis in a seven-game series:
If the Philadelphia 76ers gel by the postseason, the Bucks could be in trouble.
Let’s not hit the panic button and assume Giannis will jet town once his contract ends. I’m just skeptical the Bucks are truly the Eastern Conference’s top draw.
42. Four Los Angeles Clippers receive votes for All-NBA Defensive Teams
Paul George. Kawhi Leonard. Patrick Beverley. Montrezl Harrell.
George and Leonard are likely to make First or Second team. Beverley could nab his way onto the Third team. But one roster getting four players to receive votes? That will be a testament to the incredible defensive skill that Lawrence Frank and Doc Rivers have accumulated. This team will be super tough to score on since they can cut the head of the snake off with three different players.
Have I mentioned how much I love this Clippers team?
43. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both finish Top 7 in MVP Voting
Same concept. Both are pretty unselfish and will have balance on offense.
Leonard is the isolation bucket in the mid-post, George is the guy that faces up higher on the wings. Both shoot. Both defend. Both work so well together that it’s difficult to imagine either sacrificing individual accomplishment—especially knowing they are really the main two creators on this team.
Neither will get a large enough share of MVP votes to run away with the award, but both will receive enough to finish in the top seven. Doc Rivers could get Coach of the Year consideration; they have plenty of Defensive Player of the Year candidates and the perennial Sixth Man front-runner in Lou Williams. The Clippers could challenge for most major awards in 2020.
Oh, have I mentioned how much I love this Clippers team?
44. The San Antonio Spurs win 48 games and make the playoffs… again
This San Antonio Spurs season figures to be a very unique one, as a changing of the guard is inevitable. DeMar DeRozan (30 years old) and LaMarcus Aldridge (34) are the top scorers, while Rudy Gay (33) is a tertiary threat. All veterans play in an antithetical style to the Gregg Popovich motion-based, ball movement-heavy approach: All three are best in isolation.
Credit Pop for changing his style to fit the personnel he’s given rather than jamming players that don’t fit into a system he prefers.
Surrounding those three are a group of young, budding guards. Derrick White (25), Dejounte Murray (23), Bryn Forbes (26) and Lonnie Walker (turning 21 in December) all have potential and should see plenty of the floor. None are isolation scorers or creators and heavily benefit from a motion-based approach. How will Popovich balance these guys and get the most out of everyone on his roster?
More importantly, how does he do that without jeopardizing their playoff streak? San Antonio has missed the postseason just once in the last thirty years. They won 48 games a year ago. They add Murray back to the lineup and have intriguing rookies in Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson. It’s not like they got worse.
Hammer the over and perpetually trust in Popovich.
45. Dejounte Murray is the spurs’ only all-star
Speaking of Murray, it was only twelve months ago the notoriously-muted Spurs were talking about how big of a star he was going to become. Then, an injury ended his third campaign before it began and Murray didn’t play a single minute in 2018-19.
Now, he’s back, and we cannot forget about the hype about his improved jumper. Some reports indicate Murray looked dominant when playing in scrimmages with other stars. If you ask me, he’s going to be an All-Star and catch many by surprise. He’s already an elite defender and a great slasher. If that jump shot is legit, he’s going to be a problem.
46. Top Five-Man Lineup in the NBA? Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert
Go small late in games, Quin Snyder.
Offensively, this group has it all. Four shooters around a screening, pogo stick of a center. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell give the Utah Jazz two players that can create their own shot. Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles are strong, stocky wings that can guard up a position.
Bogdanovic at the 4 would provide so much potency for their offense. Ingles, Conley and Bogdanovic are high-level defenders at their positions, and the best rim protector in the world gobbles up all traffic they funnel towards him.
This won’t be a lineup the Jazz necessarily start games with. Jeff Green and Royce O’Neale are natural fits at the 4 and provide some more size early while better staggering Utah’s offensive threats. But when they are in crunch time, there’s little doubt this is the lineup the Jazz turn to. What flaw do they really have?
47. The Utah Jazz cede fewer than 0.9 points per possession in the half-court
Draymond Green may be the smartest defender in the world, but Rudy Gobert is the most impactful.
