A Case That The Western Conference Has 14 Playoff Teams

One of the most common themes in the NBA the past five seasons has been the competitive imbalance of the two conferences.  Since 2013, the Western Conference has been an absolute bloodbath, while the Eastern Conference has featured approximately three good teams every year.

That doesn’t change this year.  The Western Conference added the best player in the league to a team that wasn’t in the playoff picture last season.  The Eastern Conference lost him, and the dominant team of the past four years will now regress to at most 35 wins.  The Western Conference added talented rookies and has young players looking to take gigantic leaps that will propel their team to new heights.

That means that a lot of teams are going to be better than last season.  Or at least, they should be.  And for others, they could be better than last year, but it’ll take some luck.

There are 14 teams that will, should or could make the playoffs in the West.  We’re gonna go through each one.  Brace yourself, the “Could” section might get a little wonky.

Will make the playoffs: Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder

With the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors have to try even less during the course of the regular season.  That could lead to an even slower start, especially since Cousins, who is coming off of an achilles tear, probably won’t be back to till January or February.

It’s kinda funny that we’ve reached the point with the Warriors where, instead of guessing how many games they can win, we’re guessing how many games they’ll lose due to their laziness.

You’d think that Golden State would be in even more danger of losing the 1st seed in the West than they were last year, but they’re still the favorites to come out on top.  The expected regression from Houston and the youth of the Lakers limits the pressure.

You’ll hear all year about which of Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant will leave after the season.  The smart thing to do for both would be stay, but it’s possible that’s not an option.  If everyone comes back and are paid respectably (not their full value but at a decent discount), the Warriors are looking at an astronomical luxury tax bill, one that wouldn’t only be the largest in NBA history, but one that is so incomprehensibly large that we would have never thought it would be possible.  Joe Lacob is probably gonna do it, but the number will be outstanding.

The Warriors are going to take it easy during the regular season.  The Boogie addition might get them 70 wins, or it could take them down to 55-57.  It just depends on how much they all want to care.

No matter what that number is, I still expect them to be the No.1 seed.  The Rockets offseason moves should cause them to regress at least a little.

Houston got to the next level last season by amping up their defense.  The addition of Chris Paul, switchability of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute made Houston a legitimate threat to the Warriors.  They made the same amount of threes, switched everything and tried defensively.  It almost worked.

Now, a lot of that is gone.  Paul is a year older (and another injury weaker), Ariza cashed in with the Suns and Mbah a Moute went back to the Clippers.  The mastermind behind it all, Jeff Bzdelik, retired.  I would too if my team replaced those defenders with Carmelo Anthony.

I liked the Jamis Ennis signing though.  It was strange to see the Grizzlies and Pistons pass on him; two teams that desperately need to modernize their teams.  Ennis is a solid, switchy defender who can hit threes at an average rate.

But average may not be enough.  This is the Rockets, and their one point of emphasis is the three-point shot.  They brought in Ennis (average), Melo (below average) and Michael Carter-Williams (definitely below average).  They also lost Ryan Anderson in the trade with the Suns, who served as a functional stretch four.

Houston’s isolation heavy offense only works if the threes go in.  With Ennis, Melo and MCW playing big minutes, you’re making threes at a much lower rate.  Pair that with the defensive regression, and Houston is probably closer to the third seed than the first.

I’d expect the Lakers and Jazz to duke it out for the third seed all season.  It’s a tough call.  LeBron’s on one end, and a very good, well-rounded Utah team is on the other.

I can’t believe there would ever come a time where I am praising/defending the Lakers, but here we are.  The “They’re not gonna make the playoffs!” talk is insane.  Even having them finish below the 5th seed is nonsense.  This is a LeBron James-led team.  You really think he’s not making the playoffs?  The Cavaliers are going to win 25 games this season.  They lost no one but LeBron and were in the Finals last season.  I get there’s a conference imbalance; I addressed that at the top.  But c’mon.  LeBron is not missing the playoffs.

In fact, I think Los Angeles grabs three.  The Lakers are so much more talented than the Cavaliers.  Not only do the pieces fit around LeBron, but they fit today’s league as well.  Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram are long, athletic perimeter guys.  Defensively, they should be able to switch and play average defense.  Their biggest weakness on that end is youth.  Lonzo Ball took massive steps forward on the defensive end last year, after that side of his game was criticized in the draft.  Rim protection is an issue, but LeBron could find himself in that role along with JaVale McGee (Moritz Wagner doesn’t count here.  Sorry!) quite often.  That depends on Rajon Rondo’s effort, which can be not so great or quite effective (as we saw against Portland in the playoffs).

Josh Hart’s role on this team will be fascinating.  He can be played at a wing-like shooting guard position (An unselfish, off the ball shooter) or run point with bench units.  For a smaller guy, his switchability is actually quite good, making him even more viable in both roles.

