NBA predictions: Western Conference rankings for 2020-21

LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

NBA predictions: Western Conference rankings for 2020-21


NBA predictions: Western Conference rankings for 2020-21

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The NBA’s Western Conference is always known for both its top-end talent and overall great depth, both of which have traditionally made it the league’s tougher grouping of teams.

This 2020-21 season should be no different.

You have the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, looking to defend their crown; there’s their crosstown rival Los Angeles Clippers, behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, looking to bounce back after an embarrassing end to their 2019-20 season; there are loaded up-and-comers like the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, led by Nikola Jokic and Donovan Mitchell respectively, chomping at the bit to reach the top of the Western-Conference mountain; and there’s a team in the Dallas Mavericks with a frontrunner MVP candidate in Luka Doncic, too.

Overall, the West is looking as nasty as ever. Below, you can see the results for how our team of writers recently predicted the Western Conference to rank in the 2020-21 season.

(Note: Percentage of returning minutes below indicate regular season and playoff minutes combined.)

Oklahoma City Thunder

Record last season: 44-28
Percentage of returning minutes: 33.9 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Al Horford, Trevor Ariza, George Hill

Only the Detroit Pistons return fewer minutes from last season than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who came into this past offseason with the goal of trading their best veteran pieces for top-end draft capital, which they were able to acquire in droves.

What’s left is a solid team with very exciting young pieces such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and Lu Dort, but lacking in the veteran talent that helped them make the playoffs in 2019-20.

As such, we very much expect this to be a rebuilding year for Oklahoma City, one in which they finally bottom out for the first time in the post-Russell Westbrook era and land a top pick in what’s projected to be a loaded 2021 class.

The Thunder will be feisty and tough this season but probably lack the pieces to win anywhere near as many games as they did last year.

Sacramento Kings

Record last season: 31-41
Percentage of returning minutes: 69.6 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Hassan Whiteside, Frank Kaminsky, Tyrese Haliburton

Led by the explosive De’Aaron Fox and sharpshooting Buddy Hield, the Sacramento Kings should be entertaining in 2020-21 if nothing else. The team also did well in drafting Tyrese Haliburton at No. 12 and signing Hassan Whiteside for the veteran minimum on a one-year deal.

Players like Harrison Barnes, Nemanja BjelicaRichaun Holmes and Cory Joseph are also solid veterans who should contribute for the Kings this year at a respectable level.

Still, unless Marvin Bagley takes a major leap forward this year, it’s hard to forecast Sacramento being much more than a bottom team in the Western Conference. The West is too deep and the Kings are too lacking in elite talent to make a legit playoff push this year.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Record last season: 19-45
Percentage of returning minutes: 46.6 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Ricky Rubio, Anthony Edwards, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns is set to have more help this season than he’s had since Jimmy Butler was around, we’re just not sure if it’ll be enough to get the Minnesota Timberwolves in the playoff picture this upcoming season.

Adding Ricky Rubio to a backcourt that already had D’Angelo Russell was a solid move for the Wolves, and drafting Anthony Edwards No. 1 could pay immediate dividends for the team.

Re-signing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez should also help with the team’s continuity.

Still, the team might lack the toughness defensively to get enough stops over the course of the season in the loaded West to qualify for the postseason, even if their scoring does have enough firepower between Towns and Russell to boast an above-average offense.

San Antonio Spurs

Record last season: 32-39
Percentage of returning minutes: 84.3 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Devin Vassell, Tre Jones

After a disappointing 2019-20 season that saw the San Antonio Spurs miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97, the team didn’t do much to change their roster besides adding a few pieces through the draft.

As such, we expect another losing season to be ahead for the Spurs, even despite the team having two All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan at the helm.

The problem is, outside of those two pieces, San Antonio lacks proven, top-end talent, a pretty huge issue considering how loaded some of their competition in the West projects to be.

It’ll take big leaps from Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Derrick White, and an immediate impact out of Devin Vassell, for the Spurs to be a low-end playoff contender in 2020-21.

Memphis Grizzlies

Record last season: 34-39
Percentage of returning minutes: 79.1 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Desmond Bane

One of last season’s most pleasant surprises, the Memphis Grizzlies will field a tough team yet again in 2020-21, but didn’t do much this offseason to make us think they’ll get over the hump and into the playoffs.

Still, led by Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., the future is very bright for Memphis, as the former looks like a future All-NBA performer while the latter has the makings of a super steady modern big man with floor-spacing capabilities.

The issue is, Jackson won’t be healthy to start the upcoming season, nor will Justise Winslow, putting the Grizzlies in a tough spot to start the league year. And with how tough the West will be, starting behind the 8-ball will do Memphis no favors as far as reaching the postseason this year.

A slow start in the West could be too much for a young team like the Grizzlies to overcome.

Houston Rockets

Record last season: 44-28
Percentage of returning minutes: 56.9 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Christian Wood

This ranking, obviously, is predicated upon the Houston Rockets following through with the James Harden trade that might reportedly happen soon.

