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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Western Conference playoff seed predictions

For almost two decades now, the Western Conference has dominated the league. They have had a record above .500 against the East in 17 of the last 18 seasons. A Western Conference team has won the championship in 12 of those 18 seasons as well. If you thought the dominance might end this season, you have got another thing coming. The West looks poised to be stronger than ever.

Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Paul Millsap. Those are the names that make up 30.7 percent of the Eastern Conference players selected to participate in the NBA All-Star Game last season. They all moved West in the offseason. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward is the only 2017 All-Star that went from a West team to an East team. It wasn’t just the All-Stars either. Jeff Teague, Patrick Patterson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Thabo Sefolosha, and P.J. Tucker also went West this offseason. While the Clippers also signed Euroleague superstar, Milos Teodosic.

The West will be an absolute bloodbath this season. By my count, there are 11 really good teams in the West that would have no issue making the playoffs in the East. Unfortunately, only 8 of those teams can reach the postseason. This means that no matter what predictions I make here, three fanbases will be angry.

The Predictions:

1. Golden State Warriors: 69-13

Last season: 67-15. 113.2 OFFRTG (1st), 101.1 DEFRTG (2nd), 12.1 NETRTG (1st).

There isn’t much debate here. The Warriors are clearly still the best team in the NBA. They have the best offense in the league, and if Kawhi Leonard misses any time due to his thigh injury, they might very well finish as the best defense in the league as well.

I have them improving their record by two games. Last year, the Warriors went just 2-6 in games that either went to overtime or were decided by 3 points or less. This tends to be a sign of bad luck, especially when you consider that the Warriors were 9-3 in those games in 2015-16. Last year’s Warriors team actually had a better Net Rating (12.1) than the 73-win Warriors did in 2015-16 (11.6). This tells me that the Warriors should get a little luckier this season, especially if Kevin Durant can avoid getting hurt and missing 20 games, as he did last year.

The only reason I don’t see them getting 70 wins is because of how much the West has improved. The Warriors will of course play 50 of their 82 games against Western Conference teams. With the West being as stacked as it is this year, they are bound to run into a few more losses.

2. Houston Rockets: 60-22

Last season: 55-27. 111.8 OFFRTG (2nd), 106.4 DEFRTG (18th), 5.4 NETRTG (3rd).

Instagram/Rockets

I love what the Rockets did this offseason. When healthy, Chris Paul is still one of the very best players in the NBA. He should help improve what was already a stacked offense by draining threes and finding open men. The impact he will have on defense will be even greater. Paul is still quietly one of the very best defensive point guards in the league. He finished first in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards in each of the last two seasons by a wide margin.

The Rockets knew what their weakness was and they went out and fixed it. Beyond just trading for Chris Paul, they managed to add versatile, defensive specialists P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. That depth gives them one of the better bench units in the league and helps improve what was an average defense. There is plenty of reason to believe that the Rockets will be a top-10 defense this season. Add that to what should easily be a top-3 offense once again. They might just be the biggest threat to the Warriors in the entire league.

3. San Antonio Spurs: 58-24

Last season: 61-21. 108.8 OFFRTG (7th), 100.9 DEFRTG (1st), 7.9 NETRTG (2nd).

The Spurs never die. Every year people predict the Spurs’ demise and it never comes. They lost valuable role players Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee. Simmons and Dedmon were particularly great defensive players off the bench. They countered these losses by adding veteran scorer Rudy Gay.

On paper, this team shouldn’t be as good as it is. Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA, but when you compare their overall superstar talent to the other teams at the top of the league every year, the Spurs are severely lacking. This is mostly thanks to Gregg Popovich, who not only instills great systems but a great culture as well. If Kawhi misses any time with injury, they might be in a bit of trouble. If not, expect the same old from the San Antonio Spurs.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder: 54-28

Last Season: 47-35. 105.0 OFFRTG (17th), 105.1 DEFRTG (10th), -0.2 NETRTG (17th).

Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman

The Thunder made a lot of noise this offseason. First, they traded for Paul George, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, they traded for Carmelo Anthony. Adding a bonafide superstar to your team in Paul George and an All-Star in Carmelo Anthony is a good way to win some more games the next season. They also added an incredibly underrated stretch four in Patrick Patterson. Patterson is a versatile big that plays sound defense and can hit the three ball at a good rate.

Some people are declaring them as the biggest threat to the Warriors, but I think there are a few concerns with this Thunder offense. The first question will be about Carmelo’s willingness to adapt. If he can play a Klay Thompson role and become a spot-up shooter for the Thunder, he can be incredibly valuable. He could easily put up 18-20 points per game on really good efficiency. If he insists on getting his touches and his 1-on-1’s with tough mid range jumpers, it might hurt the offense.

Westbrook also needs to improve his shot selection a tad for the Thunder to become a true contender. He didn’t have many options last year, but even when Durant was there, he never managed to be an efficient scorer. He has two great shooters on the floor with him this year. If the shot isn’t there, he’ll need to kick it to one of them.

Defensively, however, this team has unlimited potential. The length and versatility of their team will allow for as many switches as needed in a league where switchability is becoming the most important component of a defense. Westbrook and Carmelo may not have the highest defensive IQ, but they can stay in front of their man when they are locked in. That is all they’ll need from them if they can switch on every action.

I’m sure people are wondering how adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony would only net the Thunder 7 extra wins. Well, the Thunder got a little lucky last year. With a Net Rating of just -0.2, they played closer to a 40 or 41-win team than a 47-win team. They finished 14-8 in games decided either in overtime or by 3 points or less. As good as a team may be in the clutch, that number is unsustainable. This should be looked at more as a 13-win increase than just 7.

5. MinnesotaTimberwolves: 49-33

Last season: 31-51, 108.1 OFFRTG (10th), 109.1 DEFRTG (26th), -1.0 NETRTG (20th).

The Timberwolves were pretty unlucky last year. They weren’t a great team by any means, but they deserved a few more wins. They finished with a Net Rating of -1.0, meaning they were outscored by 1 point per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Hawks had a Net Rating of -0.8 and won 43 games. The Thunder, as we already saw, had a Net Rating of -0.2 and won 47 games. The Kings actually had a Net Rating of -4.5 and won 32 games, 1 more than the Timberwolves. I would have expected the Timberwolves to get a few more wins for this reason alone.

They also have two great, young players that should continue to improve. In the second half of the Timberwolves’ season last year (the final 41 games), Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 28.4 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists on 59.1 percent shooting and 44.4 percent from three. He did that at age 21 and he seems to keep getting better. Andrew Wiggins is still only 22 years old as well and continues to improve every year. I would have also expected the Timberwolves to get a few more wins for this reason alone.

The Timberwolves didn’t want a few more wins however, they wanted a lot more wins. For this reason, they decided to shock the world with a draft day trade for Jimmy Butler. Jimmy Butler is one of the very best two-way players in the league and would instantly improve any team he was dealt to. For the Wolves to go from Wiggins as their primary wing defender to Butler is a major upgrade and it should pay major dividends defensively. Wiggins will now have a less taxing defensive assignment, which not only makes life easier for him on the defensive end but allows him to expend more energy on offense as well.

They also added Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Teague is a solid player, but probably not much of an overall upgrade over Ricky Rubio. The Taj Gibson signing should help their defense and their depth.

There is one concern with the Timberwolves and that is spacing. They finished last in the league in three-point attempts last year (21.0 per games), and unless somebody steps up, they might finish there again. They lost their best shooter, Zach Lavine, in the Butler deal, and they don’t have any lights out, knock-down shooters on the squad. Towns has the potential to become that, but he’ll be too valuable around the rim to keep him behind the arc all game. Modern offenses tend to need spacing to operate, but with the amount of talent on the Timberwolves, their offense should still be very good.

