Can’t wait for the 2015-’16 season to start? We neither. Now that most of the off-season’s major moves are complete, we’ll dive into some ludicrously premature predictions for next season. In the coming days and weeks we’ll attempt to project the standings in each conference, five teams at a time, before trying to lock down who will bring home the major awards at the end of next year. Last week, we looked at the teams who will fight for the last couple playoff spots in the Western Conference. Let’s wrap our standings predictions up with a look at the West’s cellar-dwellers.
Being one of the have-nots in the West has its pros and cons. Yeah, matching up against the litany of star-studded giants that call the West home is a daunting nightly task. Constantly getting beaten down must make the six-month regular season grind feel double that length.
There is a positive side, though. Mounting losses translate to more ping-pong balls come lottery time, and beefed up chances of snagging the type of franchise-changing player that can keep a rebuilding process short and sweet. In recent years, teams such as the Thunder, Warriors, Clippers and Pelicans have all been injected with direction-altering lottery selections following down campaigns, and are reaping the rewards today. The following teams might have bumpy times ahead, but they all might be a mere draft pick away from changing their trajectories for the next ten years (except for the Lakers … but we’ll get to them).
Here’s a way-too-early prediction for the 11 through 15 seeds in the Western Conference.
11th – Phoenix Suns
Key Additions: C Tyson Chandler, G Devon Booker, F Mirza Teletovic, G/F Sonny Weems,
Key Losses: F Marcus Morris, G Gerald Green, C Brandan Wright
For a few years now, the Sun have lacked a defined direction. When the franchise was supposed to tank two seasons ago, it won 48 games. Last season, Phoenix was supposed to run opponents into the ground with a trio of highly-skilled point guards — two of them were traded at the deadline. This off-season, general manager Ryan McDonough unexpectedly found himself in the midst of the LaMarcus Aldridge race. To entice Aldridge, he signed an aging center to slot ahead of the promising Alex Len; to clear cap room, he dealt the inferior of the two Morris twins to Detroit.
Of course, the Suns didn’t get Aldridge, and now Phoenix is faced with another fork in the road. Markieff Morris, one of the Suns two best players on one of the league’s handsomest contracts, wants out… badly. McDonough could appease Morris and deal him, even though his attitude concerns and looming assault charge may mean the Suns won’t receive full value in return. Or, Phoenix’s boss could stand pat and force Morris to honor his four-year, $32 million contract that kicks in this season.
Option one obviously depletes the overall talent on the roster, as no individual player the Suns could get in return would be as talented as the former Kansas star. Then again, keeping the man who averaged 15, 6 and 2 last year could serve as a season-long locker room distraction. Because of the uncertainty regarding the Morris situation at the moment, it’s tough to peg the Suns as a playoff contender, even though the talent on hand could definitely put them in the mix.
12th – Minnesota Timberwolves
Key Additions: F/C Karl-Anthony Towns, G Tyus Jones, G Andre Miller, F Nemanja Bjelica, F Tayshaun Prince
Key Losses: F Chase Budinger
The Timberwolves are living proof that rebuilding is a process left mostly up to random chance. Two seasons ago, Minnesota fancied itself a playoff team with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio expected to lead the way. After a ninth place, 40-42 finish, the Wolves had a disgruntled Love on their hands. Then, as we all know, LeBron James omitted first-overall pick Andrew Wiggins from his “coming home” letter, and the wheels began churning on the deal that sent Love to Cleveland for Wiggins.
Building block number one was in place.
Then last season, with two 19-year-olds (Wiggins and Zach LaVine) among the team’s minutes leaders, the Wolves won 16 times, and became just the fourth last-place team to ever to win the Draft Lottery. They snagged building block number two in Karl-Anthony Towns. In two years, the Wolves have gone from being stuck in perpetual Western Conference mediocrity to having what’s probably the most electrifying young core in the NBA. And they did it without even trying. Sorry Philly fans.
Geography will keep the Wolves out of the playoffs in 2015-’16; the West is just too strong at the top. However, that doesn’t mean Minnesota won’t be a tough out each and every night. On top of the dazzling foundation of Rubio, Wiggins and Towns, there’s a sneakily strong supporting group — one that boasts some potentially killer bench players like LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, and runs the gamut from old and seasoned to young and exuberant.
Wolves’ Four Oldest vs. Four Youngest Players
Something tells me Kevin Garnett (39), Andre Miller (39), Tayshaun Prince (35) and Kevin Martin (32) will be consulting Bryan Shaw’s favorite literature more than once this year.
13th – Los Angeles Lakers
Key Additions: G D’Angelo Russell, G Lou Williams, C Roy Hibbert, F Brandon Bass
Key Losses: G Jeremy Lin, F Ed Davis, C Jordan Hill, G/F Wesley Johnson
Aside from drafting D’Angelo Russell second overall, none of the Lakers’ off-season moves were particularly inspiring. Yes, Roy Hibbert will instantly improve last year’s second-worst defense (108.0 points allowed per 100 possessions), and Brandon Bass is a dependable, hard-working rotation big man. However, those treadmill moves meant to help remove the laughingstock title from the Lakers and not much more.