If Harden, for whatever reason, were to change his mind and stay in Houston, it wouldn’t be surprising whatsoever to see the team easily qualify for the playoffs, as the Rockets did a good job in filling out the roster with pieces like John WallDeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood over the offseason.

Add Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker to the mix and you have a legit playoff team in the West, though probably not a title contender… which is part of why Harden reportedly wants out.

Regardless, we expect Harden to get dealt over the coming weeks, if not sooner, which would probably all but end Houston’s playoff hopes for 2020-21.

New Orleans Pelicans

Record last season: 30-42
Percentage of returning minutes: 62.4 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, Kira Lewis

A healthy, in-shape Zion Williamson will go a long way in helping the New Orleans Pelicans qualify for the postseason play-in tournament in 2020-21, which we predict them to do.

It won’t all fall on Williamson’s shoulders, either, as he’ll be surrounded by a solid mix of explosive young talent (Brandon IngramLonzo Ball and Jaxson Hayes) and experienced veterans with a lot of postseason minutes under their belt (JJ Redick, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe).

Plus, under first-year head coach Stan Van Gundy, a greater emphasis will be placed on conditioning and defense, making New Orleans a more legitimate threat for Western-Conference foes this upcoming season.

Golden State Warriors

Record last season: 15-50
Percentage of returning minutes: 52.1 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Kelly Oubre, Kent Bazemore, James Wiseman

The league’s worst team by record in 2019-20, the Golden State Warriors are set to return with a major upgrade in talent this season, with a now-healthy and re-energized Stephen Curry and Draymond Green back in the mix, Kelly Oubre added to the roster and James Wiseman set to start at center for the recent dynasty.

Of course, losing Klay Thompson to yet another season-ending injury was brutal news, but Curry and Co. should still have enough talent to get back in the playoff mix, especially if they can get a focused Andrew Wiggins to show up every night.

The Canadian swingman will need to be at his peak if the Warriors want to beat this preseason prediction; perhaps playing with leaders like Green and Curry will help Wiggins be a more consistent player.

Nevertheless, a lot will fall on Curry’s shoulders this year, particularly on the offensive end, as Golden State doesn’t have another player right now who can go out and get you a bucket like Thompson could. A huge year, statistically at least, could be in store for the two-time league MVP.

Phoenix Suns

Record last season: 34-39
Percentage of returning minutes: 55.7 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Jalen Smith

The bubble Phoenix Suns were late last season’s most exciting story, and the team now has a chance to carry over that excellent form into a full season.

The Suns project to be as talented and deep as they have been in years, led by explosive 2-guard Devin Booker, future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul and blossoming athletic big man Deandre Ayton.

Apart from the Point God, Phoenix also did a good job in adding Jae Crowder and E’Twaun Moore to the mix this offseason, two veterans who know their roles and perform them quite well. The Suns’ three young wings of Dario SaricMikal Bridges and Cam Johnson will also help the team a great deal, as all three have different skill sets, all of which are quite useful in the modern NBA.

Nevertheless, it’s now-or-never time for Booker to reach the playoffs for the first time in his career, as even by the loaded West’s standards, Phoenix has a strong roster surrounding him and a very well-respected head coach in Monty Williams calling the shots.

There’s no excuse for the Suns not to be a playoff team in 2020-21.

Portland Trail Blazers

Record last season: 35-39
Percentage of returning minutes: 64.9 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter

After an up-and-down season in 2019-20 which saw the Portland Trail Blazers barely sneak into the playoffs, we expect their past to the postseason this year will be less dramatic.

That’s because the Blazers will be fully healthy going into the season, a major change from last year when big man Jusuf Nurkic was out for most of the regular season, and also because the team just had an excellent offseason, re-signing Carmelo Anthony, trading for defensive dynamo Robert Covington, picking up an elite athlete in Derrick Jones Jr. and bringing back Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood.

Portland, led by arguably the best point guard in basketball in Damian Lillard and his backcourt mate CJ McCollum, now possesses both elite talent and good depth at pretty much every spot, including the wing, which has been an area of weakness for the team in years past.

The Blazers are going to be a stacked team in 2020-21, and yet we still have them finishing sixth in their conference, which goes to show just how tough the West is about to be.

Utah Jazz

Record last season: 44-28
Percentage of returning minutes: 85.2 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Derrick Favors, Udoka Azubuike

Utah has the third-highest percentage of returning minutes this season, a good sign for a team that went 44-28 with their roster pretty much as presently construed, minus Derrick Favors, who will provide the Jazz with solid production as a backup to Rudy Gobert.

The explosive Mitchell will be the team’s most important player, and if he can continue improving his efficiency and foul-drawing ability, he might be able to take another step up the 2-guard hierarchy.

Mitchell is set to have a lot of help, though, including the aforementioned Gobert, returning sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, reliable floor general Mike Conley, Sixth Man stud Jordan Clarkson and sturdy wings Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale.

