How the West will be won

LAs power play will garner plenty of attention, but the race for the Western Conference crown is comprised of a deep field

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Remember five months ago when the Golden State Warriors were healthy with a full Hampton’s 5 lineup and on the brink of constructing a full-fledged dynasty? Yeah, me neither.

Now Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala is…well listed on the Grizzlies’ roster but potentially touring Europe for all we know, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are on the shelf, and Draymond Green is…wait is Draymond a truly sympathetic figure? Impossible.

Another summer whirlwind sent Top 20 stars on the move across the league with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis constructing LA power duos folks have slobbered with attention. Even outside of the two LAs, the Western Conference still has plenty of other candidates with legitimate cases to benefit from the Warriors’ demise and book an NBA Finals trip.

Houston Rockets — Warriors break-up

The Raptors being the team to finally extinguish the Golden Era — even against an injury-ravaged Warriors squad (this feels like approximately 8 years ago)— feels somewhat disingenuous to Houston, which was always the Hamptons 5's stiffest enemy. Consider over the three postseasons in which the Warriors had a healthy Durant, the Rockets won five games over Golden State, while the rest of the NBA won four combined during that span. It was the demise of the Warriors that was always the clearest hypothetical for the Rockets to reach new heights.

The star movement bonanza of the summer, including Houston’s own swapping of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, has clouded that natural Western Conference pecking order post Golden State’s disbanding, however. Even the Rockets’ 2019–20 status in comparison to last season is murky. The consensus on which direction the Westbrook-Paul trade nudges Houston in the new hierarchy — both in the regular season and playoffs — is one of the raging debates entering the season

Westbrook and James Harden have operated with utmost offensive autonomy for years now in Houston and Oklahoma City, respectively. No other stars, save for maybe LeBron, have been granted so many on-court freedoms by their organizations. Now they’re joining forces as two of the highest-usage stars in league history, creating a vacuum of questions in the process.

The ideal version of two high-usage lead ball handlers is a melded version of their talents —my-turn, your-turn bartering to reduce load, two-man game pet plays and swing-swing sequences in which the ball bandies from one star to another with the second attacking on the catch or out of a secondary pick-and-roll against a shifting defense. Harden and Westbrook will each have to make concessions to play simpatico and make that happen. But Mike D’Antoni’s ardent offensive spacing, 21-pistol series and ATOs will at least somewhat grease the harmonic wheels. Westbrook should revive what’s been a dormant transition game, and offer a boost for what was a lousy defensive rebounding team last season.

The Westbrook-Harden off-ball gibber gabber will creep toward excessive at some point this season, but as two disinterested bystanders who don’t engage with cuts or subtle relocations, it’s a megillah worth dissecting. (Be prepared for X’s and O’s NBA Twitter to salivate when Westbrook sets a random flare screen on the weak side in a Houston game this season).

Westbrook optimists will wager OKC’s annual bouts with clunky spacing and static offense is a culprit nearly equal to Westbrook’s core traits as a player, including the off-ball indifference. Westbrook never really got a fair shake in terms of the volume vs. efficiency scale during his time in OKC as the lone wolf (Partially because he teetered the scale beyond the extremes). Retrograde lineups, mucky spacing, vanilla actions be damned, defenses couldn’t curtail Westbrook’s raw shot creation for himself and teammates. The downhill force and athletic explosion power combo was unyielding and unstoppable. Westbrook assisted more easy buckets — point-blank dunks and layups — than anyone with his hyper aggressive drives. Teammates feasted on drop-off passes and putbacks after Westbrook magnetted defenders to him.

But the deeper everyone dives into the nuance of the Westbrook-Harden duo, the more we’re at risk of overlooking the black-and-white, on-surface route toward failure. The Rockets will presumably be taking possessions away from the league’s most efficient high-volume shot creator in Harden and giving them to the one of the league’s least efficient in Westbrook. Situational factors be damned, that’s alarming.

Houston’s depth outside of the Westbrook, Harden, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Clint Capela is concerning as usual (a Gerald Green foot injury putting your rotation in a tailspin is not an enviable place to be), offering little in the way of lineup flexibility, but the Rockets know who and what they are and don’t ask a ton out of their role players. Say what you will about the stodgy aesthetics of Houston’s iso-centric schemes on both ends, but the Rockets’ style of play has a level of rigidness and uniformness the rest of the league can’t match.

Utah Jazz — Two-way potential

Don’t overcomplicate the formula when assessing the Jazz: They project to be Top 10 on both offense and defense and will win a lot of games in the regular season.

