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…
- DeJounte Murray-Derrick White-Patty Mills
- DeMar DeRozan-Marco Belinelli-Bryn Forbes
- Rudy Gay-DeMarre Carroll-Lonnie Walker Jr.
- LaMarcus Aldridge-Trey Lyles-Luka Samanic
- 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.
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.