Sorting Out The Western Conference’s 8th Seed

With seven teams guaranteed to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, it creates a slugfest for the eighth seed, where four teams all equipped with young studs are all looking to sneak in.  Who gets in though will be dependent on that young stud living up to the expectations handed to him.  It couldn’t represent the league’s surplus of young talent enough.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making playoffs

The battle for the 8th seed:

  • New Orleans Pelicans

Almost no team in basketball has more hype or potential than the New Orleans Pelicans this season.  Equipped with the now-injured Zion Williamson, a couple of former young Laker stars, a loaded draft class and two savy veteran signings, New Orleans, if everything comes together, could find themselves in the top seven of the West rather than fighting in the back of it.

But everything has to come together.  This is a young team with new management, almost all new faces and a couple of players who, despite their young stardom, will have to take massive leaps forward.

Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are fine.  At 21 and 22 respectively, the duo can still grow into what some projected them to be.

This will be Ingram’s fourth season.  He’s yet to develop a jumpshot or emerge as a dominant scorer (The KD comparisons were always absurd), and despite having the length and athleticism to be a ridiculous defender, he hasn’t garnered the defensive credit Ball has.

Ball’s defense being his No.1 NBA skill would be a stunner to anyone who evaluated the 2017 NBA Draft.  Injuries and that nasty looking jump-shot have plagued him throughout his first two seasons, but his defense and facilitating – the latter being his biggest attraction coming out of UCLA – have made him at least an average player.

That’s not what most expected out of these two.  Those issues is what caused the Lakers to give up so many picks in the Anthony Davis trade.  Neither Ball or Ingram were sure to develop into the stars they were expected to be.  New Orleans will likely have them playing big roles despite that, with Ball playing alongside Jrue Holiday (creating at least a filthy defensive duo) and Ingram likely playing on the wing next to JJ Redick.

There is a chance that none of this matters at all.  The concerns about two of their key players not necessarily being able to do anything well on the basketball court, the new faces and the chemistry building that comes with that.  None of it could matter.

We could very possibly be completely overrating Zion’s impact in year one.  They are the biggest expectations anyone since LeBron has had coming into their rookie year.  Expecting a 19-year-old to lead a team to the playoffs might just be unreasonable, especially since he’s now projected to miss “weeks” to start the season, per ESPN.

But what if he actually does it?  What if Zion comes in and is better than we expect him to be?  What if he is immediately one of the 25 best guys in the league?  What if he makes the All-NBA team?

Reasonable should look like Rookie of the Year (Not a hard award to win) and an impact similar to Luka Doncic’s on Dallas last season.  Doncic didn’t make third-team All-NBA, but established himself as one of the league’s 30-or-so best players.  If Zion can do that, New Orleans will need Ball and Ingram to really step it up, as Holiday isn’t a dominate scorer and the league knows the primary way Redick is used (Essentially ran off screens and that’s about it).

Zion hitting expectations for his rookie year won’t be enough to get the Pelicans in the playoffs.  Even with the ridiculous depth they have behind him in Jaxson Hayes, Nickiel Alexander-Walker (Likely their sixth man), Derrick Favors, E’Twuan Moore and Kenrich Williams, the West is just too stacked, and experience does matter.

Zion exceeding those expectations though, which is certainly a possibility, changes things.  It’ll be to zero surprise if Zion has one of better rookie seasons we’ve seen.  If he makes an All-NBA team and is immediately a guy who legitimately matters, then the ceiling on New Orleans sky-rockets.  They already have what everyone else is looking for: A best player on a championship team. Zion is there for them.  They just have to figure out the rest of the cast.  That’s the easy part.

  • San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs need to figure out who they are.

There’s a side of this team that has very good veteran players who are a playoff team in any other season.

But then there’s a side of this team that is incredibly young and talented, and doesn’t have a defined ceiling.

They have a choice as to which one they want to play.

A combination would work, but there’s too many guys that need minutes.

Let’s take a look…

  1. DeJounte Murray-Derrick White-Patty Mills
  2. DeMar DeRozan-Marco Belinelli-Bryn Forbes
  3. Rudy Gay-DeMarre Carroll-Lonnie Walker Jr.
  4. LaMarcus Aldridge-Trey Lyles-Luka Samanic
  5. Jakob Poeltl-Drew Eubanks-Chimezie Metu

Murray’s injury was one of the league’s tragedies last season.  The hype for him was real; it was like if Anfernee Simons tore his ACL right now.

But the Murray injury let the Spurs crop of young, talented guards shine.  Derrick White stepped in and performed extremely well, showcasing his defensive talent while also fitting in well off the ball despite his lack of a three-point shot.  Bryn Forbes was excellent as a role guy.  They gave enough support around DeRozan and Aldridge to get the Spurs back into the playoffs.

Those three – DeRozan, Forbes and White – only had a net rating of 2.0 last season.  Inserting Murray into that gives them a ton of life and new energy – and also someone who has the ability to evolve into a bowling ball-type player that can create off the dribble for himself.

But adding Murray to that trio creates a tiny lineup of four guards, and kicks one of Rudy Gay (or DeMarre Carroll), Aldridge or Poeltl to the bench.

Gay was really good last season, but the Spurs adding Carroll to the rotation could see his minutes reduced a bit.  Aldridge was productive, but represents the Spurs core problem of not adapting to the new NBA with his frequent (Yet effective!) mid-range game.  Poeltl was the No. 2 asset in the Kawhi Leonard trade, but has some lankiness that makes him a bit ineffective on the defensive end.

The Spurs going super small and running four guards isn’t necessarily modern either.  But given what they’re going to be working with, it might be their best option.

Or…

The Spurs could explore the trade market for some of their veterans like DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay and even Carroll.  Despite the star power DeRozan and Aldridge bring, Carroll could be the most attractive asset with the defense and experience he possesses.

Plus, who would really want DeRozan and Aldridge?  Putting those guys on your teams locks down a ceiling of 45 wins; it’s the purgatory San Antonio is stuck in now.  Moving any of the guys above helps clear room for the youngsters to get the minutes they deserve; the four guard lineup exercise above didn’t even account for Lonnie Walker Jr., who didn’t play hardly at all last season with a knee injury.

