2020-2021 Western Conference Preview - Part One
Now we head to the Western Conference, which looks to be every bit as loaded as last year. There appears to only be only one team out of 15 not actively gunning for a playoff spot (OKC), which leaves a whole lot of competition for 8 playoff spots. Let's dive in on some unders/overs.
Los Angeles Lakers 46.5 wins
The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers only re-stocked the cupboard this offseason. In addition to re-signing Anthony Davis to a max contract (as expected) KCP, Markieff Morris, and Jared Dudley, the Lakers didn't sit on their hands. They acquired dynamite 6th man Dennis Schroeder from OKC for a first round pick, brought in Marc Gasol from Toronto to replace Dwight Howard and Javale McGee's departures, added 6th man of the year Montrezl Harrell from their rivals, and added Wes Matthews to eat up minutes on the wing.
This roster looks loaded around Anthony Davis and Lebron James, and the Lakers are the clear favorite to repeat as champions. I love the depth on this squad, and I don't see a lot of holes. They can play big, they can go smaller and quicker, they can shoot, they can defend on the perimeter and at the rim- you name it, they've got it. Even as Lebron ages, the depth is there to win as many regular season games as they want, and Anthony Davis will shoulder the load in games where Bron is resting. I'm taking the over and tabbing the Los Angeles Lakers as my champion for 2020-2021.
I'd take the over on almost any win projection for this team. Normally, the health of Davis and availability of LeBron would make me hesitant to get too high on them, but all the ingredients are in place for this team to be absolutely elite once again. For one, the team added quality depth from a year ago. Harrell and Schroder are literally two of the best bench players in the league, although Dennis might actually start this year. If one of the Davis/LeBron duo misses time, they would still be favored against almost any opponent. Even if they both sit, they can still hold their own on most nights.
Oh and let's get one thing clear...this team has the best one-two punch in the league and they are complete and utter mismatch against most of the NBA. Not only do they have incredible measurables, but they're among the most skilled players we've ever seen. Even if the outside shot isn't falling, they can fall back on stout defense and paint dominance to carry them home. It doesn't seem fair that this team had the best offseason in the association, but here we are. Gotta give props to Pelinka and the crew for securing excellent values like Matthews and Morris for the less than $5 million, while also spending big in key areas. Going into the season, they have two players who will challenge for MVP, a coach with a great shot at COY, and an executive who should get a long look for EOY. The embarrassment of riches this team can trot out right now should put them in the driver's seat for the top seed in the West, health permitting, of course.
Los Angeles Clippers 45.5 wins
Sam: Slight Over
Ah yes, everyone's favorite laughingstock. After a season full of load management, promises of a title, swaggering, trash-talking, and general arrogance, the Clips blew a 3-1 lead in the Western semi-finals to the Denver Nuggets, going out in embarrassing fashion and evoking a whole offseason of jokes, memes, and disrespect. It's been a long couple of months for the Clippers.
So what does the 2020-2021 iteration look like? Well, very different from last year. Doc Rivers is out to Philly and Tyronn Lue has been promoted from lead assistant to the head coach. Outgoing are Montrezl Harrell, bench shooter Landry Shamet, and Rodney McGruder. Incoming are Serge Ibaka from Toronto, Luke Kennard from Detroit, Nicolas Batum, and Ky Bowman, along with draft picks Daniel Oturu, Jay Scrubb and Reggie Perry. In addition, Marcus Morris re-signed, along with Patrick Patterson.
I do not like what I've read over the last couple of months regarding the chemistry (or lack thereof) on this squad, including what appears to be significant frustration from members of the team regarding the habits of star players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. As we are seeing in Houston with James Harden, bending over backwards to cater to a superstar at the detriment of the rest of the organization is not a winning strategy.
The talent is still there for this team to win a lot of games in the regular season, and I think they made a couple of key personnel changes. I really like the addition of Serge Ibaka for this team's interior presence- he'll be able to protect the rim defensively and step out and provide more spacing on offense. He's a clear upgrade.
