As we’re all fully aware, the NBA Western Conference is the better conference. It’s been this way for a few years now. After the deals this off-season, it’s showing absolutely no signs of slowing down or letting the East get its turn in the spotlight. Having said that, there might be some welcome surprises in terms of who will be the strongest in the West. Nothing will ever be straightforward in this game.
Western Conference Division Winner Predictions
*all standings are for the 2017/18 season
You can’t really say there’s a lot of lows here, as 4 of the 5 teams made the playoffs. But there is some. After what might be seen as an overachieved season, Denver seemingly got worse, but there is potential. Michael Porter, Jr. was once seen as the consensus #1 pick. But, after sitting out the majority of the season at Missouri, he dropped to the 13th pick in the draft; even the Nuggets would tell you that’s a gamble. If he remains healthy, then he’ll be able to show why he was the top high-school prospect in the country.
Denver also signed Isaiah Thomas to a minimum deal, giving him the chance to reinvent himself. Although Kenneth Faried is now a Net, the fans shouldn’t be too concerned. This is now wholly Nikola Jokic‘s team. Denver re-signed him to a 5-year $148 million maximum deal to be the franchise cornerstone. After setting career highs in all 5 major stats, he’s looking at a possible MVP type breakout in the coming years.
The Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 but don’t count on it happening this time. Karl-Anthony Towns had another strong season, averaging 21 and 10, but his defense was still his undoing. Andrew Wiggins contributed with 18 PPG, but with an Offensive Win Share of only 0.5, he never made a huge impact. Jimmy Butler missed 23 games and has quickly become unsettled. He’s voiced his concern with the work ethic and defense of the young T-Wolves, even going as far as rejecting a 4-year/$110million extension. It’s unlikely he’ll remain in Minnesota for the whole season.
On the one hand, the Jazz overachieved last season and have a bright young team to build around. Donovan Mitchell is the highlight, quickly catapulting himself close to ‘phenom’ status. Don’t forget about Rudy Gobert, who’s in the running for DPOY every year. Winning it last year, he averaged a modest 13/11 to go with a monster 2.3 BPG. However, there’s been no new signings and the only re-signees are Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Raul Neto. There may not be much improvement from their 48-34 record, but they are a strong team nonetheless.
The most activity in this division came from the Thunder, one of the most active teams in the league. The big decision was re-signing Paul George to a 4-year max deal. Possibly an even bigger decision, however, was getting rid of Carmelo Anthony. Historically poor during his lone season in the Sooner State, shooting a career-low 40%, he actually cost the team 3 wins (-2.97 Wins Above Replacement). Dennis Schroder arrived with the Melo trade, and will become a valuable backup point guard. Sam Presti also signed Nerlens Noel, who averaged, 13 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 2.4 steals per 36 minutes. With Andre Roberson healthy again, OKC may be setting their sights on the division title, which isn’t completely out of their reach.
Meanwhile, Portland is a mixed bag. Damian Lillard & CJ McCollum combined for 48 PPG last season (27 and 21, respectively). Lillard was also 5th in the entire league in Win Shares (12.6). On top of that, both guards ranked in the top 5 in Field Goals Made, a sign of their efficiency. Apart from that, however, there isn’t else much to smile about. While Seth Curry comes in as a strong shooter, the rest of the squad is mediocre at best.
Division Winner: Oklahoma City
The rebuilding should be complete and Phoenix are ready to win some ballgames. #1 pick DeAndre Ayton has dominated at every level he’s played at, and should form a ferocious 1-2 punch with Devin Booker. Booker is coming off a season in which he scored 25 PPG on 43% shooting. He’s only 21, and is locked down for 5 years and $158 million. He could become a top-10 player in the league if he sticks to his game. Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Dragan Bender round off a very promising young core. Give it a year, they should be sitting in the ‘Highs’ section.
Likewise to Phoenix, Sacramento also has a very promising squad of young talent. Frank Mason III and Justin Jackson are going into sophomore seasons with something to prove. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox show a lot of potential. The final piece is 2nd overall pick Marvin Bagley III, who averaged 21 and 11 in his only season at Duke. They don’t have as much potential as the Suns, but they should win more than 27 games.
Here’s an unpopular opinion; the Clippers will finish last in the division. The star of the team now is 6th-man Lou Williams. Although a deadly scorer, he can’t carry the team by himself. Losing DeAndre Jordan is the biggest blow to the Clippers in recent years. In the past 5 seasons, he’s not averaged below 13.6 RPG (including a mighty 3.6 offensive rebounds). He’s actually the NBA’s all-time leader in career FG% (minimum 2,000 FG) which undoubtedly leaves a crater in the offense. Marcin Gortat will not be able to fill that hole, not even close. The Clippers are no longer the best team that plays in Staples Center. They won’t be for a long time.