But moving the Spurs core would take a massive change of thinking from Gregg Popovich and the front office, which seems unlikely considering how they handled the Kawhi trade and Popovich’s urge to be competitive in his last years coaching.  And once again, the odds of other teams wanting either DeRozan or Aldridge seems slim.

San Antonio has a ton of talent, but with that comes guys needing sustained minutes to let that talent shine.  Perhaps an organizational shift would make the Spurs more likely to make the playoffs.

  • Dallas Mavericks

Hopes were high for Dallas until, upon inspection of their roster and its comparison to others in the West, questions arose about who not only their fourth best player was, but their fifth as well, essentially leaving the Mavericks with two critical holes in their lineup.

The good news is that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis represent one of the league’s top young duos; they’re two unicorns who finally have open grass to graze upon.  And we get to watch them eat.

Luka and KP have the chance to save a Dallas team that currently has Tim Hardaway Jr. (By the way, a not-so-horrific THJ!) as its third best player.  Dallas being a playoff team involves Luka ascending from where he was last season, and based on the work he’s put in this summer, that seems very likely to happen.  But that ascension might have to be one where we see Luka make an All-NBA team and even be in the MVP discussion (Not a crazy thought.  His ceiling is that and he’s good enough to hit it already this year).  Betting against Luka is not a comfortable thing to do, especially now that he has one of the league’s best young big men to develop a two-man game with.  But this roster is… oof.

Even with Luka, Porzingis and Hardaway Jr., the Mavs have a wing problem.  Their best players after those three are Seth Curry, Delon Wright and Jalen Brunson – all three of whom are point guards at point guard size.

Luka is Dallas’ point guard.  His facilitating is next level, and at that size it makes him near unstoppable.  A super-sized Dallas lineup with even more wings that can shoot around Luka is a team that, when the second-year stud turns into one of the league’s ten best players, can win the title.  But they likely (Luka being one of the ten best players in the league this season cannot be ruled out) don’t have either of those coming this season.  Instead, they’re left with playing Brunson and Curry (???) alongside their superstar duo and Hardaway Jr.

Defensively there’s issues.  With the two guards they’re extremely small and don’t have a defensive presence aside from Porzingis, who’ll be rebounding from a knee surgery that caused him to miss a whole season of basketball.

With two starting spots being filled with question marks, it leaves a thin bench, which’ll rely heavily on whatever facilitator is out there to create offense.  Wright, Curry and Brunson have all shown that ability, with Wright and Brunson being true point guards with legit handles.  Still, the second unit consists of Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Justin Jackson and Courtney Lee.  That’s not exactly a lineup full of scorers.

Luka is going to have to be absolutely incredible this season for Dallas to make the playoffs.  He’s special enough to make it happen, and despite a limited roster, has more help than he did last year.  If this playoff spot comes down to Zion and him, then we could be looking at a preview of NBA’s two best players at some point down the line.

  • Sacramento Kings

The Kings are like the Spurs in which they have a lot of bodies, and a lot of bodies that are going to need minutes.

But the difference is that the Kings aren’t stuck – yet- in a mediocre state.  They’re still building and are figuring out what they truly have.

What the Kings have for sure?  That’s De’Aaron Fox, one of the most electric players in the league at the age of just 21 years old.  Fox broke out last year, improving his shooting, taking full control of the Kings offense and competing as hard as possible on both ends.  That last trait might have been the least surprising of Fox’s, but its perhaps the most important.  The dude cares.  A lot.  And that drive could see him elevate an improved yet crowded Kings roster even higher.

The Kings handed out a lot of money this offseason and still have more to shelve out.  They signed Dwayne Dedmon to a large deal (One he deserved, but maybe not from Sacramento), yet have Marvin Bagley III coming up on the books.  Bagley is still kind of a tweener positionally in the NBA, but his size, length and lack of shooting thus far makes him fit to play the five.  Putting shooters and athleticism around him (Which the Kings have) is the best way to maximize his strengths.

But is Dedmon going to ride the bench late in games making $13.3 million this season?  Are the Kings really going to play Bagley and Dedmon together?  It could work; Dedmon can shoot the three well whereas Bagley can’t.  They can switch roles  and get away with it, with Dedmon protecting the rim defensively while being the out big man offensively compared to Bagley being more of switchy defender yet playing inside more on the offensive end.

Pairing that with Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield on the wing – two very good shooters – is a modern look.  Throw in Fox and the hair-on-fire style of play and the Kings could actually squeak in this year.

They’re deep too.  They gave Trevor Ariza a two-year, $25 million contract to provide a veteran presence along with defense and shooting that Barnes brings starting.  Cory Joseph is a fine backup point guard along with Yogi Ferrell, and Kyle Guy could factor in given his shooting ability.  Bogdan Bogdanovic is a lengthy wing who can shoot and is underrated as a passer; his contract situation is worth monitoring (Is he going to play enough/have minutes on SAC to earn the money he wants?).  Nenajama Belicia (Belly!!!!) is back and provides shooting despite his size.  And Dedmon has the switchy Richaun Holmes and the full-of-potential Harry Giles, who just needs to stay healthy, backing him up.

The Kings, like everyone else except for Dallas, are deep and talented.  Because of that, it’s going to be up to each team’s star – Luka, Zion, Fox and Murray – to step up and elevate them.  Whoever has the biggest impact will find themselves in the playoffs.

Utah and Denver Are Still A Step Away From Contention

We continue the 2018-19 preview with a look at two teams that most consider to be title contenders.  However, certain drawbacks may keep them from reaching that status.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making Finals

Playoff locks:

Fringe contenders tier:

  • Utah Jazz

For some a stunning omission from the preview’s first column, it’s not that the Utah Jazz didn’t get better over the offseason.  They got a lot better, so much so that there’s a chance they can rise all the way to the third or fourth seed if things break right.

But assigning the Jazz the title contender status feels like we’re jumping the gun a bit.

