The Western Conference is utter madness this year. Depending on how you view it, 10-12 teams are competing for the eight playoff spots, and it could go in any direction.
Five of our writers - Brady Klopfer, Thomas Bevilacqua, Daniel Hardee, Greg Thomas, and Duby Dub Dubs - got together to discuss how the race will shake out, how the Warriors will do, and how the newest addition to the west, LeBron James, will fare.
What will the eight seeds look like?
Note: All five writers voted. This is the average.
Last year, between injuries and complacency, the Warriors missed the top seed by a sizable margin. Does that happen again, or do they get the number one seed back?
Brady: The number one seed is coming back to the Bay Area. In addition to the fact that Stephen Curry is unlikely to miss 31 games again this year, Houston took a step backwards. Not only that, but even if they make things work with Carmelo Anthony, we should expect the Rockets to be a little slow to gel with this new look.
Tom: I also think the Warriors will be the number one seed for the reasons Brady outlined. When they had (more or less) their full complement of players last season, they were/played like the number one seed. The Rockets really made their move on the top spot as the Warriors were reeling a bit and dealing with those injuries. If you assume that the Warriors have a better year when it comes to having Curry regularly in the lineup, then they look to be the prohibitive favorite for the number one seed.
Daniel: I’ve got the Dubs angrily ensuring any Game 7 will be at home after suffering the indignity of being forced to play the final game of last year’s Western Conference Finals in the Toyota Center.
Greg: Last year they seemed to drag their feet into the playoffs and then turned it up. This year, I think the young guys and new additions add some energy boost to the roster and they try to stomp the competition. Boogie is going to want to prove himself and I see a breakout year for Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney, adding on last year’s campaigns. Number one seed in the West. Rockets regress with key roster subtractions.
Duby: I’ll toe the company line here and say “yes” as well. More than any sort of deep seeded desire to redress the wrongs of 2017, for me it mostly shakes out to the Rockets falling off some. Remember that the Warriors were absolutely in the hunt for that top seed until the injuries piled up and the team sleep walked through the final month or so of the season to widen the gap. I just don’t see the Rockets being nearly as dominant as they were last season - they’ll still be good, but now they understand that you really don’t care as much about where you end the regular season, so won’t place as much of an emphasis on regular season dominance. Given what I know of Harden’s tendencies, that means he’ll slack off some; Chris Paul is older and slower, they have Melo now… there’s just so much that can go wrong there.
Some projections have the Lakers missing the playoffs, while others have them grabbing home court advantage. Where do you see them finishing?
Brady: On paper, the Lakers miss the playoffs. I think they’re probably 9th or 10th in the West. But LeBron James is still LeBron James, and if there’s one thing we know about him, it’s that he can drag his teams to surprising heights when it matters most. LA will start behind the eight ball, as their many new pieces will take a while to develop chemistry. They won’t play as well as some teams that finish outside of the playoff seeding. But as spring rolls around, James will do whatever is necessary to sneak his team into the final spot of the playoffs - where they will be swept by the Warriors in the first round.
Tom: I see the Lakers ending the season in sixth place. I don’t think they crack the top five teams in the Western Conference because I have questions about the team around LeBron, how they fit together, how good some of those supporting pieces are, etc., etc. But the sheer force of LeBron’s talent will certainly get the Lakers into the playoffs and not just squeaking in as an eight-seed. In many ways, I think a point of reference is the Thunder’s 2017 season when Russell Westbrook was the MVP. Amazing individual talent, questions about everything else around that talent, ending up with the sixth spot.
Daniel: Only two teams in the West won 50 games last year. The rest of the West is filled with several intriguing teams fighting to win 49 games. Bron could probably sleep walk his way to 45 wins, so with a little Hollywood magic, I’ve got the Lakers stealing that fourth seed.
Greg: I have the Lakers all the way up to the fourth seed. While they will have growing pains and chemistry issues early on, that team really showed a lot of promise with their young core last year and got hot late in the year. With James now on the team and his collection of misfit toys that have joined, the team should level up. James has proven to elevate his teammates. I expect Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, as well as Josh Hart, to play big roles on the team. They have great wing depth and showed that they can bring the defensive intensity. Fourth seed may be on the high end of optimism but I don’t think it is out of reach if the team can learn to gel by January/February.
Duby: Sixth seed for the Lakers, mostly through the heroics of James. I’m dubious that the roster they’ve constructed over there will work, and who knows what will happen behind the scenes with that clown show. But it’s still a decent squad that should make the cut, as long as nothing implodes. Having LeBron is a double-edged sword; while it makes any team immediately competitive, it does so via drastic shifts in the power and personnel dynamics. I’m not a super traditional “by the gut” basketball watcher, but I doubt this team will ever coalesce into anything resembling a coherent team. Sure, they’ll drag into the playoffs, but it will be close enough to worry Lakers fans.
What team(s) just miss the playoffs in the highly competitive West?
Brady: Despite being the third seed in 2018, I have the Portland Trail Blazers on the outside looking in. They’re just not good enough or deep enough, especially now that Jusuf Nurkic is no longer in a contract year, and Ed Davis is in Brooklyn. I also think the Memphis Grizzlies, if healthy, will make a run for the final seed, and wouldn’t be shocked if they get in. I also think New Orleans misses the cut.
Tom: I think the Pelicans are going to come up just a bit short in their quest to return to the postseason. They’ll be good enough to hang around but I don’t think they have enough to get back into the playoffs. This will certainly make the situation with Anthony Davis all the more difficult to navigate.
Daniel: Anybody else get the feeling that the Jimmy Butler-Tom Thibodeau era Minnesota Timberwolves are due for a shocking implosion? Rumors of Butler being unhappy with Karl-Anthony Towns make me wonder if this team is going to be crushed under the weight of heightened expectations. Yes, I’m gonna roll the dice and predict Minnesota to flame out and miss the top eight out West.
Greg: I have the Blazers and Timberwolves falling out and the Nuggets and Lakers joining this year. I just don’t like the direction and attitude of the Timberwolves. They had one of the most promising core of players and they managed to really screw it up over the last few years. Expect a lot chaos in that locker room and maybe a potential big trade of one of their key players by the All-Star break.
I have this sneaky feeling the Dallas Mavericks will be fairly competitive this season. DeAndre Jordan is an All-NBA defender and super efficient scorer. Luka Dončić should make a big impact in his first year playing as the de facto point guard, allowing Dennis Smith Jr. to play more off ball. Rick Carlisle is well known for his ability to elevate his players. They are my dark horse to sneak into the playoffs.
Duby: The Blazers and Nuggets are my guesses on this. Much like last year, I think the 5-10 spot in the West is going to be an absolute toss-up. I’m not smoking whatever Greg is, thinking one of those teams will be the Mavericks, but it’s not out of the question - simply because the Nuggets or Blazers could decompose back into cellar dwellers all too quickly. It just takes any unfortunate combination of bad luck - injuries, poor play, roster upheaval, lack of player improvement are all in the mix - as far as who thrives and who falls. Also, I had to leave the Blazers out, because CJ McCollum apparently still really needs to learn that what goes on at the top really doesn’t concern him.