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Process of Elimination: Western Conference

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The NBA is more numbers-driven than ever before. The rise of analytics and player tracking data has given us a near-endless number of ways to slice and dice the NBA universe into more manageable, understandable parts. Teams are awash in this data, and are increasingly using it to inform their coaching, team-building, and cap management decisions. Amid this sea of numbers, there is one number I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around for the upcoming season: seven. As in, there are SEVEN teams in the Western Conference who will not make the playoffs. I know this number never changes, but it is particularly baffling this year because, to paraphrase Milton from Office Space, the ratio of good teams to playoff spots is too big, and when this season ends, there will be several deserving teams standing around with no (playoff) cake.

The debate over whether or not the league should seed playoff teams 1 through 16 is beyond my purview here; I think it would be the right thing to do, though it comes with a series of unintended consequences which would need to be hashed out. Unless and until the league decides to go this route, we are stuck with the Miamis and Detroits and Charlottes of the world backing into the East bracket, only to be summarily pounded by the conference’s real teams, while more capable West teams continue to miss out on the postseason altogether. Much like the Electoral College, it’s an unfair, antiquated system which keeps producing sub-optimal results, but it’s the system we have, so let’s try to figure out what it means and how to work with it.

Who will be the also-rans in the West in 2018-19? Let’s work our way up from the bottom.

TIER ONE: THE OBVIOUS STINKERS

Sacramento Kings: The basketball version of Groundhog Day. Somehow, despite adding another lottery pick (in this case #2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III), the Kings remain poised to spend another season as a team full of young, intriguing talent which will ultimately end up being objectively terrible. Pulling the plug on the Boogie Cousins era was a defensible decision in a vacuum, but until they actually start developing young players into viable NBA stars, and stop foolishly squandering assets around the margins, there is little reason to expect the results to improve.

They have actually stumbled into some semi-competent role players, like Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica (who, much like the actor who played Jesus, made some odd choices this offseason), Yogi Ferrell, and the exhumed remains of Zach Randolph. They’ve taken low-cost swings on high-upside big men with baggage in Harry Giles, Deyonta Davis, and Skal Labissiere; again, perfectly logical decisions. In the end, though, their top-line guys all remain young, unproven, and inconsistent, so even if we give their player development program the benefit of the doubt (and given their history, why would we?), assuming some big steps forward from those players still doesn’t get them within shouting distance of a playoff berth, so let’s cross them off the list. Oh yeah, and they don’t have their first round pick next year due to an insanely shortsighted salary dump in 2015 which netted them absolutely nothing of value. The moral of the story, as always: when you hire Vlade Divac to run your team, you get Vlade Divac running your team.

Phoenix Suns: Conspiracy theories about the origin of Devin Booker’s bizarre hand injury aside, the Suns are beginning to look like a team with a vision for the future and a real chance to emerge from the West’s basement sooner rather than later. I liked the Ryan Anderson trade for them. Snagging intriguing PG De’Anthony Melton made sense, and while Ryno’s contract is an albatross, absorbing him into their cap space isn’t ultimately going to limit their flexibility, and for all his deficiencies, he represents (along with the signing of Trevor Ariza to a one-year/$15 million deal in free agency) a commitment to adding true professionals to the roster.

The moves are analogous to back in 2012, when the Washington Wizards, at the time a running joke in the East, dumped knuckleheads JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche to bring in veterans Nene and…you guessed it…Trevor Ariza! These weren’t championship moves, but the veterans helped to create a professional atmosphere for the elite, young talent already on hand, in this case John Wall and Bradley Beal, and the results quickly improved. Similarly, casting off the dead weight of Alex Len, Brandon Knight, and Marquese Chriss in favor of Anderson and Ariza should engender a cultural change and put some pressure on Booker, 2018 #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, Josh Jackson, and Mikal Bridges to put in the work and become the best versions of themselves. It’s not going to be enough to compete for a playoff spot this year, but unlike the perpetually direction-less Kings, there is a plan here, it makes sense, and the arrow is pointing up for the future. But yeah, they’re still going to be pretty rotten this season.

TIER TWO: WHAT’S OLD IS NEW

Memphis Grizzlies: I covered them pretty extensively here. If they decide to run it back with the existing crew, and rookie Jaren Jackson, Jr. pops, then there is a chance for a rebound year, but it’s still hard to see them improving by the full 25 wins which will likely be needed to return to the playoff picture. Let’s move on.

Dallas Mavericks: This one hurts a little. They added perhaps the biggest difference-maker in the West (non-LeBron or DeRozan Division) in rookie phenom Luka Doncic, and while it’s possible his hype train may be gaining a little too much steam (I am partially responsible), his addition improves Dallas’ outlook considerably in both the near- and long-term. Free Agent DeAndre Jordan (for real this time) should be a nice fit alongside Harrison Barnes and Dirk’s final act, and combining his rim running skill and athleticism with Doncic’s passing gene has the potential to create a Lob City Redux in Big D. An extra year of experience (and a more complementary role) will be good for Dennis Smith, Jr., and while they lost useful pieces Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, the rotation still has steady veteran presences J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews, Dwight Powell, and Devin Harris. NCAA superstar Jalen Brunson looks like the kind of guy who will spend a fanfare-free decade in the league. The team’s chemistry should be buoyed by the international bookends of Dirk’s (presumptive) final season and Doncic’s ascension. Rejuvenation. Rebirth. Everything’s blooming — all that crap.

