2020-2021 Western Conference Preview - Part Two
In case you missed it, we covered the top half of the Western Conference earlier this week here. The bottom 8 teams are going to be fascinating- let's dive into some overs/unders.
Golden State Warriors 36.5 wins
I was ready to see the return of the Splash Brothers this year, because when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson get hot, there's hardly anything more exciting in the league to behold. As bad luck would have it, Klay ruptured his achilles just before the season and he'll miss the entire season (and probably some of next year, too). What a bummer.
What's left of this team? Well, the Warriors offense will revolve around Steph, with Andrew Wiggins, newly-acquired Kelly Oubre, Draymond Green, and likely a lot of no. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, the lengthy big out of Memphis. We finally get to see if Steph can drag this Warriors team to a playoff spot on his own ALA Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City or a James Harden in Houston. As great as Curry is, we've never seen him on his own to put his team on his shoulders for a full season and take them to the playoffs. I'm excited to see him try.
Defensively, I think this team is going to be a mess. Outside of Draymond, who is a great defender but now getting a little older, Curry is a below average defender. Andrew Wiggins has never been known to put in a consistent shift on this side of the floor. Kelly Oubre's focus comes and goes. And James Wiseman has great potential to become a standout defender in this league, but he's just a rookie who only played 3 games of college ball. His learning curve will be steep.
I'm anticipating these defensive struggles will hold the Warriors under their projected win total of 36.5. Remember it's a 72 game season, so this would be playing about exactly .500. The West is too deep and there are too many teams that can hurt you on any given night. This feels like a team that can fight for a play-in tournament spot, but nothing more.
Aaron: Slight Over
The Klay Thompson injury really got me bummed on the outlook of this team. I think they dropped from just below contender status to borderline playoff team, and I do mean BORDERLINE. If Curry can return to his flamethrowing ways, I think they're safe to secure at least a top 8 seed. However, if anything goes wrong with him healthwise, it's a complete and utter wrap. It won't be a pretty season for them this time, as they have a pretty meh ceiling and a crazy low floor.
Between Oubre, Wiggins, and Green, they should get enough scoring and defense to scrape by. I think Green in particular is in line for a very nice season. He was in chill mode all of last year, so he should have plenty of competitive fire ready to go. He has incredible scenergy with Curry after all their years together, so they should help each other out quite a bit when it comes to creating offense. Green and Oubre should mesh quickly, since Green is a magician in the high lost and Oubre is one of the best cutters around. Wiggins isn't half bad himself when he's engaged.
The big man equation should prove to be a nice challenge for the Warriors to solve. If Wiseman is given ample run early, he will be in ROY consideration. He should be a fine rim roller and opportunistic shooter with a smooth stroke. If he can grasp the defensive principles quick enough, he should be able to send some shots back at the rim as well.
The bench unit as a whole is...pretty sketchy and that's putting it nicely. Damian Lee, Jordan Poole, and Mychal Mulder don't inspire a ton of confidence. They are fine as back of the bench options, but what happens when they are counted on to play big minutes? We saw how that movie played out last season and it's not pretty. The saving graces here are obviously Kerr and Curry. Kerr is probably still a top ten coach in the league that will put new faces and veterans alike in positions to succeed. Curry could be a 30ppg scorer if he puts his mind to it and that should at least give this team a chance at the postseason. I don't feel great about this pick, but I've seen enough from Curry over his career to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully his running mates can pick up enough of the slack.
New Orleans Pelicans 36.5
Sam: Slight Over
This team feels like it has a wide range of possibilities for 2021. We get year 2 of Zion WIlliamson, who missed a good portion of his rookie season but was (unsurprisingly awesome when he finally did play). Just as importantly for the Pelicans, Brandon Ingram emerged as a full-fledged star, averaging 23.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, on 39% shooting from 3. He looks ready to assert himself as the 1b to Zion for years to come in New Orleans.
Alongside them will be newly-acquired center/enforcer Steven Adams from OKC, who will help protect the rim and gobble up rebounds. Good luck getting a rebound on the Adams/Zion combo! Point guard Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe will grab a good portion of the backcourt minutes along with veteran JJ Redick. This team took full advantage of a desperate Milwaukee to extract 3 first round picks and multiple swaps in the Jrue Holiday deal, but for the here and now, they will have to account for his loss on the perimeter.
