NBA Restart: Western Conference Predictions

NBA Restart: Western Conference Predictions

Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard
Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard
Illustration: Eric Barrow (Shutterstock)

After four months of waiting, the official NBA restart is finally upon us.

For the past week, we’ve seen scrimmage games that have given us a chance to assess every team competing in the NBA Bubble before the league officially resumes its wildest season in history.

Today, we take a look at the Western Conference teams who made the journey to Disney World and predict how their seasons will finish.

Can check out the Eastern Conference here.

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Devin Booker
Devin Booker
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Phoenix Suns

Expectations: The Suns are one of the most interesting teams in the NBA Bubble. While they have the second-worst record of any team returning Orlando, they have unique young and versatile talent that could grow substantially in this bubble format. First time All-Star Devin Booker is already a bonafide scorer and the addition of Kelly Oubre Jr. to the young core will only help the Suns in the future.

Phoenix has the ability to move up a few spots and potentially force a play in-game for the 8th seed after the eight-game regular season especially if many of the young role players play up to their ability. However, the team is still a few pieces away from shaking up the playoff picture too much.

Playoff Projection: They won’t qualify

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San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio Spurs

Demar DeRozan
Demar DeRozan
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San Antonio Spurs

Expectations: San Antonio finds itself in an interesting position during this NBA restart. Without former All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who won’t return this season following shoulder surgery, the Spurs have a very slim chance of continuing their 22-year playoff streak. It might be more advantageous to allow young standouts like Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV to have free rein over the Spurs offense in an effort to help streamline their development.

Even with longtime bucket-getters on the roster like Demar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, the Spurs don’t pose much of a threat to actually make the playoffs.

Playoff Projection: They won’t qualify

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Sacramento Kings

Sacramento Kings

De’Aaron Fox
De’Aaron Fox
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Sacramento Kings

Expectations: This De’Aaron Fox-led Kings team was one of the hottest squads in the league before the NBA hit pause in March. They won seven of their last 10 games before the hiatus. Fox has the potential to be a superstar caliber player for the organization. Sacramento also has some intriguing young talent surrounding their point guard that we still don’t fully know about.

Add the Kings to the list of teams that may give you a couple of highlights during their eight games played in Orlando, but won’t advance.

Playoff Projection: They won’t qualify

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New Orleans Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson
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New Orleans Pelicans

Expectations: Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are fueling the future for the Pelicans down in the Big Easy. The Pelicans currently find themselves in 10th place, but could easily make a run for the last playoff spot if they focus on keeping opponents in check defensively. Williamson and Ingram have already shown that they can play together almost effortlessly, especially with high-IQ guards like Ball and Jrue Holiday on the floor with them.

The Pelicans’ problem is that they struggle to keep that level of play consistent. Even with Williamson in the lineup, the team struggled to string together wins. The Pelicans will certainly be a team that can provide highlights in their return to action, but that may not be enough.

Playoff Projection: They won’t qualify

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Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard
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Portland Trail Blazers

Expectations: Portland is now fully healthy for perhaps the first time all season. The Trail Blazers have a unique roster that can potentially make up ground quickly in the Bubble. They have prolific scorers like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, a post presence in Jusuf Nurkic, and Hassan Whiteside as a rim protector. Not to mention Carmelo Anthony may be in the best shape of his career as Skinny Melo.

The playoff format allows for teams to get into the playoffs with a play in-game if they are within four games of the 8-seed. Portland is currently 3.5 games back of the 8th-seeded Grizzlies but could easily force a play-in game following the conclusion of the regular season and springboard into the playoffs.

Playoff Projection: First round

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Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant
Ja Morant
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Memphis Grizzlies

Expectations: Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have been one of the most pleasant surprises around the league. This group competes with a level of toughness and exuberance that is extremely fun to watch. Morant will likely be the Rookie of the Year this season and he has helped elevate the play of many of the young talents around him, especially Jaren Jackson Jr.

The Grizzlies will likely fall short of reaching the playoffs because of their inexperience in key roles. If the Grizzlies are forced into a play-in game situation against a team like Portland or New Orleans, it could spell trouble for them. Facing seasoned guards like Lillard and Holiday would be no easy task.

Playoff Projection: Play-in round

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Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic
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Dallas Mavericks

Expectations: If the Mavericks are able to move up a few spots in seeding during the eight-game regular season, this team could be very dangerous. Luka Doncic is obviously one of the best point guards in the game and now Kristaps Porzingis is fully healthy to help give Doncic some support. Their roster is full of shooters that can get hot quickly and they have been improving on the defensive end.