For the first time in a long time, the Lakers are a ‘high’. LeBron James has ‘taken his talents’ to Hollywood; that alone is enough for contention. Now, the Lakers are stacked. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have found a balance between young and old while building a well-rounded, elite team. Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson all followed LeBron in the door. Rondo is a maestro, Beasley is a scorer, and McGee and Lance Stephenson are both proven role players. LA also re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a starting 2-guard with a chip on his shoulder. That’s just the veterans. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma make up an extremely exciting young core. It’s not too farfetched to see them challenge for the division in years to come, is it?
Having said that, the Warriors got better. Bob Myers somehow swapped JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia for DeMarcus Cousins and got him to sign for the minimum. He averaged 25 and 13 last season, which makes the Warriors’ starting line-up even more deadly. After back-to-back championships and Finals MVPs, Kevin Durant obviously re-signed. He’s back in Oakland on a 2-year $61.5 million deal, looking to build upon the 25.7 PPG he’s averaged in his 2 seasons in Cali. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are perennial All-Stars. Their young talent completes an ungodly team that will always be in the running for a title. The scariest part is that their starters can combine for 100 points on any given night. Worry about them too much, the bench will drop 50. It’s a hard knock life in the Pacific.
Division Winner: Golden State
It must be tiring to be a basketball fan in Memphis, Tennessee. Marc Gasol is arguably wasting his prime on a constantly rebuilding team. He’s producing at an elite level but the supporting cast is letting him down. Apart from Mike Conley, who should be healthy this season, the rest of the starters would be role players on a strong team. Everyone needs to step up. Chandler Parsons is a good shooter/scorer, but won’t wow you. Garrett Temple is underwhelming but can still put points on the board. Unless the team pulls itself together and makes a splash, it doesn’t look good. Barring a miracle, they’re looking at another sub-30 win season.
Although Dallas only won 24 games, they have upside. Mark Cuban is trying to build a winner, or at least, less of a loser. Jordan comes in with unbelievable paint protection; see above for the full story. They also drafted European phenom Luka Doncic, who should add something to the team instantly. Dennis Smith, Jr. puts an impressive rookie season behind him, looking to improve his scoring as much as his bounce. They also drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo as Mr. Irrelevant, but if he’s anything like his brother, the Mavericks should look stronger.
Even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs managed to win 47 games. This speaks to the nature of the team, and the strength of Gregg Popovich as a head coach. Although Tony Parker is gone, DeMar DeRozan is in. His deadly mid-range game should fill the Kawhi hole. Although it might take some time to integrate, his raw talent is undeniable. Rudy Gay should be looking to prove the critics wrong; being on a gradual decline over the past few seasons. Marco Belinelli may come in as a catch-and-shoot player, having a 54.8 eFG% last season in those situations. Plus, LaMarcus Aldridge is looking like he did in Portland, which should concern other teams.
New Orleans is a tough nut to crack. Cousins has gone ring-chasing in Oakland, so Anthony Davis is back to being the only star. Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, and Jahlil Okafor arrive knowing they have big shoes to fill. While Jrue Holiday showed his elite skills last season, averaging a career-high 19 PPG, but he still has more to prove. He has the ability to become a top point guard in the West. Nikola Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore are both capable shooters, but have consistency issues, and are still low-tier players. The Pelicans might not win 48 games again, but they should still easily make the playoffs.
The easiest section of the puzzle is Houston. James Harden took home MVP honors after setting the league alight. His 15.4 win shares led both conferences, and at age 28, he’s currently at his peak. Over the last 3 seasons, Harden averaged 29.5 points and 9.2 assists per game. Chris Paul, Gerald Green and Clint Capela all re-signed. The latter is probably the most important. Capela averaged 14/11, shooting a mind-boggling 65% from the field. Nene, Joe Johnson, and Ryan Anderson are all reliable, impact veterans who know what their role is and how they’re most valuable to the team. On top of that, Eric Gordon will always be a candidate for the Sixth Man award. The only thing that might hold Houston back is Melo. Unless he fits himself in with Mike D’Antoni‘s system and comes off the bench, he’ll continue to be a liability. Nevertheless, this is not going to be a challenge for the Rockets.
Division Winner: Houston
*all stats from Basketball-Reference or NBA Stats.
CLEVELAND, OH – JUNE 08: The Golden State Warriors celebrate with the Larry O’Brien Trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)