Taking a league-wide scope, how many teams would be safer bets than Utah to slot into the Top 10 in points per 100 on both ends? Milwaukee for sure. After that, the Sixers, Nuggets and both LA teams are next in line right there with Utah. Milwaukee, Golden State, Toronto and Boston all accomplished the feat last season, with Denver just missing out at 11th in defense. Utah was first in defense at 104.7 points allowed per 100 and 14th in offense at 111.4. Minor slippage is expected defensively, but Rudy Gobert in coordination with the funneling scheme around him should keep Utah in the Top 5, and the offense will perk up with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic aboard barring serious injury. The degree to which way the offense and defense swings will determine a lot. Does the defense regress to around fifth, while the offense barely cracks the Top 10, or is possible for Utah to craft a Top 5 unit on both sides of the ball? There’s a path to those dueling Top 5 marks, which only the 60-win Bucks pulled off last season.

Conley seems like an ideal point guard for mastermind — make that wealthy mastermind — Quin Snyder’s offense of layered actions and screens. He thrives with savvy changes of pace and acute angles, and Utah’s offense provides plenty of cases to deploy those sorts of canny smarts. Conley and Gobert fusing together a nascent two-man game of stop-and-start, patty-cake-style DHOs by the start of December feels like a thing.

The Ingles-Bogdanovic forward combo gives Utah two theoretical knockdown shooters with off-screen verve. They’re also complimentary in that way; Ingles is better at moonwalking into 3s off picks — pin down fades, twirl action pops, one-dribble PNR pull-ups — but he’s never been the bolt-off-a-pin down gunner like Bogdanovic has flashed in the past. The projected closing five of Conley-Donovan Mitchell-Ingles-Bogey-Gobert oozes potential for peak side-to-side harmony as a quartet of dependable shooters all with off-the-bounce oomph that should allow the drive-and-kick, secondary PNR game to really hum within the Gobert screen-and-dive half-court circuit. Between Gobert’s incessant rim runs and offensive rebounding, Mitchell’s zesty finishing on drives, Ed Davis’ putbacks, and the gobs of PNRs and basket cuts Utah will unleash on spiritless defenses with prime spacing, the Jazz have a case to lead the league in restricted area scoring this season after ranking seventh last season.

My biggest worry with the Jazz is the theory behind them is a level above what actually comes out in the wash. Until they ramp up their transition game, the offense will always leave points on the table, and their style — for all the egalitarian, multiple-action goodness — is prone to a high turnover rate. Gobert, defensive-orientated lineups involving Royce O’Neale and Dante Exum, and plenty of minutes with two bigs on the floor should continue to prop up Utah’s defense — along with their midrange-heavy shot profile and top notch defensive rebounding — but can that unit hold true even against the best and brightest in the playoffs.

Utah’s playoff losses to Houston each of the last two seasons — a terrible matchup for them — probably doesn’t give the Jazz’s postseason outlook a fair shake, but those exits are the larger piece of a small sample when it comes to the current iteration of the Jazz and the playoffs. The defense was a train wreck in the first two games of last season’s conference semifinal loss to Houston. Folks were baffled at the brazen degrees to which Utah sat on James Harden’s left by design, almost rolling out a red carpet to the basket, while trying to sort out a weak side rotational rigmarole. OK, fine, it was a wonky gambit and it failed, so what?

Well, the Houston series didn’t bode well for Gobert as an impregnable one-man defensive anchor in the postseason. He sort of has this proclivity to try to take away everything from an opposing offense inside the 3-point line — the rim, floater range, midrange. In today’s NBA, that’s just not feasible. Gobert gives the Jazz the ability to creep as close to that line as any defense in the league, but it’s OK if Harden gets off a floater now and again. Can Harden make that shot? Absolutely. But that’s what you live with. It was as if Gobert just couldn’t curb his impulse to venture out of the restricted area in reaction to a possible Harden floater, giving way to Clint Capela lobs.

It’s icky to nitpick from that Houston series and really Utah’s overall playoff results the past two seasons — lots of pundits talk about the Jazz like they’ve underachieved in the last two postseasons, but they’ve probably been about as expected. Still, there’s a cruel reality that looms over the Jazz: In the postseason crucible, there’s a ceiling to teams without top stars.

Enter Mitchell, whose development is Utah’s best pathway to true title contention. Through two seasons, he’s been a bit perplexing, an eye-test darling dripping with gumption and swagger who has yet to reign in his efficiency. Gripes over his advanced metrics are warranted considering his role as a lead ball handler, but really, I don’t care about them; this guy just flashes so much big-time stuff — shifty scoop shots, off-the-bounce 3s, crafty probing, cross-court passing — without even a tinge of intimidation from anything or anyone.