6. Los Angeles Clippers: 47-35

Last season: 51-31. 110.3 OFFRTG (4th), 105.8 DEFRTG (13th), 4.5 NETRTG (6th).

Clippers.com

A lot of people seem to be expecting the Clippers to collapse without Chris Paul. That would probably be the case if they hadn’t added anybody else, but when you look at the roster, the Clippers might have the most depth in the entire NBA. They got Patrick Bevereley, Lou Williams, and Sam Dekker in the CP3 sign-and-trade. Beverley and Williams are really good role players, while Sam Dekker is a very interesting young wing. They also signed Danilo Gallinari, who is one of the most underrated, efficient scorers in the NBA. He was one of only five players last season to score at least 18 points per game with a true shooting percentage above 62.

As if that weren’t enough, they then went out and signed Milos Teodosic. Milos has been absolutely lighting up the EuroLeague for years. His mix of creative passing and good shooting makes him an intriguing player in the modern NBA. There are definitely concerns about his defense, but if you were worried lob city was a thing of the past, Milos will make sure that isn’t the case.

Let’s not forget they also still have two all-stars that are still under 30 years old in Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan. The Clippers will not be bad this season whatsoever, and I expect them to make the postseason.

7. Denver Nuggets: 46-36

Last season: 40-42. 110.0 OFFRTG (5th), 110.5 DEFRTG (29th), -0.5 NETRTG (18th).

Last year, Nikola Jokic averaged 16.7 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, and 4.9 assists per game on a 64.0 true shooting percentage. He is the first player in the history of the NBA to put up numbers that high in all of those categories. He not only did this at age 21 but he also did it averaging just 27.9 minutes per game. Jokic is one of the very best young players in the NBA. He has the chance to become one of the very best offensive bigs in the NBA if he can repeat what he did last year in a full 36 minutes per game.

Gary Harris is another under-appreciated young player on the Nuggets. He averaged 14.9 points last year and shot 42.0% from deep on 4.5 attempts per game. After a rough start, Jamaal Murray also showed quite a bit of promise in his rookie season a year ago. The Nuggets have one of the very best young cores in the NBA and it should continue to improve for years to come.

Losing Danilo Gallinari will probably hurt the offense a little bit, but it will still be absolutely lethal. Meanwhile, the addition of Paul Millsap should help to really improve the defense. I see them making the playoffs this season but even if they don’t, they have a great future ahead.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

Last season: 41-41. 107.8 OFFRTG (11th), 107.8 DEFRTG (21st), 0.0 NETRTG (15th).

After trading for Jusuf Nurkic last season, he was inserted into the starting lineup on February 23rd. From that point forward, the Trail Blazers went 18-8 with a 5.3 Net Rating. That was the 4th best rating in the NBA during that stretch. Nurkic really showed off his skills, averaging 15.2 point, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in his 20 games in Portland.

Nurkic’s passing added a nice dimension to what was already a good offense. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum make up one of the best offensive backcourts there is. The Trail Blazers still have some concerns defensively, but if Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic stay healthy, their offense should be able to carry them.

Just Missed the Cut

Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz will still be in the mix for a playoff spot this year despite losing Gordon Hayward. The Jazz will likely finish in the top 5 defensively, as per usual. The big question will be where the scoring is going to come from. The Ricky Rubio-Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll should be great, and Ingles can spot up. I’m just not sure the likes of Rodney Hood is ready to become a primary scorer.

The New Orleans Pelicans might have the two best big men in the world. They also have players playing out of position, a lack of wing depth, and questionable shooting. The Pelicans weren’t that impressive last year with both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins playing either. They had a Net Rating of just -0.1 after acquiring Cousins last year. The talent is there to overcome these issues, but there’s just not enough evidence to say so convincingly.

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to prove people wrong year after year. They are going to have to do so again this year. After losing valuable pieces in Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies might be in trouble. Memphis will really have to grind this year if it wants to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.

While it will be sad seeing three of these teams miss the playoffs, it should make the regular season a lot of fun.