I see this Pelicans squad as a young and extremely talented bunch that is on the upswing. They may lose a game or two that they should have won due to their youth, but I believe that Zion and Ingram are two potential All-NBA type players. If Zion can play even 60 games this year, he's going to be dynamite and this team will be better than a .500 squad. Give me the over.
Aaron: Slight Under
Even after losing Holiday in a trade, New Orleans is still packed to the brim with talent. Ingram and Zion alone make this team must see TV and Adams brings stability to the middle. I'm still a fan of Bledsoe also, who will be replacing Holiday's spot in the starting lineup.
Ok, so take a look at who's starting for this team. Ball, Bledsoe, Ingram, Zion, and Adams. They are all talented in their own ways, but look at how many of those names do their best work in the paint. IF Ball's jumpshot is real, that's 1.5-2 legitimate floor spacing threats in the starting lineup. I'm more than a bit confused as to why this team went out and got Adams instead of Horford or Miles Turner to take over for Derrick Favors. Both would still be fine defensive anchors and be able to play some pick & pop to give driving lanes to Ingram, Bledsoe, and Zion.
This team couldn't stop a chicken with a basketball last season, which ended up being their undoing and costing them an invitation to the 2020 playoffs. Stan Van Gundy might be the best available coaching free agent they could have brought in to change the culture on that end, so kudos to the Front Office for that hire. Zion and Jaxson Hayes in particular need tons of work on that end, since both looked completely lost when they were trying to provide any sort of defensive resistance.
I just wonder whether or not he will be able to undo the offensive knot that has been created with the players brought in during the offseason. The only reason they were even decent on that end was the presence of the sensational Zion, who averaged more points per game than any rookie. When he was not on the court, the team suffered in a big way to put points on the board. That doesn't bode well for them if he is forced to miss time, which I believe will happen at some point during the season. Ultimately, the offensive issues here could cancel out any strides they make defensively. Maybe I am overrating the importance of fit and the available talent will render this conversation moot. Still, you gotta admit this isn't a traditonal pairing.
I expect this team to challenge for a playoff spot after the conclusion of the regular at the 9th or 10th seed, but they're gonna have to come up more clutch than last season (2-6 in the seeding games) to stake their claim.
Houston Rockets 34.5
Who can say what the Houston Rockets will look like this season? Gone are Robert Covington, Russell Westbrook, and Austin Rivers from last year's team, as well as head coach Mike D'Antoni and GM Daryl Morey. In are John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Christian Wood, and Sterling Brown. Oh, and have you heard that James Harden wants to be traded?
The early reporting out of Houston is that the situation is getting testy already. James Harden wants out, and he's not afraid to let everyone know it. Demarcus Cousins and John Wall are coming off of major injuries. Stephen Silas is a first time head coach that's inheriting a locker room full of disarray. This is a team with a laundry list of question marks, and we don't have the answers to most of them.
So as currently constructed, if Harden were to buy in for the full season? This team would hit their over. Harden is still a top 5-7 player in the NBA, and is capable of dragging even a mediocre team to a playoff spot. He's that good. But he is just as likely to be traded at some point this year, and who knows how he will perform in Houston until that happens. I would advise you not to put any bets down on Houston this year, but sit back and watch the circus. Stay away!
Aaron: Slight Over(???)
What else can you say about this team that hasn't already been said? You could project this team to finish anywhere from 3rd to 12th in the conference and be perfectly justified with the pick. I decided to split the difference and put them just outside the top 8. It is in Houston's best interest to play the long game and at least play out the 1st half of the schedule with James Harden on the roster. That should allow them to get off to a strong start with the rejuvenated John Wall and late bloomer Christian Wood in tow. I'm actually sort of surprised that Harden still wants out as bad as he does. Wall, Harden, House, PJ, and Wood make for a very intriguing starting group with plenty of playmaking juice.
Wood in particular is an awesome pickup. He's a big body that can still provide some of the size they lacked last season, but can create for himself in particular scenarios and shoot the ball quite well at his position. Behind him, Cousins will come in and probably not miss a beat on offense, although his injuries have made him less effective at getting stops. Eric Gordon is another bench guy that can come in and fill it up when called upon. I'd like to see Houston play him once Wall and Harden go to the bench so that he can play more on ball and be forced to live off of catch and shoot looks that I'm sure he's had his fill off through all his years in Houston.
