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. We looked at the teams atop the brutal Western Conference last week – let’s get to the dangerous squads nipping on the contenders’ heels.
In recent seasons, there have been clearly deserving Western Conference teams that have missed out on playoff fun thanks to the NBA’s archaic, geography-appeasing conference system. In 2013-’14, the 48-win Suns sat at home in late April while the 38-win Hawks got the opportunity to challenge the East’s one-seed. Similarly, last year’s injury-riddled Thunder campaign, while disappointing, still should have resulted in playoff basketball. It didn’t, and three teams out East with inferior records wound up in the playoffs instead.
This year’s West might be a bit different. There appears to be a clear top eight, and each of the squads in the playoff picture’s rearview mirror could struggle to mount legitimate charges to land in the top eight. Dallas, Sacramento and Phoenix all seem to fancy themselves as playoff teams despite the varying levels of turmoil they’re enduring. Dallas of course had a catastrophic off-season; Phoenix is feuding with one of its best players; and the Kings certainly got more talented, but are one of the most unstable organizations in sports.
Thanks to the seemingly imminent struggles for the ninth through 15th teams in the conference, the 16 most deserving teams might find themselves in the NBA playoffs for the first time in years.
Here’s a way-too-early prediction for the sixth through 10th seeds in the Western Conference.
6th – New Orleans Pelicans
Key Additions: F Alonzo Gee
Key Losses: The space formerly not occupied by Kendrick Perkins
If I were a free agent getting set to hit the market in the next few years, New Orleans would be right near the top of my list of possible destinations. With a generational talent like Anthony Davis on the roster, it’s only a matter of time before the Pelicans are perched near the top of the West standings.
Davis’ brilliance in 2014-’15 is tough to overstate. His 30.8 PER wasn’t just the best mark in the league last year – it was the 11th-best of all time and the best PER score by a player not named Michael, Wilt or LeBron in history. Keep in mind: he’s 22.
Already a nightmare on both ends of the court, he’s sure to only improve under the guidance of head coach Alvin Gentry, the conductor of the Suns’ league-best offense in 2009-’10 and last year’s Golden State steamroller. Davis isn’t the only weapon Gentry will have to work with either. Eric Gordon stumbled out of the gate last year, but in the final months of the season he turned the Smoothie King Center into his own private shooting range, nailing 46.4 percent of his triples after January 1 (44.8 percent overall).
On the whole, the Pelicans’ roster isn’t as deep or talented as the Grizzlies’, but Davis is unquestionably one of the three or four best players on earth. He alone could be enough to elevate the Pels to the cusp of the West’s top tier. The Brow is coming.
7th – Memphis Grizzlies
Key Additions: F Matt Barnes, F/C Brandan Wright,
Key Losses: G Nick Calathes, C Kosta Koufos, F Jon Leuer
The Grizzlies were an incredibly fun team to follow in the first half of last year. Marc Gasol was in the early MVP conversation, the once inefficient offense was humming along at a top-ten clip and the Grizz looked like the strongest challengers to the Warriors. Their pre-deadline deal for Jeff Green was supposed to provide the missing ingredient to put the Grizzlies over the top – a three-point presence who could provide versatility to Memphis’ typically bruising frontcourt.
It didn’t work that way, though.
|Green Traded Jan. 12
Memphis was still a good team post-trade no doubt, and the defense improved markedly in the latter half of the year. However, defense has never been the issue for this rendition of the Grizzlies. Shooting has consistently been the bugaboo, and after the January 12 deal for the maligned Green, the team’s three-point shooting numbers tumbled.
The playoffs exposed Memphis’ glaring weakness when all-world stopper Tony Allen was virtually ignored by the the Warriors’ defense in the second round. Without a reliable reserve to replicate his defense and provide a shooting threat, the Grizzlies crumbled.
General manager Robert Pera’s off-season adds were intelligent moves to be sure – but Matt Barnes is merely a league average three-point shooter and Brandan Wright is limited to producing as a roll man. This is a deep and tremendously talented team, but it’s unclear where the shooting upgrade over last year is going to come from. Until a marksman arises, the ceiling of this team may be a hard-fought first-round exit.
8th – Utah Jazz
Key Additions: F/C Trey Lyles
Key Losses: N/A
The buzz surrounding Utah heading into this season is real. Over the course of last season, the Jazz ascended from being a faceless, disjointed bunch into being a defensive monstrosity in the final months of the campaign.
Trading Enes Kanter to the Thunder at the deadline was the igniting incident behind the Jazz’ turnaround. The move opened up the starting center role for second-year man Rudy Gobert, who – according to Nylon Calculus’ Rim Protection stats – led the league in Points Saved Per Game (2.43) and allowed a league-low 40.4 percent field goal percentage at the rim, better than Andrew Bogut, Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert. Amazingly, Utah was 7.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Gobert was on the court. Make no mistake, Gobert is already the game’s preeminent rim protector.