There’s a couple random guys worth addressing on this Lakers roster.  I’d be surprised if Lance Stephenson or Michael Beasley have much of a role; both project to be too compromising defensively to play real minutes.  In Lance’s case, the Lakers have enough guys who the offense can run through (Hart, Ball, LeBron, Rondo).  Beasley might see more minutes, given his potential for an offensive spark occasionally off the bench.

Ivica Zubac could be an x-factor here.  Depending on how much LeBron likes him, he could provide the most consistent source of rim protection.  McGee is McGee, Wagner is not athletic enough to play center in the NBA, and LeBron’s already gonna be tasked with so much that playing the five isn’t in his best interest.  Zubac would be another young, clueless defender out there, but the ceiling is higher than the other options.

Like Golden State, the Lakers are going to be fine.  They may not find themselves in the Finals with the bloodbath West, but they will not finish any lower than the 3rd seed.  We’ll talk about their playoff chances when the time comes, because even though they may not make it, they are a contender.

The Jazz are awesome.  If Donavan Mitchell takes another step forward (By the way, we shouldn’t expect that.  He was so good last year it’s hard to improve), he’s a MVP candidate.  Joe Ingles is a perfect three-and-D wing for today’s league, and Ricky Rubio has worked on his three point spot enough to be decent when he’s not the primary ball-handler.  There may not be a better defensive team in the league than this one.  The team’s going to be good because they have a superstar, are fantastic defensively and have a good coach.

But the Jazz aren’t at title contender status.  Despite their possession of quality players, it’s the mix that’s wrong.  They’re still stuck playing two bigs with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, both of who are fantastic defenders individually, but have issues on the perimeter.  Another defensive wing instead of Favors would open things up on the offensive end, which still lacks firepower even after the draft.  Grayson Allen can score, but his size might be a tad compromising defensively.  Jae Crowder and Thabo Selfolosha provided some modernization, but Crowder’s a tad washed and it seems unlikely Selfolosha can put up the same three point numbers as last year.

They just need more firepower.  Allen will help, but it’s unlikely that’s enough.  Free agents aren’t coming to Utah.  If Utah is better than we think, then a trade come February for a No.2 option could be likely.

The Thunder are a little troubling.  There’s no way they fall out of the playoffs, but there’s some concerns I have.

It’s amazing how Russell Westbrook playing and not playing is an issue.  The knee surgery he had over the offseason will keep him out at least tonight.  We’ve seen Westbrook play through some ridiculous injuries, so the immediate concern isn’t too large.  It’s more about the piling up of Westbrook’s injuries.  He’s one of the biggest freaks of nature the league has ever had.  But how much longer is this sustainable?

Westbrook makes the Thunder competent.  When he’s out, they lose that electricity and that dominant offensive presence (Paul George is not a No.1 option on any team.  He’s a fantastic No.2 on any team, though).

Westbrook brings the Thunder to a competitive level, but nothing above.  He’s not taking you to that next level.  He wants to though, and that’s the problem.  The hero-ball, isolating play Westbrook uses doesn’t work with the way the league is.  You’re just not winning that way.

Secondly, the Thunder’s defense, which I was excited about, took a hit when it was announced that Andre Roberson had a setback with his knee and probably won’t be back till around Christmas.   That slots in Terrance Ferguson, who I like, but is super raw; he only played 12 minutes a game last season.  At the same time, his offense is guaranteed to be better than Roberson’s, because well, anyone’s can be better than Roberson’s.

The Patrick Patterson spot is a little cringe-worthy.  He might be a bit washed, and though he’s a versatile defender, teams will stretch him out to the perimeter and blow by him.  That signing hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I and the Thunder thought it would.

Oklahoma City is in the playoffs.  Westbrook’s theatrics will get them there.  It’s not gonna get them that far though.

Should make the playoffs: Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio

Annnnnd we’re already at 10 teams.  But just because they should make the playoffs doesn’t mean they will.  Each of these teams have reasons for making it and for not. “Should” means it’s either a make or break season, or it says that this team should make a leap.  Others are just fine, and that’s their biggest downfall or their biggest asset.

We’ll start with Denver.  They should make the playoffs because they’re going to have Paul Millsap fully healthy and Jamal Murray in what’s hopefully a breakout year.  They run a fun, hard to guard offense centered around Nikola Jokic making ridiculous passes from the elbow.  Gary Harris is knockdown shooter and lockdown defender, which is a rarity on this team.  Denver is planning to go with a three guard lineup in Murray, Harris and Will Barton.

That’s a pretty decent start, and they could add more depending on what they get out of their offseason additions.  I wasn’t the biggest Michael Porter Jr. fan in the draft, but I have now turned into one.  The highly touted forward is exactly what Denver has lacked for years: A No.1 offensive option who could develop into an absolute star.  The second part of that sentence is what I’m skeptical of, but his situation and where he was taken makes me think it’s possible.  If he can contribute, and emerge as a crunch-time guy for them, then watch out.  This team could be really good really fast.

