WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The Jazz have quietly been the best team in the NBA. Well, maybe not so quietly. I will maintain that the Jazz have the most annoying fanbase on the face of the earth. If I see one more Jazz fan on Twitter talking about Rudy Gobert screen assists I think I’m going to have a conniption. Still, the Jazz are very good. Gobert is up to his usual tricks being the most dominant defense player basically ever, and the Jazz have kind of built a team around him. Mike Conley has rebounded tremendously from a rough shooting season last year, and is the perfect pick and roll compliment to Gobert. Donovan Mitchell is a superstar scorer who can take over a game if necessary. Bojan Bogdanovic is shooting the lights out. And they have two presumptive 6th Man of the Year candidates in Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson. I simply cannot stand watching Jordan Clarkson play, but by god that dude can fill it up. He might be the most reluctant passer I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The Jazz are sort of an unsexy finals pick. I think that people are still a little snakebit from underachieving past seasons, but this team is fundamentally different. Quinn Snyder teams have always made their bones on the defensive end, particularly with Gobert. But this season they really have the offensive punch to back that up. They can win a rockfight in the 90s just as easily as they can win a barnburner in the 120s. Gobert is probably the only dude in the NBA who can meaningfully slow down the likes of AD and Jokic. They can throw Conley and Royce O’Neale at guards like Lillard and Curry and Booker. And Mitchell can defend competently on any wing talent that might come their way.
Ultimately I think the Jazz fate rests in where the seedings ultimately shake out. It’s looking more and more likely that the Lakers will be slotted in that 7th seed, meaning the Jazz will avoid them until the conference finals. They will still likely see Golden State, who will probably emerge from the play-in versus Memphis. But that’s all good news for Utah. Essentially, they’ll be able to avoid the Clippers, Lakers, Suns, and the red-hot Mavericks until the conference finals. Assuming they can get past the Warriors, they’ll face the winner of Portland and Denver. Denver has been staying afloat on the back of the presumptive MVP in Nikola Jokic, but without Jamal Murray I can’t see them going blow for blow with the Jazz. And Portland has kind of been up and down. You can’t discount the Lillard factor, but again I think the Jazz defense is so staunch that I wouldn’t be terribly worried. All things considered, I think the Jazz have a relatively easy path to the conference finals. But it’s likely to take a monumental effort to take down whoever emerges from the gauntlet of the other side of the bracket.
It’s finally the Suns year. Maybe outside of Lebron or Kawhi, Chris Paul might be the most sure thing to getting a team to the playoffs in the NBA. He has provided the playmaking and steady leadership that this talented team needed. No longer worried about playmaking duties, Devin Booker is basically out there running and gunning like the good lord intended. Deandre Ayton has looked more and more comfortable defensively, which was really the glaring hole in his game up until this point. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder offer plenty of shooting, toughness, and versatility on the wings that allow Booker and Paul to run hog wild. My only real concern with Phoenix is that they can’t really go big, and in the west that’s sort of a prerequisite when going against teams like Los Angeles or Denver.
Unfortunately the Suns are kind of getting the shit end of the stick in drawing the Lakers in the first round. It’s not the Suns fault that AD and Lebron basically missed the entire second half of the season, sending the Lakers into a free fall down the standings. Still, I suppose that you have to beat the best to be the best. And I guess that of all the times you want to catch the Lakers, it’s probably in the first round when Lebron and AD are still getting their sea legs.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are probably atop my list of Most Confusing Teams this season. After being absolutely humbled by Denver in an epic collapse last season, the Clippers went out and basically did stuff for the sake of doing stuff. They pissed away a first round pick to Detroit for Luke Kennard, who has barely cracked the rotation this season. They signed Nicholas Batum off the scrap heap, a guy basically on his way out of the league, who’s now inexplicably playing 28 minutes a game and is a critical piece of their rotation. I honestly have no idea what this team is thinking from a construction standpoint. But when you have Kawhi and Paul George, I suppose none of that really matters anyways. More importantly, this team is on a heater to end all heaters. 9 of their 10 rotation players are shooting better than 40% from three. As a team they are shooting 41.5% from three. For some context the 73 win Golden State Warriors shot 41.6% on the season. It’s an anomaly. Who knows whether this will continue into the playoffs. It’s help up for 69 games thus far.