Overall, Utah is talented, deep, and their continuity under Quin Snyder will help them remain among the West’s elite this season.

Dallas Mavericks

Record last season: 43-32
Percentage of returning minutes: 72.8 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Wes Iwundu

The Mavericks posted the best statistical offensive season in league history this past season when they finished the year with an outrageous 115.9 offensive rating. The problem is, their defense gave up way too many easy buckets, causing Dallas to finish 2019-20 with a good-but-not-great +3.2 net rating.

The team did well to assuage some of those point-stopping concerns this offseason by flipping Seth Curry for the defensively versatile Josh Richardson and acquiring another multi-faceted defender in James Johnson. The two former Miami Heat teammates could go a long way in making the Mavs a tougher team and help them not give up 104.9 points per 100 possession like they did last year.

Of course, the team will go as far as the burgeoning superstar Doncic will take them, and considering the Slovenian 21-year-old is one more leap away from reaching MVP status, that could be pretty far.

The team’s one major concern heading into 2020-21, however, has to be the health of Kristaps Porzingis, who will miss the start of the campaign ailing yet another knee injury. Regardless, if he can get healthy and stay that way all year, the Mavericks could be a legit contender this season.

Denver Nuggets

Record last season: 46-27
Percentage of returning minutes: 69.6 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: JaMychal Green, Facundo Campazzo, RJ Hampton

Denver will have to overcome the loss of underrated 4-man Jerami Grant, but considering the depth the Nuggets do have returning, that might not be an enormous problem, especially if Michael Porter Jr. is ready to take a starting role with the team in 2020-21.

Porter flashed signs of absolute brilliance in the bubble late this year, showing off an absurd mix of size at 6-foot-10, quickness, dribbling and shooting ability that not many humans his size possess.

JaMychal Green could also be used as a starter at the 4, as well as Paul Millsap, who the team re-signed this offseason despite interest from a number of contenders.

Regardless, the nucleus of the team is still the nasty pairing of All-NBA big man Jokic and potential future All-Star Jamal Murray, who we predict will keep Denver near the top of the West this upcoming league year.

The returning Gary Harris and Will Barton will also be important pieces for the Nuggets, especially if they’re able to regain their pre-2019-20 form.

Finally, we just can’t wait to see Argentinian stud Facundo Campazzo do stuff like this off the bench all season long:

Denver is loaded with talent and flat-out fun to watch, and the playoff experience they gained last season reaching the Western Conference Finals should go a long way in helping them take the next step as a franchise.

Los Angeles Clippers

Record last season: 49-23
Percentage of returning minutes: 60.9 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard

Even despite how embarrassingly their 2019-20 campaign ended, we still predict the Clippers to be an excellent team this upcoming season, as evidenced by where we have them ranked in our Western Conference rankings.

Lest we forget, before how meekly they went out in blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets late this year, the Clippers were legitimately one of the best teams in basketball and frontrunners for the title. They were second in net rating in 2019-20 (+6.3) behind just the Milwaukee Bucks, and have one of the best wing pairings in recent league history in Leonard and George.

Few teams have one player as good as either Leonard or George, let alone two.

And that’s without discussing their strong supporting cast, including Marcus MorrisLouis WilliamsIvica Zubac and Patrick Beverley.

The team will have to replace Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and a solid backup in Green, but they did well in picking up Serge Ibaka this offseason, who might be a better fit for what the team needs down low than Harrell was. Likewise, Luke Kennard could be an upgrade over the traded Landry Shamet, considering the former is more comfortable creating for others and playing some lead guard than the latter was.

A defense that already has stud ball-stoppers in Leonard, George and Beverley will also have Ibaka protecting the paint, one of the best shot-blockers of his generation. That’s a scary thought for opponents.

Nonetheless, all the matters is how the team does in the playoffs, as the Clippers were put together to win titles, not to finish second in their conference, so we really won’t have a final verdict on whether this grand experiment will be a success or not until the summer.

Los Angeles Lakers

Record last season: 52-19
Percentage of returning minutes: 61.8 percent
Top offseason acquisitions: Dennis Schroeder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol

The reigning champion Lakers underwent a number of changes this offseason, as they return the eighth-fewest minutes of any team from 2019-20 into this season.

Some of that can be seen as Los Angeles being aggressive and not settling with last year’s roster just because it won them a title. After all, picking up Dennis SchroederMontrezl HarrellMarc Gasol and Wes Matthews are all top-notch, professional signings for the Lakers, all players who can produce at a high level in their specific roles.

Regardless, at worst, L.A.’s supporting cast around their two superstars LeBron and Davis is at least as good as last year’s, but more than like a good bit better, so it’s hard not to consider the Lakers are favorites to repeat this upcoming season.

Barring something completely unexpected, Los Angeles is going to be scary good yet again in 2020-21; the hunt for No. 18 is on.

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