The same goes for Isaiah Thomas, who Denver smartly handed out a flyer contract to this offseason.  Like Porter Jr., if he can contribute even a little bit to this team, it could take them to another level.  Denver desperately needs crunch-time scoring.  Even if Murray takes that next step, I’m not sure he’s that type of player.  Porter Jr. and/or Thomas is.  If one of them can stay healthy and emerge in that role, Denver is definitely in.

But it may not happen.  It’s possible Thomas plays like his Cleveland self; he’s not expected to play until at least a week into the season.  That’s also the case with Porter Jr; he’s on a similar timetable as Thomas, and has talent that may come or not.  The Nuggets’ defense as a whole is kinda concerning, even with some of the individual studs they have.  Murray, Barton and Jokic in the starting lineup is a black-hole.  While Harris and Millsap are gritty, versatile defenders, the defense may not be able to switch as effectively with the three liabilities on the court.  The Nuggets don’t have a lot of wing depth behind them either; it’s a bunch of young combo guards who are still developing (Monte Morris, who I like, and Malik Beasley, who I don’t like).

(To wrap up each of these teams’ summary, we’re gonna quickly answer the question “How do they make/miss the playoffs?”)

How does Denver make the playoffs?:  Murray takes a leap forward, they get one of Porter Jr. or Thomas to emerge as a crunch-time option, and the defense is good enough thanks to Millsap and Harris.

How does Denver miss the playoffs?:  Thomas nor Porter Jr. are crunch-time players, leading to a lot of close losses and putting Denver in the same spot as they are every year: A good team without a best player.  Barton is a disaster in the starting lineup, and now the Nuggets are paying a bench guy $13.25 million a year.

And now for quite possibly the biggest dumpster fire in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves!

I guess it’s safe to assume that Jimmy Butler isn’t getting traded…. yet.  The Wolves have been super stubborn about the discussions, leading to Butler showing up at practice fired up in the wrong way (That whole thing is incredible, by the way).  Now the Wolves are stuck with the same team they had last year with their best player unhappy.

But that same team made the playoffs, and added the one thing they desperately needed: Wings and shooters.  The Wolves drafted Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop; Bates-Diop was a first round talent they got in the second round (His fall was stunning.  The dude was Big Ten Player of the Year!).  Those two and Luol Deng help modernize this offense.  People are gonna crap on Deng, but he’s actually underrated now.  It wasn’t that he was bad, it was that he was bad for the contract he was playing under.  He’ll help the Wolves!

It’s possible Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns could take a step forward.  For the both of them, as Jimmy Butler has let us know, it’s defensively where they both have to get better.  Wiggins has more potential on that end, since we knew him out of college as at least that (Again, it’s just effort).  KAT is more physically challenged when it comes to defense, but some improved basketball IQ could help him out (i.e. Know where your help side is!).  Minnesota also has Tyus Jones, who is quietly awesome but hasn’t been quiet behind closed doors.  There’s been rumors about his unhappiness as well, and as we’ll now explore, his and Butler’s is totally warranted.

One of the pluses with this Wolves team was how they brought everyone who was on a championship team back.  It’s also one of their biggest weaknesses.

Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler on the court at the same time is a disaster.  All three command the ball, and all three want it all the time.  Only one of those ball-hogs deserve it (Butler).  Teague had the ball in his hands way too much when Butler should’ve; this led to him trying to get fouls on three pointers, in which no foul was called and the shot air-balled two feet to the left of the rim.  Wiggins is an inefficient isolation scorer who needs the ball to succeed, yet can’t even be the 4th best player on a championship team.  He’s a stat-stuffer who also isn’t the most consistent player, either.

Sprinkle in some of the tension in the air among these guys and hooooooo boy, we’ve got a nice little game of King of the Hill on the court for Wolves games this year.  That is, assuming the Wolves keep themselves in denial about Butler.

How the Wolves make the playoffs: Tension settles with Butler, he stays and leaves next Summer (Please let this happen to the Wolves.  They’d be like, “Wait, he was a free agent?”).  One of Wiggins and/or KAT improve in some way (with defense or limiting isos) and the three new wings give Minnesota an average three point attack.

How the Wolves miss the playoffs: KAT and Wiggins purposely don’t improve to force Butler out, leading to a somewhat accidental slow start and Jeff Teague doing way too much on a basketball court.  Teague and Wiggins’s antics limit the impact of the roster modernization.

New Orleans had the most up and down six months possible earlier this calendar year.  DeMarcus Cousins went down in February, ending what was a decent MVP campaign and crushing all hope New Orleans had at making a playoff run.  The Pelicans traded for Nikola Mirotic before the trade deadline, a move which somehow helped modernize their roster a little bit and gave them some much needed wing depth.  Rajon Rondo started giving a crap defensively, forming a dominant backcourt with Jrue Holiday that shutdown Portland in the first round of the playoffs.  They got enough offense between Holiday and Anthony Davis and their wings to make it.  It wasn’t enough against the Warriors though.

