NBA Western Conference preview
Projected standings in a conference with more questions than answers
Eleven Western Conference teams have aspirations of contending this season. I don’t necessarily mean that they can realistically win a NBA championship. But all 11 have a Vegas line of 44.5 wins or higher. Many have superstar talent, even if it’s surrounded by injury questions or a flawed supporting cast. All of them are teams that — after a couple of beers — can talk themselves into thinking there’s a pathway if everything goes right.
When you think that way, not making the playoffs counts as a major disappointment. But at least 3 of these 11 teams will be the odd ones out.1 Rather than project the entire conference at 45-37, I’ve had to make some pessimistic-seeming projections too. Because here’s the number to keep in mind: 1230. That’s how many games there are in an NBA regular season. In these projections — plus the Eastern Conference projections from last week — the total number of wins needs to add up to that number. It’s a difficult budget constraint, particularly in the West. The gap between high aspirations and the cold, hard statistical reality of 1230 is why I have all but one West team marked with the 🟡 or 🟠 icons, meaning that they are medium- or low- confidence picks. For more on how all of this works, see last week’s column.
Quick semi-hard sell: I hope there’s some real value here — there’s more than 10,000 words of analysis between the two NBA preview articles. I’m going to give you the first three West teams for free, but put the rest behind the paywall. Last week’s post got more paid subscriptions than I was expecting, which I deeply appreciate. If you’re interested, here’s where to sign up:
Before we move to the team-by-team outlook, there’s some messy business to clean up from last week. After I posted the preview, the Hornets’ Miles Bridges turned himself in following an arrest warrant for an allegation that he threw billiard balls at his ex-girlfriend’s car. Bridges pled no contest to charges of domestic violence against the same woman last year. Bridges was nevertheless seen at Hornets practice the following day. I don’t want to get in the weird business of evaluating a legal claim, or how the Hornets will react to it, but the depth chart analysts I trust the most (at Basketball Monster) have significantly lowered their estimates for Bridges’ playing time. These are the same Hornets, by the way, who waived former first-round pick Kai Jones last week following erratic behavior on social media. So I’m lowering my projection for the Hornets’ record from 34-48 to 32-50. Statistically, Charlotte had looked like one of the better over bets, but I’m reluctant to recommend one on a franchise that doesn’t seem to have its act together.
OK then, now on to a franchise that very much does have its act together — the Denver Nuggets.
Denver Nuggets: 52-30 🟡
2022-23: 53-29 (49-33); 16-4 playoffs; 5th offense, 15th defense
2021-22: 48-34 (47-35); 1-4 playoffs; 6th offense, 15th defense
2020-21*: 54-28 (54-28); 4-6 playoffs; 7th offense, 12th defense
Key additions: Julian Strawther (1st round pick), Jalen Pickett (2nd round pick), Hunter Tyson (2nd round pick)
Key subtractions: Bruce Brown, Jeff Green
Weighted average age: 27.2
Vegas line: 52.5 wins
But there’s a lot of conflicting data, and I’m a little bit confused about where to peg Denver for this regular season.
The Nuggets finished last year with a solid-but-not-elite 53-29 record. However, they were coasting down the stretch run after essentially having locked up the West’s #1 seed. Up through March 6, they were 46-19, which is a 58-win pace. Then they had one of the most dominant playoff performances in years. (You absolutely should be using playoff data when making projections for the next season — that’s something we always did with RAPTOR.) On the flip side, the Nuggets outperformed their expected W-L record by four games. Another data point: 2020-21, when they won the equivalent of 54 games in an 82-game schedule with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy (which they weren’t in 2021-22).
Overall, I’m calibrating to the Nuggets having something like 56-win talent with last year’s roster.
However, the Nuggets lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green. RAPTOR isn’t particularly fond of either player, having had Brown at 3.2 wins above replacement level and Green at 1.7 wins below replacement last year. Moving away from the abstract notion of replacement level, however, their actual replacements could be bad. The Nuggets are potentially relying on late-first-round pick Strawther and second-round picks Pickett and Tyson for serious rotation minutes. It’s a creative approach — all three are older rookies, and (as was the case with Christian Braun last year) 21-year-olds have more potential to be solid contributors right from the start than 19-year-olds. A lot of it comes down to how much faith you have in GM Calvin Booth. The Nuggets clearly get the big questions right, but they haven’t yet proven to have a meticulous eye for detail.
Then there’s the question of motivation after the Nuggets brought Denver its first NBA championship. Do teams tend to slump after winning a title?
Since 2000, NBA title winners finish with an average record of 55-27 in the year following a championship — after going 59-23 in their title year. That’s actually not as much regression as I was expecting, given that most championship teams are older and there’s sometimes roster turnover. I’m landing somewhere in the low 50’s here, right where Vegas has the Nuggets.