They’re an incredible defensive team.  When you talk about having guards that can hang with and defend the backcourts of Houston, Golden State and Portland, the Jazz absolutely have that.  They paid a lot for Mike Conley, who will be worth it for his defense and the burden that’ll be lifted off Donavan Mitchell’s chest.  Mitchell himself is a nasty defender; they arguably have two of the five best defensive guards in basketball now.  Rudy Gobert, despite weaknesses that have been exposed in the past two postseasons, is an anchor down low and has decent fluidity on both ends of the court.  Joe Ingles projects as the starter on the wing next to offseason signing Bojan Bogdanović, giving them another hard-nosed defender.  Royce O’Neal is a big, strong wing who guard players anywhere from 2-5.  Offseason signing Ed Davis is a sneaky pickup, as his rim protection continues to be underrated.

Still, Utah has some concerns.  There’s a lot of new faces to the offense, including a new point guard – perhaps the most important position on this new-look team.  While Bogdanović and Ingles are both good shooters, they don’t necessarily pack the punch Utah needs on the offensive end.  Sure Bogdanović can heat up, but how consistent will he be for a team that is still going to need all the help they can get to score points?  Gobert isn’t someone who’s fed offensively, and Conley isn’t a pure scorer either.

A lot of the load still falls on Mitchell, who though only 23 by the end of the season, will have to show us what he’s really capable of this year.  The Jazz went out and got him help.  They believe he’s a guy that just needs that; nothing more.  If he turns into a player that really matters in this league – a guy that can carry a team no matter what’s around him and ranks among the top 12-15 players – then Utah has a strong case to really challenge the Clippers.  That jump seems unlikely not only to happen this season, but to come at all.

  • Denver Nuggets

Putting the Nuggets here is a tough one.

They were last season’s darlings.  Mike Malone transformed the offense to run through and around Nikola Jokic, taking full advantage of his generational passing skills by running cutters and shooters around him.  They let Jokic take shots in crunch-time, and even had guys like Mason Plumlee imitating Jokic when he wasn’t on the floor.

But Denver lacked one thing throughout the year, and it bit them hard in the playoffs: A lack of a reliable, one-on-one, late-in-games scorer.

Jamal Murray could, and likely should, be that guy given what they paid him.  In the playoffs, Murray was about as up and down as one could possibly be.  The insane, 4OT game against Portland in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals was a perfect picture of Murray’s inconsistency.  He was cold-blooded at times and also had the ball way too much, forcing shots, eventually causing Denver to lose the game.

Murray didn’t have the it factor about him last year.  And that’s the biggest problem with Denver coming into this season.  If they have a legitimate chance of making the Finals, Murray has to improve and be the guy, because as good as Jokic and the offense is, you can’t just have his passing be the go-to late in games.  They need someone who can create off the dribble.  Murray has shown the promising and not-so-promising sides of that so far.

Murray, like Mitchell, has to take big steps this season.  Confidence should be higher in Mitchell; he’s shown the ability to be a dominant scorer at times and could be evolve into one of the league’s top 10-15 players soon.  Murray has much farther to go.  Thankfully for him, he may not need to be that guy, though one of the options available to the Nuggets was crossed off this morning.

Bradley Beal would have been perfect for Denver.  He’s one of the 25 best players in basketball, can be a late-game scorer and is plenty used to playing off-the-ball given his years with John Wall in Washington.

Thankfully for the Wizards, Beal wanted to oddly stay, and made that known by signing a two-year, $72 million extension with Washington Thursday morning.

It’s a bummer for Denver and other teams who were hoping to sniff out Beal’s services.  It also furthers the case that the Nuggets may not be a legitimate contender this season.

With Beal out of the picture for Denver, they need either Murray to ascend to being the best guy on a championship team or Michael Porter Jr. to step up and be it.

Murray taking that leap would be huge for Denver but is unlikely to happen.

The second might be even more unlikely.  But though Porter Jr. had serious concerns coming into that draft, the main thing he could do was score.  For the value that Denver got him at, he was absolutely worth the pick.  Now, if he’s healthy, he could be ready to show why that draft night slide was such a mistake.  He’ll have to show efficiency that he lacked in high school and college, but for such a ball movement-heavy team, Porter’s one-on-one game might actually be a bit necessary.  It’s the one team in the league that could actually use some inefficient play.

Denver has more talent coming in; it’s not the same exact team.  Jerami Grant was a weird trade-away by Oklahoma City, and Denver got another athletic player who does very well on the defense end and can be a menace offensively; the bounce he has allows him to cut very effectively for someone of his size.

Bol Bol is on a two-way contract, meaning that he only has 45 days he can spend with the Nuggets.  The rest will be at the G-League level. It’s likely he’ll have just as much of an impact as MPJ did last year.

Denver needs star power to become a contender.  With the Beal news this morning, it makes the odds that they get it this year even slimmer.  But they didn’t pay Murray $170 million for nothing, and Porter Jr. has the skills to turn into that.  With those two in hand, it may not be a question of if they get it.  It’s when.

The Western Conference Has Five Title Contenders In It Alone

Conference imbalance has been a debate practically all century for the NBA.  Since the 2013-2014 season, the Western Conference has undoubtedly been more talented, deeper and more competitive than the East.  Blame the Warriors, blame LeBron and AD, blame whoever, but the western half of the NBA has dominated the past years despite Toronto and Cleveland both winning titles in that span.  But this year, there’s a chance that the West could be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The layout of the conference this season, despite its competitiveness, is simple.  Seven (The ridiculousness is already clear) teams are playoff locks, which leaves just one spot open for the other eight teams in the conference.  Despite eight teams fighting for it, some have no shot.  Others do have a shot.

There’s four of those on each side, which means that three very good and deserving teams will miss the playoffs.  It also means that there’s a couple teams that, despite them being in the West, you probably shouldn’t watch much of.

We’ll get to those later this week or early next week before the season’s tip-off Tuesday.  For now we’re looking at the top of the West, where of the seven playoff locks five title contenders lie.  Yup, five teams that could theoretically make the Finals.  Those bolded words are very important.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making Finals

Playoff locks:

The title contenders tier:

  • Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers overhaul of their roster by acquiring/signing two of the league’s best 13 players makes them the prohibitive NBA Finals favorites and the best team in the league.

