Michael Jordan will forever have the universal acclaim but when it comes to Chicago’s late 1990s dynasty, Steve Kerr is the player who beats even “His Airness” when it comes to respect.
The NBA had a crazy 2019-20 year, with the complications of the pandemic forcing the season to be postponed for months.
However, after the Lakers were eventually crowned champions in a duel with the Miami Heat in the bubble, it is now nearly time to begin anew.
With the 2020-21 season beginning in mere weeks, it is now the perfect time to discuss some early predictions as to who will make the playoffs. Based on off-season signings, draft day and their results last season, here are my Western Conference predictions:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Any punter would have the Lakers winning it all once again. The current champions were dominant all of last season, and it can be argued that the team has only improved with the additions from this offseason.
While the team did lose some key contributors in Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and Danny Green, the Lakers managed to pick up the two best bench players from last season in Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers also scored a nice big man in Marc Gasol and look set to be a dominant force once again this season.
None of the teams in the upper area of the standings had a more successful offseason than the defending champs, so expect to see them competing and likely winning the championship once more.
2. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets played above their expectations during the bubble. While they were a top-three team in the West, no one expected them to make it past the Los Angeles Clippers and face the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
But that is what they did. Not only did they come back from trailing 3-1 twice, the playoffs also saw the emergence of Jamal Murray as a legitimate go-to star for the team.
Both Murray and Nikola Jokic shined together, and the team has basically remained the same. While the loss of Jerami Grant may sting a bit and the re-signing of Paul Millsap was questionable, this team remains mostly unchanged. With players such as Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol continuing their development, it is almost certain the Nuggets will be apart of the top contenders once again.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers had an interesting offseason. After losing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets and being eliminated in the Western Conference semi-finals, the team decided to shake things up by firing Doc Rivers and signing Tyronn Lue as their head coach. A coaching change is always risky, however, the team and Rivers both felt it was time to move on.
Clippers fans were disappointed with how the season turned out, as the players often boasted about making it far. However, after a disappointing playoff performance from Paul George and some rumoured locker room tension, the team will have to try and push forward and focus on this season ahead. George has a lot to prove after signing a max extension, and after the loss of Harrell (to the Lakers no less), the team seems to be in a weird state.
Harrell is an unfortunate loss, however, Serge Ibaka will fill the role of backup nicely as a stretch shooter and excellent defender. However, other than that move the Clippers did not shake things up nearly enough to be considered equals with their LA counterparts just yet. They will be good, but expect them to end up around the same finish as last season.
4. Dallas Mavericks
One name: Luka Doncic. Doncic took another massive step last season, presenting himself as an MVP candidate alongside the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and James Harden. He shined in his first-ever playoff series and looks set to continue his dominance on the NBA. Do not be surprised if he is awarded MVP by the end of the season.
The Mavs also have other great talents in Kristaps Porzingis, Josh Richardson, Tim Hardaway Jr, Jalen Brunson and others who will make an impact for the team. Dallas have been great not just offensively, but also defensively and will be one of the teams to watch coming into the season. They are one piece away from a championship, but until they find that third player for a big three I do not see them making the final step.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland were one of the standout teams in the bubble with Damian Lillard performing at an MVP level. The Blazers have consistently been featured in the playoffs, however last season they only managed to just scrap in due to injuries.
However, this offseason the Blazers managed to improve their team by adding players such as Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr, with both players providing the team with some much-needed depth. Adding Covington was a big plus on the defensive end, and with Carmelo Anthony deciding to return and Josef Nurkic coming back from injury, the Blazers will be competitive once again this season.
6. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors were a hard team to rank this season, especially with Klay Thompson sustaining a season-ending injury. However, a good draft day and offseason sees the team in an interesting position heading into the season.
The draft day pick-up of highly coveted big man James Wiseman fills a void that the Warriors have had since the departure of Andrew Bogut in the centre position. The addition of Kelly Oubre Jr also adds a young gun who has been constantly improving in the scoring department and will likely be put straight into the starting line-up due to the loss of Thompson.
The additions of Brad Wanamaker, Kent Bazemore and the continued development of Eric Paschall should help bolster a Warriors bench that was lacking last season. In addition to the return of superstar Stephen Curry, expect to see the Warriors make the playoffs as hungry underdogs. From there, it is anyone’s guess how far they can go.
7. Phoenix Suns
Phoenix was the surprise team coming out of the bubble. The team were undefeated during their tenure at Orlando, securing an 8-0 record. However, that was not enough to slide into the playoffs. It is a fair assumption to say that the team was a bit unlucky to miss out, considering the seeding came down to the results of other teams. Despite this, Suns fans need not fret as the team is set to make a playoff run this year.
The main addition to the team was that of Chris Paul, with the guard joining the team at the expense of Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. While losing Oubre is certainly going to sting, the addition of Paul is exciting and a backcourt featuring the veteran guard and Devin Booker is going to be one of the hardest backcourts to play against.