Around Gobert is a collection of impressive, young 1990s-born supporting pieces. Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood comprise the rest of a core that still has an undetermined ceiling.
Unfortunately for Jazz fans, 2014 fifth-overall pick Dante Exum won’t continue to develop (at least not this season) alongside his up-and-coming teammates after his recent ACL tear. However, though he improved throughout the season, the 20-year-old probably wasn’t going to be a vital contributor to the Jazz playoff chase this season. Quin Snyder still has a bounty of capable playmakers to charge with the ball-handling duties in Exum’s absence. Trey Burke is the obvious first choice, as he will try to finally make good on the hype he generated in the NCAA tournament.
Outside of Burke, the traditional point guard, there is Hayward, who typically ran the offense in crunch time scenarios last season. Most intriguingly, though, is Burks, who is something of a forgotten man right now. He missed the final 53 games last year, and thus missed the team’s late-season meteoric rise; we haven’t yet seen how he fits in with the Kanter-less Jazz. An interesting use for him might be to run him out as the starting point guard if Burke’s struggles persist. A crunch time unit of Burks, Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert could be impenetrable on defense, and there would be enough passing ability and shooting on the court to cover up for the lack of a traditional point guard.
Regardless of who mans the point, the Jazz’s ball-stopping prowess should land them in the playoffs even if the offense stumbles for stretches.
9th – Sacramento Kings
Key Additions: C Willie Cauley-Stein, C Kosta Koufos, G Marco Belinelli, G Rajon Rondo, F Caron Butler
Key Losses: F/C Jason Thompson, G Nik Stauskas, F Derrick Williams, G Ray McCallum, G Andre Miller
Despite a questionable salary dump that cost future picks, a turnover of a third of the roster, a host of front office firings and hirings, and a highly publicized emoji feud between the teams’ best player and curmudgeonly new coach, the Kings managed to become irrefutably more talented this off-season. Whether or not all of the new pieces will meld together is unclear, but George Karl has a real chance to put together a competitive rotation.
Vlade Divac has given his coach a versatile set of players to manage; Rudy Gay is a natural three but should see some action as a four next to DeMarcus Cousins. Sixth-overall pick Willie Cauley-Stein is years away from being an offensive contributor, but has the athletic tools to guard multiple positions; he too could pair nicely with Cousins. While Rajon Rondo has become an exceedingly shaky shooter, the addition of Belinelli – along with the pre-existing deep shooting of Ben McLemore and Darren Collison – will give Rondo loads of options to find with his laser passing.
This is simply a deeper squad that seems to be capable of bettering last year’s 17th-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense. Cousins, a lot like Anthony Davis, has the talent to elevate a suspect supporting cast to respectability. For the sake of Kings’ fans, let’s hope the Kings’ All-Star can rediscover the form he displayed during Sacramento’s fleeting hot start in 2014-’15.
10th – Dallas Mavericks
Key Additions: C ZaZa Pachulia, C Samuel Dalembert, C JaVale McGee, G Wesley Matthews, G Deron Williams, F Justin Anderson, F Jeremy Evans
Key Losses: F Al-Farouq Aminu, C Tyson Chandler, G Rajon Rondo
In reality, the unbelievable events that led to the Mavs missing out on DeAndre Jordan probably won’t cause a catastrophic drop in the projected standings for Dallas. With the big man in the fold, Mark Cuban’s team would have been right in the mix for the final playoff spot in the West, destined to bow out in the first round to a murderous top-tier contender.
Without him, the Mavs’ should still be respectable, but their playoff chances will be cut significantly. That’ll happen when Samuel Dalembert and JaVale McGee form the tandem charged with filling the DeAndre void.
There are just so many things that will need to break perfectly in order for Dallas to make a 15th playoff appearance in 16 years. The players the Mavs are going to need to rely on are anything but dependable at this point in time.
Dirk Nowitzki can still shoot, but can no longer keep up with opposing offensive players – he’s simply too slow at age 37. Wesley Matthews is working his way back from a torn Achilles tendon – a notoriously destructive injury. Cuban’s main hype man Chandler Parsons is making a return from a knee injury as well, and the point guard hopes rest on Deron Williams, who shot 39.5 percent from the floor last year and is two years removed from a fully healthy season. Good luck with that.
An ideal season in Big D might actually involve a full-on tank job that ensures Dallas keeps its top-7 protected first round pick. Unfortunately, there might be just enough underwhelming talent on the roster to keep the upper reaches of the lottery out of reach.