2012 NBA Preview: Western Conference Playoff Projections

It's the Western Conference's turn for numberFire projections, and Dwight Howard may not have the impact that everyone assumes.

After taking a look at the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, we now go Oregon Trail-style and turn our attention to the setting Sun(s) in the West.

Our projections for this year don't see the Spurs going away quite yet, and Lakers fans may be a bit disappointed with the expected value Dwight Howard brings.

2012 NBA Western Conference Projections

#1: San Antonio Spurs
Projected Record: 55.5-26.5
Playoff Odds: 92.45%
Championship Odds: 11.15%

We don't think the oldies are quite done yet. But between DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, and especially Kahwi Leonard all receiving significant playing time last season, I'm not quite sure that the "Old Geezers" label quite applies to them like the media thinks. Sure, Duncan might not move as well any more, but his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) remains above 20 while the league average sits down at 15. Most people might forget in the middle of Thunder and Lakers-mania, but remember who actually won the Western Conference last season. Essentially the same team equals essentially the same record.

#2: Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected Record: 53.9-28.1
Playoff Odds: 90.25%
Championship Odds: 9.81%

In speaking of essentially having the same team and the same record, welcome to Oklahoma City! The Thunder are hoping a little added experience will take them to the top. But will their top three actually grow? Durant's 26.2 PER indeed was an increase over '10-11, and he had a career-high assist and rebound percentage, but his turnover percentage was the highest of his career. Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, had the lowest turnover percentage of his career, but also his lowest assist rate since his rookie season. And James Harden had a career year in nearly all categories, but he was used in roughly the same amount of Thunder plays (21.8%) as his first three seasons. All three players have key aspects to work on if the Thunder are to improve.

#3: Los Angeles Lakers
Projected Record: 52.1-29.9
Playoff Odds: 8.54%
Championship Odds: 9.73%

Oppan Howard Style! But those expecting DH12 to take the Lakers to an ungodly level may want to temper their expectations. His PER from last season is only slightly better than Andrew Bynum's (24.2 vs. 22.9), his rebound percentage only a bit better (21.7% vs. 18.9%), and his turnover percentage worse (15.7% vs. 13.9%). Superman V2 will give the Lakers a small bump, but last year's Lakers squad had bigger holes than center.

#4: Denver Nuggets
Projected Record: 47.7-34.3
Playoff Odds: 77.47%
Championship Odds: 5.17%

The biggest roster upheaval at the top of the Western Conference charts comes from the Mile High City. Out goes Afflalo, in comes Iguodala, in the ultimate "If you didn't follow basketball, you might think these were diseases" trade. Iguodala's PER sits at a good, but not great 17.6, but his most valuable characteristic may just be his point guard-esque assist rate. At 23.7%, the happiest people from Iggy's arrival may just be Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee.

#5: Los Angeles Clippers
Projected Record: 44.5-37.5
Playoff Odds: 76.91%
Championship Odds: 4.78%

Year 2 of the CP3 Experiment: Grant Hill Edition. OK, so maybe adding Hill and his 12.3 PER from last season may not make a big difference, but the other changes the Clippers made in the offseason look perhaps even worse. Lamar Odom finished last year with an abysmal 9.2 PER in 50 games for the Mavericks, and Jamal Crawford had his lowest effective field goal percentage last year for Portland since his rookie 2000-2001 campaign. There's no reason to expect anything but more of the same from LA-Lite this season.

#6: Dallas Mavericks
Projected Record: 43.0-39.0
Playoff Odds: 51.96%
Championship Odds: 2.43%

I think it's safe to say that the "Sign Deron Williams at all costs" experiment didn't go as planned, right? Welcome to mediocrity, Fightin' Mark Cubans! OJ Mayo's PER has never been above the league-average 15, while he put up his highest turnover percentage (13.3%) in three years last season. Meanwhile, Dirk's 21.7 PER was his lowest since '99-'00, and Shawn Marion's dead-average 15.0 PER was the lowest of his career. I believe in Texas, they call this a Good Ol' Fashioned Downswing.

#7: Memphis Grizzlies
Projected Record: 42.1-39.9
Playoff Odds: 60.62%
Championship Odds: 2.05%

Buying yourself the Grizzlies just isn't as good if you hold the Mayo. Sure, the Towers of Power (and Mental Stability) will presumably be back and fully healthy this season, but this is a team that doesn't feature much else other than Gasol and Randolph. Rudy Gay is slowly improving his all-around game (his '11-12 assist and rebound rates were career highs), but other parts of his game are taking a hit (his .480 effective FG% was his lowest since his rookie year). Without major changes, this is still a middle-of-the-pack team.

