Culture of Hoops

Revised NBA Predictions: Western Conference Part 1

My revised Western Conference predictions were supposed to hit the internet last week, just one week after I went back and tinkered with my preseason East predictions, but I eventually made the executive decision to delay the release of said prediction revisions by a week. I can’t say that this decision wasn’t made in part due to laziness on my end, but in the end it turned out to be a good thing.

In the week I spent saying to myself, “I really need to start writing this thing” I had the chance to re-evaluate some of my re-evaluations and in the end I have a better grasp on the Western Conference now than I did a week ago. Had I put this thing together during the first weekend of December I would have missed out on the Warriors almost fully rounding into the juggernaut we expected them to be, the Clippers showing that their championship window is indeed closed, the Spurs continuing their brilliance in the post-Tim Duncan days, the Grizzlies continuing to grind the absence of Mike Conley, Utah’s recent surge, the Timberwolves’ continued mysterious incompetence late in games and the Thunder/Rockets game that made the middle of the Western Conference Playoff picture a little more clear. Let’s not waste any more time!

15: Dallas Mavericks
Pre-Season Prediction: 41-41 (10th)
Revised Prediction: 23-59

The Skinny: It’s hard to judge Dallas since we’re evaluating a team that A.) has been ravaged by injury more than any other team in the league, B.) resembles a Developmental League roster when they aren’t at full health, C.) has more incentive now than ever to tank and try to fast track a rebuild.

My suggestion: Go all the way and take any means necessary to ensure you get a high pick in a supposedly loaded 2017 Draft. Sit Dirk all year long and just let him go back to Germany and undergo a whole bunch of experimental medical procedures that can help him locate the fountain of youth and revitalize ever tendon and ligament in his body. Let Rick Carlisle take the year off too just so he doesn’t coach the Mavericks into a few too many wins. Just replace him with Jim Carrey and no one will even know the difference. Find a way to shed some salary (Anyone looking for a gritty 3-and-D wing? Almost fully recovered from an achilles tear and barely thirty years old! Any takers?) and give a good hard look at some of these youngsters that maybe kinda sorta would be better off in the D-League than in the NBA. And while we’re at it, find out once and for all how badly you overpaid Harrison Barnes and then get a chance to laugh at whoever gives Otto Porter the same contract next summer.

14: Phoenix Suns
Pre-Season Prediction: 27-55 (14th)
Revised Prediction: 24-58

The Skinny: The short-term outlook might appear murky in Phoenix, but this is exactly where the Suns should strive to be right at this moment. Since winning games isn’t what’s important in the 2016-17 season, the Suns can focus on more long-term oriented tasks like giving their young guns plenty of reps (I’m not a wall street guy, but I’d buy stock in the Devin Booker/T.J. Warren pairing), find new homes for some of the vets on their roster (i.e. Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight), and “tank” without feeling bad for it because realistically this team doesn’t have a high ceiling anyway. Then all you have to do is pray to God you strike gold with your top five pick, cross your fingers that Earl Watson will turn into something that resembles a high quality Head Coach and catch a dozen other breaks along the way because that’s what is required to contend for a title. Or they can … actually, let me get to the 13th best team in the Western Conference before I move forward.

13: Sacramento Kings
Pre-Season Prediction: 29-53 (13th)
Revised Prediction: 30-52

The Skinny: Guys, I killed like seven birds with one stone with this fake trade I came up with. Maybe if you follow me on Twitter you saw that I tweeted about it the other day.

Remember two weeks ago I talked about the Wizards needing to consider whether or not they should trade John Wall? Bird one. The Kings need to trade DeMarcus Cousins. Bird two. The Suns need to unload some of their vets. Bird three. The Kings get a more than reasonable haul in return for Cousins AND they get younger (which is a necessity since the Kings have the 4th oldest roster in the league). Bird four. The Suns get to reunite Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. Bird five. Someone get ahold of Daniel Orton. Bird six. Okay, six birds. I’m proud of myself. I’m officially a bird serial killer and that makes me happy because there is no earth-roaming creature that I hate more than birds.

12: Los Angeles Lakers
Pre-Season Prediction: 25-57 (15th)
Revised Prediction: 33-49

The Skinny: Earlier on in the season the Lakers had a 2013-14 Suns vibe (remember that super fun Phoenix team that went 48-34, missed the Playoffs by a game and as the season was going it didn’t make the slightest bit of sense that they were going to end up near 50 wins) and I don’t care how vehemently they deny it, it made Lakers fans, even the most hardened Kobe supporters, at least for a brief second think to themselves “Wow, this team is more fun to watch when washed-up Kobe isn’t taking 25 contested shots a game.” It’s fine to feel that way. It’s like losing a pet and then having a hard time loving a new pet. Actually, I don’t know about this feeling firsthand because the only pets I’ve ever had were two goldfish when I was five years old.

After further review, the Baby Lakers are still a year away from possessing that sort of ceiling. They have their coach for the future in Luke Walton and a few young blue chippers, and if you aren’t in the Playoffs that’s actually a pretty desirable spot to be in. Couple that with the fact that they’re in an attractive market and have a rich history and oh wait, that pitch hasn’t worked in Free Agency the last few years, has it? Evidence: The Lakers two big free agent acquisitions this summer were Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Take a moment and let that sink in.

