Last April on the final night of the regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers and the rest of the Western Conference were eagerly waiting for the result of the Minnesota Timberwolves-Denver Nuggets game. With the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors pulling away in the one and two spots, respectively, the fight for 3-8 became brutal and incredibly close. So close in fact, the Timberwolves and Nuggets were fighting for the 8th spot—literally in the last game of the season. One team would have the chance to face James Harden and the Rockets, the other got to start packing for summer vacation.
The Wolves ended up winning that night and went on to lose to Houston in five games, but with only two wins separating Portland at the three seed and Minnesota at the eight seed, it could have just as easily been Denver in that series. And who knows, maybe the altitude along with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in Denver would have given Harden and Chris Paul a run for their money.
The Western Conference has only gotten even more competitive in the offseason and the preseason is putting that on display. While Portland just barely squeezed enough wins to secure the three seed last year, I don’t anticipate it being that “easy” again in 2018-19. With almost every team in the conference making arguable improvements and LeBron James coming out West for the first time in his career, there is no doubt that it will be a dog fight that puts last season to shame for every playoff spot this year.
The Western Conference has been significantly loaded with more talent than the East for a while, but now the moment has arrived to prove whether another team besides the Rockets can actually challenge the Warriors. If any team is going to do it before free agency starts calling Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant’s name, now is the time.
Tim MacMahon of ESPN recently shared his win and overall standing predictions. While we agree that the top four of the conference will be Warriors, Rockets Jazz and Thunder—in one order or another—and the bottom two will be the Kings and Suns, our opinions divert when talking about the middle of the pack.
With a remaining nine teams fighting for the four final playoff spots, it becomes incredibly hard to predict who will end up as 5-8. MacMahon predicted the Blazers would drop all the way to the 10 seed, attributed to the loss of role players like Ed Davis in the summer.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I thought letting Davis go was a giant face-palm, but I’m not so high on him that I think his departure would cause a seven-story drop. Our newest acquisitions in Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry made the Blazers smaller and weaker in rebounding, but they also became slightly more lethal from beyond the arc, no matter if the starters or backups are in. In the current league, reliable three-point shooting is invaluable and both Stauskas and Curry have shown their humble worth in the preseason thus far.
It’s difficult to compare teams to the Blazers and ask ‘will they be better than us?’ but I find it much more relieving to switch the list to ‘will we be better than them?’
With the previously mentioned Kings and Suns presumably leading the bottom of the pack, the next two teams I can say will not be anywhere near playoff contention are the Memphis Grizzlies and the LA Clippers. While Memphis is hoping for a healthy Mike Conley and their Jaren Jackson Jr. pick to pan out, the Clippers merely exchanged DeAndre Jordan for Marcin Gortat. Both of them have a house on sand, waiting on their inevitable reason to tank.
The next two on the bottom of my list are my hottest takes, but have been murmurs this last week in the media. The community theater that is the Minnesota-Jimmy Butler situation has been an endless source of entertainment, especially as of recently. But while we still don’t know if Jimmy will be playing in a Wolves jersey this year, we do know that calling your teammates soft and yelling at them along with the GM is not usually the antidote for clashing personalities and a toxic front office situation. No matter if Jimmy is miraculously still present in April, a team with this many problems is in no way ready for the competition this year, especially after only sliding in last year in the final moments of the season.
All dynasties have to come to an end at some point. I’m sorry, but I believe your time has come, San Antonio. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green off to Toronto, Tony Parker in Charlotte, Manu retiring and no pseudo-Tim Duncan leader to stand alongside Gregg Popovich in sight, I’m not sure what this team will even look like a few months into the season. DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star, but he’s not Leonard. Dejounte Murray, the franchise’s young guard is now out indefinitely with a torn ACL. Even if LaMarcus Aldridge replicated his outstanding performance in San Antonio last year, someone has to be there to pass him the ball to make it to 47 wins and a seven seed.
That leaves the Pelicans, Nuggets, Lakers and Mavericks as competition for the Blazers; five teams, four spots. The Nuggets will definitely be ready this year to remedy their five-year playoff dry spell and no matter how strange the Lakers ensemble cast may be, I would be caught actively rooting for them before I would bet against LeBron making it to the playoffs. The Mavericks will have a sneaky winning season, if health is on their side, and could be a surprise for NBA fans alike. MacMahon saddled them at 13 but I believe they’ll be fighting for that 8th spot in April with new Euro blood Luka Doncic. He’s only 19 but has been playing professionally since he was 14 and carries himself like a veteran on and off the court. Adding him and big man DeAndre Jordan to their existing assets in Dennis Smith Jr. and Dirk Nowitzki, I would find it incredibly difficult to believe we won’t be seeing them battle against Golden State or Houston in the Spring.
Damian Lillard is coming off a personal best season and CJ McCollum is still the guy you want paired with Dame or leading the second squad, but the Blazers are going to have their hands full if they want to make the playoffs and they’re going to have to really channel something if they want home court advantage again. Lillard is going to need to continue his regular-season performance from last year and Zach Collins has to step up as big man in Davis’ absence. A Collins breakout season could and would be monumental for a possible Big Three in Rip City and if we can do that and the basketball stars align just right, this season could put the ‘Breakup the Blazers Backcourt’ conversations to rest. And for good.