The pieces fit and they are very capable pieces. It's just a shame they might not want to play with each other. I wouldn't be surprised if the locker room completely falls apart at some point. I know I wouldn't be driven to put in max effort every night if the best player on the team wanted out. PJ is pouting until he gets a new deal, and most everyone else in the normal rotation has locked up their money for multiple years. The effort and trade rumors could drag this team down and until Harden departs. When he does, they'll be left with a gaping hole in the rotation. Either way, I feel good about taking the under for this team that places them outside the top 8 for the 1st time in a long time.
Memphis Grizzlies 30.5
The Grizzlies had a very quiet couple of months after failing to hang onto their 8 seed in the NBA bubble, losing out to the Portland Trailblazers. The Grizz are in a similar spot as the Pelicans, watching their two young building blocks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant grow into the franchise cornerstones. Ja of course brought home the Rookie of the Year award in 2019-2020 and if preseason indications are any clue, he's poised to take another leap forward to the All-Star conversation in year two.
I really liked that Memphis brought back De'Anthony Melton this offseason, an important defender on the perimeter for the Grizz. Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke provide valuable scoring and energy in and around Morant, and this team has a real sense of chemistry and togetherness that can't be overlooked. The Grizz will bring the fight night in and night out.
This team is on the upswing, and I like them challenge for .500 basketball and a spot in the play-in tournament. They're a year or two (and maybe a player or two) away from challenging in the West, but they're going in the right direction. Give me the over.
Aaron: Slight Under
Memphis missed the playoffs by one game, which is great or terrible depending on how you look at it. Prior the hiatus, they were in the 8th spot, which means they would have been a playoff team in any other season. Still, the fact that this young squad even challenged for a spot in the big dance is a testament to the quick growth of the supporting cast and early greatness of Ja Morant. Everybody on this team has bought into the culture and that goes a long way when trying to rebuild an identity in the wake of grit and grind.
I think Memphis is in for a reality check this season though. As good as they are already, growth is by no means linear in this league. How much better can Morant get this early in his career? Brandon Clarke's jump shot has seemingly been broken overnight, which severely limits his upside for this season. Jaren Jackson is well on his way towards becoming the next 7 foot game breaker...the man launches threes on the dribble like Trae Young. On the flip side, he can't stay on the court. He got hurt during the seeding games and still hasn't returned to the court. Without him, this team is a shell of themselves. Clarke has problems of his own and Dieng is hit and miss depending on if the threes he launches actually connect.
Don't let my pessimism on this team get you down though. They are absolutely the future of the Western Conference as long as Ja Morant is on the roster. They have loads of picks and great values like De'Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson along for the ride. I just don't see them being better than other fringe playoff teams like Houston, New Orleans, and Golden State. I'm going under, but just barely.
San Antonio Spurs 29.5
If you are looking for the opposite of a young and upcoming team like the Pels and the Grizz, look no further. The San Antonio Spurs are in a bad spot- their two premier players are Lamarcus Aldridge and Demar Derozan, two players in their 30's that are trending in the wrong direction in their career. This team won 45% of their games last year and lost their best shooter in Bryn Forbes, without adding anyone else of consequence.
I believe this Spurs team should have gone the OKC route and blown it up to try and get into the Top 3 of next year's loaded 2021 NBA draft, but that's not how this organization operates. They will always strive to compete and stay in the mix, perhaps to their own detriment.
Looking back, the Kawhi Leonard deal to acquire Derozan, Poetl, and one single 2019 first-round pick was the wrong move. They needed to blow it up and build for the future, but instead they're stuck in no man's land- not good enough for the playoffs but not bad enough to finish at the top of the lottery and land a franchise-changing player. I don't see the upside for this particular group, and I'm comfortable taking the under.
The Spurs are kind of stuck right now. They failed to qualify for a play-in spot last season and they barely did anything on the surface to change their fate for 20-21. They lost their best shooter in Bryn Forbes to make room for their up and coming guards, but will any of them pop? Lonnie Walker might be the best candidate to make a leap, but he is just now getting consistent run after missing loads of games due to injury in his first couple years.
One player who has already popped and will continue to do so though is Demar DeRozan. He will surely have a few explosive outings a various points and might even throw in a couple of game winners for good measure. He and Aldridge are a productive pairing, although Aldridge is probably due for some regression. He is well into his 30s at this point and there's only so much he can do to help this team stay afloat. Extending Poetl was a nice value move, but he's only adequate as a big man.