For all the expected improvement, there still isn’t a playoff roster here. Dirk is so limited at this stage, the relative strengths and weaknesses of Barnes and Jordan haven’t changed, and Smith and Doncic are a couple years away from reaching the level of efficiency required of stars on an elite team. It will be entertaining, it will be emotional, and it will not be enough to leapfrog the West’s other behemoths. Auf wiedersehen, Dirk.

TIER THREE: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS TEAM?

LA Clippers: Lob City is dead. Long live Lob City.

With Paul, Griffin, and Jordan all gone, the Clips have fully embraced a new identity. The only problem is that no one seems to know what this new identity is. Their best two players are Lou Williams and Tobias Harris, in some order. No disrespect — they are both nice players — but if either guy is more than a third option, then the team in question is a far cry from contention. The rest of the roster is an incredibly odd mish-mash. The Clippers used back-to-back first round picks this year (with a trade sprinkled in to move up one spot) to land what they hope will be their backcourt of the future in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, so of course the jury is still out on those guys. SGA looks the part of a rangy defender and capable ball handler who can get just about anywhere he wants on the court, so there is some star potential there, but he’s also only 20 years old and weighs 180 pounds, so he has a long way to go before his potential is fully realized.

Outside of the rookies, the rest of the roster is jam-packed with guys you’d want to be your 8th or 9th man, but probably nothing more. When healthy, Danilo Gallinari remains an effective offensive player as a ‘tweener/stretch 4 who can make plays off the dribble, but his durability has always been his worst ability. Paying a total of $44 million over the next two seasons for a guy who has missed almost forty percent of possible regular season games and has only topped a 17 PER twice over ten years in the league is less than ideal, but at least there is plenty of depth to cover for him when the inevitable injury strikes. The departure of DJ has left a big opportunity for athletic per-minute monster Montrezl Harrell, who re-signed with the team this summer (after being part of the Chris Paul trade last summer) on a two-year/$12 million deal which could end up looking like a huge bargain.

They re-signed Avery Bradley (originally acquired in the Blake Griffin trade with Detroit) to a 2-year/$25 million deal despite already having Patrick Beverley on the roster who, by most metrics, rates as a better version of the same player. In fairness, Beverley is 30 years old, coming off a major knee injury, and has only one, non-guaranteed year left on the contract he signed with Houston back in 2015, so he could be sloughed off before or during the season with no real harm done to the team. However, it still seems odd to be devoting $17 million in cap space and 2 roster spots to the “bulldog defender and low-usage, floor-spacing guard” role when their main scoring guard (Lou Williams) doesn’t even start AND they just spent two lottery picks on guards.

The team ensured awkward Thanksgiving dinners at the Rivers’ household for the rest of eternity by swapping Austin Rivers for slowly-decaying center Marcin Gortat, who will likely ride his “established veteran” status to siphon off far more frontcourt minutes from Harrell than he should. Mike Scott, Milos Teodosic, Wesley Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, and Sindarius Thornwell will all soak up some minutes and be varying kinds of average. They lured away low-key useful forward Luc Mbah a Moute from Houston, and matched New Orleans’ restricted free agency offer to retain guard Tyrone Wallace, who showed some promise in a limited role last season.

It all adds up to a roster with an unbelievable amount of depth, but no real star power to bring it all together. As constructed, the roles make no sense, and there could be quite a bit of griping about the inevitable minutes crunch. A team able to fill all of its available minutes with genuine NBA contributors has a high floor, but without any true stars, it also has a very low ceiling. In that context, the team’s 42-40 record last season makes a ton of sense, and I don’t see a reasonable path to a much higher number, especially with the considerable downgrade from Jordan to Gortat. If it turns out they are not content to stand pat and wait for free agency next summer, then they could also be ripe for a big trade which would significantly change their projection, but as currently constituted, this is not a playoff team.

TIER FOUR: THE DEEPEST CUTS

Minnesota Timberwolves: I covered their prospects here and here, and unsurprisingly, the addition of beyond-washed Luol Deng last week does little to brighten their outlook. I wrote about how Tom Thibodeau will need to alter his approach to squeeze out a few more wins at the margins, but instead, he seems content to play into our worst stereotypes of him by getting the old band back together. Given what we’ve heard out of Minnesota this summer, Jimmy Butler calling a sit-down with Wolves’ brass doesn’t bode well, either. He is displaying all the tell-tale signs of preparing to exercise his “pre-agency,” and honestly, it’s hard to figure what Thibs would say to him at this point to change his mind. If you exclude the human element, this is a playoff team on paper, but when the season is so long and the margins between the playoffs and the lottery are so thin, the very real possibilities of a locker room implosion and/or having to sell off an All-NBA player for pennies on the dollar mid-season are red flags far too big to ignore. Count me out.