Los Angeles Lakers: 47-35 🟡
2022-23: 43-39 (43-39); 8-8 playoffs; 16th offense, 3rd defense
2021-22: 33-49 (33-49); missed playoffs; 23rd offense, 21st defense
2020-21*: 48-34 (48-34); 2-4 playoffs; 24th offense, 1st defense
Key additions: Christian Wood, Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Jaxson Hayes
Key subtractions: Dennis Schröder, Lonnie Walker
Weighted average age: 27.8
Vegas line: 47.5 wins
Lakers fans aren’t going to believe this, but this is me going to bat for them. They’re projected only as a .500 team by Pelton. They’ve been a very inconsistent regular season team over the course of LeBron James’s tenure there.
And the Lakers are a team I made a lot of money betting against for parts of the last two seasons. But the reason I was betting against them is because the rest of their roster behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis was an absolute dumpster fire — particularly Russell Westbrook, who was slightly better last year but was below replacement level in 2021-22.
It’s an entirely different team now. The front office did great work to cut bait on Russ, turn over the rest of the roster, and build a team that’s actually pretty darned deep.
Look, they’re going to play a lot of games without LeBron and Davis next season — LeBron is 39 (!), and Davis is meme-ably injury prone. And the West is deep, which is why we should temper our expectations. But the Lakers went 19-8 after the trade deadline last year, then had a very spirited playoff campaign. Between the improved depth and the emergence of Austin Reaves, they’re no longer drawing dead when James and/or Davis are out.
Phoenix Suns: 47-35
2022-23: 45-37 (46-36); 6-5 playoffs; 14th offense, 7th defense
2021-22: 64-18 (59-23); 7-6 playoffs; 4th offense, 3rd defense
2020-21*: 58-24 (56-26); 14-8 playoffs; 5th offense, 9th defense
Key additions: Bradley Beal, Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, Grayson Allen, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Eric Gordon, Bol Bol, Yuta Watanabe, Frank Vogel (coach)
Key subtractions: Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Torrey Craig, Landry Shamet, Monty Williams (coach)
Weighted average age: 28.9
Vegas line: 52.0 wins†
UPDATE: The Suns had a good preseason and we have three wins to distribute following the injury to the Grizzlies’ Steven Adams, so they get one of them.
The Suns were a very good basketball team in 2020-21 and 2021-22, reaching the NBA Finals in 2021, then having the best record in the regular season the following year. However, the team that accomplished those things has almost entirely been turned over. Compare their starting lineup at the start of last season to what they have heading into this year:
2022-23 2023-24 PG Chris Paul Devin Booker SG Devin Booker Bradley Beal SF Mikal Bridges Josh Okogie PF Cam Johnson Kevin Durant C Deandre Ayton Jusuf Nurkic Coach Monty Williams Frank Vogel
Is this year’s group better? A lot of people will say, “well, Kevin Durant, of course they’re better, duh!”. But this doesn’t really look to me like an overall upgrade to me as a regular season proposition. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were very good players and they’re gone. (Although, RAPTOR does like Josh Okogie’s defense.) Paul has been quite a bit better than Beal, according to RAPTOR — although Beal’s defensive metrics could improve now that he’s in a more competitive environment. I don’t care for either of the centers. And nothing against Frank Vogel, but I don’t think the coaching is an upgrade.
Then there’s Durant. Now’s probably not the time for the big “Is Kevin Durant overrated?” argument. We’ll save that for a slow day. But here are the number of regular season games Durant’s played over the past four seasons: 47, 55, 35, 0. He’s also been, over this period, a player who is only league-average on defense, according to RAPTOR.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the league average, particularly for a player that contributes so much on offense. But my point is this: KD is 35. That’s pretty damned old for an NBA player. And the way modern NBA superstars age is: (1) they play fewer games and (2) they take a lot of defensive possessions off in the regular season. The headline offensive statistics often hold up very well. But projection systems notice the reduced availability and the defensive lapses. So those systems tend to be more bearish on teams with veteran superstars than the betting public. Pelton has the Suns at only 43.5 wins, for instance. The stats-based projections have sometimes gotten burned by this in the playoffs. But they’ve usually been right in the regular season.
Then there’s the “fit”. With Booker, Durant and Beal, there’s world-class midrange shooting, and good (not great) three-point shooting. There’s not a whole lot going on at the rim, especially with the plodding Nurkic there. There’s not a whole lot of defense. Don’t get me wrong, the Sun are going to be unstoppable at times. And they should be a very high-end playoff offense, able to execute in the half-court against elite defensive pressure. But this is not a team that’s going to give you a ton of different matchup-driven looks from night to night. Pelton has them at 43.5 wins and Vegas has them at 52. I’m mostly taking Pelton’s side, though somewhat splitting the difference.
