Remember the not so distant past where it was “the Warriors and everyone else”? Well, with attrition occurring at a historic rate this offseason, the Western Conference could be as deep as it’s ever been. With the West hosting the No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, the reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the all-time great LeBron James, you can almost guarantee a League Pass matchup on a nightly basis. Each playoff team will have reason to believe they can make a run to The Finals, keeping the competition level high. Your trusted committee of two, Justin Kirkland and Felix John-Baptiste, are here to decipher the real from the fake, and set realistic expectations for the Western Conference this season.
1. Zion Williamson’s playing style and weight will affect his health if neither changes.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Despite his recent injury, I think he will be perfectly fine and explosive for the start of his career. At 280 pounds he represents a unique threat offensively because he has the strength to be the biggest mismatch at center in the NBA. The problem is we have seen power dunkers (at every size) deteriorate or have to change their game to extend their careers and remain effective. Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin are two former human highlights that had to alter their play styles even before their physical prime was over. Zion dealt with knee issues in college so this is nothing new. I expect the work to become more selective about his explosive ability to come early in his career.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. I’m not so much worried about his playing style as I am about his weight. His quick twitch actions, double jumps and overall explosiveness is what makes him a phenomenon. However, his weight will speed up the wear and tear on his lower extremities, mainly his knees.
A severe injury has been ruled out for Zion Williamson’s right knee, but he is expected to miss period of weeks to start regular season, league sources tell ESPN. Pels are clearly treating injury with an abundance of caution but there’s no shortage of confidence on full recovery.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 18, 2019
We’ve seen the likes of LeBron James enter the league with such freak athleticisim and explosiveness, and able to withstand the rigors of an NBA season. By just shedding a few pounds and maintaining muscle, Zion should be able to achieve similar longevity.
2. LeBron James will lead the league in assists per game.
Kirkland: Big Facts. LeBron is in his passing prime. As his physical abilities have declined his dominance on the game remains because his IQ has continued to rise. The addition of Anthony Davis as a running mate will give us the opportunity to see LeBron as the 1b option offensively for the first time in his career. His passes aren’t as sexy as some of the premier passers the game has ever seen but his move to the point guard and pairing with a top-5 guy in the league will make him an easy 10-12 assist-per-game candidate.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. I do believe he will finish in the top-five, however, he will not lead the league. Russell Westbrook averaged double-digit assists on a team that was not nearly as focused on the three-point shot as the ‘pace and space’ Rockets. Expect Westbrook to finish in the top three again, with Trae Young and Luka Doncic taking a step up in that top-five territory.
3. The Houston Rockets will finish a top 3 team in the West.
Kirkland: Big Facts. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are two A+ scorers and playmakers that genuinely like each other. As long as the roster around them remains in good health the Rockets will win plenty of regular-season games with those two running the show on a nightly basis. Their dynamic will be tested more in the playoffs where some of their deeper flaws may be exposed against proper game-planning from elite defensive teams. Houston’s over/under this season is at 53.5. I can easily see them close to 60 wins.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. The Rockets were tied for the third-best record in the West last season (53-29) and they replaced Chris Paul with Russell Westbrook. They’ve balanced the roster with shooting, ball handling and athleticism around the rim. If they’re at least competent on defense, a top-three finish will be inevitable.
4. The Warriors will finish a bottom 3 playoff seed.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Golden State will make the playoffs. Stephen Curry is too otherworldly and D’Angelo Russell will be a great fit alongside him offensively. That offensive ammo alone combined with Draymond Green’s brilliance is a playoff team despite whatever else is going on around them. The problem is their supporting cast is not the same caliber as it has been during their runs for the last 5 years. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston were a big part of what kept the continuity going while the stars were resting. The current Warriors bench mob will see growing pains that will keep them clawing for playoff contention deep into the season in a loaded Western Conference.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Warriors CAN finish as a bottom 3 seed, but I wouldn’t book it. I hope folks haven’t forgotten the damage that can be brought upon teams in the regular season by Stephen Curry. With parking lot shooting range, Curry will be a threat from anywhere on the court on a nightly basis. That will be enough to get the offense flowing and give other players a chance to operate in space. Klay Thompson will not be available to start the season, but All-Star D’Angelo Russell will be able to handle the ball, allowing Curry to play more of the off guard slot. A proposition that could be devastating for opponents.
5. The Nuggets will be a 60 win team in the regular season.
Kirkland: Fake News. Denver is good but…nah. The over/under NBA leader for this upcoming season is the Milwaukee Bucks at 57.5 with the reigning MVP in a diluted Eastern Conference. Denver has the talent of a 60 win team but the logistics of doing that in the Western Conference gauntlet do not make things look promising. The Nuggets are true title contenders but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the first season since 2012 where the top seed in the regular season has less than 60 wins.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. The Nuggets won 54 games in a competitive West last season, and will need to be even better to achieve the same success in a deeper conference this season. Good luck amassing 60 wins amongst the likes of the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, Warriors, and Blazers. The non-playoff teams (Pelicans and Mavericks) won’t be walks in the park either. I’d bet the number 1 seed in the West tops out at 56 wins.