I also like the addition of Luke Kennard, who may have gone under the radar for a lot of people playing in Detroit- Kennard is a great three point shooter, can make plays in the pick and roll, and will defend multiple guard positions. He's a nice piece to fill in around the two superstars.
The key will be keeping this team content off the court, and they'll have to prove they can show up in the post-season when it matters most, but the talent and depth of this Clippers squad is a recipe for a lot of regular season wins. PG and Kawhi may even play more regular season games this year, which will only increase their win total. Give me the over for regular season wins with a "wait and see" on postseason results.
Aaron: Slight Over
This translates to a 51 win campaign in a normal season and I think the Clips can get 2-3 games over that. Like the Lakers, they made a couple of splashy moves to fortify the supporting cast. I would even go as far as to say the Ibaka addition is the best move made by either team so far. One of the biggest weaknesses for the Clippers that did them in during the bubble was interior defense once Ivica Zubac left the game. Harrell just wasn't gonna cut it against the cream of the crop like the Lakers and Nuggets. Ibaka gives them exact what they were lacking with floor spacing ability and a diminished, yet respectable ability to deter shots in the restricted area. Plus, he can start or come off the bench. What a luxury for a team with big title hopes.
They are still a bit light on backcourt depth, but Kennard should help a fair bit in that department. Only hardcore fans really know what he brings to the table, so he's become slightly underrated. The man can shoot the rock, regardless of if he's shooting standstill, or off motion. Shamet just couldn't provide that sort of offensive versatility. On paper, they lack real playmaking ability, but they execute in that department more by committee than by using one elite distributor like a Luka, Harden, or LeBron.
I have this team finishing second in the conference on the strength of their dynamic wing duo. They can both score and defend at a high level, which creates a nice margin of error for the team. Now that they're in their second year together, they should be even more dialed in as a unit. Not the biggest fan of them bringing Reggie Jackson back, but they have publically hyped up Terrance Mann, so maybe he'll be able to fill in some time at the PG spot once we get deeper into the season. The loss of Harrell could be a case of addition by subtraction for them. With Ibaka and Zubac manning the middle, they'll never be lacking anything inside. They can adjust their frontcourt rotation into a multitude of options depending on the situation. There are still more questions than answers when it comes to their mental fortitude in the postseason, but for now, they should be able to coast through the regular season without issue.
Denver Nuggets 44.5 wins
Reports of Denver's demise are greatly exaggerated. Yes, I understand Jerami Grant is a versatile defender and Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig played some valuable minutes for Denver last year. However, this team added Deke Nnaji and RJ Hampton in the draft, who should grow into valuable bench pieces on this team.
They also added JaMychal Green to help replace Jerami Grant, added Facundo Campazzo from Real Madrid, and even a sneaky pickup in Markus Howard out of Marquette, a walking bucket.
Oh, did we mention this team brings back one of the premier big men in the league in Nikola Jokic and the breakout star of the bubble in Jamal Murray, along with highly touted Michael Porter Jr. another year older and wiser? There's buckets of talent on this young Nuggets squad, and I think they are as well positioned as any team to compete for the top of the West outside of LA. I like the balance, the talent, the coach and the continuity of this team. Give me the over.
Aaron: Slight Under
I will assume the role of Devil's Advocate in this situation. Denver lost something substantial in Jeremi Grant this offseason. Sure they obtained JaMychael Green to fill in the void, but he can't offer what Grant did in the way of defensive flexibility. It probably won't be a devastating hit in terms of their regular season outlook, but I'm very skeptical of their standing as a title contender. Grant's blend of athleticism and shooting was so valuable to that team and a major reason why they were able to finish 2nd in the West last season.
And what about Jamal Murray? His bubble performance was nothing short of spectacular, but aside from that stretch, he's had a tendency to run very hot and cold. Will that trend continue? I sure hope not, but his track record speaks for itself. His longtime running mate at the off-guard spot, Gary Harris, hasn't exactly been a steady contributor either. He has spent the better part of two seasons at less than 100%, although he did show some flashes of his old self in the bubble. At the 3, Will Barton will make his triumphant return after missing out on the cinderella Orlando run, and will be a welcomed addition. The 4 spot is where things get funky. A 2nd year player and 15th year player will be sharing minutes at that position and who knows how each will fare for different reasons. MPJ has all the offensive juice in the world, but gets lost on defense and the opposite issue exists for Millsap.
