Chris Paul moving to the Rockets feels like it happened forever ago in the NBA news cycle, but it was just three and a half months ago. While the Point God’s fit with Rockets’ superstar James Harden is questionable, any time a team gets two top 10 players at the same time, they are probably going to be contending for a championship. The Rockets have surrounded Paul and Harden with strong, versatile defensive players such as Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and P.J. Tucker, all of whom are perfect for guarding the Warriors in a switch-heavy defense. The Rockets also have sharp-shooting dynamos Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, enabling them to truly explode on offense when they get hot from three. They aren’t a perfect team, but they are very, very good, and are well balanced on both ends of the court.
The Thunder’s situation seemed awful a year ago. Kevin Durant was gone, Russell Westbrook’s contract was ticking down, and OKC was depending on players like Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter. Fast forward to now, and the Thunder are one of the best teams in the NBA. Russell Westbrook is locked up for the rest of his prime, and his long-term presence should help retain Paul George. Oh yeah, the Thunder got Paul George, an All-NBA player in his prime, for Oladipo’s overpaid contract and a middling prospect in Domantas Sabonis. Carmelo Anthony is well past his prime, but obtaining him for Kanter and Doug McDermott was a coup as well. The trio of Russ-PG-Melo might take a while to get going, though the fit seems organic, and there are going to be nights where they look unstoppable on offense. The Thunder have some solid players around their stars, but are a little thin past the 7th man in the rotation. That could limit their regular season win total as well as hinder them in the playoffs.
It’s pretty absurd that the Spurs are still hanging around in this tier. They had a low-key summer for the most part, re-signing Pau Gasol to a ludicrously large contract as well as bringing back Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili. They are dependent on a weird mix of old players (Gasol, Ginobili, Tony Parker) and untested youngsters (Dejounte Murray), and only have a few players in the prime of their careers. However, having the best coach in the NBA helps a lot. Pop will get the most out of his guys, as he does every year, and it’s almost a certainty that one of their young guys breaks out (Derrick White is my call). The Spurs also have the services of a top 3 NBA player in Kawhi Leonard, and possessing a superstar of that caliber is just massively important on a game-in, game-out basis. Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Danny Green are all underrated complementary pieces, and the Spurs will assuredly churn out at least 60 wins in the regular season while looking as competent as they ever have. It’s the Spurs, and while I remain unconvinced they have the horses to beat OKC or Houston in a playoff series, it’s tough to bet against them.
I’m a little more down on the Timberwolves than some. I think those predicting 50+ wins and a playoff lock are jumping the gun a bit, though I do believe they will make the postseason. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were both horrific defensive players last season, and it’s tough to win that many games with those kinds of liabilities playing 35+ minutes a night. Hopefully with Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson in town the young guys will shape up on defense, but it’s a process that might take some time. Where Butler will really help is on offense. He’s a very efficient scorer at his volume of shots, and is a much-improved passer from his early years. Taking the pressure off Wiggins and Towns should help them thrive on the offensive end as well. Swapping Ricky Rubio for Jeff Teague will hurt the Wolves defensively, but Teague’s shooting and ability to attack the basket could make the switch end up being a net positive. The Wolves bench is weak and Coach Thibs will wear his starters down to a nub, but the raw talent is there for this team to be quite good.
Your opinion on the Nuggets probably depends on how highly you think of Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ star center is one of the most controversial players in the NBA, as many advanced metrics rank him as one of the best players in the league, while conventional measures are more skeptical. His passing and efficient scoring are extremely impressive, but it’s unknown whether he can be the best player on a solid playoff team. Acquiring Paul Millsap should help him out a lot, as Millsap is the type of do-it-all player that can fit next to anyone. Millsap will stretch the floor, cover for Jokic on defense, and can get buckets in isolation when necessary. Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris are strong complements-- both are able to hit outside shots and make smart cuts to the basket for easy buckets. The question mark is at point guard, where second year player Jamal Murray is likely to start. He’s a good shooter as well, but it’s unclear whether he’s ready to start, even with Jokic and Millsap essentially running the offense. The Nuggets will probably be terrific on offense and less so on defense, though they are rather thin at point guard and small forward. Their playoff seed will depend largely on if their young guys improve (and by how much).