But the Pelicans lost everyone this offseason. Guys like Dante Cunningham are gone, and Rondo’s on the Lakers and is being replaced with Elfrid Payton.  They once again have no wings.  It’s Anthony Davis and practically no one else.

That’s the Pelicans’ playoff case.  This team is very similar to the 2014-2015 Pelicans team that snuck into the 8th seed and got creamed by the Warriors.  Their only source of anything was Davis.

Holiday is a really good player, but doesn’t possess the firepower needed to surround Davis.  There’s none of that on this roster.  Mirotic is too streaky, and relying on Darius Miller and E’Twaun Moore for consistent offensive output is scary.  The geometry works; Holiday, whatever combination of wings and Davis is a modern offense (Sorry Julius Randle!  You got overpaid and you should be happy with that!).  But it’s just average.  Davis will have to be ridiculous for New Orleans to get in.

How the Pelicans make the playoffs: Davis is ridiculous, Holiday plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, and the surrounding cast musters just enough offense and defense to sneak them in.

How the Pelicans miss the playoffs: Davis’s best effort and whatever the role guys produce isn’t enough, and New Orleans starts taking a hard look at moving their superstar come February.

The Trail Blazers offseason was one of the most disappointing in the league.  Toronto grew a pair and blew up their flawed backcourt, while Portland stayed silent in the Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler sweepstakes.  They ran it back and somehow got worse defensively, not only ignoring their biggest issue but making it even more of a problem.

It’s not great that I can’t find a lot of nice words to say about this team.  They didn’t improve, so it’s kinda hard.  Portland makes the playoffs because they have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two superstars who are both top 25 players in the league. That’s the case.  They have a more than competent enough amount of firepower fueled by those two.

But again, that’s the case.  They didn’t add anything to this team  They got worse by refusing to address their issues.

The first is the chemistry between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.  While they’re both great individually, two ball dominant players, especially two guards, doesn’t work anymore.  The chemistry didn’t cost them games, but the way the roster is constructed based on their presence did.  With Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers are screwed defensively and can’t add three-and-D wings.  Portland is maxed out out with the two and now Jursurf Nurkic.  Their current wings?  Jake Layman, Al-Faruaq Aminu, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.  Yikes!  That’s two rookies they’re relying on for big minutes.

I don’t know where to fit in Evan Turner.  There’s rumors that Portland might be revamping their offense by starting Turner and using Lillard and McCollum as secondary-like scorers.  Essentially, they’d run things through Turner, mostly to get some value out of that contract, and to add more volume to the offense.  Turner’s offensive game has been brutal in years past; he’s ineffective and inefficient without the ball.  Putting it in his hands gets him more involved and adds another “scorer”.  Scorer goes to quotes because even if Turner has a central offensive role, it’s not guaranteed he makes the most of it.  He’s still inefficient.

The two guards are the heart of Portland’s problems.  It’s not necessarily because of their fit, it’s because of their presence among one another.  If both are there, there’s no cap space for wings.  It seems odd, but trading one of their two superstars is the only way for Portland to from the “Should” section to the “Will”.

How Portland makes the playoffs: Lillard and McCollum power them through

How Portland misses the playoffs: The West catches up with them and their defensive shortcomings come to a head.  They refuse to move Lillard or McCollum and finish as the 9th seed.

San Antonio had one of the best offseasons in the league.  They aren’t better because of the Kawhi Leonard trade, but they did as good as they could.  It was impossible to win that trade.  You don’t trade one of the six best players in the league and get better.  But you can salvage something, and the Spurs did that.  They removed Kawhi and remained competent.

But nothing is coming easy for the Spurs.  Their first round draft pick Lonnie Walker Jr. tore his meniscus and is out for two months.  They were dealt a brutal blow when Dejounte Murray went down for the season with a torn ACL.  Murray got immensely better toward the end of last season, was projected to take a massive leap forward this year.  He’s done, and his backup is out as well.  Derrick White, who was the one positive to Murray’s injury, would have seen a massive minutes increase as a result of the injury, but he’s now out for what sounds like somewhere between 1-2 months (The reporting has been sketchy).  That means a lot of Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes for now.  Mills is a decent shooter, so running things through DeMar DeRozan would make sense for at least the first month.

It’ll probably remain that way.  DeRozan was the No.1 asset in the Leonard trade and is one of the 25 best players in the league.  He’s there to have things run through him.

That has a ceiling, especially when LaMarcus Aldridge is also on this team.  In crunch-time, the Spurs are running out at least two guys who can’t shoot threes (LMA can, he just chooses not to/doesn’t want to.  That is a whole ‘nother problem).  That doesn’t include whoever their rim protector is.  Jakob Poeltl, one of the guys acquired from Toronto, certainly isn’t a shooter.  Pau Gasol can stretch the floor but isn’t taking the long-ball too often.  Davis Bertans is a shooter, but can’t protect the rim.

