Predicting the NBA's Western Conference Playoff Picture
With the NBA season approaching rapidly, we need to start thinking about which teams figure into the expected playoff picture this season.
We already hit the East, so let's take a look at the NBA's stronger half, the Western Conference.
This an analytical look as to which teams will make the Western Conference Playoffs, and the order in which we project they will finish the season in the standings.
You'll notice that along with each team is their key additions and losses -- but know that the word "key" was used somewhat loosely -- and their nERD score, which is predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage.
1. Golden State Warriors (nERD 88.7)
If you are reading this, it is safe to assume you know what happened to the Golden State Warriors last season. Just in case you were living under a rock for six months, here is a brief recap. After breaking the NBA's single-season record for wins, with 73, the unbeatable team choked away a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. What did they do to ease their pain? Only sign the second-best player in the NBA, according to nERD, to go along with the unanimous MVP.
Swapping out Barnes for Durant seems a tad unfair to the rest of the league. Adding in KD to "complement" Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green seems unfathomable, but I assure you it happened. With Pachulia and West coming in for Bogut, there is virtually no drop off in the frontcourt either. While the bench may be a bit thinner, when you have a revamped "death lineup" like Golden State does, nothing can slow them down.
Our forecast for this "super team'" may seem a bit conservative with only 61.3 wins. However, we do give them over a 50 percent shot at taking the title and project a five-game lead and a 10-point edge in nERD over the second-place team in the West.
2. San Antonio Spurs (78.6)
In all the hoopla over the Warriors record-breaking season, many forget just how good the San Antonio Spurs were last year. They had the best defense in the league, overwhelmingly leading the NBA in points allowed and defensive rating. The offense perfectly complemented the defense, ranking fourth in offensive efficiency itself. At season's end, the Spurs finished 67-15, tied for the seventh-best record of all-time.
This offseason was the end of one chapter in the Spurs' legacy as future hall of fame big man Tim Duncan retired after 19 seasons. Because the Big Fundamental was playing sparingly for coach Gregg Popovich, the loss on the court is not as great as in the locker room. In his place, the Spurs brought in a pair of experienced big men -- Gasol and Lee -- to pick up the slack. While neither will be as much of a force on the defensive end, both players excel at grabbing boards and dropping points.
While Golden State may stand out as the clear alpha dog in the NBA, the Spurs have set themselves apart from the rest of the field as well. Our algorithms say San Antonio will finish with 56.3 wins, a total of five wins above the third-place Los Angeles Clippers in the West.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (68.3)
Even after a respectable regular season record with 53 wins, the Clippers' season can be seen as a disappointment. After finishing with the first- or second-best offense in the NBA the past three seasons, the Clippers fell back to seventh. You can blame Blake Griffin missing nearly 50 games for the drop-off. To make matters worse, Chris Paul broke his hand in the playoffs, opening the door for the Portland Trail Blazers to knock them out in the first round.
This offseason, the Clips stayed pretty quiet, hoping a full season of good health for Griffin and Paul will be enough to compete in the stacked Western Conference. Bringing in some additional depth up front, in Speights and Bass, does help provide some much needed insurance for a seemingly fragile Griffin. Adding Felton to the mix also provides the second unit with another capable scorer to go along with Jamal Crawford.
With a 4.8 percent chance to win it all, the Clippers head up the field of 27 teams that fall short of the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (55.5)
A full season of Durant and Russell Westbrook paved the way for a 55-win season from the second-best offense in the Association in 2015-16. The future was looking bright as the team made it to their fourth Western Conference Finals in six seasons. Lost in the Warriors' collapse to the Cavs in the Finals, was the Oklahoma City Thunder's own choke job in the Western Conference Finals. Up 3-1 on Golden State, OKC needed just one win to reach their second NBA Finals. Alas, it was not to be, spurring KD's shocking departure this summer.
No team has ever had a worse offseason than the Thunder. Losing their former MVP and four-time scoring champion not only left a gaping hole in their lineup, but it also devastated the fanbase. Trying to do some patchwork to fill in the enormous gap, Ibaka was sent away to the Orlando Magic bringing Oladipo, Ilyasova, and Sabonis back in return. While none of those pieces can make up for the loss of Durant, the Thunder should remain a formidable unit as Westbrook puts the team on his back.
While we still see the Thunder as a playoff team, their projected win total of 44 is only four games above ninth place in the West.
