Too-Early NBA Predictions For The East: Tier 2 – Playoff Contenders

Too-early but in-depth Predictions for the West: TIER 2: PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

 

TIER 2: PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

(11) Utah Jazz

TIer 2
Ricky Rubio and the new-look Jazz appear to need some re-tooling.

Actual record last year: 51-31 (+3.9 point differential)

Record should have been

The upstart Utah Jazz were a legitimate 51-win team last year. In fact, you can argue that they may have been even better if George Hill hadn’t missed 30 games, especially since their backup point guards didn’t play well. If they brought the exact same unit back, 53-54 wins may have been expected. Not sure if you’ve heard but… not everyone came back.

Impact adds

PG Ricky Rubio, G Donovan Mitchell (R)

Impact losses

SF Gordon Hayward, PG George Hill

Predicted win-loss total

In some ways, Utah reminds me of Atlanta — both teams may have lost their signature star, but I’m not willing to “write off” their chances of staying competitive. Both franchises have a great coach and a great culture that may keep the ship moving on regardless.

That said, losing Gordon Hayward has to sting. Losing George Hill may sting even more — if you can believe that. Hill’s three point shooting and defensive abilities are hard to replicate from the position — it’s no coincidence that Indiana’s defense took a major step back without him last year.

In his place the team has Ricky Rubio — but I’m lower on Rubio than others. Simply put, when you’re that bad of a shooter (37.5% from the field, 31.5% from three for your career), there aren’t enough positives to the rest of your game — excellent passing, plus defense, whatever — to make you a good starter in today’s NBA. Some people may disagree with me and point to the advanced stats that say otherwise, but I’m sticking with the idea that it’s a downgrade.

Overall Utah’s record may come down to effort level and commitment to the playoffs. I can see them staying “in the picture” for a while, but eventually succumbing to the inevitable and taking an extended look at their promising young guys like Donovan Mitchell down the stretch. record: 39-43

(10) Memphis Grizzlies

Actual record last year: 43-39 (+0.5 point differential)

Record should have been

If you want to talk about “winning culture,” look no further than Memphis. The Grizzlies have continued defied expectations for years now and continued despite several coaching changes. In fact, in my offseason blueprint for them, I highlight the fact that they’ve been ranked higher in W-L record than point differential for SIX seasons in a row. Take that for data!

Impact adds

SG Ben McLemore, SG Tyreke Evans

Impact losses

C Zach Randolph, SG Vince Carter, maybe PF JaMychal Green

Predicted win-loss total

I feel dumb discounting Memphis again and disrespecting two great players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. I also like David Fizdale’s approach to this team, which has been to become more skilled and more perimeter oriented: it’s an inevitable evolution for the team and one that can help them sustain their success into the future.

For now, it may not be enough. Simply put, it’s too hard to be a great team in the West these days when you have $20 million a year committed to an albatross like Chandler Parsons. That makes you fight with one hand tied behind your back — as the West gets tougher and tougher, that’s a fight you can’t win forever. record: 40-42

(9) Los Angeles Clippers

Actual record last year: 51-31 (+4.3 point differential)

Record should have been

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both missed 20 games last year. While that’s become par for the course to some extent, it also illustrates how this team could have been even better than their record indicates. 55 wins may have been the more expected result.

Impact adds

PG Patrick Beverly, SF Danilo Gallinari, SG Lou Williams, PG Milos Teodosic

Impact losses

PG Chris Paul, SG J.J. Redick, SG Jamal Crawford

Predicted win-loss total

Once Chris Paul decided to leave L.A., the Clippers had two choices to make: “blow it up” and start over, or build around Blake Griffin and try to cobble together a playoff team around him.

You may disagree with the choice they made — but you have to admit, they executed that plan about as well as you could have hoped. Patrick Beverly is the perfect 3-and-D point guard to complement “point Blake,” and Danilo Gallinari’s become a very underrated scorer. Sweet Lou Williams can score in bunches, either as a replacement SG or as a super sixth man. All in all, this is going to be a much deeper team than last year.

But again, it all hinges on health. If you told me Blake Griffin and Gallinari would each play 80 games, then this may be a legitimate 50 win team. If that number slides to 70, then 45 wins may be more appropriate. Right now, given their history and durability issues, even 70 games feels optimistic. So given that, I’m sliding this team out of the playoffs for now. record: 42-40. But if they stay healthy, they’re going to be a factor. I’ll be rooting for a #2 – #7 Houston vs. Clippers series, for the TV value alone.

(8) New Orleans Pelicans

Actual record last year: 34-48 (-2.1 point differential)

Record should have been

Given that point differential, the Pelicans deserved that 34-48 flop of a year. Still, there were a lot of factors at play that hurt the team’s record, including Jrue Holiday‘s absence and the midseason shakeup. If their entire core had been together all year, .500 could have been expected.