For a organization so heavy on analytics, the lack of modernization is odd.  They already lacked shooting prior to the Kawhi trade and went out and got the best mid-range shooter in the league.

Their deficiencies may not matter.  Gregg Popovich got last year’s team to 47 wins and the 7th seed.  That was without a true No.1 option.  Throw in DeRozan and you have someone who can create in crunch-time.  It’s not a perfect team, but they have competent players, and Popovich will get everything he can out of them.

How the Spurs make the playoffs: Popovich figures out a way to get DeRozan and Aldridge to work in today’s league and the young guys (White, Walker, Poeltl) make an impact down the road.

How the Spurs miss the playoffs: A weird team not able to score enough falls short and triggers wonders as to why the Spurs didn’t use to the Kawhi trade to kick off a rebuild.

Could make the playoffs: Dallas, LA Clippers, Memphis, Phoenix

I told you we were gonna get a little wonky.

Honestly, I’m not sure any if these are going to make the playoffs.  I have to write it out to figure it out (I’m doing that below).  The reason I don’t want to eliminate these teams is because they are fun.  They are!  Dallas has Luka Doncic and the Clippers might play four guards at once.  Memphis has a team that isn’t horrible if they stay healthy, and Phoenix, well, okay, Phoenix is a stretch.  I’m probably just being a homer here.  But they’re fun!  And I don’t totally want to count them out!

Lets start with Dallas.  The Mavericks had one of the best draft classes in the league in June.  They drafted Luka Doncic which also somehow garnered them an extra pick, took Jalen Brunson (one of the safest picks in the draft) and took a flyer on Kostas Antetokounmpo, or Giannis’s bother as he’s probably gonna be referred to as.

With the youth, the Mavericks also have quality and competent NBA players.  Dirk Nowitzki is still chugging along.  Wesley Matthews, though overpaid, is serviacble as simply a wing.  Harrison Barnes is the same deal.  They added DeAndre Jordan, who has his flaws but will be a better rim protector than anyone they had last year.

Jordan’s addition is also huge for Doncic.  Jordan’s dream to be a big man who has the ball fed to him was never gonna come true, simply because he isn’t that type of player nor does the league support that anymore.  But his touches and statistics will increase.  A Doncic-Jordan pick and roll, which the Mavs will (hopefully) use a lot, is deadly.  Jordan’s too big for most rolling defenders; his mass can win that matchup or he could just simply dunk on them.  Doncic is already a PNR master and possess ridiculous passing skills to feed it to Jordan in any way.

The Mavs are fun, and good, because of that alone.  But that’s not it.

They’re surprisingly competent.  They can run lineups with Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr/Barnes/Matthews/Dirk/Brunson and Jordan.  Smith Jr. creates an interesting dilemma.  I wasn’t high on him out of his draft; he felt a little too Westbrooky; a bowling ball who couldn’t shoot and would be out of control.  But, he’d be super fun and would make a team at least interesting.

Now, we’re combining that with Doncic.  How do those two play together?  Using one as a role guy is limiting the other’s ceiling.  Doncic off the ball works, but he’s best when things run through him.

That’s what Dallas plans to do:  Run Doncic at point and use DSJ off-the-ball, which seems problematic given that he can’t shoot.  But DSJ’s athleticism makes him a good cutter who get can to the rim.  With Rick Carlisle at the helm, the Mavs are going to move the ball at an incredible rate. DSJ’s gonna be open for layups, and can make things happen with his explosiveness.

Smith’s dangerous with the ball, and that can go both ways.  His recklessness could lead to a little bit of an alpha-doggy presence.  That could lead to inefficiency and Doncic’s role being reduced.

Carlisle should be able to figure it out, but I worry about both adjusting to one another.  It kinda feels like one is gonna be the odd man out.  Please don’t let it be Doncic.

How the Mavericks make the playoffs: Doncic is a god, Smith Jr. buys into his new role and the Mavericks move the ball around to the point where no one can guard them.  They’re just okay defensively and that’s exposed against good offensive teams.

How the Mavericks miss the playoffs:  Doncic is a rookie and him and Smith Jr. struggle to blend.  Teams expose Jordan’s athleticism defensively, and the surrounding wings have below average years.

The Clippers are a crazy team.  Half the roster is crafty guards who need the ball and can’t shoot.  They have few wings and limited depth, and a very average coach to help sort it all out.

Los Angeles has the perfect roster for a 3-for-1 trade (Ala, Jimmy Butler!), but why do that when you can sign him next Summer?  I know teams are gonna be scared of the Paul George situation, but there is literally no way that happens with Butler and the Wolves.