Hope with the Lakers is scarce, but to the extent that it exists, it lies in their growing collection of talented youngsters. Russell possesses a combination of court vision and shooting that should have L.A. fans salivating; Julius Randle – once held in the same regard as his draft-mates Wiggins and Jabari Parker – lost his rookie season to an injury but still boats lottery-level skills; and Jordan Clarkson emerged as the one bright spot in an otherwise horrendous 2014-’15 season at Staples Center. Giving those three unproven-but-talented players free rein to play, fail and learn on the fly would foster growth in a season not bound for the playoffs. It would also keep the franchise in the hunt to keep its draft pick — which goes to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top three.
Of course, that’s not how it will shake down. Kobe Bryant will be back and healthy (at least to start the season), and while he’s not the player he once was, he is still good enough to elevate the Lakers into no-first-rounder territory. On top of Kobe, Lou Williams was signed as a free agent and Nick Young is still … there. That makes three high-usage, well-paid perimeter players on the roster to eat into the minutes and opportunities of Russell and Clarkson. That’s probably not an ideal environment for developing two of the very few in-house players who will be on the next great edition of the Lakers.
14th – Portland Trail Blazers
Key Additions: C Mason Plumlee, F Noah Vonleh, G/F Gerald Henderson, F Ed Davis, F Al-Farouq Aminu, F Mo Harkless
Key Losses: Every starter not named Damian Lillard
Welp. It was the worst possible scenario for the Blazers and their poor fans this off-season. Nic Batum — off to anonymity in Charlotte. Robin Lopez — rooming with his brother in New York. Wes Matthews — the best part of Dallas’ off-season. LaMarcus Aldridge — with the Spurs.
The mass exodus from the Pacific Northwest forced Neil Olshey to scrounge together a respectable roster. All things considered, he did an excellent job.
Snagging Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh from the Hornets for Batum was his first and shrewdest move. Henderson is fine but unexciting, and will probably leave as a free agent next summer. Picking up Vonleh, though, was an excellent, rebuild-inciting move for the Blazers. After such a successful regular season in 2014-’15, the Blazers found themselves facing a complete tear-down without a high-first round pick to help re-stock the cupboard. Vonleh, the 9th overall pick in 2014, is now essentially the Blazers’ first lottery selection of the post-Aldridge era, and gives Terry Stotts and his staff a head start in cultivating the young talent that will contribute to the next great Blazers squad.
Damian Lillard has his warts on defense, but he’s the kind of three-point shooting, shot-creating point guard that is valued so highly in the modern NBA, and he’s a tremendous piece to have on hand. Let’s be realistic, watching Dame launch 30 shots a night as Portland’s main offensive force is going to be a fantastic way to cap our evenings throughout the season.
Portland has had major setbacks before. Brandon Roy’s knees gave out during the height of his powers, and Oden-over-Durant still haunts the franchise. Despite those hardships, there has always been a star-in-waiting ready to spearhead the next era of Blazers basketball. Lillard, in conjunction with Olshey’s off-season moves, should keep Portland’s impending down cycle brief.
15th – Denver Nuggets
Key Additions: G Emmanuel Mudiay, C Nikola Jokic
Key Losses: G Ty Lawson
After drafting Emmanuel Mudiay 7th overall, and before trading Ty Lawson trade in late July, Denver’s front office was notably quiet. No flashy signings or surprise trades — and that was probably the smartest way to go about things. This is a team that won’t be partaking in the playoffs in April, and to waste resources or deal future picks away for mediocrity would have been foolish. The Nuggets did however retain both Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, quelling the persistent trade talks that surrounded them for the bulk of last year.
Bringing that duo back won’t change the immediate outlook for Denver, though. Gallinari and Chandler are nice players, and it’s fantastic that they both chose to commit to Denver long-term, but in the loaded West, having them as your two best players is probably going to equate to a long year.
That’s completely okay, though. Mudiay has a real chance to win Rookie of the Year. He could prove to be a far more talented version of what Michael Carter-Williams was in 2013-14: a heavily-relied-upon offensive catalyst who puts up gaudy numbers as a result. Ideally, coach Michael Malone would give Mudiay the same treatment Wiggins got last year from Flip Saunders: give him the keys, let him take the team for a spin, and if he messes up and crashes it from time to time, it’s not a big deal. Letting Mudiay iron out his kinks in a season that will surely be lost anyway could be the best way to ensure he’s ready to lead the next wave of young Nuggets players — a collection that could possibly include a top-three pick, as the Nuggets will receive the more favorable of their own and the Knicks’ 2016 first-rounders. Like Portland and Minnesota, the time spent in the doldrums should be relatively quick and regularly exhilarating for Denver fans.