For the last couple of years the Western Conference in the NBA has been stacked, containing the vast majority of the league’s serious contenders. With the blockbuster trade of Kevin Durant moving arguably the conference’s best player to the West’s best team, the upper echelons of the West have become a rarified atmosphere that few teams will be able to penetrate. I expect the top 5 seeds from last year to remain roughly the same; the Warriors will be great, the Spurs have proven over the past two decades that they know how to win, the Thunder may take a step backwards but should still make the postseason, the Clippers are solid enough if they can stay healthy and the Blazers should go from strength to strength lead by their dynamic backcourt. But what about those teams battling it out in the trenches for the final playoff spots, the teams that are for the moment stuck in a purgatory between rebuilding and truly contending. The way I see it the final 3 spots in the West will be scrapped over by 5 teams.
Last season: 42-40 (6th seed), lost 4-1 to the Thunder in the first round.
The Mavs are still built around their ageing superstar Dirk Nowitzki, who will be 38 when the season starts. Nowitzki signed a 2 year $50 million contract over the summer and Dallas’ chances of making it back to the postseason will be tied to Dirk’s ability to dredge the bottom of the barrel and continue to perform at a high level. Nowitzki has been one of the most consistently great players over the past decade and a half but there is a sense that his powers are finally on the wane. The Mavs can no longer rely solely on Dirk to lead the team and will need some assistance from the rest of the squad. Owner Mark Cuban capitalised on the Warrior’s need to create cap space by snapping up both Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Bogut seems like a solid move who will provide great defence and passing from the post. Barnes, on the other hand, is a much riskier gamble. During the 2016 finals Barnes was awful missing open shot after shot and contributing greatly to the Warrior’e eventual downfall. That being said Barnes can still be a valuable addition if he can rediscover his shooting touch and continue to play outstanding perimeter defence. In theory he should be an upgrade on Chandler Parsons who was traded to the Grizzlies, but questions will continue to hang in the air until Barnes can prove he has shaken off his horrific end to last year. Dallas will need to get good production out of both Bogut and Barnes as well as shooting guard Wesley Mathews to support their German giant if they are to make a push for the playoffs in 2017.
Last Season: 42-40 (7th seed), lost 4-0 to the Spurs in the first round.
The end of the Grizzlies’ 2015-16 season was defined by an injury crisis the likes of which the NBA has never seen. By the end of the season Memphis was starting Vince Carter and seemingly having to bring in new players from the development squad on a weekly basis. As a result it is hard to gauge were Memphis really was last year in relation to the stronger teams in the division. Their grit and grind philosophy has served them well over the past 5 years and they have the best true center in the league in Marc Gasol. However, with firing of coach Dave Joerger it seems like the Grizzlies will try and move in to the modern era with a more expansive game under new coach David Fitzdale. Memphis has been in desperate need of shooting for as long anyone can remember and the addition of Chandler Parsons should provide some help in that respect after the Mario Chalmers experiment failed comprehensively. However, what Fitzdale needs to remember is that his best player is Gasol and that he has great point guard in Mike Conley, he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel in Memphis just alter the course slightly. If he can keep Gasol as the focus of the team then Memphis has a great chance to be playing in April again.
Last Season: 41-41 (8th seed), lost 4-1 to the Warriors in the first round.
Despite making the playoffs last year was a disaster for the Rockets, a raging dumpster fire of a season that saw head coach Kevin McHale fired early on, followed by the team bickering and stuttering their way into the 8th seed. Having made the Conference Finals the year before the Rockets stagnated last year in a season characterised by infighting within the team. Their star player James Harden looked disinterested and has about as much desire to play defence as I do to contract anthrax. Now Dwight Howard is out of the door the franchise can look to move forward, it was clear that him and Harden didn’t gel on or off the court and his presence was more of a hindrance than a help to the team. New arrivals Nene and Ryan Anderson should provide some more variety along the Rockets forward line but it remans to be seen how they will connect with Harden, who has proven to be a difficult teammate over the past few seasons. Despite this it will be the focus of new coach Mike D’Antoni to get the best out of Harden, he is by far and away Houston’s best player and D’Antoni’s ultra aggressive, high pace offence should benefit Harden. It will force The Beard to get away from playing iso ball and create a more balanced offence around him. The problem that D’Antoni will have is finding a point guard capable of running his system. In the past D’Antoni has always had great PGs in the ilk of Steve Nash and there is nobody even near that level on Houston’s roster. However, if he can keep Harden happy and maybe even persuade him to play a little defence then Houston should at least begin on the road to recovery.