#8: Utah Jazz
Projected Record: 40.3-41.7
Playoff Odds: 46.68%
Championship Odds: 1.01%

The Jazz shocked a good number of people, including this life-long Utah fan, last season by making a run to the 8-seed. numberFire has them getting close again, but it may be the schedule that puts them over the edge. Their overall team rating and actual playoff odds are actually the 10th best in the West behind the Suns and Rockets, but because the way the schedule breaks down, they have a better projected record than both those teams. It pays to be in Salt Lake City.

#9: Phoenix Suns
Projected Record: 40.0-42.0
Playoff Odds: 50.59%
Championship Odds: 1.14%

They lost Steve Nash! The sky is falling! To a slightly lower sky that still has about the same chance at a playoff birth! There's no reason to fret in Phoenix, because this team, even without Nash, is constructed very similarly to last year's team that finished with a .500 record. One of the hidden secrets of the NBA, Goran Dragic's PER is not too much of a drop off from Nash's (above-average 18.0 vs. 20.3), and his turnover percentage is actually miles better (18.7% vs. 27.1%). Meanwhile, Michael Beasley's all-around game is lacking (13.0 PER), but his .483 effective FG percentage gives Phoenix a scorer they've been missing.

#10: Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected Record: 38.4-43.6
Playoff Odds: 32.61%
Championship Odds: 0.52%

One small step for Wolves, one giant leap for non-terribleness. And if you don't think a 38-win season would be huge in Minnesota, you don't know the T-Wolves very well. Minnesota hasn't won 38 games in a season since the '04-05 campaign, which ohbytheway was three years before Garnett actually left the team. They haven't made the playoffs since a year earlier, in '03-04. Even having a one-third playoff chance is huge. And the key player may just be the states-side return of Andrei Kirilenko: can he get back to his 16.6 PER from his last season ('10-11) in Utah?

#11: Houston Rockets
Projected Record: 38.1-43.9
Playoff Odds: 57.42%
Championship Odds: 1.86%

I suppose it may be heresy to place Dork Elvis in 11th place using analytical methods of thinking, but the numbers don't lie and here we are. Just like the Jazz were benefactors of a conducive schedule, the Rockets get absolutely killed by their division. Having two teams right above them in that third tier (Memphis and Dallas) means that the Rockets are more likely to have an opening, since those teams are more likely to falter than the ones ahead of the Jazz. But it also means that their projected record shoots downwards, since those teams are indeed projected to be better. Whoops. Better hope Jeremy Lin and his 19.9 PER in 35 games last season was not too small of a sample size.

#12: Golden State Warriors
Projected Record: 36.8-45.2
Playoff Odds: 28.47%
Championship Odds: 0.50%

With Andrew Bogut and Carl Landry now in the mix for a full season, is it possible that the Warriors might actually play some *gasp* defense? Last season, the Warriors' defense rebound percentage (69.1%) finished dead last in the entire NBA, while opposing effective field goal percentage and turnovers forced percentage each finished in the bottom half of the league. Still, it would take a lot more to propel the Warriors from the lottery into the playoffs; the only returning players with even an above-average PER last year are Stephen Curry and David Lee.

#13: New Orleans Hornets
Projected Record: 34.1-47.9
Playoff Odds: 13.28%
Championship Odds: 0.04%

The Hornets are a tricky team to try and project, because rookies are treated as league-average players in numberFire's projection system. Will the Unibrow be a game-changer, or will his shotblocking skills be as useless as Kentucky's class schedule for sophomore basketball players? It's impossible to predict. The Hornets could turn out to be way better than these odds; they could also be way worse. And Eric Gordon's stats aren't helping matters: he only played in nine games (small sample size) last year, but his PER has risen every single year he's been in the league.

#14: Sacramento Kings
Projected Record: 30.2-51.8
Playoff Odds: 15.64%
Championship Odds: 0.08%

The Kings might be the most intriguing team in the entire league to me. They have a ton of talent; it's just a matter of whether they gel. Tyreke Evans put up a 16.4 PER last season, but his assist rate has gone down ever single year to a low-for-a-sometimes-PG 22.1% last season. DeMarcus Cousins' PER shot up to a sky-high 21.2 and his rebound percentage to a DH12-like 25.9% last season, but will he be able to sustain the high play? And where does Thomas Robinson fit in this whole scheme? If there was an NBA version of Hard Knocks, I would give up the rest of cable for a year to see people follow the Kings around. Get on it, NBA Network.

#15: Portland Trailblazers
Projected Record: 29.6-52.4
Playoff Odds: 17.11%
Championship Odds: 0.12%

Well they might not be one of the worst two teams in the league - that honor falls to the Cavaliers and Bobcats - but because of the strength of the Western Conference, they're in last place here. Surprisingly for a last-place team, though, they do have a few building blocks in place. Aldridge has posted a 20+ PER each of the last two seasons, Nicholas Batum had a career-high 17.3 PER last season while posting a usage rate above 20%, and their two lottery picks should provide some value above the average NBA player. But bottoming out isn't the worst strategy - this team is still at least a guard, if not another big man, away.