Bold Western Conference predictions for 2020-21 season: Rockets wait to trade Harden; Mavs own best offense

For the first time in decades, the Western Conference is significantly less competitive than the Eastern Conference. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worse. It’s just more predictable. As many as half a dozen teams in the East can justifiably consider themselves Finals contenders. Outside of the Clippers, the majority of the West is essentially just fighting for silver. The Lakers are that good. 

Yet the West’s staggering talent advantage over the East opens the door for different sorts of stories. There is regular-season history to be made here, narratives to be concluded and individual numbers to be gawked at. The first game between two Western Conference teams this season will be played in Los Angeles. In all likelihood, the last game between two Western Conference teams will be as well. But there are a whole lot of games to be played in between, and here are our bold predictions about what’s going to happen for the rest of the conference as they play them. 

Dallas Mavericks: Repeat as best offense in the NBA

Dallas made intentional sacrifices on offense. They gave away Seth Curry to improve their defense and Delon Wright for cap flexibility. Kristaps Porzingis will miss the beginning of the season. Fine. The Mavericks had such a big lead over the field last season that even a sizable dip doesn’t need to knock them off of the top spot. The gap of 2.6 points per 100 possessions between them and the No. 2 Clippers last season was identical to the gap between the No. 2 Clippers and the No. 14 76ers. Some poor shooting luck knocked their clutch offense all the way down to No. 26. That’s going to improve through regression to the mean alone. Short of further injury, Dallas should enter the season as heavy favorites to be the NBA’s No. 1 offense. 

Denver isn’t ready to rely on Bol Bol… but didn’t exactly leave itself alternatives. JaMychal Green is more of a matchup center than a consistent backup center. Zeke Nnaji is a rookie as well. Injuries happen. COVID happens. Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant are gone. There are minutes to be filled here before in-season maladies even occur, and as skeptical as the Nuggets have a right to be about Bol’s NBA readiness, they’re going to have to throw him into the fire sooner or later. This is the happy medium, a small but consistent role that bakes in some injury and matchup-induced absences. He’ll play 15 minutes per game across 50 appearances. No more training wheels. 

Golden State Warriors: Will finish outside of the top 10 on offense for the first time with a healthy Stephen Curry under Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has coached Stephen Curry through five healthy seasons. Never have those Warriors finished below third on offense, but never have those Warriors been without Klay Thompson. The cumulative shooting the Splash Brothers offer has traditionally covered almost any other hole in the Golden State offense, but if Curry is an only child, the floor suddenly looks far more cramped. Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Draymond Green are combined 32.6 percent career 3-point shooters, and that doesn’t even factor in the presence of a center. Golden State finished 12th offensively in Mark Jackson’s last season as coach of the Warriors, but Thompson played that season. Trade Klay in for a system with proper motion and ball-movement and the results should be somewhat similar. Golden State will finish between 11th and 15th on offense. 

The Rockets won’t make a decision until the 76ers make a decision on Ben Simmons. Despite both reports and statements to the contrary, the 76ers won’t make a decision until they’ve seen their new team play together. The decision is defensible. Lineups featuring Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and three shooters have universally thrived in recent years. If they do so again this season, Philadelphia will elect to keep its 24-year-old All-Star rather than trading for a 31-year-old. The Rockets know they can’t possibly do better than Simmons, so they’ll respect Philadelphia’s timeline and wait it out. When the deadline arrives, if Philadelphia’s answer is still no, they’ll move on to other offers. No offer they’ve already received is going to be taken off of the table in March. 

Los Angeles Clippers: Will finish in the top five in 3-point attempts

Ty Lue coached two full seasons in Cleveland. Those Cavaliers finished second and fifth in 3-point attempts. The Clippers swapped a non-shooting big man (Montrezl Harrell) for a shooter (Serge Ibaka). Luke Kennard’s playmaking is going to buy him more minutes than Landry Shamet got, assuming he stays healthy. Doc Rivers teams tend not to shoot too many 3-pointers. One of the easiest ways for Ty Lue to optimize this roster is to change that. The Clippers went 14-1 in games in which they attempted at least 38 3’s last season, and 27-5 in games in which they shot at least 34. The more they shoot, the more they win, and Lue knows that. 

LeBron is still the engine when things count, but they aren’t going to count for a few months. There’s no compelling reason to ask a 36-year-old James to play enough games to feasibly win the MVP award in a season following a condensed offseason. They traded for Dennis Schroder in large part to keep the team afloat when he rests. There’s really no harm in losing home-court advantage. The team the Lakers are likely competing against plays in their building. Davis will take some rest too, but likely not as much considering his age. Schroder’s addition will help him when James sits, and he enters the season as a comfortable pick on the Defensive Player of the Year ballot. Davis may not win MVP, but he’ll be in the conversation. LeBron probably won’t be, through no fault of his own. 

LeBron is going to play less, and his team just traded for a new starting point guard. Doncic and Trae Young will both have lighter ball-handling loads. Ricky Rubio is a backup now. James Harden has made it clear that he’s not enthused about playing with his current teammates. Devonte’ Graham plays on LaMelo Ball’s team. Virtually everyone that finished ahead of Morant in assists last season is going to average fewer this season. Assuming even standard improvement between his rookie and sophomore season, Morant is going to leap ahead of most of them. 

