After a hectic offseason, during which teams from across the league strengthened their rosters, shook up their front offices and hired new head coaches to replace the old, it’s now time to see how things actually stack up on the hardwood.
We’ve already covered the East, so now it’s time to move on and tackle matters out West. Here are our picks for the eight teams to make the playoffs out of the Western Conference with one notable – and perhaps shocking – omission.
Last season was a historic one in Utah. The Jazz finished with the best regular season record across the NBA for the first time in the franchise’s history after compiling 52 wins – one more than the Phoenix Suns in second. Beyond that, they also won 24 games in a row at their home – the Vivint Arena – and had the third-best offense and fourth-best defense in the league.
Of course, all that impressive work during the shortened 72-game schedule meant nothing come playoff time when, despite leading the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 in the Western Conference Semi-finals, they conspired to lose the next four games as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (and in Games 6 and 7 Terance Mann of all people) ignited a miraculous comeback.
Head coach Quin Snyder has problems to solve in the post-season, particularly with Rudy Gobert. The 2020-21 Defensive Player of the Year is a behemoth who defends the paint better than anyone in the league, but during the post-season his impact is often limited by smaller, switch-heavy line-ups.
He’s not a natural post-scorer like other dominant big men in the NBA such as Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, and he’s not a player you want scrambling around the three-point line (a game-winning block against the Clippers aside).
Fortunately for Snyder, he has a ton of talent at his disposal to make things work and the Jazz are in no danger of losing their stranglehold on the West this season. Eric Paschall, Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside are solid additions to an already-deep team. Donovan Mitchell gets better every year. Expect them to cruise to over 50 wins and claim the number one seed yet again.
Last season’s losing Finalists are largely intact with some small but key additions to the roster.
Landry Shamet will provide even more shooting from the wing alongside Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, while Javale McGee gives them a proper big man who can rebound the ball and block shots as back-up to Deandre Ayton. Elfrid Payton isn’t going to set the world alight given his ghastly shooting percentages but he’s a steady reserve guard who can handle the ball coming off the back of a decent season in New York.
Despite this, Phoenix’s campaign will largely depend on the health and availability of Chris Paul (now 36 and in his 17th season), Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. In particular, question marks are looming over the future Ayton after the Suns made no effort to sign him to a max contract extension worth $173m over five years; a deal which the player has made clear he feels he deserves.
Just how motivated will he be after seeing four others from his draft class (Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr.) locked up on new max deals?
Monty Williams proved himself as one of the best head coaches in the NBA last season and will no doubt find a way to get his starting center firing on all cylinders, whatever grudges with the front office might exist. Bridges, on the other hand, has earned himself a new contract extension after cementing his status as one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players (a blistering 42.5 per cent from deep last season).
This is a team that, like Utah, will finish near the top of the Western standings without breaking a sweat. They will also be expecting another run to the Finals, even if they might not have last season’s injury luck – both in terms of Paul’s recovery during the Lakers’ series and those sustained by their opponents – to quite do it.
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James has made the post-season 15 times in his 18-year career to date. He is the all-time leader in playoff minutes by almost 2,000, a gap that is only going to increase with Kevin Durant as the only other active player in the top 40 at number 26 and almost 5,000 minutes behind James.
Last season was both the first to date in which LeBron did not have home court advantage in the opening round and also the first time he has ever been eliminated at that stage during the post-season.
Simply put, the playoffs are a strange place if James isn’t there duking it out until the bitter end. Without a healthy Anthony Davis beyond the first three games, the Lakers were no match for the Suns and their title defense was over before it really began.
This season, in case you weren’t already aware, they have Russell Westbrook as insurance against any injuries either James or Davis might sustain. Their roster is loaded with veteran experience and in Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk, they’ve added much-needed shooters for James and Westbrook to service.
The Lakers won’t care too much about where they finish in the standings as long as they have home court advantage, which their three superstars effectively guarantee as long as they stay healthy. Expect load management to play a huge part for Davis (only 36 starts last season) and James, who, however immortal he may seem, turns 37 in December and is showing signs that he might finally be slowing down.
Regardless, they’re a lock for the top four in the West, although doubts remain about Westbrook’s fit for playoff basketball.
The Denver Nuggets boast the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic and one of the best starting fives in the league once Jamal Murray returns from the torn ACL he sustained in April. That devastating injury effectively ended the Nuggets’ championship aspirations then and there, but even without a career-year Murray, Denver still finished the regular season as the third seed in the West and reached the Conference Semi-finals.
If Murray picks up where he left off, an electric 20 points per night guard who forms an unstoppable two-man game with Jokic, then the Nuggets will once again be a problem in the playoffs. That is, however, a substantial ‘if’.
Murray aside, this is comfortably a playoff team in the West who should finish in the top six with Jokic orchestrating things the way only he can as the slick-passing man-mountain at the center of their offense.
Should the newly-minted Michael Porter Jr. continue his rapid development as one of the league’s purest scorers, particularly at the power forward position, they could finish even higher.