Teams on Playoff Bubble:
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are amazing. They’re explosive and well-rounded scorers who are everything any team could ask for in the locker room and off the court. Very few other teams in the NBA possess two players who could drop 50 points on any given night, and having those two guys allows the Blazers to compete against anybody. Lillard and McCollum’s skill-sets overlap a bit, and they sometimes don’t seem like the best fit as a result, but that’s more of a quibble than anything else. The real issue with the Blazers is the rest of their roster. Evan Turner, Mo Harkless, Al Farouq Aminu and the rest are all fine rotation pieces, but nothing m ore. The Blazers are depending on the mercurial Jusuf Nurkic to be as revelatory all season as he was after his trade from the Nuggets, and that sounds like a risky bet. He’s a fine player, but he’s had strong stretches before, only to be followed by disappointment. If he’s healthy and playing well, the Blazers will be solid. Considering the entirety of their roster and the strength of the West, though, even that might not be enough to make the playoffs. And that’s one of their best case scenarios.
The Jazz are going to be one of the toughest defensive teams in the NBA. Rudy Gobert is the best rim-protector in the NBA since prime Dwight Howard a decade ago, and that strength in the back-line can erase dozens of mistakes elsewhere. Ricky Rubio is also a fantastic defender at point guard, and Joe Ingles is an underrated presence on that end as the starting small forward. Other plus defenders abound on the roster with the additions of Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha. Derrick Favors is an awkward fit with Gobert defensively, but the two of them essentially shut down the paint when playing together. The question for the Jazz is: can they score? Rodney Hood might be their leading scorer this season, and he’s an incredibly underwhelming first option for a playoff team. Joe Johnson is a nice scorer off the bench, but he’s no longer capable of consistently dropping 14 points a game, much less 20. The ex-factor for the Jazz could be rookie Donovan Mitchell, who has looked incredible in preseason and summer league. I loved him coming into the draft, and the hype looks real. I wouldn’t be surprised if he supplanted Hood by the end of this season.
The only reason the Pelicans are in this tier is because they lucked into drafting Anthony Davis in 2012. The Brow remains one of the five most talented players in the NBA, and a must watch on a game-to-game basis. His problem is health and a supporting cast that varies from bad fit to just plain bad. DeMarcus Cousins is talented, but I remain skeptical of his ability to actually win a team a substantial number of games. He and Davis could dominate the paint on both ends if all goes well. They could also be torched on defense by smaller players and play “your turn-my turn” ball on offense while the rest of the roster falls apart around them. Speaking of, Jrue Holiday is the only other guy on the Pelicans who’s clearly an above average NBA player. That’s bad, and Solomon Hill being out for most of the season just makes matters worse. Their wing rotation is horrible, and the lack of shooting provided by support players is truly baffling when Davis and Cousins are their stars, and spacing is so desperately needed. Color me doubtful on this roster’s ability to make the playoffs, though Davis is so good that they might pull through as long as he’s healthy.
The Grizzlies are basically the same as the Pelicans, except with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley instead of Davis. Have you seen the rest of their roster? Their wing rotation features the corpse of Chandler Parsons, the washed-up shell of Tyreke Evans, and such non-entities as Wayne Selden and Andrew Harrison. I like some of their young guys (Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis), but they probably aren’t ready for big-time minutes yet. JaMychal Green is by far the third best player on the Grizzles, and while he’s a decent player, that just doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances. Gasol and Conley are awesome, yes. Their support is far, far less so.
Probable Lottery Teams:
Look, Rick Carlisle is almost certainly the second-best coach in the NBA. He can make something out of nothing, and is a wizard at lineup construction and rotations. The issue is that while the Mavericks don’t quite have “nothing”, they are entirely short on top-tier players. Dirk Nowitzki is on his last legs, and Harrison Barnes is not quite a star. The remainder of their roster is mostly composed of solid NBA players who don’t have much upside, and aren’t good enough now to be more than 7th or 8th men on a playoff team. The two exceptions are Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel. Smith is a strong candidate for rookie of the year, and was perhaps my favorite player in the 2017 draft. He possesses tremendous athleticism, a good point guard skill set, and an NBA-ready frame. I think he will eventually be a star, maybe a superstar. But rookies (especially point guards) are rarely positive NBA players, and Smith will likely be no different. Noel is an exceptional defensive presence when fully active-- it just hasn’t happened consistently so far in his career. Hopefully he stays healthy, and he and Smith look like centerpieces of the Mavericks’ future. The Mavs will certainly be fun to watch, but I can’t see them being a threat to win more than 35 games.
Western Conference Playoff Predictions:
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Houston Rockets
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
6. Denver Nuggets
7. LA Clippers
8. Utah Jazz