Adding Paul to the team gives Booker more time to focus on his scoring and the ability to play off the ball, which will benefit the team. A full season of DeAndre Ayton’s presence in the paint will capitalise the Suns to their first taste of postseason action in years.
8. Utah Jazz
The Jazz remained mostly unchanged this offseason, with the main pieces still in place. Adding Derrick Favors is nice and will help the bench unit, while the continued development of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will see the team be competitive.
Supporting players such as Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles also round out the roster nicely and should see the Jazz once again make a trip to the postseason.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have created a nice young unit since the departure of Anthony Davis to the Lakers back in 2019. Zion Williamson seems to be worth the hype. Barring any injuries, Zion should make the All-Star team and have a breakout sophomore season as he sets himself up to be the superstar this team is hoping for.
Brandon Ingram’s improved season last year was another bright spot for fans, with the young star believing in New Orleans as he re-signed with the team.
While the team traded Jrue Holiday to the Bucks, they made a substantial return which included draft picks and the additions of Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Adams and Williamson will provide a tough frontcourt to play against, while the addition of Bledsoe provides a handy player in the backcourt to pair either alongside Lonzo Ball or JJ Redick.
This team has a lot of upside this season, with a lot of young talent on the rise it would not be surprising to see the Pelicans slide into the playoffs. However, the team will more than likely just miss out while showing a lot of good signs towards the future.
10. Houston Rockets
Oh boy, what another hard team to rank. This placement will likely be wrong, as the future of James Harden with the Rockets continues to be shrouded in mystery and rumours. Depending on where Harden ends up and who the Rockets get in exchange, this ranking could be raised or lowered.
However, based on the current team, this position seems likely dependent on where Harden lands. While it seems likely he will not last the season, the Rockets still have a decent squad featuring new recruits John Wall (who has had a great preseason), DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood.
The Rockets could easily make the playoffs if Harden stays with the team, as the MVP talent has showcased in the past. However, with the team shrouded in controversy, doubts and the rest of the Western Conference improved, it is easy to see the Rockets taking a fall this season and narrowly missing out on postseason action.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant is the key for this Grizzlies team. Despite having a talented and interesting young roster, Morant is the star that is going to lead the charge for the Grizzlies for the foreseeable future. The young stud will likely be dominant again in his sophomore season after winning rookie of the year and everyone should expect to see him crack the All-Star team.
The Grizzlies also have some strong players in the frontcourt, with players such as Jaren Jackson Jr, Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valančiūnas leading the charge for the team. Other young players including Kyle Anderson, Justise Winslow and Desmond Bane will also help the Grizzlies’ cause this season.
While the young team is defensively and offensively sound, it will be tough for the team to make it any further in the standings in such a competitive conference.
12. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time in over two decades last season, as the team had one of its worst seasons in recent memory. While the Spurs have some hope for the future, do not expect to see the team make it much further next season.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Demar DeRozan are both ageing players who do not seem to fit in with the San Antonio Spurs, with DeRozan especially being a part of many trade rumours. While players like Patty Mills and Rudy Gay will continue to provide a good veteran presence to aid the team, and the development of Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White should continue, this team ultimately is not ready to compete in the competitive Western Conference.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have a lot of promising signs for the future. With the draft night selection of Anthony Edwards, the Wolves have added a young talent that could be formidable for them in the future (despite his slow start this preseason). The tandem of D’Angelo Russell and Karl Anthony-Towns will look to continue to grow together during the season, with players such as Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie providing some young talent to help bolster the all-around team.
Bringing Ricky Rubio back to the team was also a smart move for the team, with Rubio providing excellent playmaking skills and veteran experience.
Despite all this young talent, the Wolves will require time to develop and grow as team and individuals. While the upside is bright, the team is not quite ready to be competitive just yet.
14. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have been stuck in lottery limbo for a long time now, as they consistently seem to be a team that seems incapable of making any meaningful transactions to develop their team. Sure, DeAaron Fox is a young star in the making and Hassan Whiteside was a very solid and cheap pickup to help the team’s frontcourt.
However, rumours came out a while ago surrounding Buddy Hield being disgruntled and the Hawks poached Bogdan Bogdanović, which could potentially leave the Kings struggling in the backcourt if Hield does force his way out.
While the team will hope to break their playoff drought, the more likely answer is that the Kings will continue their drought and be headed to the lottery looking for answers once again.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder will be at the very bottom of the pack this season and that is exactly where they want to be. After a surprisingly successful season led by star Chris Paul, the team decided to trade everything but the kitchen sink during the offseason.
Sam Presti focused on stacking draft picks for future seasons and taking contracts no one wanted (enter: Al Horford). However, while the team will be heading to the bottom of the pack for the first time in years, this season will be a good opportunity to have the younger players develop. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be handed the keys this season and is expected to have a breakout year, after spending a year being tutored by Paul.
The season will also give young players such as Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley a chance to develop with an immense amount of minutes, with the Thunder essentially giving the players a season to develop and grow without expectations. Time will tell whether Presti’s insane rebuild strategy will work out, however, one thing is clear: the Thunder will not be a problem for opposing teams this season.