Enough of the questions, let's get to the facts. As long as Jokic exists, this team will be fun to watch and feature a supercharged offense. He makes everybody around him better, which should calm some of the concerns that exist with the role players here. They may not challenge for the deepest team in basketball anymore, but Denver still has a solid 9 man rotation, that includes one of the best reserve PGs in the business, Monte Morris. Ultimately, the Nuggets play a fun brand of basketball that keeps everybody engaged and involved. That offense won't allow them to finish too low in the standings. However, they only finished around league average on the defensive end. Without Jeremi Grant and Mason Plumlee, who we don't talk about enough, it will be difficult to replicate that, let alone surpass it. We'll see if the young guns have more tricks up their sleeves, or if they're approaching their ceiling.
Dallas Mavericks 42.5
Sam: Slight Under
This is not an indictment on Luka Doncic, who I believe to be the front-runner to bring home the MVP award in just his third season this year. I think Luka is well on his way to becoming one of the best players in the league for the next decade. However...
What worries me is the health of Kristaps Porzingis. The 7'3 unicorn is coming off another major knee injury, and is reportedly going to be ready to return in January. Consider me dubious that he will return to be a top strength and will stay that way on a night-to-night basis. When he's right, KP and Luka would be one of the best duos in the league. Only problem is KP can't stay on the court.
The floor of this team is high with Luka and the most efficient offense in the league. They added Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Wesley Iwundu, while losing Seth Curry, Delon Wright, and Justin Jackson. Willy Cauley-Stein and Trey Burke also re-signed. I think this team will score a whole lot, but the West is absolutely brutal, and the load will be heavy on Luka's broad shoulders. His time is coming, but I don't know if I trust the pieces around him to be a top 4 seed in the West quite yet. Give me the slight under.
Aaron: Slight Under
Let's start with the positives. Luka is one of the brightest lights we have in our league and he got what he needed most this offseason: help. Luka was probably the most ball dominant force in the NBA outside of Harden last season, so the addition of Josh Richardson should be a huge benefit for him by allowing him to get a breather from time to time and not require him to create every look for this team at every time. Richardson can bring the ball up, run a Pick & Roll here and there, and convert from deep at a 36-37% clip. Josh should feel much more comfortable operating as a secondary and sometimes even tertiary creator, using space awarded to him by Doncic and Porzingis.
Speaking of the latter, he will presumably miss the first several games of the Mavs season while he continues to recover from surgery. Dallas has a few bodies that can fill in like Kleber, Powell, and WCS. Powell in particular will be fun to watch since is returning from an Achilles tear he suffered in January. He is the perfect partner for Luka due to his hustle and ability to finish inside. They are all good bigs, but no one can replicate the game breaking shooting that Porzingis can offer at the 5 position. Luckily, Rick Carlile continues to be one of the savviest coaches in the sport, so you know he will coax every possible drop of production out of this group.
The potential pitfalls include defense, the team's reliance on Luka, and of course, how often Porzingis misses due to injury. Although Richardson should provide some clutch defensive pressure with his combination of quick hands and activity off the ball, he can't cover the multitude of sins the team will probably commit each night when it comes to getting stops. All of their bigs can be exploited in space, Tim Hardaway Jr. will always be a negative on that end, and they can be bullied by teams with size. They may be better there than last season, but not by much. When it comes to Luka, he is the engine for this unit, plain and simple. If he slows down at any point, they're in huge trouble. Despite these struggles, I still believe Dallas will avoid the Play-in tournament and have a chance at home court advantage in the 1st round.
Utah Jazz 42.5
I think this Utah Jazz team is firmly in the mix of the 4-6 seed range in the West, with the ink on Rudy Gobert's max deal and Donovan Mitchell's max deal still drying. They've locked up the two most important pieces of their team, and retain Jordan Clarkson, as well as adding familiar face Derrick Favors back into the mix. They also welcome back Bojan Bogdanovic, who missed the end of last season due to injury.