At the same time, it’s plausible that shipping out assets now for Butler actually makes this roster better.  You can clear out the abundance of guards, add a wing/superstar, and guarantee yourself a playoff seed now.

This current Clippers team isn’t there though.  Their best lineup is probably Patrick Beverley-Avery Bradley-Tobias Harris-Luc Mbah a Moute-Marcin Gortat.  With that, you have three guys who are unselfish with the ball but can shoot, a good point guard and a rim protector.  Mbah a Moute in for Danillo Gallinari might catch some eyeballs, but I’d be willing to bet that the Clippers have a Net minus in every stat with him on the court this year.  He’s always hurt, isn’t a good enough shooter to stretch the floor and isn’t the best defender for switching schemes.  With Mbah a Moute, you’re getting defense and threes.

When that lineup isn’t in is, things get wonky.  The Clippers have few wings behind that lineup.  Jerome Robinson projects to be good, but was drafted in June and can’t be relied on too heavily.  Bradley can double as a combo guard, but with the surplus of ones and twos on this team, it’s unlikely we see him in that role.

I’d expect a lot of two and three guard lineups from this team.  Beverley is the starter, but minutes have to be divvied up between him, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Tyrone Wallace, Sindarious Thornwell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.  That’s seven point guards and 21 different combinations of two guard sets!  A large bevy of those 21 features two guys who either need the ball to be effective and/or can’t shoot.

If Doc can figure it out, these three guard sets could be deadly.  With skilled passers like Teodosic, SGA, Williams and Beverley out there, the Clippers could run ridiculous offensive sets, with guys moving all the time and crazy, indefensible passes being thrown.  They could be a pain to guard.

But who’s shooting threes?  As I said, a lot of these guys can’t play off the ball.  SGA, Teodosic, Wallace, and Thornwell all can’t shoot.  That’s four of their seven guards.

The problem is that there is a massive lack of firepower on this team.  They could get quick, easy buckets if they move the ball and experiment with multiple passers on the court at once.  But you need threes in today’s league, and it’s gonna be hard for the Clippers to muster enough of them.

How the Clippers make the playoffs: They’re unguardable offensively due to their ball movement and get 40% from three out of Bradley, Harris and Mbah a Moute.

How the Clippers miss the playoffs: The lack of firepower and a superstar nips them, the three guard lineups lead to inefficiency offensively and the Clippers sail happily into the offseason knowing Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard are coming.

I had the Grizzlies in this column all offseason, but after studying the roster, I feel like I might be underrating them.

The Grizzlies main trait this year is that they are deep.  They all the sudden have 10 guys who are at least competent or have a high ceiling.

They finally ditched Grit and Grind as well.  Memphis overpaid Kyle Anderson (He’s worth it considering how much they need him), signed Garrett Temple, and have Dillion Brooks and Wayne Selden developing.  They drafted Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the most perfect modern big man in the draft and have Ivan Rabb lurking.

The Grizzlies biggest key, like always, is health.  Their best lineup is Mike Conley-Temple-Chandler Parsons-Jackson-Gasol.  While they have solid young players who might be better one day than those starting, this is the lineup that is gonna get them to the playoffs.  It has the experience and veterans, but possibly not the health.  Conley is out at least 25 games every year, Parsons could play in only 25 games all year, and Marc Gasol is 33 and has foot issues.  For Memphis to upgrade to the “Should” section, they have to be healthy.

They’re here because of the health concerns.  There is just no way Conley, Parsons and Gasol stay relatively healthy.  But the team is good enough.  Temple fits, Parsons is a solid wing when healthy, and Jaren Jackson can shoot, switch and protect the rim.  His fit with Gasol could be called into question, but Jackson showed at Michigan State he could guard perimeter guys.  The dude is an athletic freak.

There’s a lot interchangeability with this roster.  Brooks and Anderson can fill the same role Parsons does, while Rabb and Omri Casspi can fill Gasol’s, and Wayne Seldes can do a bunch of things. Memphis can run the offense through him if they want, or could play him as a combo guard or wing as well.  The Grizzlies also drafted Jevon Carter, who brings back that Grit and Grind element.  He can play point guard for practically any lineup.

The Grizzlies have a lot going their way, but injuries could derail it.  Their mix of veterans and young guys has most people overlooking them in the West.

How the Grizzlies make the playoffs: Everyone stays healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. is awesome as expected and the Grizzlies modern turn pays off.

How the Grizzlies miss the playoffs: Conley and Parsons miss a ton of time and backups like Brooks and Anderson struggle.

Alright, homer time.  I’m so excited for this Suns team.  The youth, the added veterans, and the modernization is everything I’ve wanted from them.

It’s amazing how a team that canned their general manager two weeks before the season isn’t gonna be that terrible.