The Clippers will most likely face the Mavericks in the first round, a team who is sort of overachieving at the moment simply because they have Luka. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this matchup to be quite honest. On paper the Clippers are just a better team top to bottom. We all know what Kawhi is capable of in the playoffs, and the Clippers are kind of loaded with tough wings who will give anybody fits. But the Luka factor just can’t be ignored. He basically singlehanded pushed LA to six games last season, and with Porzingis healthy-ish that team is a much more competent threat. What’s worse, even if they are able to take care of the Mavs, they face the winner of Phoenix and the Lakers. It’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type of situation for them. That being said, the combination of Kawhi and PG and Marcus Morris and Patrick Beverly allow them to match up quite favorably with virtually every team in the NBA. My gut tells me they will go only as far as PG takes them, and whether Playoff P or Pandemic P shows up will be extremely telling.
It’s truly a shame what happened to Jamal Murray, because even without him this Nuggets team is quite formidable. Jokic is probably going to win MVP, and it is well deserved. The unique skillset he brings to the table is just too weird and too effective for teams to cope with. And the Nuggets have done well to surround him with the sort of guys that feed off his facilitating prowess. Aaron Gordon has meshed perfectly since the trade deadline deal. I feel like I’ve seen him catch a million backdoor lobs from Jokic in the high post. Michael Porter Jr is kind of star now, as much as I hate to admit it, and the absence of Murray has kind of made room for his ascension.
Fortunately, they have Portland in the first round. A team who really has absolutely no answer for Jokic at the center position. I expect Damian Lillard and CJ McCollumn to go crazy in this series. But when it comes down to it I think Jokic is just going to be too much for anyone on Portland to slow him down in a meaningful way. Nurkic is kind of a shell of himself since his gruesome foot injury. Enes Kanter is just… he sucks. I can’t get into it about Enes right now. It’s going to be a hard fought series, as most 4/5 matchups tend to be, but I think ultimately Denver comes out on top in 6 or 7.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have been an enigma this season. They have been absolutely red hot the last few weeks, and I think they are kind of a sexy underdog pick against Denver, who is missing Jamal Murray. But I think that this team is sort of fools gold. Lillard and McCollum are kind of a universal salve in a lot of ways, simply becuase most teams lack two guards who can adequately check them. And the addition of Norman Powell and the play of Gary Trent Jr. provide a sort of facsmile scoring backcourt. This team is just really thin in the frontcourt, and in the West you need bigs. Nurkic hasn’t really looked the same since his foot injury last season, and you cannot lean on Carmelo Anthony in any capacity outside some bench scoring. Don’t get me started on Enes Kanter.
That all being said, Damian Lillard has that rare ability to just take games over and will his team to victory. He shows up big in every single big game, and is basically always a threat to go for 45 and blow up any game plan a team might have. I think he duels with Jokic and the Nuggets and pushes them to 6 or 7, but ultimately the girth of Jokic is going to be too much.
Dallas is another one of those interesting teams that would have probably have a much different season had COVID not happened. They missed a ton of games in the beginning of the season and their record sort of cratered, but to their credit they have recovered quite nicely. I also think Luka came into camp kind of out of shape, perhaps thinking the season would start in February (like the players were initially told) and not Christmas Day. This team remind me of those Lebron teams in Cleveland (first time around) where the front office basically tried to surround Lebron with as many complimentary players as possible instead of getting the most talented players. Dallas has a glut of defense-first tweener guards like Jaylen Brunson, Josh Richardson, and Dorian Finney-Smith. I see what they are trying to do, sort of ceding all ballhandling and playmaking to Luka. But in a playoff series teams are going to key in on him, and I don’t know if Dallas has enough secondary scorers and playmakers to make it happen.The case for Dallas is quite simple; the have Luka Doncic. This team will basically go as far as Luka allows them, and realistically that could be the second round.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers might be the only 7th seed in NBA history to be the presumptive favorite going into the playoffs. The defending champs have had an extremely rough campaign following the All-Star break, and that’s almost entirely due to Lebron and AD missing significant time. And ultimately the Lakers need both of those guys on the floor in order to be effective; the whole thing doesn’t really work properly unless you have both of them on the court. The likes of Montrezl Harrel and Andre Drummond and Kyle Kuzma doesn’t really work unless they have a true facilitator, and I don’t think Dennis Schroeder going to be that guy for long stretches.