How he defends the paint and alters shots is unparalleled. If there were more metrics revolving around defense and a more mainstream appreciation for and understanding of high-level stopping power, Gobert would be considered a top ten NBA player. He’s that dominant on one end of the court.
There are no slouches around him, either.
Donovan Mitchell is a bit overzealous at times and struggles to stay disciplined, but now is the time to push him on that account. The Jazz have title hopes and another ball handler to initiate the offense. Mitchell can’t hide behind expending his energy on only one end to save it on another. Bench guys like Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum can keep up this production when their starters get a rest. Ed Davis is no slouch as a backup 5.
Last year’s Jazz ceded a mere 0.918 points per possession (PPP) in the half-court, tops in the NBA. This team will fare better, despite a league-wide trend with PPP increasing annually thanks to shot distribution moving behind the three-point line with greater frequency. (As shot locations change, PPP trends upward.)
Below is a table of the top defenses of the past ten years in the half-court, and how they fare in comparison to league average:
The change of league-average scoring over the last four seasons is insane. While the average historically hovered around 0.9 PPP until 2015, the last three years have all been above 0.94 PPP, due in no small part to the focus on three-pointers. It’s also made it more difficult for a team to have an elite defense against all opponents.
Outfits like the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors—who won 67 games and an NBA Championship—were dominant on defense, but not statistically as much of an outlier as the Paul George-Roy Hibbert Indiana Pacers or the Tom Thibodeau Chicago Bulls.
In essence, to be 0.06 PPP better than league-average in today’s game would be quite an accomplishment. In order to get there, Utah would likely have to dip beneath 0.9 PPP in the half-court. Monitor this throughout the year, and be prepared for the Jazz to stifle teams in after-timeout situations.
48. Philadelphia 76ers win 75 percent of the games they play when Joel Embiid sits
Somehow, the Philadelphia 76ers have managed to improve their talent, think outside the box, do everything defensively I’ve always salivated over and still leave me questioning their overall impact.
Getting bigger with Al Horford at the 4 is a bold strategy, as it moves Tobias Harris to the 3, Josh Richardson to the 2 and Ben Simmons to the 1. These Sixers are freakin’ huge. They could probably just link arms and reach from basket to basket.
But the Simmons and Embiid duo—which their long-term (and now short-term) hopes hinge upon—requires proper spacing around them.
Richardson, Horford and Harris are all above-average shooters, sure, but the loss of JJ Redick will loom large on this offense. If Richardson is the replacement for Jimmy Butler, Horford comes on instead of Redick, and that drastically changes how they play.
It may take a while to iron out the kinks and figure things out offensively. One thing that figures to be important: The Sixers now have a great player at the 5 when Embiid is on the bench. Horford will slide up to the 5, and many of the wings and shooters will space the floor around them. Can you imagine how much a Simmons-Richardson-Matisse Thybulle-Mike Scott-Al Horford unit would tear apart other bench units?
In those games when Embiid rests and is not in the lineup, the Sixers finally have a blueprint for success with a team that is deep. Embiid has never played more than 64 games, so if Philly goes 15-5 in twenty matches without him, it will be hard to deny them an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
49. Only one team from Los Angeles makes it to the second round
Well, well, well… let’s get spicy here.
I’m not overly high on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Is adding Anthony Davis and Danny Green enough to vault a team that missed the postseason entirely and was sub-.500 a year ago to be one of the four best teams in the most competitive conference of our lifetimes? Better yet, what seed do they need to earn in order to have a clear advantage in the first round? The two seed?
Frankly, I don’t see that happening, and while betting against LeBron James in the playoffs isn’t exactly a good bet, I’m gonna make it.
50. The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals
The team across the underground tunnels of the Staples Center is better primed to make a run for a championship: Their top two players are elite, two-way stars; they have great defenders and shooters around them, along with some really strong role players who already logged plenty of time together last season. They also have a coach that has done this before, taking a new group of stars and getting them to mesh quickly to contend for a title.
It’s time for Doc Rivers to work his magic again.
Who do they face in the NBA Finals? A team that is so unique the Eastern Conference will have a difficult time matching up with them.
Bet on talent, and bet on teams that are really tough defensively. The Clippers have individual defensive talent. The Sixers are daunting as a group due to their length.
Clippers in seven…
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of October 4, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.