Here’s the thing with the Suns:  This whole “They could make the playoffs!” case is strictly based off the fact that this is the best roster they’ve had in awhile.  They are not going to be terrible; I’m confident of that.  And if a lot of things go their way, then they could be in contention for the 8th seed.  The goal should be 9th or 10th.  Given what we’ve gone through above, I don’t think that’s unrealistic.

That’s because the now-fired Ryan McDonough had the best offseason of his tenure.  The draft was exceptional: DeAndre Ayton, the trade-up for Mikal Bridges and taking Elie Okobo at the top of the 2nd round.  All three figure to have a role right away.  Ayton provides the rim protection the Suns have lacked for years.  Bridges is an immediate impact wing who’ll play defense and hit threes, and Okobo figures to see large minutes as the Suns still want a point guard (Why, I am not sure).

McDonough signed Trevor Ariza to help further the goal of having more wings and made a sneaky trade with the Rockets.  Ryan Anderson isn’t the stretchiest, most athletic player ever, but he can hit threes and is a veteran.  The Suns need as much leadership as possible.  The trade got Marquese Chriss out of town as well, who was gonna hurt what is hopefully an improved defense.

That defense is anchored by the wings.  Thanks to the moves, the Suns have a plethora of them.  Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges form a locked down perimeter with Davon Reed, Trevor Ariza, TJ Warren and D’Anthony Melton getting in that rotation as well.  Ariza probably starts, but it’d be nice to see Bridges and Jackson play in crunch-time to get minutes in those situations.  If their talent hits the ceiling it should, then Ariza to them shouldn’t be a huge downgrade.

Multiple Suns are primed for big steps forward.  Even though he was already paid, this is the season we find out what Booker really is.  We find out whether he is one of the 30 best players in the league or not.  We find out whether he can the absolute superstar he’s shown the potential to be.  I’m prepared for the scenario that he is not.  He’s still incredibly young, but there’s a chance he’s like the 2nd best player on a championship team, or the best player on a bad one.

That may not be a disaster for the Suns though.  Sure the money wouldn’t look great, but Booker improving only a little combined with what Jackson, Bridges and Ayton should be is still a really good team.

As far as this season, we want to see Booker take a step, a decent size one at least.  If he makes progress, Jackson becomes more of a scorer and the defense improves with the wings, the Suns are probably somewhere in the 35 win range.

It’s gonna be hard for that to happen though.  The Suns were terrible on defense last year, and even though they got better, they also got younger, which usually means worse on defense.  It’s not like Ayton is even a plus defender yet.  He could really struggle, and if your center struggles, it could cause the rest of your team to suffer defensively as well.

The youth could be detrimental.   Mikal Bridges may not be great in his rookie year; neither could Ayton.  We just don’t know what we’re going to get with young guys.

How the Suns make the playoffs: Booker takes a massive step forward, vaulting into one of the top 25 players in the league, and all the youth hits their ceiling in year one:  Ayton, Bridges, Jackson.  Everyone.  Unlikely, but if these guys are as good or better than I expect them to be, then there’s a chance.

How the Suns miss the playoffs: Booker only takes a normal step forward, a team as young as this one has the defensive woes it should, and they remain 2-3 years away.

Sooooo, what actually happens?

Well, we guaranteed five teams at the top.  Here’s how the West looks so far.

  1. Golden State
  2. Houston
  3. Los Angeles Lakers
  4. Utah
  5. Oklahoma City

Now comes the beginning of the hard decisions.  We have eight spots and have 10 teams that should make the playoffs, and four more that could barring extreme circumstances.

The first team out of the “Should” category is Denver.  As I explained in their “How they make it” section, they have two guys who could be their go-to this year.  They had none last season.  They’re the most modern team in the “Should” section. We’ve been waiting on them too long.  This is the year.  In fact, I’m guaranteeing it.  I should have moved them to the “Will” section.

6. Denver

The next team is the Spurs.  I went after them pretty hard in their write-up, but betting against Pop is just not something I’m willing to do yet.  Last year was the most impressive thing he’s done in his career.  The team is more talented this season.  They should be fine.

7. San Antonio

The final team in is Portland.  They have the best “missing the playoffs” scenario, which ended up with them keeping both guards and finishing as the 9th seed.  It’s plausible to see Minnesota and New Orleans as absolute dumpster fires.  Portland has enough to scrape the ceiling.

8. Portland

Now that we have my actual playoffs picks, let’s run through some hypotheticals in the order of the rest of my seedings.  This gets wordy, but what you have to understand is that this is based off of my standings.  If anyone from the No.6 seed on down has their negative outlook come true, then anyone who has their positive outlook come true can sneak into the playoffs.  It’s all interchangable.

9. Memphis– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook above, and one of Portland or San Antonio having their negative outlook.

10. New Orleans– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get San Antonio and Portland to both have their negative outlooks.

11. Dallas– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio and Memphis to have their negative outlooks.

12. Los Angeles Clippers– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and Dallas to all have their negative outlooks.

13. Minnesota– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas and the Clippers to all have their negative outlooks.

