Just when we thought the Western Conference in the NBA couldn’t get any more difficult in terms of making the playoffs for Denver, LeBron James, for the first time in his career, will join the fun. After James made the decision to sign with the Lakers, the previously crowded West has Nuggets fans feeling claustrophobic. Winning 46 games didn’t quite do the trick for Denver but now one has to wonder…..will 50? Many projected the Lakers to improve by 5 or 6 games next season but with James, playoffs are inevitable. In order for Denver to get in next season and break a 5 year post season drought, they’ll need a couple of teams to fall off or win so many games, like, say 55, to insure a ticket to the tournament. Assuming they only improve by 5 games or so, which is more realistic, I would count on the former. Here’s what a WAY too early 2018/19 playoff picture might look like based off last season and free agent moves thus far:
#1 Golden State – The Dynasty shouldn’t be too concerned about their top spot in the West with Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson still intact for at least 1 more season.
#2 Houston – They just locked up Chris Paul to a 4 year deal worth over $160 million. Even without Ariza, the Rockets should still be a deep playoff team if not a contender for the western conference title.
#3 OKC – Paul George shocked most by staying put in Oklahoma City with instant BFF, Russell Westbrook. I admire both players for taking on the challenge but based on how they are currently constructed, getting into the playoffs is the only sure thing for this team. Beyond a first or second round seems next to impossible.
#4 TWolves – Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler should take the next step in 2018/19. Much like Denver, I see this team being a threat in the West for a long time to come.
#5 LA Lakers: With Lebron and Rajon Rondo signing on so far and more moved expected, the Lakers could get passed the 5 seed but based on the youth on their roster now, I have them as a middle seed
#6 Portland: A team that’s done surprisingly well after LaMarcus Aldridge went to the Spurs. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have done well to keep this group competitive but big man, Jusuf Nurkic’s future with Portland is uncertain. That being said, their guard play should always be good enough to get into the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
#7 Denver: The Nuggets have faith in their core of Jokic, Harris, Murray and Millsap. With Will Barton now locked up, the Nuggets are making it known that they believe the current roster has enough fire power to FINALLY catapult them into the playoffs. I could see this team climb the ranks as well but to be safe, I have them getting in at a low seed.
#8 Utah: This was tough. The Spurs, The Clippers and the Pelicans could squeeze in but with San Antonio and New Orleans expected to lose pieces throughout the offseason and the Clippers floating between rebuild and retool I think the Jazz will get back in. I liked Denver over Utah last season but the surprising rookie season of Donavan Mitchell gave them enough wins to not only get in but actually get past round 1.
A lot can happen as we are only at the beginning of free agency. There’s plenty more scheming to be done but right now, with some of the bug names secured, the above list of teams should be left standing when it’s all said and done. I do think the Spurs and the Pelicans will ultimatly be the teams to fall out of contention, allowing the necessary room for both LA and Denver to get in. The Leonard drama should prove to much for San Antonio and the Pelicans, even with Anthony Davis, are losing too much to overcome. That being said the West will be, perhaps, the toughest it’s ever been. The Nuggets ALMOST answered the challenge last season but came up one game shy, losing in OT to the TWolves.
Hopefully the Nuggets young stars can take a serious next step because the competition just got 10x harder with the King entering the realm of the West.