The No. 1 seed though may be a bit tall of a task.  Paul George is recovering from surgery on both of his shoulders.  Kawhi Leonard figures to see his “load management” continued to prevent whatever leg injuries he’s dealt with over the past 2-3 seasons from popping back up.  But the Clippers’ depth, most notably Patrick Beverley (Perfectly capable of running an offense), Lou Williams (Pefectably capable of taking over in crunch-time) and plethora of switchy wings (Mo Harkless, Rodney McGruder, Jerome Robinson) should be able to make up the losses when Leonard and George are on the bench.

It’s certainly a good problem to have, but the Clippers have some sorting out to do regarding what their end of game lineup will look like.  You can pencil in George and Leonard when they’re both healthy.  The other three spots remain up to some debate.  Having a true facilitator would be nice, so Beverley figures to get the 1-spot.

They have options for the other two spots.  They have Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, rookie Mifounde Kabengele, Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green all as options to play the five in crunch-time.  Zubac likely starts given the contract they just gave him, but his lack of athleticism hurts.  Kabengele might struggle to find minutes, and Patterson and Green might be too small to provide rim protection.

Which means that the Clippers will be deploying their vaunted bench duo of Williams and Harrell to close games this season like they did last year.  The two didn’t start, but they played substantial minutes and closed games.  Williams was their true No.1 option late in games last season.  His pairing with Harrell created a deadly pick and roll duo, and gave the Clippers good-enough rim protection as Harrell used his athleticism to switch.

A closing lineup of Beverley-Williams-Leonard-George-Harrell is insane.  Can anyone compete?

  • Houston Rockets

When the Rockets flipped Chris Paul and a lot of other assets for Russell Westbrook in July, there was too much to get to.  It was too shocking of a trade.  Analyzing the fit of the two together was a small piece in the whole thing.  Now we’re at the point where we can do that.

Houston wasn’t left with a lot of choices this offseason.  They had to do something, and it had to create an impact whether it worked or not.

Westbrook in Houston certainly makes an impact.  And it just might work.

The pairing of James Harden and Westbrook goes against every modern basketball philosophy, mostly due to the soaring usage rates of both players (Which were No. 1 and 2 overall in the NBA last season) and Westbrook’s stunning inefficiency.  But it creates a larger impact than anything Houston has had since they traded for Harden.  Having Westbrook AND Harden to deal with on the court at the same time is a legitimate pain in the butt.  Dealing with the craftiness and pure sorcery of Harden while accounting for the athleticism and recklessness (In this case, a good thing) of Westbrook asks a lot of a defense.  You have to have two pretty good defenders in the backcourt to keep these two under control.

Really, the only thing stopping them is themselves.  Houston could be excellent defensively with Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Westbrook (A good defender when he tries).  The depth is really questionable; with Gerald Green’s injury the Rockets only have Thabo Sefolosha, Austin Rivers and Nene as reliable bench guys.  But that’s all you really need in the playoffs when rotations shrink.

What happens if the fit doesn’t work between Westbrook and Harden?  Do off shooting nights for Houston lead Westbrook to takeover in his own selfish ways and give them even less of a chance?  What happens if Harden struggles in the postseason again?  Does Westbrook takeover in the worst way possible?

Houston could make the Finals.  The pure volume of threes they can potentially make (Westbrook might decrease those odds) on a given night makes them a threat to beat anyone.  Perhaps only Utah has the defensive chops to handle Harden and Westbrook collectively.  A ridiculous hot streak from Harden and Russ under control could make them unstoppable even against the Clippers, as Houston has the defense.  But they have to get past themselves.  It all comes down to Westbrook and whether he changes his style of play.

  • Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers, no matter how much people wanted to pick apart their roster, are Finals contenders simply for the sake of the fact that they have two of the five best players in the NBA, and one of them happens to be LeBron James, who has become weirdly underrated coming into this season.

Yes, LeBron is 34 and will be 35 by the time the Finals come around.  But there have been overreactions to the groin injury he sustained last season.  It was the first lengthy injury LeBron has practically ever suffered.  It was relatively minor; this wasn’t anything that required surgery, nagged or is like a sprained foot.  We’ve all pulled a groin, haven’t we?  And while LeBron never turned into LeBron last season, he still made an All-NBA team (Which was generous.  He was a top 20 player last season though) and still deserves respect as one of the best players in the league.  It’s very possible he mailed it in last season to get AD on his team.  Now he has him.

LeBron may not be the best player in the league anymore, but he’s still dang close to being so.  Combining that with Davis is terrifying.  But issues persist on this Lakers team.  Usually these wouldn’t matter with LeBron.  But even with the defense  of him above, we can’t count on the LeBron we saw during the 2017-18 season.

Even after all the drama he went through to end up on the Lakers, Davis hasn’t quit it.  It hasn’t created drama yet, but we could see it become a source of unhappiness and lack of success if it doesn’t change.

That “it” is Davis’ reluctancy to play center.  At 6’10 with a 7’6 wingspan and the athleticism he possess, it would only make sense for AD to play the five given what he’s shown in the past (The shot-blocking and switchiness).  But the Lakers are experimenting with lineups that have him out there with Javale McGee or Dwight Howard.

Either is a disaster.  Neither McGee or Howard can shoot.  The Lakers were the only team that likely would have signed Howard this offseason strictly for their desperation after DeMarcus Cousins’ torn ACL.  His lumbering will likely be a liability defensively as he’s lost completely lost the skill that made him so elite around the rim in the late 2000s.  The same goes for McGee; he might actually be able to move a little better than Howard thanks to his time with the Warriors.  He was never terrible there!

You’d hope the Lakers play McGee in crunch-time alongside Davis, which is just a mind-bobbling clause to write considering where we’re at the with the league’s geometry.

With those two as the frontcourt (puke), the rest is still muddled.  Danny Green got a nice deal to come in, play defense and hit threes, so his spot is cemented in crunch-time.  He accompanies LeBron, which, with Green, AD and McGee, already makes four guys.

This is where the Lakers second biggest issue comes to the forefront.  In addition to not playing Davis at center, LeBron will be playing point guard.

