8: Portland Trailblazers
Pre-Season Prediction: 47-35 (5th)
Revised Prediction: 41-41
The Skinny: This version of the Portland Trailblazers more resembles the team we expected Portland to be last season, save for the unexpected and continued rise of C.J. McCollum, who is scoring 22 points per game with 48-46-90 shooting splits. The Blazers are abysmal defensively, so bad that even the offensive brilliance of the Damian Lillard (who is in the midst of another All-NBA caliber season) and McCollum duo hasn’t been enough to carry the Blazers to a .500 record a quarter of the way into the season. Since the ABA merger only 39 teams have posted a Defensive Rating of 112 or higher. The Blazers (and a select few others teams this season, including those disappointing Timberwolves) will likely flirt with inclusion into the exclusive and dubious group of defensively inept teams. And for what it’s worth, only two of those 39 teams won at least 41 games.
After the expected top six every other team in the Western Conference has flaws that could keep them out of the Playoffs, or even winning half of their games this year. The Grizzlies are without Conley for at least the next month, maybe longer. The Kings are too crazy. The Wolves, Nuggets, and Lakers are all too young. The Pelicans need to find Anthony Davis an honest to God second option or a new coach or something (but for the love of God, don’t waste this dudes prime). The Blazers have an All-Star backcourt and it’s hard to believe their defense could actually get worse. Lillard and McCollum and the subtle genius of Terry Stotts will be enough.
7: Memphis Grizzlies
Pre-Season Prediction: 42-40 (9th)
Revised Prediction: 44-38
The Skinny: I had to re-write this damn section three times in the last week and a half because the Grizzlies, against all conventional wisdom, kept winning games that they weren’t supposed to be winning. The cause for all of my preseason pessimism in regards to Memphis has already reared its ugly head and we’re barely a quarter of the way through the regular season. In the annually-stacked Western Conference, I left Memphis on the outside of the Playoffs looking in for the first time since 2010 mainly because I feared their ability to stay healthy all season long. I wasn’t worried about where they would find their perimeter scoring or how the transition from Dave Joerger to David Fizdale would go (they have the same first name, so I didn’t expect there would be a great drop-off). I was worried about health. Z-Bo is in his mid-thirties and history says he’ll fall off soon (the decline has begun). Marc Gasol broke his right foot last season and 7-footers don’t always come back and remain impactful after an injury like that. Vince Carter is their most threatening perimeter scorer and he’s damn near forty years old. Most troubling, the Grizz committed $247 million over the summer to Mike Conley, coming off a season that was ended prematurely because of a foot injury, and the always banged-up Chandler Parsons, and together they likely won’t play 82 games this year. That’s roughly $100 million more than what Danny Ocean’s crew got from the vault at the Bellagio.
Since Conley went down the Grizzlies have scratched and clawed their way to a 6-1 record. Their first five wins came by 13 points combined, and then on Saturday night the Griz won their sixth straight in a downright shocking 21-point beat down of the Golden State Warriors. Look, I’m still skeptical that they can continue to win at this rate without Conley for the next month and a half. But if they do, we need to start talking about Marc Gasol as a possible MVP candidate. His numbers aren’t as gaudy as other noteworthy candidates, and he would never in a hundred lifetimes take home the hardware, but he’s averaged 26 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists per game since Conley broke his back and again, the Grizzlies are somehow 6-1. Big Spain at least deserves to be mentioned.
6: Oklahoma City Thunder
Pre-Season Prediction: 44-38 (7th)
Revised Prediction: 46-36
The Skinny: Plenty of words have been spoken and typed about Russell Westbrook this year, so there isn’t much I can say that hasn’t been said already. He’s been in full Scarface mode, just as I suggested he would be in my section on him in my Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century Countdown. And it needs to be mentioned that any of Oklahoma City’s shortcomings aren’t Westbrook’s fault. He’s on pace to shatter the single season record for turnovers and his shot selection still makes you shake your head, but the entire team has taken on his personality. His night to night intensity is something to behold and a regular season wrinkle that we haven’t seen in a while, and the triple-double pursuit, in my humble opinion, is a good thing for Westbrook and the Thunder. It’s hard to describe it, but it feels like Westbrook’s nightly and season long triple-double chase has breathed life into a team that could have very easily been lifeless after losing Durant.
I don’t think Russ has the running mates just yet to succeed deep into the postseason. I like the Westbrook/Victor Oladipo pair, but I like it a whole lot more when Oladipo is hitting open jumpers, something he doesn’t do consistently enough. Of course, if Andre Roberson were a more capable outside shooter a lot of problems would be solved, but every one of his jumpers is a roller coaster. They make Shawn Marion feel good about his shooting form. Smart defenses will load up to prevent Russ from getting in the paint and dare OKC’s “shooters” to beat them. It’s an easy puzzle to solve.
Regardless, it makes me happy to see Russ’ name alongside legends like MJ, Oscar Robertson and Kobe Bryant for a variety of different reasons. For what he’s done in OKC, and the night to night watch-ability of the NBA is outstanding.