Impact adds

PG Frank Jackson (R)

Impact losses

PG Tim Frazier

Predicted win-loss total

With all due respect to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 24-year-old Anthony Davis is still the best young player in the league and the better bet to be an MVP in the future. The Pelicans’ braintrust has done everything in their power to squander his generational talent, but they can’t do it forever.

I’m not sold on GM Dell Demps, or coach Alvin Gentry, or even the idea that DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis can thrive as a pair, but at the end of the day talent has to win out eventually. I also am optimistic about the effect new assistant coach Chris Finch can have.

The Pelicans may be the “rangiest” team in the West this year. If Finch’s offense helps all the pieces click into place, they could rise up to Top 4, Top 5 range. If they continue to stumble, then a midseason DeMarcus Cousins trade (or a midseason Gentry firing) is on the table. Let’s meet in the middle and call them an #8 seed record: 43-39

(7) Denver Nuggets

Actual record last year: 40-42 (+0.5 point differential)

Record should have been

There’s something about doughy-looking white guys that NBA coaches don’t trust. Kevin Love couldn’t crack consistent minutes in Minnesota for years, despite stellar per-minute stats, and Nikola Jokic fell into that same trap in Denver. Once Mike Malone unleashed the Joker, this team performed on the level of a 45 win squad.

Impact adds

PF Paul Millsap, PF Trey Lyles

Impact losses

SF Danilo Gallinari, perhaps C Mason Plumlee

Predicted win-loss total

The Nuggets have become a media darling thanks to the Paul Millsap signing, but we have to remember that the team lost Danilo Gallinari in the process. Millsap’s the more agile and effective defender of the two, but he’s not as good of a spacer as advertised. In fact, he’s hit only 31.9% and 31.1% of his threes over the last two years. Gallinari’s a better shooter, and gets to the line more consistently. Millsap’s still an upgrade — largely because Gallinari had been fragile — but perhaps not a fundamental one.

In fact, the Nuggets’ upside may hinge more on the development of their young guard Jamal Murray. Murray has elite scoring potential — he can be a C.J. McCollum type in time. The question is: in how much time? If Murray takes a major step up, then the Nuggets will be a legitimate force. If he’s not ready yet, then the hole at PG will be more obvious and cause this team to scrap and claw for the playoffs again. record: 43-39

(6) Portland Trail Blazers

Actual record last year: 41-41 (-0.5 point differential)

Record should have been

The Blazers had a negative point differential last year, but played well after the trade for Jusuf Nurkic. If Nurkic had been on the team the entire year, 43-44 wins may have been a reasonable expectation.

Impact adds

C Zach Collins (R)

Impact losses

No one notable

Predicted win-loss total

Portland is a team that I would have liked to see make a big swing, be it for Paul George or someone else. With two elite shooters on the perimeter, they may be one more star away from top 4 in the West. Even shedding Evan Turner may have been an overall positive step.

However, they’re running back the entire unit again, for better or worse. They have a young squad all around, so there’s going to be some natural improvement here, but not enough to really make a dent into the standings. record: 44-38

(5) Minnesota Timberwolves

Actual record last year: 31-51 (-1.1 point differential)

Record should have been

Based on point differential, the Timberwolves’ 31-51 record was on the low end of their expected results. 35 wins may have been more appropriate. That said, the team could be playing with fire with their health, as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins both played 82 games at 37+ minutes a night; they’re young and healthy now, but you can’t count on that forever.

Impact adds

SF Jimmy Butler, PG Jeff Teague, PF Taj Gibson, SG Jamal Crawford

Impact losses

PG Ricky Rubio, SG Zach LaVine, PG Kris Dunn

predicted win-loss total

Clearly, the Timberwolves made as bold of gambits as any team this offseason, cashing in their secondary assets for Jimmy Butler and forging head on into a playoff chase.

Offensively, I have some minor concerns. Jimmy Butler became a great playmaker for the Bulls, but his success largely came from getting to the line (where he shot 87% on 8.9 attempts per game) and dishing (5.5 assists per game.) He can still be an effective slasher without the ball, but he’s an inconsistent shooter (career 33.7% from three). That, coupled with a declining Taj Gibson, makes me worry about the team’s spacing and offensive consistency.

Defensively, they should take a giant leap. Butler and Gibson are good defenders but — maybe even more importantly — they’re respected vets who should be able to help Wiggins and KAT develop on that end. This team will never be a true contender until Wiggins and KAT are good defenders. With Thibodeau and his gang teaching them the ropes, that may happen sooner than later. record: 45-37. I would have even more bullish on the team if they had acquired C.J. Miles instead of Jamal Crawford as a scorer off the bench; Miles is much better at this stage of their careers.

Full Series:
Eastern Conference: 
Tier 3Tier 2Tier 1
Western Conference: Tier 3, Tier 2, Tier 1

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