14. Phoenix– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas, the Clippers and Minnesota to all have their negative outlooks.

15. Sacramento– They don’t deserve words, even in a 8,000 word column.

With my schedule slammed and the NBA putting only two games featuring only two Eastern Conference teams on tonight, I figured I could get away with putting up my Eastern Conference preview tomorrow night.  Be on alert for that, but for now, here are the team previews for the Celtics and 76ers, who debut tonight.  The East isn’t nearly as competitive as the West, so the East preview will look like last year’s, with a projected rotation as I would start it and a synopsis below it, then I’ll give a win total below and we’ll rank them at the end.

Boston Celtics 

  1. Kyrie Irving-Terry Rozier-Marcus Smart
  2. Gordon Hayward
  3. Jaylen Brown-Semi Ojeyele-Jabari Bird
  4. Jayson Tatum-Marcus Morris-Guerschon Yabusele
  5. Al Horford-Aron Baynes-Daniel Theis-Robert Williams

It is gonna be so nice to see this team play together.  After it ending so quickly and abruptly last season, they’re back and fully healthy.  And it’s gonna be even better than we thought it’d ever be, thanks to Jayson Tatum.

If you were building a team to take down Golden State, this is the one to do it with.  They’re playing a point guard, three wings who can shoot threes and play defense, and a rim protector.  The Celtics are the 2nd most modern team in the league and might be the 2nd best.  Think there’s a coincidence there?

The reason the Celtics are scary isn’t just because of their prototype, but the guys within that prototype.  Every team thats wants to play modern has to have a crunch-time star.  Some teams have two, or in the Celtics case three, and that can be a problem depending on the selfishness of those guys.

If anything is better than having the point guard-three wings-rim protector model, then it’s having that same model with multiple superstars who can play together.  Boston has that.  Kyrie is their No.1, but Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are superstars as well.  Why it works?  Tatum and Hayward don’t need the ball to be effective and aren’t selfish.  They can go into that superstar mode whenever they’re asked to.

The Celtics are the favorites in the East.  As high as I am on them, I can’t say they’re heavy favorites. As you’ll see below and tomorrow, the East is better this year.  There’s some actual competition at the top.  The top of the East boils down to this: It shouldn’t shock me if Toronto or Phildelphia end up in the Finals, but it wouldn’t shock me if Boston won the Finals.

Projected record: 63-19

Philidelphia 76ers

  1. Ben Simmons-Landry Shamet-TJ McConnell-Jerryd Bayless
  2. Markelle Fultz-JJ Redick
  3. Robert Covington-Wilson Chandler-Furkan Korkmaz-Zhaire Smith (injured)
  4. Dario Saric-Amir Johnson-Mike Muscala-Jonah Bolden
  5. Joel Embiid

I was troubled with the 76ers offseason.  They had a clear weakness/target, and that was a superstar and/or crunch-time scorer.  They didn’t address it.  Wilson Chandler can score, but not in those situations.

It really seems like the Sixers are banking on Markelle Fultz to be that guy.  The 2017 No.1 overall pick hardly played last season, and battled what felt like a lot more than just physical injuries.  The changing of the shot, the hesitantness to coming back; everything.  We just don’t know what we’re gonna get.  It’s possible it’s not a talent thing at all; just a mental block.  Fultz was my No.1 overall guy on the 2017 Big Board.  He had all the talent in the world and had all the qualities the Sixers are looking for now.  He has the potential to be that guy.  Will we ever get it?  It’s a tough bet to make, and the Sixers are making it.

Even with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it’s the reason why I can’t project this Philly team higher than the 3rd seed this season.  They had a clear weakness and didn’t get any better.

That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be fun though.

We’re looking at the same team that dominated the Spring last year, only with Simmons and Embiid a year more experienced and developed. The Sixers are long and athletic.  They’ll move the ball around, shoot threes and play defense.  They’ll throw crazy passes and fly above the rim.  They’re going to be a joy.

As much as I crapped on their offseason, I did like the Wilson Chandler trade.  Robert Covington laid a big turd in the postseason, and there’s a chance he never really recovers from it.  Chandler replaces Covington’s minutes off the bench while also having the opportunity to play for him, depending on where his percentages are at.

The Sixers have done a fantastic job of mirroring their bench to their starting lineup.  Their big men are all very Dario Saric-like; athletic big guys who can switch and shoot competently.  The drop-off at point guard is sheer, but the Sixers can use their backup point guards to slow the game down and play more traditionally.  TJ McConnell and Landry Shamet know how to facilitate rather than run a blazing, go-go-go offense.

It wouldn’t shock me if the Sixers made the Finals.  Everyone is a year better, and there is the Fultz x-factor.  But they won’t make it if it’s JJ Redick off a screen every single time they need a big shot.  Someone, whether they are currently on the roster or not, is gonna have to step up.

Prediction: 56-26