Despite the defense of LeBron above, this is not what him or the Lakers need.  We aren’t sure that LeBron is going to be the LeBron we’re used to anymore.  Him playing point guard doesn’t exactly phase him out of that or lessen his load.  Secondly, LeBron complained multiple times in Cleveland post-Kyrie trade that the team didn’t have a point guard.  While everything runs through LeBron on his teams, they do in fact need point guards to help shelf the load.  With LeBron not being the clear-cut best player in the league anymore, it makes zero sense not to run a pure facilitator out there.

If LeBron is at the one for the majority of minutes and in crunch-time, then Kyle Kuzma slides into the last spot alongside AD, McGee and Green and LeBron.  That’s, for the most part, big, athletic and modern!

Kuzma has a foot injury which was thought to keep him out for quite awhile, but there’s hope he can suit up in the season opener.  If that’s the case, then he probably slides right into those big crunch-time minutes for the Lakers right away.

The LeBron-Green-Kuzma-Davis-McGee lineup is complicated.  It has the potential to be really good defensively – Kuzma has the tools to be a good defender and McGee simply has to hold on – and is a super-sized lineup that plays four legit shooters, has athleticism and has two of the best five players in the league on it.  At the same time, the Davis-McGee pairing is troublesome for spacing purposes (Howard inserted instead of McGee makes things even worse), and Bron playing point guard seems unnecessary when the Lakers could easily play Rajon Rondo (Who is not terrible!  He’s shown improvements as a shooter, is good defensively when he tries and is a more-than-competent facilitator).  Moving Rondo in next to LeBron forces AD to play center and, despite Rondo’s shooting issues, makes the Lakers best lineup much more appealing and modern.

The Lakers do look good.  While LeBron at point and the large frontcourt is concerning, they have defenders in Green and Avery Bradley off the bench.  Quinn Cook gives them a backup facilitator.  Troy Daniels fits the three-and-D mold that is so necessary around LeBron.  Jared Dudley adds toughness and underrated defense, though he isn’t exactly a modern center either.

The Lakers can make the Finals.  They can even do so with LeBron not being LeBron anymore.  That’s why Davis is here.  But they won’t have a chance with LeBron really dropping off.  They’re going to need him to be the guy a lot.  How often will that occur?

  • Portland Trail Blazers

Portland being inserted into the title contender category while Denver and Utah being held out of it might be one of the most controversial opinions shared during this NBA preview.

We’ll get into it later, but a lot of this is about respect for one of the most dominant playoff runs seen in a long time led by Damian Lillard last spring.

Portland’s downfall was anchored in a smart ploy by the Warriors (Originally conceived by Denver) to blitz Lillard, which helped curb him even more from the expected regression he was bound to suffer, and the supporting roster not hitting shots.

Now, both Mo Harkless and Al-Farquoq Aminu, two versatile defenders who were anchors for the Blazers over the years yet could never hit shots in the playoffs, are both gone.  Enter Anfernee Simons, the second-year, 20-year-old who scored 37 points in his first start in last year’s regular season finale.

The hype about him is real.  Simons projects as a crafty two-guard who can score, defend and pass.  He’s basically a lengthy, more athletic CJ McCollum with even better passing, and at 6’4, he’s tall enough to play the three alongside Portland’s already star-studded pair.

Portland has simply needed more firepower around Dame and CJ for years now.  With Simons, they get more than a shooter.  They essentially get another McCollum out there.

The front court spots are cluttered and confusing yet have promise. Jursurf Nurkic, who suffered a horrific broken leg right before last year’s playoffs, probably won’t be ready to go until this season’s playoffs, and even then his impact might be extremely limited.  Portland’s trade for Hassan Whiteside gives them an extra body down low; he could likely start but be benched in crunch-time as defensive effort and a lack of athleticism would really hurt late in games.

This all leaves Zach Collins, who really shined later on last season, as Portland’s rim protector, opening up another wing spot alongside Simons.  The Trail Blazers did a nice job replacing the loss of Harkless and Aminu by trading for Kent Bazemore (Swapping the Evan Turner contract for his) and signing Anthony Tolliver, a strong wing who shoots well.  One of them would figure to slide into that fifth spot.  Tolliver is bigger and more efficient, while Bazemore is someone who could anchor Portland’s second unit thanks to ball-handling ability; he kinda needs the ball in his hands.

Portland’s Finals case rests in Simons having a massive breakout season, creating even more of a nightmare for defenses already having to deal with Dame and CJ.  They also need Tolliver to be effective and hit shots when they ask him to.

Nurkic is a big loss, and while his defense improved last season, even he is someone who might be too inefficient to be out there late in games.  Collins has the shooting, athleticism and has a higher ceiling defensively than either of Portland’s other options.

This isn’t a “Portland will make the Finals” proposition, but could they if things develop the right way?  That’s what this whole column is about.

  • Golden State Warriors

Another contender that feels underrated and is a surprise to be placed over Utah or Denver in this breakdown.  But despite a revamped roster, an injured Klay Thompson and role guys being plugged into a bit more than role-player roles, the Warriors could find themselves back in the Finals for the sixth consecutive year.

Similar to Harden and Westbrook, whether it works or not, the Stephen Curry-D’Angelo Russell backcourt will at least be a pain for opposing defenses to deal with.  Curry’s incredible shot-making and drift on the court gives D-Lo space to isolate and take guys one-on-one.

But D-Lo is going to have buy into the Warriors system of ball movement and selfless play.  Russell’s a good shooter; that’s not the problem.  His usage rate was at a career high 31.9% last season.  It certainly won’t reach that this year.

In Brooklyn, D-Lo was the guy.  Now he’s the second fiddle, who’ll be used as a secondary ball-handler and a shooter in Golden State’s scheme.  If he tries to hijack games and hog the ball, he could seem himself enter some trade rumors come the new year.

The Warriors have Kevon Looney and Draymond Green in the front-court, providing them with much needed defense as their backcourt sorely lacks it.  There’s oddly a lack of shooting on this team, but that could be solved if and when Klay Thompson comes back.