Aside from the depressing state of recent Lakers free agency signings, there are other tangible problems in Hollywood. They’ve given up 115 points or more eight times already this year, so there is room for improvement on that end of the floor. They don’t have a true to form go-to-guy yet, and routinely riding Lou Williams and Nick Young down the stretch isn’t a feasible answer to that problem in the immediate or distant future. The biggest problem for LA: their 2017 1st Round pick will go to Philadelphia unless the Lakers free-fall between now and April, and unless that pick does somehow land in the Top 3 in the 2017 Draft Lottery, they owe their 2019 1st Round pick to Orlando. Then you’re back in the position where you’re relying on free agents to come in and turn things around, and oh wait, that still doesn’t work.

11: Denver Nuggets
Pre-Season Prediction: 33-49 (12th)
Revised Prediction: 37-45

The Skinny: Another possible John Wall destination, though if I were in the position where I was running the Denver Nuggets I’d stand pat and figure out a better way to utilize the seemingly endless supply of young assets I have collected over the last three years. The play might be to let the young guns play together this season, see what you get in the upcoming draft (with two first rounders thanks to a top five protected pick coming from Memphis) and re-evaluate over the summer. That is unless someone is willing to overpay for Kenneth Faried (perennially on the trade block), Danilo Gallinari (ditto), or Wilson Chandler (having a career best season … at age 29 … after a year out of the league … how the fuck does this make any sense), then the Nuggs have the green light to pull the trigger so long as it’s a move that corresponds with the timeline of Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.

Those four under-23 building blocks represent the head start that the Nuggets have on a good portion of the rest of the league in preparing for the rest of the decade and beyond. Mudiay is still raw and Murray is only a couple of weeks into a promising stretch during his Rookie season, but they are 20 and 19 years old respectively. We still need more minutes together from the Nurkic/Jokic combination, but I suspect that Denver can make those two European behemoths work in big minutes together.  

10: Minnesota Timberwolves
Pre-Season Prediction: 45-37 (6th)
Revised Prediction: 37-45

The Skinny: I’m not ready to give up on Minnesota just yet. Perhaps it’s an example of stubbornness on my part because I was so keen on them before the season started, or maybe I’ve just watched enough of the Wolves to feel like I have a good grasp on what they are missing and I feel like these are correctable issues … or at least issues that can be masked if Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins continue their ascension. I’m not expert or anything, but here are the problems I’ve noticed.

-The Wolves Point Guard situation is dire, at least for the moment. Kris Dunn might end up being a very solid player, even someone on par with the development of Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Ricky Rubio … eh, maybe he’s just a cross off. Together, Dunn and Rubio are shooting 35 percent from the field and combining for just ten points and ten assists per game … and on some teams that’s fine. The Big Three Miami Heat didn’t need Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole to do much more than that, but Chalmers and Cole could each hit a spot up three-pointer. Dunn isn’t quite there yet (If I had to bet on it, I’d say he gets there) and Rubio never has been, nor will he ever be.

-Nobody has bought into Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme, and that’s where we projected the Wolves to make the biggest leap from last year to this year. Minnesota ranked 28th in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) last year, and this year they are down to 29th. This isn’t a case where the Wolves don’t have the right guys to execute. Towns could be a dominant defender sometime in the near future, but he hasn’t improved by bounds yet. Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine (and Kris Dunn too) are capable, at least athletically, of being disruptive on the perimeter, but we’ve yet to see anything but very brief glimpses of a breakthrough.

-Whose the alpha dog? Is it Towns or Wiggins? Is Wiggins really only going to max out as a number two option? Should Zach LaVine be the guy carrying the Wolves down the stretch the same way Jamal Crawford has from time to time with the Clippers? Who are the other two guys the Wolves should be closing games with? Do they even have the right two guys on their roster yet?

-The Wolves achilles heel has been the second half struggles, and despite the talent at the top of the roster it makes sense. Minnesota has the youngest roster in the NBA and they just don’t have enough of these late game pressure reps. Too many winnable games have gone the other way, but maybe things swung a week ago when Minnesota trailed by 7 with just over a minute left in regulation at Charlotte, pulled a couple of shots out of their collective rectum and ended up winning in overtime. Maybe that’s a game that we’ll look back on and say swung the season. Maybe it was just another crazy NBA finish that doesn’t mean anything in the bigger picture.

9: New Orleans Pelicans
Pre-Season Prediction: 35-47 (11th)
Revised Prediction: 39-43

The Skinny: Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady, David Robinson, and Anthony Davis.

Those are the only nine players in NBA history with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 30 or higher during an entire season.

Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.

Those are the only four players in NBA history to post two or more seasons with a Player Efficiency Rating of 30 or higher. Right now, Anthony Davis is on pace for his second 30+ PER season. He’s 23 years old. Jesus.

Come back for the Eight Playoff Teams tomorrow!

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