After a quarter of regular season play, here are 15 early season predictions for the Western Conference.
This is a continuation of the early season predictions series that was published on opening night. 15 predictions for the Eastern Conference can be found here.
Denver Nuggets finish in the bottom half of the league defensively
Before the season, Denver was predicted to be among the inner circle of Western Conference contenders. The defensive end of the floor was and has been the concern for every iteration of the Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets, including this season so far. Maybe the question — rather than can the Nuggets become an elite defensive team — is can they be so elite on offense that it negates their poor defense?
A quarter of the way through the season, Denver is the third-best offense and 27th-best defense — a decent decline from their median defensive finish the last three seasons. The Nuggets have allowed opponents 1.16 points per possession through their first 24 games, compared with 1.12 points per possession in each of the last two seasons, and 1.16 points per possession in their run to the conference finals in The Bubble.
The numbers and on-court play agree that Jokic is not the culprit of Denver’s defensive problems. Per Cleaning the Glass, Denver’s defense improves by 0.98 points per possession when Jokic is on the floor, the largest improvement among all rostered players.
Instead, the Nuggets are hemorrhaging points in bench-heavy units. This might not matter in the postseason when rosters shrink, but it could determine how favorable of a matchup they have in the first and second rounds.
Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, I don’t think they find their identity defensively in the regular season.
Minnesota Timberwolves finish as a top-10 offense and defense league-wide
The hype surrounding these Timberwolves is as high as it’s been for the franchise in almost 20 seasons when Minnesota last had any substantial postseason success.
The Timberwolves have started this season an underwhelming 11-12 with the league’s 17th-best offense and its 15th-rated defense.
Their offensive struggles have come from rebounding the ball; opponents have out-rebounded the Wolves by four percentage points on offense and defense combined (equal to roughly four extra possessions per game). Their starting group — which includes the Edwards-Gobert-Towns trio — is passable on the offensive glass, but has been well below average in securing defensive rebounds, per Cleaning the Glass. (And this lineup has played the third most possessions of any in the NBA so far, a substantial sample.)
Timberwolves starters are also turning the ball over on 19 percent of possessions, one of the worst marks of any minutes-heavy lineup. They should, and I project they will, correct these giveaways as they continue to learn how to assimilate Gobert into the mix.
But to see a Gobert-Towns frontcourt struggling on the glass should provide enough pause when projecting Minnesota as one of the conference contenders, as some may have before the season began. However, I believe in Minnesota’s talent, and I predict they’ll finish in the league’s top third on both sides of the ball once they shore up their rebounding and take care of the ball.
Oklahoma City Thunder regresses to a bottom-10 offense and remains a bottom-10 defense league-wide
Last season, the Thunder were the second-worst offense and a below-average defense. After a month-plus of play, they’ve displayed an identical defensive profile and improved their offense by seven points per 100 possessions.
How exactly have they taken such a drastic leap offensively? The Thunder haven’t turned the ball over, have taken a high percentage of their shots at the rim, and most notably, have shot well on less efficient midrange shots.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has also been playing at an All-NBA level in his fourth season with the Thunder. On a heavy 35 percent usage, he’s scoring 1.26 points per shot attempt, an elite figure among all guards so far this season, and turning the ball over at a below-average rate. He’s continued to improve his outside shot, which is currently hovering at the elite 40 percent threshold, and with it, his overall effective field-goal percentage has climbed to 57 percent.
Throughout the season, I expect Gilgeous-Alexander to continue to dominate offensively. But I don’t think his Thunder teammates will do the same.
Portland Trail Blazers finish as the NBA’s median team; with a middle-of-the-pack record, offense, and defense
After a brutal 2021-22 season, the Blazers have returned to the level they’ve been at for most of the past decade, reliably good on both ends of the ball. Damian Lillard’s shooting slump a year ago, the mounting injuries he and Jusuf Nurkic faced, and the loss of two foundational players in CJ McCollum and Larry Nancy Jr. explain why the Blazers were the fourth-worst offense and second-worst defense a year ago.
So far, they’ve improved to a mediocre level on both sides of the ball, affording opponents a point more per 100 possessions than they score themselves. The Blazers are tied for the league’s worst defensive shot profile based on the location of an opponent’s shot attempt, per Cleaning the Glass, and have been slightly unlucky with opponents making an above-average percentage of their outside attempts.
Portland is competitive, and this roster can achieve far more than the team accomplished a season ago. But I think it’s a stretch to consider Portland a playoff contender in the West given their early play on paper.
Their only hope would be Lillard’s continued healthy return and an MVP-caliber remainder of the season, which we already know he’s capable of.
Utah Jazz finish in the play-in race (seeds 7-10 in the conference) due to their above-average offense
The Jazz is the NBA’s best storyline through a month of play and it isn’t particularly close. How exactly have the Jazz become the team punching well above the weight of their preseason expectations? Simply put, their offense has been dominant.
Through 19 games (one-fifth of the season!) Utah was averaging 1.17 points per possession, which, if they were able to sustain for an entire season, would be one of the best offenses in the history of the NBA. They’ve shot the ball at an above-average rate while taking the majority of their shot attempts at the rim and from three, a clear indication of their offensive strategy from new head coach Will Hardy.
The Jazz has had some luck with their outside shot, particularly from the preferred corner attempts where they’ve shot an incredible 46 percent on 175 attempts (would be the best such team shooting percentage in NBA history). Their heavy hitters so far — Malik Beasley, Lauri Markkanen, and Kelly Olynyk — are not household names, but they all have had past success as efficient scorers at different points in their respective careers.
The unfortunate reality is that their entire offensive profile isn’t sustainable. They’ve turned the ball over at an above-average rate and have struggled to get to the line. Utah has shot 45 percent on midrange attempts. Their historic outside shooting will inevitably regress.
And yet, when you watch the Jazz play, part of their success feels authentic. Even as a mediocre defensive team, which the numbers and their play so far have confirmed, I believe their offense is potent enough to allow them to contend for the play-in tournament.