7. Minnesota Timberwolves
I know, here come the homer comments since I pinned the Jazz ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but despite an incredible offseason, I still don’t think the Wolves are poised for as big of a jump as one might think. Yes, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are going to improve yet again and appear to be future stars. Yes, they added an elite two-way player in Jimmy Butler and solid veterans in Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford.
But let’s not forget where the Timberwolves finished last season – 13th in the West. As good as Wiggins and Towns were, they still were the third worst team in the conference. Not to mention, although Butler is a phenomenal player, his team still was just the eighth seed in the weak Eastern Conference and only barely made the playoffs at that. The same could be said for Jeff Teague’s seventh-seeded former Indiana Pacers team.
Of course, those were different teams under different circumstances and the idea of combining those four players – Teague, Wiggins, Butler and Towns – to play underneath hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau certainly is intriguing. Thus, I fully expect Minnesota to be a much improved team that makes the playoffs, but let’s not forget that jumping from 13th to 7th is a massive accomplishment in and of itself.
The major concern I have for the Timberwolves is their spacing. Teague had a good year shooting the deep ball in 2015-16, but has hovered around the mid-30s for most of his career. Butler, Wiggins and Towns aren’t exactly known as sharpshooters either. Crawford is often considered a deadly sniper, but, especially at his age, his consistency has dropped considerably.
Furthermore, one of Minnesota’s biggest problems last season was their bench and that could very well continue to be a large area of concern. Therefore, while I love what Minnesota has done so far this offseason and quite frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if they managed to pull ahead of the Jazz and Blazers in the division, I still think that both of those teams boast the experience and pedigree to have a slight edge over the Wolves next year.
8. Denver Nuggets
In a lot of ways it was a shame that the Denver Nuggets didn’t qualify for the playoffs this past year. They were an exciting young team that had a firm grip on the eighth seed for most of the season, but let it slip through their fingers as they faltered just as Portland got hot. Now they’ve added Paul Millsap who should be an ideal fit next to the young and electrifying Nikola Jokic, but I’m still not convinced that Denver’s roster quite fits together.
As has been noted several times, they have a logjam at the power forward spot and while they have some promising young guns in Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, I’m still not convinced that they have enough of a floor general to truly help them take that much of a leap.
Furthermore, Millsap is on the tail end of his career and I wouldn’t be surprised to see somewhat of a decline from him. Also, one of Denver’s biggest issues last season was their atrocious defense. Unless that changes dramatically, I still don’t see them having the talent to be able to make a massive jump in the West. With that being said, I do still have Denver pinned as a playoff team, but I believe it will only be by the narrowest of margins.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
I can already tell you I’m almost guaranteed to regret slotting the Memphis Grizzlies outside of the playoffs given that they seem to always find a way to make it in. Yet in a crowded Western Conference, here I am doing it anyway. Despite parting ways with Zach Randolph and potentially losing Tony Allen, the Grizzlies still have Mike Conley and Marc Gasol (trade rumors aside) and were a playoff team last season.
Nevertheless, I expect the Grizzlies to regress somewhat and more than anything, I believe the rise of Minnesota and Denver will effectively push Memphis out of the postseason for the first time in the last seven seasons. There’s still a lot to like about this Memphis team, but given that they didn’t exactly dominate their way to a playoff spot last year, will have stiffer competition this season and may take a slight step backwards in talent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish ninth.
Although, given that teams like Utah, Minnesota and Denver are all somewhat of a mystery for next season whereas the Grizzlies have a long track record of qualifying for the playoffs, I truly wouldn’t be all that surprised to see them switch spots with any of those aforementioned teams.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
I waffled back and forth on where I was going to put the LA Clippers on this list and to be quite honest, given how deep the West is, it’s hard for me to believe that any single one of these teams that I’ve listed so far could possibly finish as low as tenth in the conference, nevertheless, that’s where I’ve pinned LA.
Yes, they still have two All-Stars in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and unlike what went down in the Gordon Hayward situation, the Clippers were able to net some nice pieces in the Chris Paul trade.
Still, I think that LA is going to struggle mightily without their floor general Chris Paul. Last season, the Clippers went just 8-13 without him. Not to mention the departures of J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford could prove very detrimental and I still have little confidence in LA’s bench as well as in Doc Rivers’ ability to lead the team to success without Paul, the team’s former best player and most capable leader.
The Jazz delivered a crippling blow to the collective psyche of the Clippers in last year’s playoffs which very well could have been a major reason why CP3 decided to look elsewhere. Given the issues that already existed in LA prior to losing out on three key players, I suspect that 2017-18 may be a rough year for the Clips.