I really like the depth and identity of this Utah squad, who saw Don Mitchell take "The Leap" at the end of last season into a full-fledged superstar. They'll surround their dynamic playmaker with plenty of shooting in Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and more, and locked in Gobert to anchor their defense. They feel like a team that has a defined ceiling, but a high floor. I'm taking the slight over for the Jazz.
Aaron: Slight Over
Utah will go back to the drawing board next season after over compensating for the offensive woes that flagued them in 18-19. They ended up ranking in the top 10 for offensive efficiency, but slid back to 13th on the other end. That's an uncharacteristic ranking for a Jazz team, sure I'm sure the whole team will be committed to getting that under control. With Rudy Gobert in the fold, there's only so low you can go there. With his shiny new max extension, the expectations are higher than ever for him. That sort of money is tough to justify for a player who can't create his own shot, or even convert a shot outside of eight feet.
Donovan Mitchell also signed his max deal and unlike Gobert, he's young enough to have some room left to grow. He had a sensational bubble run, going back and forth with Jamal Murray which should provide him with some momentum to attack this season. As a whole, the whole team is in a sweet spot when it comes to recovering from last season. That had a moderately long stay in Orlando, so they haven't been off a terribly long time, but they didn't go deep enough to cut into their offseason prep time. Their last game was September 1st, so they will be rested, but should be able to avoid substantial rust.
All the ingredients are there for this team to be very good once again. They brought back fan favorite Derrick Favors, for backside support, and should prevent any massive drop offs once Gobert goes to the bench. Jordan Clarkson should be in the running for 6MOY if he has a year even approximating last season's production.
I just don't know how much I trust this team to put together a solid 72 game effort. For the past couple years, this team has been very up and down during the season, for whatever reason. You would think that with all the veterans and talent that the team is comprised of, it would be a smoother ride. That should at least limit the floor for them, but I don't see enough changing over last season to really move up at all in the standings. They finished last season as the 6th seed with 44 wins in a shortened season (72 games) and I say they end up right back there again.
Portland Trail Blazers 41.5
Sam: Slight Under
This line feels just about right for Portland, who struggled with injury last year en route to a 35-39 record. They were active in the offseason, adding Robert Covington from Houston, Harry Giles, Derrick Jones Jr. , and Enes Kanter, as well as retaining Rodney Hood and of course, Carmelo Anthony.
This team is clearly improved and ready to take a step forward in the West, but is it 7 games better than last year? Time will tell. I love the RoCo pickup, as they've needed a wing who can defense and knock down a 3 for years now. Harry Giles is a great buy-low candidate, who has loads of talent and is still untapped potential. Enes Kanter is an above average offensive center, and his defense? Well, that's another story...
As usual, it's on Dame and CJ McCollum to carry the offensive load for the Blazers, with a little help from Melo and Jusuf Nurkic, who is finally going into a season at full health. I like this Portland team as a solid playoff team, but I don't know if I can go over 41.5 wins. Slight under for me.
I LOVE the offseason that Portland just had. They addressed one of their biggest concerns with the addition of Covington and brought additional energy and defensive activity into the rotation in Derrick Jones Jr. They are now equipped to hold their own against just about any wing threat they come up against, which lessens the burden for Dame and CJ. Nurkic is a adequate rim protector, so the guards won't have to fear for their lives if they get beat in the backcourt. Harry Giles is a low key addition to the big rotation, but there is untapped potential there for sure. He is an underrated passer and should be able to leave his mark on plenty of games with his activity, much like DJJ.
Behind Dame and CJ, they have bubble standout Gary Trent Jr. and Simons, who has the ability to get hot in a hurry. When it comes to Trent Jr. he's more than just a gunner. He got after it during the playoffs, refusing to back down from even LeBron James during their first round duel with LA. Rodney Hood will probably take a minute to get back up to speed after an unfortunate ACL tear, but he was playing some of his best ball prior to that and players typically get back to 100% after that unjury, especially under the age of 30. He can get going in hurry, and only provides more scoring juice once the big guns take their leave. Zach Collins and Nassir Little are question marks, but if they fail to produce, Stotts can just bury them in the rotation and let more proven commodities have a run.