We should expect this Spurs team to be way up in terms of watchability over years past, but down in competitiveness. With all the high flying talents here, they won't go far towards reversing course for this team this season. Typically, this team has been known for getting stops and playing exceptional team. Obviously, these aren't your father's Spurs. This is the youngest roster Pop has coached in his entire Spurs tenure, so it will probably a giant learning experience for all parties. I feel bad saying this, but I don't think this team even gets in range of a play-in spot.
Sacramento Kings 27.5
Ahh, the Sacramento Kings. I'm conflicted on their offseason- on one hand, I thought adding Glenn Robinson III on a minimum was a shrewd pickup, and they may have gotten the steal of the first round with Tyrese Halliburton falling to them at no. 12.
They also let one of their best players, Bogdan Bogdanovic, walk to Atlanta for nothing, after seemingly having a sign-and-trade in place with Milwaukee for a first round pick. They could have matched Atlanta's offer for Bogdanovic as he was a restricted free agent, but they let him walk for nothing. Puzzling, indeed.
The Kings also lost Harry Giles and Kent Bazemore in free agency, and added Hassan Whiteside, who brings his own set of issues in terms of effort and locker room presence. Sacramento is not a good landing spot for Whiteside.
They did get DeAaron Fox's first max deal squared away, but they are going to have to start building a contending team fast to prove to him that it's worth sticking around in Sacramento long term. If you squint hard enough, Halliburton, Fox, and a healthy Marvin Bagley could be a really nice young trio to build around. But the Kings seem to struggle making moves at the margins and building their team, and I look at this team as just a little short on talent to compete in the West with so many solid teams. I'll take the under.
KANGZ gonna KANGZ, right? They refused to match the Hawks offer for Bogdanovic, which helps their bank account, but hurts their chances of qualifying for the playoffs this season. Props for Sacramento locking up Fox for the long haul (although it doesn't take a genius to figure that's a good move) and snagging Haliburton in the draft. He seems to be a perfect fit with Fox, since he has great size, doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective, and is a multidimensional player. He also seems to be a good match with Hield, who they can slot in at the off-guard spt and let Haliburton handle lead guard duties.
The guard spots actually look ok, but what about the rest of the roster? Harry Giles is out, and he who shall not be named takes his place (sorry, still salty as a Miami Heat fan). He won't do much for the locker room and it probably won't be long before he's complaining about touches, playing time, or both. Not the kind of player you sign if you're trying to turn things around. Other names like Richaun Holmes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Harrison Barnes are fine players, but won't move the needle all that much.
That brings us to Marvin Bagley III. I think he has a great shot at Most Improved, personally. If he can get back to 100% after his injuries, he still has the potential to be an extremely valuable big man. There's a reason he was one of the most hyped prospects back in high school. Unfortunately, even with a breakout from Bagley, this team is a long way from being a complete unit. They have yet to produce consistently on either end under Luka Walton and that probably won't change this season. He nutered Fox and other young players games substantially by slowing the tempo and that's a clear cut sign he isn't the guy for this team. Sorry Kings fans, looks like another year in the lottery is on the way.
Minnesota Timberwolves 28.5
Another team that wants to start competing but is probably a little short on firepower in the West. KAT and DeAngelo Russell will be joined by the number one overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Anthony Edwards. Edwards would not be the number one pick in most drafts, but he was deemed to be the best available option with his combination of strength, size, and playmaking ability. He'll start on the wing from day 1.
The Wolves also re-signed Malik Beasley, who is battling some off the court legal troubles but also averaged over 20 points per game in his 14 games in Minnesota last season. They also brought back Ricky Rubio to run the point, which might be exactly what this offense needs- a high level distributor to get the rock to a lot of talented offensive players.
The biggest problem with this team will be their defensive mentality. There aren't a lot of names on this roster that are well known for their defense, if any. I worry that they will score a lot but get scored on with reckless abandon, and you have to be able to get stops to be able to win in this league.
I think 28.5 is just a little higher than I'm willing to go with the T-Wolves- I'll take the under.