Just because the Warriors are one of the five title contenders in the West does not make them the five-seed or better.  Without Thompson, they have a hole in their crunch-time lineup (Who’s filling it?  Glenn Robinson?  Alfonzo McKinnie?  Alec Burks?), have massive issues defensively and little scoring off the bench.  But with Thompson theoretically back for the playoffs, Golden State becomes a ridiculous offensive team with as high a ceiling as anyone in contention.  Curry, Thompson and D-Lo is borderline unstoppable.  While small, Thompson can make up for some of the defensive deficiencies while running around with Curry if Steve Kerr decides to let D-Lo takeover certain possessions.

No matter who has the ball in their hands, the duo of D-Lo and Klay or Curry and Klay running around the court, off pindowns, cuts or basic screens creates chaos.  Curry as a player is literally chaos.  Chaos is what generated the Warriors offense from 2014-2016 pre-KD.  That went pretty well.  All the Warriors are doing this year is going back to their roots.

NL and ALCS Preview

One of these series is exactly what most expected.

One of these series is absolutely not.

Both favorites lost in the NLDS.  The Dodgers, the best team in baseball this season with 106 wins, completely collapsed in Game 5 thanks to egregious managing from Dave Roberts and faltering from Clayton Kershaw once again in October.  The Braves had their biggest concern coming into the playoffs – an overhauled bullpen that still wasn’t fixed – bite them before getting completely throttled and embarrassed in Game 5, ending what was an incredibly fun and exciting season.

While the World Series won’t be the potentially titanic matchup we thought it could be, we’re getting at least one of those this round in Astros-Yankees.  But first, let’s preview one of the more unpredictable NLCS matchups in recent history.

NLCS: Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals

The Nationals’ ability to rally – or their incredible luck to face teams that choke in improbable ways – this postseason has gotten them here.

It’s both.  They have a heavily underrated lineup that includes Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, who have both made their impact very well known so far this postseason.  But they also had one of baseball’s best relievers somehow combust against them in the Wild Card Game, and then had one of baseball’s best pitchers ever do the same in Game 5 Wednesday night.

Despite those breaks, it’s probably going to get them to the World Series.

Washington has done a fantastic job staying away from their volatile bullpen, which was brutal this season and finished 22nd in WAR accumulation.  That’s because, aside from Patrick Corbin, who the Dodgers got to heavily in Game 3, the Nationals have gotten insane and long performances from their starters.  Out of the 54 innings of baseball Washington has played this postseason, 38 of those have been played with a starting pitcher on the mound, not a reliever.  And those starters have been excellent, posting a 2.57 ERA so far in October per ESPN.

But the best rotation ERA in these playoffs doesn’t belong to the Nationals.  It belongs to St. Louis, who, despite their inexperience in that group, is still pushing right along and is four wins from the World Series because of it.

The Cardinals don’t have as faulty a bullpen to worry about; they were 7th in WAR accumulation in that department during the regular season but have posted a 4.30 ERA so far in these playoffs.

With the way most bullpens have been shelled so far though, that’s not that bad of a number, and the eye test proves a bit better than that number suggests.

It’s still a bit of a problem though.  While the youngster has been awesome, who are you picking in a Max Scherzer-Jack Flaherty duel?  Or Dakota Hudson vs. Stephen Strasburg?  Adam Wainwright had a vintage performance in Game 3 (before it being ruined by Mike Shildt leaving him out there too long, only for Carlos Martinez to get rocked and allow Atlanta to come back); his postseason magic has not ran out and is maybe the most trustworthy pitcher in the St. Louis rotation because of his experience.

The Cardinals bullpen has Martinez, who had one of the more miserable innings from a pitcher this season (Don’t worry, Clayton Kershaw, Joe Kelly, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried are right up there too!), Tyler Webb (who hasn’t been great) and Giovanny Gallegos, who despite posting an ERA of 0.00 in three appearances had a rough outing in Game 4 in which he walked two batters to load the bases in a 4-3 game.  They got out of it, but in the moment, you were holding your breath.

This is a large part of what’s backing up a young, inexperienced rotation tasked with going up against Scherzer, Strasburg, the ageless Anibal Sanchez and what should be an improved Corbin.  Also, the Nationals lineup is terrifying, has one of the two hottest hitters in these playoffs on it (The two are Soto and Jose Altuve) and is a lineup that is significantly better than St. Louis’.

That doesn’t mean this series won’t be close.  Scherzer certainly showed he wasn’t invincible in the Wild Card game, where he was shelled before the Nats rallied, and Corbin as mentioned was not good at all in Game 3 against the Dodgers.  Both should improve; the Cardinals offense isn’t as good as Milwaukee or LA’s.  But if the Cardinals can rough one or two guys up early and force an early shift to the bullpen, then that only increases their odds.

Prediction: Nationals in 6

ALCS: New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros

Like the Yankees last series against the Twins, this matchup could not be more evenly matched.

Arguably the two best offenses in baseball are armed each with top ten bullpens.  Both teams won more than 103 games.  One of them will not play in the World Series.

Houston’s vaunted rotation looked the part early before somewhat losing its shine later on against Tampa Bay.  Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole completed dominated in Games 1 and 2 before Zack Greinke fell off, getting roughed up early in Game 3 and setting a bit of a trend until Cole came back in Game 5 put up a similar performance to Game 2.

If the Astros struggled with a Rays lineup that wasn’t off-the-chart menacing, then what happens against a Yankees batting order that is full of sluggers?

The Astros had the best offense in baseball this season.  They hit a ton of home runs, had the highest team batting average out of anyone and, like the Yankees, bring up slugger after slugger.

This series could turn into a bit of a shootout instead of a pitching duel.  New York blanked the Twins in three games, but had James Paxton struggle in Game 1.  They were also ultra-aggressive, letting no starter of their’s stay in the game more than five innings.  Manager Aaron Boone has been smart this postseason unlike other decisions we’ve seen made, but with Houston putting longer leashes on their guys, the Yankees could seek to do the same if the starter is firing.

