The West’s Non Title Contenders, An Eastern Conference PODCAST And Predictions

Even the back of the Western Conference has some intrigue to it.  Despite these four teams having no chance of sneaking into the playoff race, each bottom feeder has at least something going for them.  Well, that might be a generous statement for the Suns.

As for the Eastern Conference, a late start on the preview due to school and other things has corrupted coverage of those teams.  There’s much less happening over there anyways, so it’s partially okay (There are certainly not 12 playoff worthy teams  on that side!).  If you’re looking for thoughts on the Eastern Conference, below is a podcast hosted by my friend Nick Sanchez.  The podcast is via Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio and Nick was kind enough to invite me on, among two other friends, to preview the season.  This podcast essentially serves as the Eastern Conference Preview.  Be sure to check out our Western Conference preview as well.

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

No chance of playoff contention:

  • Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder might take the crown as the weirdest team in the league.  There’s not usually anything good about that.  But after an offseason in which they traded the whole core they assembled just two years earlier, Oklahoma City might actually be semi-competent.  And one things for sure: because of that weirdness, they will certainly be watchable.

But it’s not going to get them anywhere near the playoffs.  This is a roster built to top out at 45 wins, and that’s a very generous ceiling considering the conference.  The potential 12th seed finishing with even 40+ wins is mind-boggling.

The Thunder could get to that number.  Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander create a dynamic backcourt duo featuring two players who have the passing skills of point guards despite their overlap (Playing one of those two off-the-ball kind of wastes their ability, but OKC isn’t going to be able to move CP3 unless a team does something very dumb).  A healthy Danilo Gallinari was extremely impressive last season, hitting threes and using sneaky athleticism to stay on the court against smaller lineups.  The fit with him and Steven Adams isn’t ideal, as Adams has clear defensive issues in playoff games.  But offensively it allows OKC to play four theoretical shooters and a big down low.

Their middle wing spot is up for grabs.  Andre Roberson didn’t play at all last season thanks to a knee injury, which also allowed him to play in only 39 games in 2017-18.  Terrance Ferguson has stepped in nicely during Roberson’s prolonged absence – the 21-year-old used his extreme length to switch defensively and hit threes, an unexpected development this early in his career.  With Roberson still working his way back and being almost completely unplayable on the offensive end of the court, Ferguson and even Hamiduo Diallo will likely get minutes there.  Nothing should be expected of Roberson.  Anything he contributes is a plus.

This Thunder team is not bad at all.  But it’s tough to say that they’re actually good as well.  That lands them unfortunately right in the middle, which in the West is anywhere from the fifth to the 12th seed.  Even more unfortunately for the Thunder, as long as that untradeable CP3 contract remains on their books, they’re likely to be in that range for awhile.

  • Phoenix Suns

It is hard to come up with reasons to even watch this team this season, and that’s coming from a Suns fan.

The Suns finally got Devin Booker a point guard in Ricky Rubio.  The contract (Three years, $51 million) and fit (Rubio is a career 32.2% three point shooter) is extremely questionable.  But Rubio is a more than competent point guard who can make passes Booker can’t and brings defense, something sorely lacking on this Phoenix roster.

With Booker not tasked to run the offense anymore, he can focus on being its most prominent piece and best player.  Because of that, it’s time for him to show what he’s truly capable of.  How much that is determines the next steps for this Phoenix team in the future.

Phoenix needs an assessment on Booker’s ability.  Booker’s a star already, but is he anything more than that?  Can he be an All-NBA guy?  A top 10 player in the league?

They were never going to find out by not adding Rubio.  Now they can.  Besides that hopeful development, the Suns really don’t have much going for them.  Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are both young and talented players, but Ayton has to get better defensively before he emerges as a true star alongside Booker.

  • Memphis Grizzlies

Entrenched with multiple fun young guys like Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillion Brooks and Grayson Allen, the Grizzlies have a really, really nice future set up for themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they’ll be good this year.  The youth is everywhere on this team, and its going to play.

Rebuilding teams like to put faces on their endeavor by starting veterans and playing them heavy minutes while easing their young guys into that workload.  Not Memphis.

That’s possibly because they’ve drafted extremely well.  Jackson Jr. was one of the most NBA ready guys in his draft – he had the defense and the shooting coming in.  Morant was the same way.  His incredible passing and athleticism made the Grizzlies trade franchise icon Mike Conley away.  Morant is now the focus of the whole offense because of what he brings to table.