The last elimination is excruciating, and it comes down to what amounts to a coin flip. I can’t in good conscience leave out a team led by LeBron James (no matter how bizarre this season is going to be) or one coached by Gregg Popovich (more on them to come soon). The Northwest Division is going to be a bloodbath yet again — the difference between first and last place was only three games in ’17-’18 — and I don’t see either OKC or Utah regressing, so we’re left with Portland and Denver for the last spot.

The Blazers finished 3rd in the West last season (vs. 9th for the Nuggets), but they were only separated by three games, a testament to how big an impact changes around the margins can have in such a tightly-packed race. Is there reason to expect improvement from Denver and/or regression from Portland? Let’s break it down:

The first factor is health. Portland was remarkably healthy in ’17-’18, ranking near the bottom of the league in both total games missed and Win Shares lost due to injury. Their “Big Three” of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic missed a total of 13 games, and the only regular rotation player to miss more than 16 games was Mo Harkless, who missed 23. And he’s, well, Mo Harkless; his career 11.4 points per 36 minutes and 12.4 PER are not exactly irreplaceable. Denver was middle-of-the-road in terms of games lost to injury, but the impact was greater. Paul Millsap missed 44 games, and Gary Harris missed 15, so mostly full seasons from all their key cogs could swing a few games.

Personnel changes are also worth considering. Both teams largely left their cores intact but swapped out some important pieces further down the rotation. For Portland, the main loss was backup big and analytics darling Ed Davis, who signed as a free agent with the Nets. Davis was a monster on the glass, averaging 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes last season. He had a terrific Defensive Rating of 103, and the team was 4.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with him on the floor. He offers nothing as a shooter, but was excellent in his role as a low usage screen-setter and rim runner who finished well around the hoop. His replacement looks to already be in-house, as the team is expecting 2017 #10 overall pick Zach Collins to take on a much larger role in his sophomore campaign. Collins showed some promise as an inside-out big man, and despite typical rookie inconsistency, he adjusted well on the defensive end of the floor.

They effectively swapped out swingman Pat Connaughton for lesser Curry brother Seth Curry, which on paper still looks like an upgrade. Curry has struggled to stay healthy, but when he’s on the floor, he has been exactly the dead-eye shooter his lineage would suggest, canning 43% of his 3’s on 5.7 attempts per 36 minutes for his career. He is going to be an important piece for Portland, as he will also be tasked with replacing some of the playmaking on the second unit previously covered by Shabazz Napier, who, like Davis, left the Blazers for a free agent deal with Brooklyn. The lack of backcourt depth may also force them to see what they have early on with guard Anfernee Simons, who they drafted 24th overall in 2018 after he eschewed college basketball altogether and instead played a postgraduate season at IMG Academy in Florida. He looked the part of an elite athlete in summer league, but whether or not he is ready to be a contributor for a team with big goals remains to be seen.

Denver likewise left the top of its rotation unchanged, but took some interesting, high-upside gambles in the offseason. First, they selected Michael Porter, Jr. at 14th overall in June’s draft. Porter was the #1 HS player in the nation the prior year, but his draft stock tumbled amid injury concerns. If healthy, he could turn out to be an absolute steal at a position of need. He will have to work on his defense and ball handling, but he is a big, smooth playmaker who can score from anywhere on the court. Even accounting for the risk, falling ass-backwards into a player with this kind of pedigree is serendipitous, especially for a team which has not exactly been prudent about managing its draft capital over the last few years.

They further leaned into their all-offense/no-defense identity by signing two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas off the scrap heap to a one-year, “prove it” deal as a spark plug off the bench. After suffering through hip surgery, being coldly traded from Boston in the Kyrie Irving deal, and returning from injury only to log the worst season of his career with Cleveland (and ultimately the Lakers), he should be properly motivated to have a strong bounce-back year and prove he still has something in the tank, even if the Brinks’ truck won’t be backing up to his house any time soon. If he can regain some of his athleticism and get past the season from hell he just endured, at 29 years old, he should be able to act as an elder statesman (along with the 33-year-old Millsap) for the promising under-25 core of this team. One can only hope his cover-your-eyes awful defense will just blend into the rich tapestry of terrible defense taking place in the Mile High City, rather than being the final straw in a total defensive meltdown.

Neither team’s argument is much more compelling than the other, so I’ll take a chance and go with the devil I don’t know over the one I do. Portland is running back basically the same team that got absolutely DEMOLISHED by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans in the playoffs last year, so where is the upside? [NOTE: Yes, I considered the Pellies for this last spot, but much like my argument for the Lakers, I can’t see betting against The Brow at (or near) the peak of his powers. Dude is unreal, and I like pairing him with Julius Randle as well, FWIW.] Denver, on the other hand, can only get better, even if the Porter pick and IT signing go bust. Their young talent is going to keep ascending, and Nikola Jokic as an alpha dog is so weird and unlikely that it’s damn near impossible not to root for it.

Perhaps I’m choosing with my heart and not my head, but my final exclusion from the playoff field this year is the Portland Trail Blazers. Trust me, I don’t like it, either.

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