It’s been 39 years since a center averaged 30 points per game. Shaq never did it. Tim Duncan never did it. Moses Malone was the last center to hit that vaunted ground, but Towns has come close. He topped out at 26.5 points per game last season. Now he has the best pick-and-roll partner he’s played with since Jimmy Butler in D’Angelo Russell. His backup point guard, Rubio, finished fourth in the NBA in assists last season. Only two teams took more 3-pointers than the Timberwolves last season, and full seasons with Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez will juice Minnesota’s percentage. Their defense is so awful that scoring will be their only chance at remaining competitive. It’s a perfect ecosystem for individual production. Towns will have space. He’ll have teammates setting him up. He’ll have to play big minutes to keep his team afloat. Malone’s four-decade stranglehold on elite center scoring is about to end. 

This one isn’t as far-fetched as it may narratively seem. Ball actually came close to doing this a year ago, when he averaged 7.0 assists and 6.3 3-point attempts per game. Bubble aside, his improvement as a catch-and-shooter has been meaningful. The Pelicans added Eric Bledsoe in the Jrue Holiday trade and spent a lottery pick and Kira Lewis, another point guard, suggesting that they aren’t thrilled with the idea of Ball continuing to run the offense in the halfcourt. More likely, they view him as a sort of half-court shooting guard, transition point guard. Such a role is going to limit his assist numbers, and if he plays most of his minutes with Bledsoe or Lewis, he’ll need to shoot to properly space an offense that already features Zion Williamson and a non-shooting center (Steven Adams). 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Won’t be the worst team in the Western Conference

No matter how badly the Thunder might want to tank, their current roster talent just won’t allow it. Budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to steal them wins they don’t want, but the real attraction is a defense that will be better than it has any right to be. It’s hard to imagine a group featuring Lu Dort, Al Horford, Trevor Ariza, George Hill and Gilgeous-Alexander struggling too much, though the rookies will do their best to challenge that sentiment. Maybe the veterans are all dealt by the deadline, but for now, the Thunder seem to have accidentally acquired too much talent to tank properly. They’ll be bad. They just won’t be as awful as they’d like to be. 

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker averages his fewest shot attempts since his rookie year

Booker has taken at least 18.3 shots per game in each of the past four seasons, but that has been driven by necessity. His teams have mostly been dreadful. But slight improvements last season drove his shot attempts back down to 18.3—the same amount as his sophomore campaign and lower than his third and fourth seasons. With Chris Paul gobbling up his share of attempts and bigger roles for DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges inevitable, Booker will step back into the 16-17 attempt range. That will suit him just fine. His efficiency will more than make up for any lost volume. 

Lillard regularly flirts with the MVP award. His numbers typically fall on the low end of viability for the award, though groundswells form around his annual mid-season explosion. There is going to be a point in February or March in which Lillard averages something like 40 points across eight or nine games, and the narrative train will leave the station. What has largely held him back has been his teammates. Winning the MVP without a top-two seed is exceedingly rare. But with Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. in place to fix the defense, Portland should hover around the upper half of the Western Conference playoff picture. Enough to win the trophy? Probably not. But this is his best chance, and if he’s close, voters will lean into the lifetime achievement angle. 

Hield was relegated to bench duty in favor of Bogdan Bogdanovic last season. Bogdanovic is gone, but Tyrese Haliburton takes his place in the role of “more complete player that will inevitably push Hield out of a job.” His long-term fit with De’Aaron Fox is a bit cleaner, and teams tend not to spend lottery picks on those they expect to be reserves. The Kings appear to be a likely tanker. Letting Bogdanovic walk for free telegraphed that plan. Moving Hield serves two purposes. It gets Haliburton into the starting five and weakens a team playing for the draft. That it also gets them out of Hield’s hefty contract extension is a nice bonus. 

This one’s a bit more complicated. The Spurs have a guard surplus, but not much in the frontcourt beyond Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. But Aldridge is on an expiring contract—he’s one of four veteran Spurs in that situation along with Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. He’s also 35 years old and running out of time to contend. All four veterans should be available. This team belongs to the youngsters now, and devoting shots to Aldridge and DeRozan makes little sense through that lens. But DeRozan is a tricky piece to fit onto a contender. Aldridge isn’t. His shooting gives him a role practically anywhere. Someone is going to pay up to get him. 

Almost every version of Utah’s starting five worked last season. Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and shooting is straightforward and effective. The Conley iteration blasted opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions, but the Joe Ingles version did so by 13.7. Ingles, a career 40.7 percent 3-point shooter, hit only 33.9 percent off of the bench last season. That was Utah’s core flaw last season, an inept bench, and if Ingles isn’t comfortable in that role, the Jazz will eventually conclude that Conley has to be. Bringing him off of the bench preserves his (aging) body, shifts more of Utah’s ball-handling towards Mitchell and maximizes Ingles. The starting five will work no matter what. Optimizing the bench is Utah’s path to contention, and last season, that meant starting Ingles. 

Published: 2020-12-18 17:12:54

Tags: #Bold #Western #Conference #predictions #season #Rockets #wait #trade #Harden #Mavs #offense

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