I won't sit here and say the Blazers will have an elite defense, but they should at least be able to hold their own on that end. When you have two threats in the backcourt that can ignite for 30+ on any given night, you don't have to be incredible on that end. I can see them finishing between 15th-18th there and that's plenty. You know they'll put up all the points necessary to hang with even the most talet laced teams.
It wasn't that long ago that the Blazers finished third in the conference with 53 wins, and this is probably the most complete roster they've had in quite awhile. They got absolutely blasted last season by injuries, so I expect a nice bounceback this time around. Anything less than a mid seed finish would be pretty disappointing, given the upgrades made to this roster.
Phoenix Suns 38.5
Who's taking the biggest step forward in the West in 2020-2021? For me, it's these Phoenix Suns. Incoming is Chris Paul, who we just saw completely transform a ragtag Oklahoma City team to a playoff spot, and took Houston to the brink. Paul's experience, leadership, and presence in the locker room and on the court are going to be massive for this young, aggressive Suns squad that finished the year undefeated in the bubble, running off 8 straight.
Who will join Chris Paul in the backcourt? Devin Booker, of course. In case you were sleeping on him, Book has been a certified bucket-getter in recent years, average 26.6 points per game last year on 49/35/92 splits. Now Booker gets to play alongside the Point God and will get ample opportunities to showcase his elite offensive game on the ball and also playing off ball. This backcourt is going to be devastating.
Another beneficiary of Chris Paul's presence? Third-year center DeAndre Ayton, who overcame suspension to end the year on a real high note, finishing with a line of 18.2 PPG, 11.5 rebounds per game, and showed vast improvement on the defensive side of the floor. I expect Ayton, under CP3's tutelage, to take another big leap this year into one of the best centers in the league.
Dario Saris, Jevon Carter, Damian Jones and Johnathon Motley are re-signed, and Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, and E'Twaun Moore are also joining the roster. The Suns also took Maryland big Jalen Smith at no. 10 in the first round of the draft, to eat up some minutes on the interior.
This team won 34 games last year and are projected to win about 4.5 more than last year. I think they clear that threshold and end up around 40 wins in 72 games this year. I'm in on the Suns.
Aaron: Slight Over
Devin Booker fans rejoice! The time has finally come for the rising superstar to take his place among the postseason contenders. The relationship between him and CP3 should be sweet, sweet music all season long. Booker has needed a lead guard who can deliver the ball on time and on target, while serving as a legitimate threat to score the rock. Rubio was ultra steady and played a big part in bringing Phoenix back to relevance, but he could only fill one of those two necessities for Booker. Teams were content to let him fire from deep, but that all changes with Paul. He is a three point and two point assassin who can also throw pinpoint lob and skip passes. The fact that he's still this dangerous at his age is almost LeBron levels of insanity.
DeAndre Ayton fans should also be ready to rejoice! Many fans have wasted no time putting the third year big man at the front of their Most Improved ballots, and for good reason. Every big man that Paul has played with has had fantastic years, including Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, and Clint Capela. Paul will even have some steady shooters to find with his sexy dimes. Galloway and Moore are not household names, but they can hit catch & shoot threes with the best of em.
That wing rotation is looking nice as well. Bridges and Cam Johnson are looking like young studs early who can defend and a high level and knockdown threes. With a vet like Jae Crowder in the fold that can take over to guard stronger forwards and coach up the next generation, they are stocked to the brim at the swingman positions.
I'm trying not to get ahead of myself with the Suns, because the West is still treacherous and Paul could suffer from nagging injuries, that he was fortunate enough to avoid last season. They're not exactly super deep at PG either, with the next man up looking to be Cameron Payne, who has done well to get back to the league after falling out for a second, but that's a steep drop from Chris freaking Paul. Even the most improved teams don't jump from the lottery to the middle of playoff seeding picture, so I still have the Suns battling for a spot in the Play-in tournament. Hopefully it's enough to secure the over on the Vegas line, although it might be close.