Our (way too early) thoughts on NBA West teams on the rise and those on the decline next season

The NBA Western Conference was a “Tale of Two Cities” in 2018/19.  There were 8 clear playoff teams for most of last year, teams needed a record of 48-34 (Spurs and Clippers tied) to be part of this elite club, while the rest of the conference really struggled (the number 9 seed Kings finished with a record of 39-43 or 9 full games outside the playoff club).

Given the significant changes we saw in 2018/19 (or in the last few days) 1) Injuries/free agency impacts in Golden State (KD out for all of next year, Klay out until March); 2) Thunder flame out in the first round of the playoffs; 3) Houston willingness to trade virtually everyone except James Harden; 4) The Lakers acquisition of Anthony Davis/Pelicans acquisition of Ingram, Ball, Hart, the 4th pick in Thursday’s draft and Zion and the 5) Mavs acquisition of Kristaps Porzingas

we could see at least two playoff teams from 2018/19 (Warriors and Thunder, Rockets?) fall out of the Western Conference playoffs next season while two new teams (Lakers; either Pelicans or Mavs) join the playoff club.

Teams on the decline

Lets start with Golden State. The Warriors lack of depth was on full display during the recent NBA Finals.  We expect the Warriors to deploy a lot of “load management” for Steph, Iggy (if he returns) and Draymond next season.  The Warriors will likely use the 2019/20 season as a year long audition to see who they can find to fill meaningful backup roles in 2020/21 when Klay (and perhaps KD) return. We expect Livingston and Bogut to retire. Looney is a free agent. Cook and McKinney are possible longer term bench pieces but Jerbko, Jones and Bell look like misses and Cousins is likely gone.

The Thunder are at a crossroads coming into this offseason. They have roughly $150MM on their books for next year including: $39MM to Russ; $33MM to Paul George (coming off shoulder surgery); $26MM to Steven Adams; $16MM Schroder; $11MM to Roberson (who hasn’t played in 15 months) which puts them above the $132MM luxury tax-a bad place to be for a small market team. Westbrook is coming off a very tough year (league worst pull up jump shooter in the regular season while in the playoffs he took 22.2 shots/game but made only 8). We would not be surprised to see a Westbrook trade (likely need to add a number of assets (e.g. Ferguson/Grant) to get a team to take Russ and his super max contract, $39MM next year then $41, $44 and $47MM in 2022/23) if the Thunder start slowly.

Houston is a complete mystery to us going into the draft (Thursday) and free agency (June 30).  There are a ton of rumors about both Chris Paul and Clint Capela moving on. Who will take the Chris Paul max contract?  Capela seems more valuable, we hear the Pelicans are interested, God knows they have he picks to trade.

Teams on the rise

The Lakers (despite only having three known starters today (LeBron, AD and Kuzma) are forecasted (by Vegas) to win the NBA Finals next season.  We expect Lebron, Rich Paul and others to help Pelinka carve together a couple of serviceable starting guards (Danny Green, JJ Redick, Seth Curry etc. to split up the $24MM or so in cap space) plus a number of ring chasing bench players. In our view the Lakers are likely a playoff team next year but NBA Title we think not.

The Dallas Mavericks have enough cap space to both offer Kristaps Porzingis a max contract and sign a second max free agent. In addition, they have Rookie of he Year leader Luka Doncic and a useful Tim Hardaway Jr. We would not be surprised if a versatile free agent like Tobias Harris (or Texas native Jimmy Butler) ends up in BIG D and dramatically improve their record from last years 33-49 campaign.

After the AD trade and Thursday’s draft the Pelicans appear to be heading into next year with Lonzo Ball at point guard; All NBA defender Jrue Holliday at the 2; Brandon Ingram at the 3; Zion at the 4 and Jahlil Okafor (or someone they acquire in a draft night trade (Capela?) or free agency (Brook Lopez?)) at center.  That is a young, talented team that will run and gun and play great defense.  They need some shooters but have plenty of money and picks to trade for free agent upgrades (especially if they can package the Solomon Hill contract). Look for the Pelicans to challenge for the playoffs in the West in 2019/20 and make it in a2020/21.