And yet, the have Lebron James, the best player on earth. Simply put if Lebron is on the floor, this team has a legitimate shot at the finals. They didn’t really do themselves any favors plummeting all the way to the 7th seed, where they will be forced to play in the play-in tournament. But assuming they can take care of business, I kind of like their path. They are slotted to take on the Suns should they advance, a team that they match up quite favorably with. The Suns are rather thin in the frontcourt, and the Lakers are frontcourt heavy. The Lakers could legit throw a Lebron/KCP/Kuzma/Drummond/AD lineup at Phoenix and they won’t have a chance. But beyond Phoenix the path becomes infinitely more difficult. They’ll likely face their crosstown rival Clippers, who match up extremely well with the Lakers. That series will be an absolute bloodbath, and I just think the Clippers are shooting the ball too well for the Lakers to keep up.
Golden State Warriors
After our sweet boy Klay tore his ACL while rehabbing his torn achillies and the promising rookie James Wiseman went out in mid April with a meniscus tear, all of a sudden this sort of became a lost season for the Warriors. Draymond looked old, Kelly Oubre looked out of place, and Andrew Wiggins was, well, he was Andrew Wiggins. But the Warriors still had Steph Curry.
Curry has almost singlehandedly shot them into relevance. He’s the NBAs leading scorer and has made a legit All-NBA case for himself. Even though they are an 8 seed, and will be in the play-in tournament, nobody wants to see Golden State. Steph is probably the most feared scorer in the NBA right now. He’s constantly a threat to go for 50 and just completely blow the doors off an opposing team. Assuming they make advance through the play in, I think they give Utah a serious challenge. They beat them twice in the regular season. And the Steph factor just cannot be ignored. I’m not quite putting Utah on upset alert, but if this series goes 6 I wouldn’t be surprised.
I’m glad to see Memphis in the playoffs. Ja Morant is must-watch basketball. They finally have Jaren Jackson Jr. back from injury. This team is just top to bottom fun to watch. But they are going to run into a buzz saw of Golden State, and I don’t see them taking two off of them. Still, getting to the play-in two seasons in a row is a big win for a team who is sort of rebuilding.
San Antonio Spurs
I just don’t see a universe where the Spurs beat the Lakers, the defending champs who should probably be a top 3 seed, in two straight elimination games. Crazier things have happened I suppose.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
Denver Nuggets - Even though their title hopes are slim, for my money there’s nothing better that watching Big Game Jokic. He is the most confusing and wonderful player in the NBA.
Dallas vs LA Clippers - I think this matchup has the most “upset” potential simply because of the Luka factor. Also I think the way Paul George is able to start the playoffs is going to be a bell weather on where the Clippers are at as far as title contention hopes.
Damian Lillard vs Steph Curry - I am going to be glued to both of these series simply because of these two guards. Both have a legit All-NBA First Team case. They’re the two best shooters (for my money) in an era of shooters.
Denver Nuggets - I think that they are being devalued in a lot of ways because they don’t have Jamal Murray, but this team is still really, really good. I’m still not convinced we have caught up to just how good Jokic is, and I am going to ride the Nuggets for the whole playoffs.
Steph Curry Points - The only real way the Warriors have any chance in the play-in and beyond is riding Curry. He’s going to take 15 three’s per game, and I think if things become dire for GSW he’s going to have to take the game into his hands.
Suns to Win Title - I’m seeing the Suns as high as +4000 in some places, which for my money has a ton of value. Let’s game this out: If they have to play the Lakers, I think better to catch them early on. And I think they actually match up ok with both the Clippers and Jazz. If any team is poised for a cinderella run I think it’s Phoenix.