And they’re not going to throw him out there with vets.  They’re throwing him out there with Brooks, Triple-J (How about that nickname?), Kyle Anderson (Who’s on a veteran-like contract but is more a bridge guy) and likely some Brandon Clarke, who’s a bit of a tweener but fits the Memphis Grit-n-Grind identity well.

Behind Morant is Tyus Jones (One of the better backup point guards in basketball), D’Anthony Melton and Grayson Allen, one of the pieces received back from Utah for Conley.  Allen’s hopeful passing ability slots him behind Morant (his defense isn’t good enough to survive on the wing) because of the minutes Memphis has to find for Jae Crowder.

Crowder, and the exiled Andre Igoudala, won’t have to fit in for too long though.  The two wings will almost certainly be on another team by the time the trade deadline comes around in February.  Memphis will get fantastic value for Iggy, and possibly soon as the longer he’s not playing the more his value goes down.  Crowder is less of a certainty as the shooting he showed during the 2016-17 season might have just been an anomaly; that aspect of his game certainly didn’t help Utah last year.  Still, he’s a lengthy defender, and that’s one of the more valuable commodities in the league right now.

By playing all their youth (Minus Jonas Valancuinas.  That contract was very strange), Memphis is seeing who their future core pieces are.  Aside from JJJ and Morant, those are pretty undetermined.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves

It feels like the Timberwolves are desperate to rebuild but can’t because of all the money they have tied up.

It’s a weird roster, which makes them extremely similar to Oklahoma City in more than one way.  Both are wrapped in a bad contract (Contracts* in Minnesota’s case) and have something very odd to show for it.

Also like the Thunder, Minnesota might actually be quite competent.  But that state is arguably the worst to be in.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the decently modern new look of the Wolves is the case for them to be competent.  This Ringer piece was a terrifying read in the best way possible.  If KAT elevates not just one level (Which would be improving his defensive game), but two-to-three more, Minnesota could push themselves into the race for the 8th seed or better.  KAT turning into Anthony Davis by developing skills like passing and shot-creation is a future MVP.

Surrounding that is what’s likely to be a three-wing set with Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and rookie Jarret Culver, along with nice depth off the bench in Jake Layman, Josh Okogie and Treveon Graham.  But despite them going with a more modern look, they’re still lacking the efficiency teams want from those lineups.

We all know the book on Wiggins; he’s a high usage, selfish player who takes a ton of shots and doesn’t play defense.  Some nights he’s fine because the shots go in.  Most nights they don’t.  Covington is a lockdown defender who has improved his shot dramatically; he’s perhaps the best player out of the three right now.  And Culver is raw offensively but, like Covington, can lock down.

Culver has unfortunate potential to turn into Wiggins but with defense.  He needs the ball because of his lack of a jump-shot, and his handle will allow him to cede it even more.

But having Culver as a primary facilitator at times is a nice break from Jeff Teague, who has reached Wiggins levels of inefficiency the past two years.  Culver may not have point guard stuff as a passer, but he’s already a more than viable No.2 option in that department.

Practically everything good about the Wolves is replaced by something bad.  That is what .500, or pure competence, gets you.

Conference Standings:

Eastern Conference:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks, 59-23
  2. Philadelphia 76ers, 56-26
  3. Brooklyn Nets, 51-31
  4. Boston Celtics, 49-33
  5. Miami Heat, 47-35
  6. Toronto Raptors, 45-37
  7. Indiana Pacers, 44-38
  8. Orlando Magic, 41-41

  9. Chicago Bulls, 39-43

  10. Atlanta Hawks, 37-45
  11. Detroit Pistons, 36-46
  12. Washington Wizards, 33-49
  13. New York Knicks, 28-54
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers, 24-58
  15. Charlotte Hornets, 21-61

Western Conference:

  1. Los Angeles Clippers, 62-20
  2. Houston Rockets, 57-25
  3. Los Angeles Lakers, 54-28
  4. Utah Jazz, 52-30
  5. Portland Trail Blazers, 52-30
  6. Denver Nuggets, 50-32
  7. Golden State Warriors, 47-35
  8. Dallas Mavericks, 46-36

  9. Sacramento Kings, 45-37

  10. San Antonio Spurs, 44-38
  11. New Orleans Pelicans, 41-41
  12. Oklahoma City Thunder, 41-41
  13. Minnesota Timberwolves, 39-43
  14. Phoenix Suns, 28-54
  15. Memphis Grizzlies, 24-58