If the Astros can work it so that only Cole, Greinke and Verlander start the entire series, it likely heavily rests the bullpen.  But Wade Miley, who was surprisingly good during the regular season, didn’t have a great ALDS in the 2.2 innings he pitched.  Neither did Ryan Presley, who turned back into the Twins version of himself, or Hector Rondon, who came into a high leverage situation and blew it in the Rays Game 3 slaughter.

The Yankees bullpen was expectedly great against Minnesota, and shut down a top three offense in baseball.  The rest of the Houston staff was excellent versus Tampa Bay.

So what gives?

The Nationals, similar to Houston, have had two of their top three starters have so-so performances at times during this postseason.  I picked Washington to win because of the expected rebound those players should have, in addition to the competition they will be facing.

Perhaps, in this ALCS, it could be the Yankees that see some production dip from their starters.  Sure, Paxton already wasn’t great, but Masahiro Tanaka is home run prone-pitcher who wasn’t very good this season.  We’ve seen Luis Severino have bad games in October before.  There’s no way Greinke can be as bad as he was in Game 3.  There’s no way Verlander lasts only 3.2 innings and gives up four runs in the process again.

Right?  Right?!?

Prediction: Astros in 7

Twins-Yankees Preview

This series could not be more evenly matched.

The Twins and Yankees arguably have the two most terrifying and powerful lineups in baseball as they hit the most and second-most home runs in baseball.  They have rotations that are a little less than enticing.  They’ve both battled through injuries and suspensions to key players.  This is the type of series that feels like it should be next round.  Instead, it’s in the ALDS.

A really good team is going home here.  The Twins completely revamped their lineup last offseason in order to do one thing: Hit a lot of home runs.  They did just that.  And they did it in a year where their pitching, after years of struggles, came together and finished third in total WAR accumulation.

That number is stunning one.  They got Jose Berrios to pitch like the stud they were trying to develop him into.  They got the Jake Odorizzi they traded for before the 2018 season.  They got massive contributions late in the season from Devin Smetzler (3.86 ERA in 11 games) and Randy Dobnak (1.59 ERA in nine games).

But pieces to the 7th-ranked rotation in baseball are missing.  Michael Pineda was suspended for PEDs and ruled out for the playoffs after posting a 4.01 ERA and 114 ERA+ in 26 starts.  Instead, they’re going to be relying on the youthful Smetzler (23 years old) and Dobnak (24 years old) and Kyle Gibson, whose had a rough year with a 4.84 ERA and 95 ERA+.

The inexperience is important.  The Yankees rotation has some of the qualms the Twins’ does.  Their big offseason trade for James Paxton didn’t turn out as expected as he hasn’t been the ace-quality pitcher they gave up Justus Sheffield among others for.  Masahiro Tanaka, their Game 2 starter, has a 4.45 ERA this year.  J.A. Happ, the likely Game 4, has struggled mightily as well.  Domingo German, likely the brightest spot in the group, was suspended for domestic violence and won’t pitch.

But the Yankees have experience.  Lots of it.  Tanaka has been in big games.  So has Luis Severino, who has looked good since coming back from injury with a 1.50 ERA.  J.A. Happ was awesome in the 2016 postseason, yet less so last year.

If the starters falter, New York can go to their incredibly talented bullpen, which finished just above the third-ranked Twins in accumulated WAR at No. 2 in the big leagues.

It’s a shutdown group.  Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green (Though he’s been pretty average this year) and Zack Britton are gas.  Adam Ottavino might have the best slider ever.  More importantly, all of these relievers have been around and been in games.  They’ve been there.

Minnesota, like their rotation, is relying on a lot of youth.  Zack Littel, Cody Stashak and Brusdar Graterol (He’s 20!) all figure to see innings.  Those three have appeared in 57 combined games this season, and they’re all 25 or under.

Both staffs are dealing with insanely good hitters.  With these lineups, it’s about surviving and having options to dig you out of jams.  The Yankees have that.  We don’t know if the Twins do yet.

Minnesota can win this series by getting ahead and roughing up the likes of Tanaka and Paxton, whose first inning struggles have been of note.  You can’t settle into lineups like these; you’ll be down five runs fast.  But if New York’s bullpen can allow zero runs afterward, and the Twins pitchers receive the same treatment New York’s staff gets, then the Yankees are in good shape.

This series is nearly impossible to pick; it was never going to be a four game series or less.  But the experience in New York’s bullpen is the only way these teams aren’t evenly matched.  I’m rolling with that.

Prediction: Yankees in 5

Rays-Astros Preview

The Twins-Yankees preview will go before first pitch of their Game 1 later today.

ALDS #1: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros

The Astros are the World Series favorites heading into these playoffs, and there’s one big reason why.

Here’s a look at Houston’s Game 1,2 and 3 starters.

  1. Justin Verlander
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Zack Greinke

That is all.

With three aces going in the first three games of the series, an Astros sweep seems like an outcome that isn’t unlikely at all. So instead of looking at the series through an even lens, it’s probably best to preview it in terms of “How can the Rays not get swept, put up a fight or even win?”

Getting their rotation to match the inevitable performance that Houston’s aces will put up is a tough proposition, but it’s not totally impossible.  It’s been mostly control issues for Blake Snell this season; a year which has seen his numbers regress to a 4.29 ERA and 104 ERA+.  But his strikeout numbers have still been off the charts (12.4 strikeouts per nine innings) and his FIP is quite low at 3.32.

You can’t gift Houston baserunners though.  Like the Red Sox last year, they’re an offense that can hit for power and contact.  The Astros finished this season ranked third in home runs hit, second in doubles and had the highest batting average out of any team in baseball this season.

But, if the Wild Card games have been any indication, it’s the long ball thats going to be the trend of this postseason.  Snell was good at not allowing those, and the Rays will need him and Charlie Morton to hold their ground against this vaunted lineup with the inexperienced Tyler Glasgow and Ryan Yarborough likely rounding out Tampa Bay’s rotation.

Despite being the best in baseball, the Rays bullpen won’t be there to save them.  If Tampa Bay gets behind against any Astros starter, they likely won’t be coming back, as Houston’s bullpen ranked 9th in WAR accumulation this season.