Last Season: 40-42 (9th seed), missed playoffs.
The Jazz should’ve really made the playoffs last year, for most of the season they were a more functional unit than Houston, only for a late collapse to wreck their chances of a return to the postseason. The future is still bright in Utah and there is hope of recapturing the glory days of the 90s when John Stockton and Karl Malone lead the Jazz to consecutive Finals appearances. In Quin Snyder the Jazz have a coach who has got his young team playing as a strong unit, they have been excellent defensively for the past year and a half and as their young core develops further they will only get stronger. At times last season they struggled offensively and they will need continued stellar play from young forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward has the potential to become an all-star in the coming years and should provide the main scoring threat, along with Derrick Favors, for the Jazz. Utah will continue to be anchored by their enormous French center Rudy Gobert, the 7’ 1” big man with the wingspan of a light aircraft was a defensive stud for the Jazz last season and as he continues to fill out his lanky frame he will become more of a presence at both ends of the floor. Many of the Jazz’s offensive issues last season stemmed form poor play at the point guard position. Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto struggled manfully for most of the season but too often Utah’s offence got bogged down with them at the controls. Hopefully for fans of the most inappropriately named sports team in America the return of Dante Exum from injury as well as the acquisition of George Hill from the Pacers can sooth the problems at the point. The young Australian Exum proved himself to be an elite defender and the experience of Hill should help him develop as a distributer throughout the season. Utah is in a great position to make a run at the playoffs this year and they can’t afford another disappointing collapse.
Last Season: 29-53 (13th seed), missed playoffs.
As I have said many times before on this blog the Timberwolves have possibly the most exciting young squad in the league. With Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine and 2016 first round pick Kris Dunn the Twolves have a young core that could dominate the league for a decade. Andrew Wiggins and Towns have won the last two rookie of the year awards and Dunn will be hoping to make it three in a row under new coach Tom Thibodeau. Coach Thibs is arguably the most important addition the Wolves made over the summer, his reputation as a disciplined coach who’s teams always play tough defence is exactly what this young squad needs. At times last season Minnesota looked electrifying but constant defensive lapses blighted a huge percentage of their performances. Under Thibodeau you would expect this to be remedied quickly and as the new coach spent his basketball gap yah of sorts visiting with coaches around the league he will have probably ironed out some of the mistakes he made in Chicago. Thibodeau’s training schedules are notoriously intense and that is something he may have to address with his new, young team otherwise there could be a difficult teething period. It has been 12 years since the Timberwolves made the playoffs and this squad his far to talented to allow this barren streak to go on and it would be fitting for this drought to end in what will probably be Minnesota’s greatest ever player, Kevin Garnett’s, last year in the league. If you’re looking for an NBA bandwagon to jump on to these Timberwolves are about as good as you’ll find.
What about the rest of the Conference? If the New Orleans Pelicans’ star Anthony Davis shows up they will be a threat, both the Nuggets and Suns need another year to develop their young talent, the Sacramento Kings have been one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA and are moving into a new home and as for the Lakers it remains to be seen whether Luke Walton can arrest the franchises worrying skid into life post-Kobe.
Here are my predictions for 2017 Western Conference playoff seedings.
- Golden State Warriors
- San Antonio Spurs
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Utah Jazz
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Minnesota Timberwolves