5: Utah Jazz
Pre-Season Prediction: 47-35 (4th)
Revised Prediction: 48-34
The Skinny: This is exactly the team that everyone who nabbed the Jazz as a sleeper team in the West expected them to be, and we haven’t even seen the Jazz at full-strength for an extended period of time yet. If you’re a Jazz fan you have to be loving this season. Utah has played large chunks of this quarter season without some combination of Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and Boris Diaw, so you’d think their win-loss record and any sort of analytics would show the Jazz as just another O.K. team in the Western Conference gauntlet. That’s not the case … Utah’s Expected Win-Loss record is 5th best best in the league and the Jazz have mucked their way to a 15-10 record playing at the league’s slowest pace, but beating opponents in all sorts of ways.
The Jazz can play big, small or somewhere in between and they are in the top ten in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating. They have like 18 playable dudes on the roster, and that’s super impressive since they are only allowed 15. And again, they haven’t been healthy. George Hill should be back to 100 percent soon, and if Derrick Favors and Alec Burks get there anytime soon the Jazz are in really good shape.
Armed with a solid home crowd, gorgeous alternate sleeved throwback uniforms that look like something a Jai-Alai team would wear, an endless combination of five-man units that work against seemingly any sort of opponent and a roster that is seasoned enough where it feels like they won’t fold in big moments, the Jazz are either rapidly climbing their way into the tier below Golden State in the Western Conference, or they are already there.
4: Houston Rockets
Pre-Season Prediction: 44-38 (8th)
Revised Prediction: 51-31
The Skinny: Yet another misfire on my part. I underestimated a few things, most notably the impact Mike D’Antoni could have on a group of guys who could actually play up-tempo basketball and fire three’s at a downright ridiculous rate. I was blinded by his sorry tenures with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, but this Rockets group is much more equipped to play like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. I didn’t expect that Harden would transition so seamlessly into the role of Point Guard even though he’s been the lead ball-handler for the Rockets ever since the Thunder traded him away four years ago. I’ve been hard on The Beard in the past, knocking him for his uninspired defense, stupid celebrations and annoying habit/skill of drawing ludicrous fouls, and while all of those things are still bothersome, even I have to admit he’s been a delight so far this year.
The most surprising development: Houston isn’t the sorriest defensive team in the league as many projected they could be. Right now they have the 11th worst Defensive Rating, which is 11 spots higher than I expected they would be at this point in this season. Can they be trusted to get stops against the Warriors in the Playoffs? Hell no, but I do trust that they can go shot for shot with Golden State and put a scare into them for a few games during a postseason series. And yes, that counts for something.
3: Los Angeles Clippers
Pre-Season Prediction: 56-26 (2nd)
Revised Prediction: 55-27
The Skinny: Nothing has changed. Nothing at all. Sure, they have a little more depth. Sure, DeAndre Jordan is a little bit better than he has been in the past. Sure, the core four (Jordan, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick) have yet another year of playing together under their collective belt. None of that matters. The window is closed. And if the Clippers honestly think they have a puncher’s chance beating San Antonio, Golden State, and Cleveland in three consecutive rounds in the Playoffs, they’re as almost as delusional as their former owner was.
2: San Antonio Spurs
Pre-Season Prediction: 54-28 (3rd)
Revised Prediction: 57-25
The Skinny: I had my doubts coming into the season that the infrastructure Tim Duncan played such a large part in building in San Antonio would hold up after he retired, but so far it’s been the same old Spurs that we’re used to. They’ve had some very public slip-ups in terms of intensity and attention to detail (but again, this isn’t new for the Spurs), but don’t let Gregg Popovich’s tirades to the media fool you … San Antonio is just fine. As always, the Spurs will push towards 60 wins and be right near the top of the Western Conference come mid-April.
So theoretically, what can San Antonio, the supposed 2nd best team in the West, do to give Golden State a run for their money? The Spurs walloped the Warriors on opening night, but truthfully I don’t think they have the firepower to hang with the Dubs in a seven game series, and that’s not a major indictment on their season since few teams can. My best guess as to how the Spurs can get it done … trust that Kawhi Leonard can play Kevin Durant to a draw, pray that Danny Green remains competent both defensively and offensively, make sure the Tony Parker/Patty Mills point guard combo puts pressure Stephen Curry play defense, get the series of a lifetime from Jonathan Simmons, hook Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili to the rejuvenation machine and hope that LaMarcus Aldridge can feast on the Warriors bigs. Not too much to ask.
1: Golden State Warriors
Pre-Season Prediction: 67-15 (1st)
Revised Prediction: 68-14
The Skinny: What we know so far this year: the Golden State Warriors are beatable, but they’re beatable the same way that Michael Myers was able to be killed. It’s gonna take a damn army with a ton of ammunition, plenty of guile and some dumb luck, Jamie Lee Curtis, and that might not even be enough to get the job done. Or you need LeBron James. And this time around, against this far more dangerous and less killable version of the Warriors, even LeBron might not be enough.