Tampa Bay has to hope for scoreless innings deep into games.  It’s their only real chance.  Drive the pitch count up on Verlander, Cole and Greinke and force Houston’s bullpen to give up some runs.  Can that happen in even one game?  If Morton’s on the mound, then possibly.  His ground-ball tendency and the revenge factor could give the Rays a win.  But two wins for Tamap Bay seems like not respecting the dominance of the Astros enough.

Prediction: Astros in 4

Previewing Braves-Cardinals and Nationals-Dodgers

After a Wild Card round which featured one completely bonkers game and one meh game, we’ve reached the Division Series stage.

Since the MLB playoffs only take five teams in each league, someone good always goes home during the DS’, and with two really good series awaiting, that will be the case again.

NLDS #1: Atlanta Braves vs. St. Louis Cardinals

This series is loaded with young talent, and it’s not only going to be on display, but will be needed to show up and deliver during the most important time of the season.

A lot of that youth is within each team’s rotation.  21-year-old Mike Soraka, who generated 5.6 WAR this season (Second on the Braves), will be starting Game 2.  Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals right-hander, has been one of the hottest pitchers in the baseball throughout the second half and is only 23.  Dakota Hudson, who’s also been excellent this season, is 24.

Then of course, there’s the batters, where Ronald Acuna Jr. was a legitimate MVP candidate and almost turned in a 40-40 club performance as a 21-year-old.  Ozzie Albies raised his batting average 34 points this season in addition to hitting 24 home runs in his age-22 season, and Dansby Swanson has shown some impressive power at shortstop.

With all of this youth comes inexperience.  Atlanta will have some in their rotation with Mike Foltynewicz and Dallas Keuchel going in Games 1 and 2.  Same with the Cardinals in Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas.  Michael Wacha has struggled, posting a 4.76 ERA and 90 ERA+, and won’t be pitching in this series due to a shoulder injury while Wainwright and Mikolas have been average.  Wacha’s spot could see Daniel Ponce de Leon get a start, whose not a bad option as he’s been good in eight outings.

The true talent though in St. Louis’ rotation is young, which makes things a little dicey even with Flaherty’s hot streak in full bloom.

The Cardinals bullpen though is much better than Atlanta’s.  St. Louis was seventh in accumulated bullpen WAR compared to the Braves – who overhauled their staff at the trade deadline to get mediocre results at best – at 22nd.  But like the overall theme of this series, youth is prevalent within.  The Cardinals are putting relievers like Ryan Hensley (24 years old) and Genesis Cabrera (22 years old and hasn’t exactly been great this season) on their NLDS roster to pair with more experienced guys like the less-effective Andrew Miller and Carlos Martinez.

This should all balance out for St. Louis in the bullpen.  In the rotation though, the concerns are a little larger.  Wainwright is a decent trust bet, but everyone else – even Flaherty and Hudson – come with baggage.

The Braves are a scary lineup, much more potent than the Cardinals. Atlanta has their own youth, and only one pitcher who has experience and good performance (Dallas Kuechel, but even he has a sketchy playoff resume) in their rotation.  But in a series where taking advantage of inexperience will go miles, it’s going to come down to the better offense.  That’s Atlanta’s.

Prediction: Braves in 5

NLDS #2: Washington Nationals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers 

With insane, come-from-behind win Tuesday night, the Nationals not only gave us another absolutely insane Wild Card game, but gave us an even better second NLDS series to look forward to.

Mostly thanks to the pitching talent they possess, this Nationals-Dodgers series is way more fun and entertaining than a Brewers-Dodgers series.  That’s because Washington actually has a chance.

Despite their faulty bullpen which was 22nd in total WAR accumulated, the Nationals can throw Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasberg, Patrick Corbin and the ageless Anibal Sanchez out there and feel pretty good about their chances.  Despite stunningly getting roughed up early against the Brewers, Scherzer was incredibly efficient with his pitch count Tuesday, and could have gone even deeper into the game.  Strasberg and Corbin also have the ability to dominate for six-plus innings.  The Nationals need that as much as possible, because if they can get past the Dodgers, this team has the ability to play into late October, let alone the fact that Washington has a much better chance of not giving up runs when their starters are out there.

Washington’s starters going late into games in this series also gives the bullpen needed rest.  It’s not just the bullpen that wears down late into the postseason though; starters do too, which means the Nats later on in the postseason need their relievers to be ready and rested.  The extra rest they could gain this series could be critical.

The Dodgers are more threatening.  They have NL Cy Young candidate Hyun Jin Ryu, who was unhittable in the first half of the season before turning into just a very good pitcher in the second half.  They still have Clayton Kershaw, who whisked away some of the postseason concerns we’ve had for him in past playoffs last October, 24-year-old Walker Buehler having another insane season and their own ageless wonder in Rich Hill.

But that’s not all.  This is the best Dodgers bullpen in the past three years.  They finished 9th in bullpen WAR and have Kenley Jansen and Pedro Baez pitching well.  Deadline acquisition Adam Kolarek has been shutdown-worthy for Los Angeles with a 0.77 ERA.

Those overall numbers don’t factor in expanded innings for Dustin May, Kenta Maeda or Ross Stripling though.  Stripling and Maeda were both used as starters in more than half of their appearances this year.  This postseason, they’ll likely strictly be in bullpen roles, giving LA more experience and even better production in that department.  The versatility LA has gives more rest to the Jansens, Baezs and Kolareks of the world.

The Nationals bullpen doesn’t even compare.  It was the team’s biggest downfall early in the season, leading to their 19-31 record toward late May.

Things still aren’t great.  Only Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson are guys you’d feel somewhat decent about taking the mound in a playoff game right now, and even trust in them is limited by this loaded Dodgers lineup, which hit the fourth most home runs in baseball this season.  The Nationals bullpen had the highest fly-ball rate out of any bullpen in baseball this year.  Yikes.

Washington is really going to need their starters to stay in games as long as possible.  Three-plus innings out of this bullpen is enough to take the Nats out of any game their starter keeps them in.  If these games are a starting pitching duel, the better bullpen will prevail.  The Dodgers have that.

Prediction: Dodgers in 4