The next step, though, may be curbing some his swashbuckling tendencies through increased self-awareness and game management (think Damian Lillard). There are moments when it seems Mitchell deems himself more capable than he is as he burrows into a thicket in the paint or tries to squirt through a teensy crack on a drive; just make the next pass or the simple read, dude. Even Spider-Man has to be content chilling as Peter Parker sometimes.

Denver Nuggets — Continuity sings

While the rest of the West loaded up on stars this summer, Denver remained static, ready to run back the fun show of funk and flair orchestrated by maestro Nikola Jokic.

Jokic is currently 8th in MVP odds at +1200, a worthy dark horse bet, and he’s right on the border of Top 10 player status based on the consensus. His offensive value has teetered into nearly unquantifiable territory when factoring in the inscrutable team-wide effects related to his unique passing palette. It’s hard to overstate Jokic’s value on that end. He’s a traditional mismatch in every way — too skilled as a shooter, ball handler and passer for bigs, too much of a bully for combo-forwards — and he props up the merits of the entire roster because of how he stretches defenses in terms of both volume and novelty, a needed boost for a Nuggets team without a next-level perimeter creator. Any worries over a playoff flameout from Jokic were expunged last season as he stacked up a ridiculous 25–13–8.5 line with 59.6 true shooting on a 26.5 usage rate.

Jokic’s playoff prowess be damned, the Nuggets barely got past a flimsy Spurs team in the first round and then couldn’t outlast Portland in the conference semis despite owning home court. It spotlights the shortcomings of Jokic’s running mates, chiefly Jamal Murray, who enters the season with a plump contract extension but still plenty of room to improve. There may not be a player whose development is as intertwined in determining the postseason fate of the league as Murray, save for maybe Donovan Mitchell in Utah.

In that vein, there’s a case to be made handing Murray a max extension a year early is more than questionable, it’s actually reckless. It endears good will with Murray and his agent, sure, but organizations don’t get to the conference finals by way of good faith. Paying Murray the max almost ensures he’ll never outplay his contract; Murray will have trade value even at his current fat number, but this smells of the “small misplay” that can add up to something larger in the grand scheme of things when it comes to small markets trying to build around stars. Murray is good, but he ain’t max-level good, at least not based on what he showed last season.

There’s a potential leap still lurking for Murray; he’s lacks an elite skill he can leverage as he molds the rest of his game. He’s not a particularly explosive athlete and he’s not a next-level passer nor a high wire, off-the-bounce bomber. He’s crafty with above average feel and shot making, but he may top out as a low-tier lead creator ala D’Angelo Russell. He’s much better than Russell defensively, but he’s average at best on that end with subpar physical tools.

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If Murray turns one of the aforementioned areas into a true asset — passing, off-the-dribble shooting, finishing tricks — or ticks up a bit in all three, it may be enough alongside Jokic. That’s the luxury of tag teaming with a generational big man talent. The Murray-Jokic two-man game is already postseason certified as a legit weapon that spins defenses like a top.

Pristine fit and added lineup versatility from the acquisition of Jerami Grant can sop up projected lost ground as well versus the West’s supposed heavyweights in LA. And the Nuggets are chock full of in-house mini leap candidates too — a healthy Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig. The mythical figure Michael Porter Jr. as a real, in-person basketball player looms (I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Porter and have no idea what to expect from him).

Denver’s offense should be one of the league’s best again regardless. Jokic diming up cutters, launching Harlem Globetrotters-style one-hand outlet passes, and mooching on the offensive glass with Mason Plumlee produces easy points. Harris is more than a spot-up, closeout attacker guy, Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez are money shooters who expand defenses past their breaking point and Denver’s depth is super, making for profitable stints from the second unit.

The defense still feels like a worry, which is maybe unfair after Denver comfortably finished better than league average last season at 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions. The Murray-Jokic bookends will always spook Denver defensive optimists, and the aggressive pick-and-roll coverage scheme Mike Malone deployed last season to mask Jokic’s backline shortcomings resulted in gobs of opponents’ corner 3s that bricked at unsustainably lucky rates for the Nuggets.

Yet, Denver squeezed a lot last season of out axioms we commonly associate with sturdy, reliable, smart defense. Their defensive rebounding rate was Top 10 in the league, they routinely squashed opponents’ fastbreak opportunities, and they nestled in at league average in foul rate. (The Nuggets’ two-way rebounding — 1st in offensive rebound rate, 8th in defensive rebound rate last year — is first-hand evidence of my nascent theory that rebounding has become one of the more overlooked competitive advantages in the current league landscape of floor spacing, analytical shot profiles and transition. It’s not glamorous and it’s not sexy, but it’s impact on winning is almost undeniable.)