As long as they surround the offense-unto-himself that is Luka Doncic with enough three-point shooting, the Dallas Mavericks will be a playoff team.
Tim Hardaway Jr. (39.1 per cent from deep last season), Kristaps Porzingis (37.6 per cent), Dorian Finney-Smith (39.4 per cent) and Maxi Kleber (41 per cent) look like they can provide enough spacing on paper and Reggie Bullock (41 per cent with the Knicks) should stretch the floor even further.
The problem for the Mavericks is that Doncic is the be-all and end-all of this team. That may well be good enough to scrape 50 wins on its own (Dallas hit 42 last season in 72 games), but it could also mean that by the time the playoffs roll around their star point guard is gassed from having to shoulder the entirety of the load during the regular season calendar.
Kristaps Porzingis has played well in spurts but may never deliver on the promise he flashed in New York before an untimely ACL tear in 2018. During last year’s playoffs he was almost a complete non-factor, averaging just 13 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 29.6 per cent from three – a huge drop-off from his regular season production of 20 and 9.
Ultimately, the franchise will likely have to move on from Porzingis and a trade could quite easily materialise this season to put more consistent talent around Doncic.
New head coach Jason Kidd has reached the playoffs in three of his five seasons as an NBA coach, although two of those did lead to exits in the first round with the Milwaukee Bucks. His work with Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom he helped develop into the offensive force of nature we see today, should not be overlooked and bodes well for Doncic’s own progression this season.
Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry played some of the best basketball of his career last year, averaging a career-high in points (32 per game, which also led the league) and rebounds (5.5 per game). Sadly this amounted to very little as the Klay Thompson-less Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season after seven straight appearances, including three championship runs.
Thompson should hopefully return to action around Christmas, all being well, which would immediately revive a Warriors offense that had very few threats last season beyond the greatest shooter of all time lighting it up from every spot on the floor.
Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala – an integral part of those three titles and a Finals MVP in 2015 – are improvements to both their depth and shooting (Iguodala aside). Jordan Poole also projects to have something of a breakout year after impressing as a bench scorer last season, as well as seeing his three-point shooting jump from 27.9 per cent to 35.1. When Curry sits, he will likely have the green light to do his best Steph-impression.
If Klay comes back to anything like his old self then the Warriors should avoid the Play-In Tournament, where they were eliminated by the Memphis Grizzlies last season. Speaking of…
There’s something intangible about the Grizzlies that makes them impossible to dislike. It may well be the jerseys and logo, for my money the coolest in the league, or it might just be Ja Morant.
The second pick in the 2019 Draft, Morant has improved in each of his two seasons in the league and is already the face – and future – of the franchise. The gung-ho point guard is practically un-guardable off the dribble due to his dizzying speed and only needs to develop his three-point shot to leap into the conversation as one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Alongside him, Jaren Jackson Jr. will be hoping to make up for lost time after injury ruled him out for almost the entirety of 2020-21 and limited his production when he did eventually return. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Dillion Brooks emerged as one of the league’s most underrated players, a true two-way wing who can harass the opposing team’s biggest perimeter threat while pouring in buckets at the other end (17 points per game, 26 points per game in the playoffs).
Steven Adams is essentially a like-for-like replacement for bruising center Jonas Valanciunas and Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman and De’Anthony Melton, all 23 or younger, should progress neatly as part of this emerging nucleus. However, given the strength of other rosters in the West, they will likely have to battle through the Play-In Tournament once more.
Thankfully, the Grizzlies appear to have the characters to relish that particular challenge, with the seemingly indomitable Morant at the heart of it all.
Portland Trail Blazers
It seems scandalous not to have the Portland Trail Blazers higher up, and leave the Los Angeles Clippers out of the playoff spots entirely, but this is where we are.
For the Clippers, the logic is simple: without the injured Kawhi Leonard (who could miss the entire season) they are not the same team. Theoretically, Paul George is a good enough player in his own right to lead them to the playoffs, and may well still do so, but it’s hard to envisage in a gruelling Western Conference that could once again see teams fighting for position as late as the final week of the season.
The Blazers have a new coach in Chauncey Billups, an NBA champion and Finals MVP with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, but much of the same problems that have plagued their last couple of campaigns. Terry Stotts guided Portland to a playoff spot in the past eight seasons but after two consecutive first-round defeats the time was right to move on, especially while Damian Lillard remains at his peak.
Billups is certainly a gamble, with only one year of assistant coaching experience to his name. Straight away he will be tasked with solving the defensive woes that saw the Blazers finish as the second-worst team by defensive rating in the league last year. That will be no mean feat given that Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell are all undersized at their positions one through three. Losing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter, defensive sieves in the front court, should help.
Portland have thus far failed to build a true contending team around Lillard, with only one Conference Finals trip to show for those eight post-season runs. Even at a glance, it is clear this year will be no different, even if they should creep into a playoff spot as long as Lillard matches his borderline MVP-candidate level.