5. Utah Jazz (55.5)
The rise of the Utah Jazz continued in 2015-16. Behind their burgeoning core, the team finished one game out of the playoffs despite losing 20 games each from Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. They owned one of the stiffest defenses, allowing only 95.9 points per game, second-best in the NBA. Their lack of a playmaker on offense put too much pressure on the defense to pitch shutouts, as the team could not do better than a 40-42 record and ninth place in the West.
Getting a full season out of their frontcourt is key in 2016-17, but also finally having a legitimate point guard, Hill, makes the Jazz a team to watch in the West this year. While the former Indiana Pacer is not the most exciting player, he is a steep upgrade over Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack, who started 80 games at the point for the Jazz last year. Adding veterans Johnson and Diaw, who can contribute some offense and versatility, makes this summer a big win for Utah.
After four seasons of sitting on the sidelines during the playoffs, Utah can finally break though and make the postseason for the first time since 2012.
6. Portland Trail Blazers (53.4)
Losing four of five starters from a playoff team typically signals the start of a long season. Not for Portland, though. Behind the explosive backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers not only remained in the playoffs but also took out a short-handed Clippers squad in the first round. The duo averaged 45.9 points and 5.6 three-pointers per game, helping Portland have the sixth-best scoring offense in the league.
After signing McCollum to a $106 million extension, the Blazers continued to spread the wealth spending $156 million to re-sign young pieces Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Maurice Harkless. They weren't done there, bringing Turner and Ezeli in on their own big-figure deals as well. When the dust from the spending spree settled, Portland was left with a wealth of versatile players but no significant additions. More importantly, though, no one left -- unlike the summer of 2015.
With the roster remaining substantially the same as last year, the Blazers' projections of 43 wins and the 5 seed in the West look eerily similar to last year's finish.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (52.9)
On March 4, the Memphis Grizzlies were sitting pretty at 37-24 and locked in a battle with the Clippers for the 4 seed in the West. Then disaster struck, as Marc Gasol and then Mike Conley were lost for the year with injuries. The team limped down the stretch, winning only 5 games of their last 21 games. The team had to use an NBA record 28 players last season, due to a plague of injuries. Memphis was in the postseason as the 7 seed but stood zero chance to advance, getting swept by the Spurs by an average of 23 points per game.
Instead of choosing to dismantle the roster, the Grizzlies instead fortified the offense, re-signing Conley, bringing in floor spacer extraordinaire Parsons, and adding a lights-out shooter in Daniels. With Gasol returning healthy as well, the only real question is how new coach David Fizdale will do with his first time being the head man in charge.
We feel good about Memphis' chances of returning to the playoffs, pegging them as the 7 seed in a tough Western Conference with 42.4 wins.
8. Dallas Mavericks (51.7)
Left for dead by many analysts before the season last year, the Dallas Mavericks did what they do best: scrape and claw their way into the postseason somehow. Finishing with a 42-40 record, Dallas recorded their 16th straight .500-or-better season. They also made their 15th trip to the playoffs in 16 years. Relying on a resurgent-but-aging Dirk Nowitzki as their leading scorer caught up with Mark Cuban's crew in the playoffs as, once again, they suffered an early postseason exit.
In an attempt to change the course and give Nowitzki another shot at championship glory, Dallas went hard after big name free agents Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside. As usual, the Mavericks struck out. Luckily for them, Durant's signing with Golden State caused Barnes and Bogut to be expendable, allowing the duo to fall into Cuban's welcoming arms. Add in Seth Curry as a shooter off the bench and the Mavericks managed to turn disaster into a likely playoff-bound squad once again.
Projected to win 42.4 games, Dallas finds themselves just as close to the 4 seed as they are to the 9 seed.
Missing the Cut
Houston Rockets (48.8)
After underachieving last year, the Houston Rockets decided to shift gears philosophically, bringing in Mike D'Antoni as head coach. With him comes the same old "seven seconds or less" game plan he used in Phoenix years ago. Changes have already been made to the roster to fit the new style too. Out is Dwight Howard and in comes three-point shooters, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. D'Antoni has also decided to move superstar James Harden from the two guard to the primary ball handler. While this new plan of attack may be fun to watch, we are not sure how many wins it will earn. Our projections have the Rockets finishing under .500, two games behind Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Minnesota Timberwolves (46.8)
The Minnesota Timberwolves bottomed out in 2014-15, winning only 16 games, their worst mark in over 20 years. All the losing had some benefits, though, as it rewarded the club with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. With their selection of Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota set forward a path toward relevancy. A 13-win improvement last year, coupled with the addition of Tom Thibodeau as head coach, has the whole league keeping an eye out on the Wolves. Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine are still only 21-years-old, so time is on their side in Minnesota. The postseason is in the future -- just not this year.