I'm still down on this team for one reason: defense. Very few doubt this team's ability to put the ball in the bucket and the addition of Anthony Edwards only helps them in that endeavor. He is a talented shot creator with a long way to in terms of defensive discipline...remind you of anybody? Russell and Towns should finally have the opportunity to see what they can do as a duo, but that won't feature any real defensive accomplishments. I have been and continue to be a Josh Okogie fan, the dude just plays hard all game and can give even the most talented scorers fits, just ask James Harden. On the flip side, his offense has never come around, so he is still a one trick pony at the moment. Malik Beasley came over from Denver and played great, but he's merely above average on defense, but a stopper.
Unless they can produce a top ten offense, what does that mean for their win total? Probably bad news all around. Jarrett Culver is still a massive work in progress, I really don't know what to expect from him in year two. I was actually a big fan of the Rondae Hollis-Jefferson signing, but they surprisingly gave him the boot already. What gives? They need more of the gritty, do-it all types like that who will dig in their feet on defense and take pride in getting stops.
Although they might not have the most promising finish in the standings, they will still be quite fun to watch. They won't be efficient, but they when they do convert, they will do so in stylish fashion. Hopefully, Edwards can refine his shot selection so he doesn't drag down too many possessions for Minnesota, but that will probably take awhile, given the fact he had a shortened college season, no Summer League, and a brief preseason. The future is still bright, but the Winter will probably last at least one more season in Minnesota.
Oklahoma City Thunder 22.5
Let the tanking begin! After a surprising 2019-2020 team won 44 games and earned a 5 seed in the West, the Thunder blew it up officially this offseason, trading away Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns for assets and a first round pick, Dennis Schroeder to the Lakers for their first round pick, Steven Adams for a future first rounder and two seconds, as well as flippable asset George Hill and others.
Presti also acquired Al Horford and took his contract off of Philadelphia's books, earning a pick from them for his troubles as well. Sam Presti has proven to be the premier asset collecting executive in the league, and the Thunder are setup to dominate the draft in the 2020's.
So what's left on the actual roster? The first place to start is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who will be handed the keys to the car in his third season. SGA will be the point guard and de-facto leader of this incredibly young team, so expect him to have a breakout season in terms of points, assists, and minutes. He's going to put up huge numbers and he's definitely the biggest building block on the roster right now.
Aside from SGA, continued development from other young players will be the theme. Darius Bazley showed real promise coming down the stretch last year, and he'll get a much larger role in the offense and in the starting lineup this year to show his goods. Lu Dort is another young player that burst onto the scene last year with his defense and intensity- he'll play a ton.
2020 draft picks Alexsej Pokusveski and Theo Maledon will also get opportunities to show what they've got, despite both being teenagers. It's all about development this year. Vets Al Horford and George Hill are also around to help show the young pups the ropes, but both could be candidates to be dealt at the deadline or as soon as Presti can extract more assets of out contenders for them.
The goal for this team is to lose and lose a lot, with the hopes of landing a Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, or Evan Mobley to combine with SGA, Bazley, Poku, Dort, and Maledon to start building for the future. They want to finish under 22 wins, and I think they will.
The decade long playoff drought in OKC is probably over, due to a blitz of moves that shipped out Schroder, CP3, Steven Adams, and Gallanari. The team has been stripped of virtually every reliable offensive presence from last season, outside of SGA. He won't have CP3 around anymore to mentor him, but George Hill isn't a bad replacement. No matter how much of an explosion we see from the Shai, it won't be enough to keep this team out of the basement. Who can they could on for halfcourt shot creation? What about three point shooting? As much as I like Dort, Bazley, and some of the other young talent on this team, they won't be able to provide in those critical areas, at least not consistently.
It's easy to forget that Al Horford still exists and he is a part of this team. I'd like to see him moved to a contender, although that will be a challenge given his enormous contract. OKC will need his defensive impact and inside/out game big time, but he deserves another real shot at a chip after things crashed and burned last season in Philadelphia. The future is extremely bright for this team with approximately 538 draft picks coming in the next several years, but this will undoubtedly be a transitional year for the Thunder. Still, I expect them to be a feisty bunch. Just about everyone on this roster has a chip on this should and will have something to prove now that opportunities can be found everywhere you look.
Projected West Standings
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Clippers
New Orleans Pelicans
Golden State Warriors
San Antonio Spurs
Oklahoma City Thunder
Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Clippers
Golden State Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs
Oklahoma City Thunder
Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Lakers