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.