NBA: Predicting the Stacked Western Conference

The Western Conference had several moves that changed the landscape of the league during free agency, with the biggest signings being LeBron James going to the Lakers and DeMarcus Cousins going to the Warriors. With much of the NBA offseason behind us, it’s time to complete our predictions for the conference.

Favorite for the One Seed – Houston Rockets

Outside of the Rockets, there is no team in the West that has a chance at having a better record than the Warriors. Despite earning the top seed for the second year in a row, the Rockets will not be able to beat the Warriors come playoff time. The Rockets just didn’t make enough positive moves this offseason, and they lost a key player in swingman Trevor Ariza.

James Harden will once again lead a potent Rockets lineup. His 30/8.8/5.4 line last season was one to behold, and he showed no signs of stopping in the postseason despite a Rockets elimination. Second and third stars Chris Paul and Clint Capela will have to step up in the absence of the consistent Ariza, who signed with the Phoenix Suns. Their only reinforcement will come with Carmelo Anthony, a player that doesn’t have much to offer on defense, but will be crucial on nights when Harden or Paul miss time.

Outside of their big three, the Rockets have done well to create a roster around defensive switching and the three-pointer. Headlining the best of the rest is Eric Gordon, along with Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute. With those four and Nene Hilario, the Rockets are one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league.

But with this Rockets team, the question remains whether they have any shot of beating the Warriors in a seven-game series. The team would need to improve in almost all areas to be able to beat these impeccable Warriors, so only time will tell if the run-and-gun Rockets will be able to improve on last year’s conference finals exit.

Underdog Team – Denver Nuggets

With the top two teams in the west nearly set in stone, it’s up to the next 10 or 12 teams to fight for the final six playoff spots. The Denver Nuggets look well suited to make a significant run during the regular season and the playoffs with added depth and fresh legs.

Nikola Jokic will once again lead the mile-high roster. The Joker had a season for the books, putting up awesome stat lines almost every night. His innate ability for passing vision and all-around offensive IQ will prove invaluable to a team that lacks a star point guard. But they might have someone who could fit the bill in the future.

Jamal Murray had a great sophomore season, scoring almost 17 points per game. He was a major part of the Nuggets offense that had to deal with Paul Millsap missing much of the season, and his development will be key for the Nuggets. Millsap, who played well last season despite not playing much, will serve as the core of the Denver defense. The former All-Star will have to set the tone on defense on a team that has struggled with keeping other opponents in check.

Will Barton and Gary Harris man the wing for this Denver team. The two have proven to be a formidable duo in the past and will continue to cause chaos for their opponents. Their combined ability to shoot, handle the ball, and play defense makes them one of the better wing combinations in the league.

With the upper half of this team almost completely locked down, it will be up to bench players, like the newly acquired Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr., to provide depth.

Other teams that will be interesting to follow throughout the season will be the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks. Each team has retained a strong, young core but made several moves that could help them make some noise this season.

Playoff Predictions:

1st Round:

#1 Houston Rockets vs. #8 San Antonio Spurs

#2 Golden State Warriors vs. # 7 Portland Trail Blazers

#3 New Orleans Pelicans vs. #6 Denver Nuggets

#4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #5 Utah Jazz

2nd Round:

#1 Houston Rockets vs. #5 Utah Jazz

#2 Golden State Warriors vs. #3 New Orleans Pelicans

WCF:

#1 Houston Rockets vs. #2 Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors advance to the Finals in six games

-Michael

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