Golden State Warriors: 46-36 🟡
2022-23: 44-38 (45-37); 6-5 playoffs; 8th offense, 17th defense
2021-22: 53-29 (55-27); 16-6 playoffs; 17th offense, 1st defense
2020-21*: 44-38 (43-39); lost play-in; 20th offense, 5th defense
Key additions: Chris Paul, Brandin Podziemski (1st round pick)
Key subtractions: Jordan Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Andre Iguodala
Weighted average age: 30.4
Vegas line: 48.0 wins†
I went into a lot of detail in that Suns capsule because a lot of it applies to other teams led by veteran superstars, including the Lakers, Warriors and Clippers and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference. Other than the Lakers, these are all under picks for me — and the Lakers are the exception, mainly because they’ve done the best job of getting prime-age talent to surround their vets. The Warriors’ weighted average age is 30.4, by contrast.
Positives: Yes, the Dubs still top out as a very good lineup. On paper, Paul is a big upgrade over Poole — a player RAPTOR really dislikes — though the fit of a guy who loves to dribble on a ball-movement offense is obviously weird. Kevon Looney is underrated. They ought to get more than 37 games out of Andrew Wiggins this year.
Negatives: They’re awfully small. DiVincenzo is a bigger loss off the bench than you might think. It’s probably time to have a discussion about whether Klay Thompson has regressed to being a league average player, as RAPTOR thinks he has. And although the Splash Brothers were underrated defenders at their peaks, I’m not sure that’s true at this stage of their careers — I don’t think the Warriors ranking 17th in defense despite having Draymond Green was necessarily a fluke. Plus, there’s a lot of injury risk. The Vegas line is 48 wins, and the Warriors have only hit that mark once out of the last four seasons.
This looks like an under to me, though not one I feel as emphatically about as some of the other veteran teams.
Memphis Grizzlies: 45-37
2022-23: 51-31 (51-31); 2-4 playoffs; 15th offense, 2nd defense
2021-22: 56-26 (55-27); 6-6 playoffs; 5th offense, 4th defense
2020-21*: 43-39 (43-39); 1-4 playoffs; 15th offense, 6th defense
Key additions: Marcus Smart
Key subtractions: Steven Adams (injured), Ja Morant (suspended first 25 games), Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke (injured, likely out most of the year)
Weighted average age: 25.9
Vegas line: 46.0 wins†
UPDATE: Grizzlies’ Very Big Man Steven Adams is now out for the year after undergoing knee surgery. This injury is definitely not just in the “rounding error” category. Adams only played 42 games last season, but nevertheless contributed 4 wins above replacement according to RAPTOR, and his absence coincided with the Grizzlies’ rocky second half of the season. Yes, the Grizzlies are a fairly deep team — Xavier Tillman, a player RAPTOR likes — now figures to start at center. But they’re not infinitely deep; if Tillman moves from the bench to the starting five, for instance, they’ll need to find players to replace his bench minutes. And generally speaking, the presence of stabilizing players like Adams, an outstanding rebounder and interior defender, is why they had a high floor.
Once Morant returns, the Grizzlies’ best option is probably to play a small lineup with Morant, Smart and Desmond Bane all in the lineup, Jaren Jackson Jr. at center, and TBD — probably Ziaire Williams — at the 4. It’s not a bad group, but it gives Memphis less flexibility from night to night. I’m subtracting three wins and redistributing them elsewhere in the West.
The Grizzlies had been an exceptionally consistent regular season team from the start of the 2021-22 season until January 20, 2023. They were the sort of team I loved to bet on — they rarely mailed it in, whether on a back-to-back, facing the league’s best opposition or its worst, you name it.
What happened on January 20? They lost to the Lakers, and Ja Morant’s dad got in a shouting match with Shannon Sharpe — one of many weird incidents involving Morant and his entourage last year. I’m not saying the Sharpe incident was the cause, but the Grizzlies had been 31-13 when they headed into the Staples Center that night. Then they went just 20-18 for the rest of the regular season and 2-4 in the playoffs, ending their year by losing a 40-point blowout to the Lakers in Game 6.
That drama aside, there’s a very sound statistical case for the over:
The incoming Marcus Smart was about 3 wins better than the outgoing Tyus Jones last year, according to RAPTOR.
Morant is something like a 10-WAR player over the course of a full season, so the 25-game suspension would ordinarily cost the Grizzlies about 3 wins. But note that Morant was also suspended for part of last season (for the first time he was playing around with guns on Instagram Live) and played only 61 games. So the net effect isn’t that large. And the Grizzlies have historically played pretty well without Morant.
Being without Clarke for what could be most of the season should cost them a win or two.
So you can look at all of that, which nets out pretty neutrally. (I do think the Smart pickup has been overlooked.) The Grizzlies went 52-30 last year, and they’re still a young team. Shouldn’t we project them at 51-31 or something? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The Grizzlies led the West in Kevin Pelton’s projections.
For me, it is an over bet — but it’s not a slam dunk. I’m just a little spooked by the second half of their year. There aren’t that many NBA teams that have that dawg in ‘em for nearly every game in an 82-game season; the Grizzlies had been one of the exceptions, and maybe something shifted and they aren’t anymore. And I’m not sure how confident to be that Morant’s problems will be over after his 25-game suspension is.
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