Doncic has the innate ability to control every part of the game when he is on the floor. He moves at his own pace and makes the game look effortless. Behind a healthy Doncic and Porzingis, the Mavericks could easily defeat a higher-seeded first-round opponent like Utah or Denver.

Playoff Projection: Semifinals

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Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets

James Harden
James Harden
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Houston Rockets

Expectations: James Harden is going to get his isolation buckets and Russell Westbrook is going to attack you almost every single play. After announcing he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in July, Westbrook has since quarantined and returned to the Rockets squad and will be ready.

This is what we already know about the Rockets. What we don’t know is how consistent the role players on Houston’s team will be once defenses start putting in game plans to limit the abilities of both Harden and Westbrook. Eric Gordon, the team’s third-best scorer, sustained an ankle injury on Tuesday that could significantly impact the team’s chances. Can they rely on players like Danuel House, Ben McLemore and Robert Covington to hit shots with the level of consistency necessary for the Rockets to make a long playoff run?

Depending on who they play, Harden and Westbrook will likely be able to sneak past a first-round opponent strictly on their talent alone. However, when it comes to the Western semifinals, the Rockets could face trouble if they have to match up against the Lakers or Clippers.

Playoff Projections: Semifinals

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Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder

Chris Paul
Chris Paul
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Oklahoma City Thunder

Expectations: Chris Paul has helped the Thunder become arguably the league’s most overachieving team. No one expected this roster to mesh as well as it did this season. Paul became an All-Star again and his backcourt mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shown potential to be a superstar in the league.

Yet, with the competition ramping up and lack of breathing room they have in the current standings as the 5-seed, I can easily see this team having to play a tougher opponent in the first round because they lost their seeding after losing a few games in the regular season.

Playoff Projection: First round

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Utah Jazz

Utah Jazz

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
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Utah Jazz

Expectations: The Jazz are another talented team in the West but their playoff fate could depend entirely on their seeding. Donovan Mitchell became an All-Star for the first time this season along with teammate Rudy Gobert. The team had to learn to reconnect after Gobert’s COVID-19 incident left many players upset. Gobert’s positive test results were the deciding factor that forced the NBA to suspend the season in March.

Along with Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz have talented playmakers such as Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson. But like Oklahoma City, the Jazz don’t have much wiggle room in the standings. A few regular-season losses could be a wrap for their hopes at a long playoff run.

Playoff Projection: First round

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Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic
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Denver Nuggets

Expectations: Denver is another interesting team in the Bubble. They have the best passing big man in the game in Nikola Jokic, as well as shooters like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, who seem to flow well with their other versatile wing players. Also, the emergence of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol in these last few scrimmage games has added another dimension to the Nuggets offensive attack. Jokic contracted the coronavirus while back in his home country of Serbia.

Denver has the flexibility to get creative with different lineups and that could help them in this setting but I still don’t trust Jokic’s ability to take over a game when it is necessary. Murray is the closest thing to a closer on that team but he still needs to improve his consistency.

Playoff Projection: First round

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Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard
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Los Angeles Clippers

Expectations: After Lou Williams gets out of quarantine for his strip club chicken wing trip, the Clippers will be a dominant force. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are among the best two-way players in the league and the supporting talent on their roster is absolutely ridiculous. This is not to mention that they have one of the best coaches in the league in Doc Rivers roaming the sidelines.

The Clippers likely won’t have impact-forward Montrezl Harrell when play resumes, due to a family emergency. But by the time the Clippers start their playoff run they should be at full strength. There is no other roster in the league more talented than this Clippers squad and they have a Cyborg that has proven he will rise to any occasion.

Playoff Projection: Western Conference Champs, NBA Finals appearance

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Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers

Lebron James
Lebron James
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Los Angeles Lakers

Expectations: The Lakers will have an impressive showing in Orlando. The purple-and-gold have already put together some impressive highlights in their first few scrimmage games, and seem to look like a team that has excellent chemistry. LeBron James will show up and show out during this time in Orlando and if Anthony Davis can stay healthy the Lakers will be a force.

However, not having defensive standout Avery Bradley, who opted out of the NBA restart, will be huge for the Lakers. Even though they added Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith to the roster for more scoring, the defensive hole left by Bradley could prove to be detrimental when they inevitably meet up with their cross-town rival. The Lakers are a championship-caliber team but will likely run into a squad just slightly better than they are.

Playoff Projection: Conference Finals loss

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