Denver doesn’t have a lot of clearly negative defenders in its rotation — Beasley, Mason Plumlee when he’s scrambling around like a cat chasing a laser pointer, maybe Porter Jr. (Again, I don’t know). Jokic and Murray are decent, Harris excels in impact defensive metrics via his aggressive handsy tendencies, Paul Millsap is a weak-side help connoisseur and Grant and Craig are pluses on that end. Playoff matchups will determine how much Denver pays by trying to pigeonhole either Craig or Grant into the wing stopper role.

Trail Blazers- Change is good

The Trail Blazers doubled down on its star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum this offseason, locking them up long term to finally put to bed any trade speculation surrounding the duo. Terry Stotts is still around as one of the league’s most underappreciated coaches, and with him, the Blazers’ flow/move-blocker-style offense and analytically-sound defense that plants gigantic humans in the restricted area to barricade the rim.

Outside of that trio, though, Portland has re-invented its look, right down to the organization’s alternate court design.

Plenty will gripe with the Hassan Whiteside addition. I get it, he’s a shit screener (Will Whiteside manage to hit one flare screen flush all season in Portland’s move-blocker system that is full of them?) and you might as well just start getting back on defense when he gets a pass on the short roll (again, another Portland-specific schematic theme that pops up in volume with how often opponents trap Dame and CJ). But Whiteside can be an effective rim protector in Portland’s defensive scheme that will plop him at the rim in deep drops and not ask much else from him. He’ll snack on the offensive boards and have plenty of games where he mooches on slipped screens and drop-off passes. He’s more of a placeholder anyway until Nurkic returns, diminishing concerns over him as a high-minutes postseason player *whispers* assuming Portland can wedge back into the playoffs.

The real noteworthy change comes at the wings, where it appears Lillard, McCollum and Stotts couldn’t bare to have another postseason slip away at the hands of a series of bonks and clanks from icy wing shooters in Al-Farouq Aminu (salutes Chief), Mo Harkless and Evan Turner. Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja (church services are open to new members!) are upgrades as shooters and offensive talents, but the exodus of Aminu, Harkless and Turner robs Portland of its three best wing defenders. Hood and Bazemore as a team’s perimeter stopper doesn’t exactly jive with aspirations of a repeat conference finals appearance.

Still, Hood didn’t roll over on that end in the playoffs like he has so often in the past. Bazemore is an above average defender, but probably a bit overrated on that end (it was painful to watch Aminu dribble, but Blazers fans may be yearning for his cautious offensive game after a season of 90 MPH Bazemore drives). And every year the postseason reiterates how much shooting matters; it’s lame and feels sort of shallow placing so much of a player’s value on 3-point shooting, but it’s the reality of the modern NBA, and Hood, Bazemore and Hezonja are upgrades.

But the Blazers have quietly plopped a lot of eggs into the self-improvement basket. Hero Hood showed up for Portland on a bargain deal last season, but Hoodwink Hood might still be in there somewhere. What if Hood backtracks 20 percent closer to what he was in Cleveland? Anfernee Simons has gotten more hype out of a season finale outburst against an apathetic T-Wolves team than anyone in history in a meaningless basketball game. There’s a ton to like about Zach Collins — who is guaranteed to become a choir boy during the media’s crucification of Whiteside at some point this season — chief among them his short roll playmaking and willingness to challenge everything at the rim, even if it means hacking everyone in the process.

With Jusuf Nurkic’s health up in the air and really only a one-season track record (minus playoff testing no less), there’s not a lot to count on outside of Stotts and the fabulous backcourt duo. Maybe that’s enough to flirt with 50 wins, make the playoffs at a mid tier seed, and see how many postseason rounds favorable matchups allow. In the four seasons since LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio, the Lillard-McCollum-Stotts trio has lifted Portland’s offense to 6th, 11th, 15th and 4th, and this year’s personnel has more reliable wing shooting around its star backcourt.

A lot will hinge on how far the defensive structure can prop up Portland toward league average. The Blazers were 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season and seventh the year before that, but slumped to 20th and 25th in 2015–16 and 2016–17. Their ultra-conservative drop scheme requires minimal help via pick-and-roll tags and synergistic secondary and tertiary rotations, which clamps down on opponents’ 3-point attempts. Portland has ranked in the Top 5 in fewest 3s allowed as a proportion of opponent shot attempts in five of the last six seasons (and they were 8th in the outlier season). Can their geek-obsessed shot profile and heavy reliance on two-big lineups (typically stronger defensive units) atone for a lack of sparkling individual defenders?

One last thing: It will be interesting to monitor Portland’s lineup versatility, which is lacking. The dearth of wings will almost lock Portland into 48 minutes of lineups featuring two bigs and two small guards.

Written by

Sports Writer for Times West Virginian newspaper. Sports Journalism Major- Marshall University

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