Seven Thoughts On Interesting Dynamics In The Western Conference

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  1. The Warriors are going to be good.
  2. The Warriors are going to be good.
  3. The Warriors are going to be good.
  4. The Warriors are going to be good.
  5. The Warriors are going to be good.
  6. The Warriors are going to be good.
  7. The Warriors are going to be good.

Just kidding, sort of, the Warriors are going to be one of the better teams in NBA history; however, the Western Conference has many interesting dynamics this season. So, with that said, here are my seven predictions:

1) If Utah, Denver, and Minnesota compete for the playoffs, which is something everyone should expect, than all of Oklahoma City, Portland, Dallas, Memphis, and Houston should worry about missing the postseason. With that said, both the good folks at BBallBreakdown (see their article) and myself (my article) have suggested that Houston’s offense will be so dominant that they will qualify for the playoffs. Thus, to me, seven teams – Utah, Denver, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Portland, Dallas, and Memphis – will be competing for four playoff spots.

2) I am not buying Utah as a lock-playoff team this season. I know Zach Lowe predicted the Jazz will win fifty games or more, and I do respect his opinion, because I think Utah could. Utah is poised to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA this year, and when examining the past five NBA seasons, defense is perhaps the best metric for predicting a playoff-bound regular season. Out of the fifty teams to rank top-ten in defense each season since 2011-2012, only three have not made the playoffs: the 2012-13 Washington Wizards, and the 2014-15 Hornets and Pacers.

My concern is that their best two offensive players are Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood. The former is undoubtedly a top-thirty player, and the latter is quietly emerging as a top shooting guard; yet, neither are so dynamic offensively that they force opposing defenses to change their gameplans. Additionally, the Jazz only attempted the league average number of three-point shots. What all of this means is that Utah is trying to create a similar team to the 2013-14 Spurs, and defensively speaking, they have done a good job. However, the Jazz do not have a Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili to lead their offense. In a brutal western conference, this may be problematic enough to cost them a playoff spot.

3) The Minnesota Timberwolves could very likely reach the 2016-17 NBA Playoffs and get into the conference semi-finals. If they do, it will be because Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine are incredibly complimentary. First, let’s look at Karl-Anthony Towns’ rankings amongst the past twenty-one NBA Rookie Of The Year Winners:

Thus, by using NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE) – a stat that estimates what percentage of a team’s game events did a player contribute, a PIE above 15.0 signifies, at any given time, a top-twenty NBA player – we can find where Karl-Anthony Towns ranks amongst the most recent Rookie Of The Year winners. What we see is that the only players to have better rookie years than Towns are Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin. Thus, in the past twenty years, Towns was arguably the fourth best rookie, at least in terms of one’s impact on their team.

Combine KAT’s brilliant rookie year with Zach LaVine’s post-all-star-break three-point shot. LaVine shot 43% from three after the break, 45.6% on catch-and-shoot threes, 44.9% on open three-point shots, and 53.1% on wide-open ones. This makes Towns’ ability to score inside and outside, pass, and play from the elbow all the more dangerous, as a defender needs to stick to LaVine at all times during the game. Let’s examine what this looks like during a game:

Charlotte cannot allow Towns or LaVine any space. This frees up the shooter in the corner because the Hornets spend so much effort defending the Towns/LaVine pick-and-roll. This combination, along with the expected improvement of Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, and additions of Kris Dunn, Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill, and Brandon Rush will make Minnesota a serious contender this season.

4) Against my better judgement, I believe Oklahoma City is a lock to make the NBA playoffs this season. I have written numerous articles analyzing why the Thunder are going to be a true contender this season (here, here, and here). Essentially, here are the stats you need to know:

A) In terms of defensive-box-plus-minus – a stat that uses a linear regression and box-score stats to analyze what a player’s defensive impact is – Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, and Victor Oladipo rank as the third, eighth, and sixteenth-best defensive guards in the NBA respectively. Thus, expect the Thunder to be a dominate perimeter defensive team.
B) Last season, the Thunder ranked eleventh in transition offense and sixteenth in transition defense, hardly elite numbers. Yet, much of this was due to Kevin Durant, whose average speed was second worst on the team and eighth worst in the entire NBA. Now, Oklahoma City replaced that coma-inducing pace with Victor Oladipo, whose average speed of 4.45 miles per hour ranked him in the top tenth of all NBA players, and as a result we should expect to see a more willing and lethal transition offense.
C) Russell Westbrook has the sixth-best true-shooting percentage when he drives to the rim in the NBA. Consequently, Oklahoma City’s secondary offense will mostly revolve around Westbrook driving-and-dishing.

Therefore, I think the Russell Westbrook show, combined with a much more defensive-and-transition-oriented system in Oklahoma City, will make the Thunder a definite playoff team.

5) The Memphis Grizzlies have the greatest predictive variance of all the potential playoff teams mentioned. Roughly this same team, minus Chandler Parsons, were up 2-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals against the 2015 Golden State Warriors before injuries took away Mike Conley and Tony Allen. All players returning healthy, combined with the ideal stretch-four Chandler Parsons, should be able to give any team trouble. Furthermore, they actually are a matchup nightmare for the Warriors for two main reasons: first, perimeter defense:

Both Mike Conley and Tony Allen are “plus” defenders on the perimeter, and Chandler Parsons is only slightly below average, thus causing the Warriors problems, as none of the three will give Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, or Kevin Durant much shooting room.

Secondly, moreover, the Grizzlies have Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green, and Zach Randolph as players that can score inside and who are all good switch defenders. This means Memphis can play one dominant, interior big man at all times against the Warriors, something that will surely test Golden State’s blasé post defense of Zaza Pachulia, David West, and Anderson Varejao.

However, with all of that said, Memphis is highly susceptible to injuries. If one of Conley, Gasol, Parsons, or Randolph get injured, the Grizzlies will not have the firepower to make the playoffs. And thus…

6) I believe Memphis, Dallas, and Denver will be the three teams mentioned to miss the playoffs. With Memphis, it’s injuries. With Dallas, it’s roster balance, as I have written about previously. And frankly, as attractive of a pairing as Nikola Jokic and Josuf Nurkic are, Denver simply does not have enough talent to reach the postseason in a competitive Western Conference.

7) Thus, here are my Western Conference playoff predictions:

  1. Golden State Warriors (67-15)
  2. Los Angeles Clippers (56-26)
  3. Houston Rockets (53-29)
  4. San Antonio Spurs (52-30)
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
  6. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
  7. Utah Jazz (46-36)
  8. Portland Trailblazers (45-37)
  9. Dallas Mavericks (42-40)
  10. Denver Nuggets (40-42)
  11. Memphis Grizzlies (36-46)
  12. Phoenix Suns (34-48)
  13. New Orleans Pelicans (30-52)
  14. Los Angeles Lakers (21-61)
  15. Sacramento Kings (20-62)

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