Coping With The Unexpected – NBA Western Conference Preview

The 2019-2020 NBA season ended with the Los Angeles Lakers holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy as the champion. The defending champions have had 72 days since their last game to start their title defense.

As the season tips off on Tuesday night with the Lakers raising their championship banner at home, the question becomes can anybody in the Western Conference stop them from going back-to-back? Let’s take a look at what to expect out West.

A Fresh New Look

Phoenix Suns

The Suns ended last season on fire as they won every game in the bubble, but they fell short of making the play-in game due to playing fewer games than the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. Suns management decided that they needed a star player to go next to All-Star Devin Booker and center DeAndre Ayton. Enter All-Star point guard Chris Paul, swingman Jae Crowder and a first-round pick, Jalen Smith, to one of the youngest teams in the league.

Paul brings not only experience but allows Booker to go back to being one of the most dangerous pure scorers in the league. Because he possesses legendary court vision, players like Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric will get easier looks at the basket this season.

Now, head coach Monty Williams has to be able to put all of these pieces together to not only get this team to the playoffs but cause their potential first-round opponent problems in a series.

 

Houston Rockets

In an off-season where the Rockets traded one former All-Star point guard for another one, the Rockets are in full transition mode from the team and style that fans have seen been accustomed to seeing. With former general manager Darryl Morey in Philadelphia, former head coach Mike D’Antoni now in Brooklyn and the team hiring first-time head coach Stephen Silas, Houston is moving on from the “seven seconds or less” style of play that has gotten them to the second round in each of the last four seasons.

On the court, the Rockets lost Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green between trades and free agency. With their losses, they’ve added John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Christian Wood in new general manager Rafael Stone’s first off-season. The big question is does Stone trade the unhappy James Harden before the March 26th trade deadline?

 

Teams To Look Out for

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland missed center Jusuf Nurkic for the majority of the season but got him back for the team’s trip to the Orlando bubble. He averaged 17.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game as the Blazers went 6-2 to close out the regular season. His return coupled with Damian Lillard’s out of this world play helped them to make up the deficit in the standings, which allowed them to win the play-in game before losing to the Lakers in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

Now with Nurkic being healthy, the additions of forward Robert Covington, center Enes Kanter and Derrick Jones Jr. to the rotation, and the return of Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood (injury), Portland can actually use a solid 10 or 11-man rotation, which is perfect when there is so much uncertainty in the league this season.

This is the most talented team that All-Star guard Damian Lillard and his backcourt mate CJ McCollum have ever had since they have been in the league.

 

Utah Jazz

Utah is not flashy and outside of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, they have a roster that most common NBA fans could not name more than five players. Yet still, head coach Quin Synder’s teams always win games. He’s won over 44 games in each of the last four seasons and they are expecting to do more in 2020-21.

The Jazz added back fan-favorite Derrick Favors to the rotation. Even better, both Mitchell and Gobert are locked in long term for at least the next five seasons. Bojan Bogdanovic returns after missing the entire bubble due to injury and the team will love to have his 20.2 points per game back in the lineup. This will allow Joe Ingles to return to his sixth-man role.

Can they win their first playoff series since the 2017-2018 season?

 

 Contenders

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers lost key reserves Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard but even with their losses, the team might be even better than last season’s championship team. They added the reigning sixth-man of the year Montrezl Harrell, scoring point guard Dennis Schroder and veteran big man Marc Gasol to Frank Vogel’s roster.

This version of the Lakers is deep enough to allow Finals MVP LeBron James and All-Star Anthony Davis to not have to play heavy minutes in the opening few weeks of the season and they can still win enough games to obtain home court in the Western Conference playoffs.

 

Denver Nuggets

Head coach Michael Malone has a very good team around him that is lead by the all-around play of Nikola Jokic and emerging star Jamal Murray. Denver plays a style that allows them to take advantage of the mile-high altitude that teams around the league aren’t used to playing in. Last season, they were not able to take advantage of it due to playing in the bubble in Orlando.

Denver got to the Conference Finals last season without starting small forward Will Barton, and it allowed Michael Porter Jr. to finally show why he’s one of the best young players in the league. Now if he leaps stardom in his third season, the Nuggets have a group that can beat the Lakers in a playoff series.

 

Los Angeles Clippers

After losing Game 7 to the Nuggets last season, the Clippers made a coaching change and lost a key member of their rotation in the offseason. Now with head coach Tyronn Lue in charge, Serge Ibaka replacing the reigning NBA sixth man of the year Harrell and the team trying to erase the horrific memory of their final game of last season, the Clippers will have plenty of motivation to get to brand new heights.

The dynamic duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will again attempt to get this team to places that they have never been before. Veterans Lou Williams and Patrick Beverly have a lot to prove after not playing well in the series against the Nuggets. This year is championship or bust due to Leonard possibly becoming a free agent at the end of the season.

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