Five Bold Post All-Star Break Predictions: Western Conference
The NBA playoffs are rapidly approaching. In the Eastern Conference, the upper and middle class teams are all vying for position as the season comes to a close.
The West is a different animal entirely. At the time of this writing, the seeds four through ten are separated by just six games in the standings. It’s likely that postseason matchups won’t be decided until the final game of the year.
Making sense of what comes next in the Western Conference, therefore, is a fool’s errand. And I’m just the fool for the job. Here are five predictions for how things shake out in the West.
1. The Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals
In the East, I predicted that talent would win the day, and that the loaded Celtics will host the star-studded Sixers in the final round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. In the West, I believe a similar pattern will emerge.
The Warriors are all but a lock to go to the WCF, but who will be their opponent? The Oklahoma City Thunder, a club brimming with talent and with experience, seems poised for another return to the Conference Finals.
OKC is third in defensive rating at the moment, ahead of every other playoff team in the West by a healthy margin. In May and June, having a reliable defense is critical.
The Thunder don’t enjoy as much depth as other teams in the conference. This is nothing to overlook. However this team is loaded with players who have been on deep playoff runs before. They understand the NBA’s so-called second season and what it demands.
Central to this prediction is Paul George. Though Playoff P hasn’t enjoyed as much postseason success as his name might imply, he’s having a career year. Looking around the West, I’m not sure of a team that can adequately contain George. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Russell Westbrook as a second option.
2. Signs of Luka backlash begin to emerge
Dallas’ Luka Doncic has taken the NBA by storm. His national star is burning brighter by the day, and the Mavericks local broadcast viewership is up 74 percent this year despite the team’s 26-31 record. Everyone loves Luka.
As the regular season comes to a close, Luka-mania will begin to wane. We’ll start to see the first few targeted criticisms of the Slovenian stud.
This isn’t a knock on Luka, but rather a symptom of a long NBA season propelled by an insatiable demand for content and headlines. The market is already saturated with Luka love, but cynicism or condemnation of the 19-year old would be fresh and clicky. One bad press conference or a few losses in a row should be enough for a daring beat writer or edgy radio host to take the bait.
This will, of course, be met with thunderous opposition, which will in turn further amplify the initial criticism. As the Mavericks look destined to miss the playoffs, the “is Luka overrated” take will become even more irresistible. (He’s not, by the way.)
3. Iman Shumpert comes up clutch
Houston’s James Harden has gone absolutely ballistic this season, and almost out of sheer necessity. His supporting cast has largely disappointed, and the Rockets front office has scrambled to make improvements on the fly. Among the team’s mid-season acquisitions, none will be more consequential than Iman Shumpert.
Shumpert is a switchy, versatile 3&D sort of player that is a coveted commodity in today’s NBA. And though his defensive prowess isn’t quite what it once was, he’s still the kind of lengthy wing needed when facing the likes of a Paul George or Kevin Durant.
Shump’s shooting is up this season, a big boost for the Rockets.But It’s his no-nonsense toughness and experience that is a real bonus for Houston. James Harden is a polarizing player around the league. Adding Shumpert to a roster with Gerald Green and PJ Tucker already in the fold means no one will be messing with the Rockets.
4. Denver disappoints
One of the biggest surprises of this NBA season will also be among the biggest disappointments. The Denver Nuggets have all right right pieces to succeed in the regular season, but are simply too green and untested to go the distance in the playoffs.
Denver is quite literally the youngest team in the league. Outside of a few veteran players, the team lacks meaningful postseason experience. With so many battle-tested opponents in the coming playoffs, that’s a big problem for the Nuggets.
At the same time, this team’s 14-14 road record is rather uninspiring. It underscores the above, that this team is decidedly inexperience. Even with home court advantage, being able to go to an opponent’s gym and win a game is an essential component of winning in the postseason.
It is worth noting that most of the Western Conference playoff teams seem to struggle on the road. Seeding will matter in a big way in the West if even the best clubs are paper tigers away from home.
5. The Lakers miss the playoffs
Los Angeles are just four games back from being the sixth seed in the West. If LeBron is healthy and fully back into the fold, he alone should be able to propel the Lakers up the standings heading into the postseason.
All of that is easier said than done. The Lakers locker room is reportedly in shambles at the moment. The young players are resentful and jaded of the new old guard. And understandably so, as LeBron has been openly flirting with Anthony Davis in a big way.
To make matters worse, I don’t think the turmoil has finished. I expect the Lakers to bring in another player off of the buyout market. Likewise, a change in head coach can’t be ruled out either. Chaos will continue to brew in LA for the remainder of the season.
If there’s anyone who can overcome the above, it’s LeBron. But what if he doesn’t want to? Missing the playoffs would give the Lakers a much better draft pick to offer New Orleans this summer. And LeBron already has a busy summer ahead shooting Space Jam 2. Maybe having May and June off for the first time since 2005 might be a welcome change of pace.