Three Western Conference Playoff Sleepers: NBA Wagering
Heading into the season, the top four seeds in the Western Conference were a pretty automatic assumption. There was a pretty sharp division between the elite and the “others”. Golden State is the obvious and seemingly eternal frontrunner. San Antonio is, well, the Spurs, and Houston and Oklahoma City added legit front-line elite superstars to already-solid playoff caliber rosters. Those four teams, in whatever order (as long as Golden State was first), would likely host opening round playoff series.
The second tier was a little more crowded but contains teams that would be disappointed with anything less than a playoff berth. No team has more youthful intrigue than the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose splashy additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague should bolster the young dynamite duo of Wiggins and The Big KAT too their first playoff appearance. You can call the Wolves a “maybe” if you want, but I’ll confidently go on the record and call them a bonafide, no-doubt playoff team. Elsewhere, the Clippers are hopeful to remain viable in the post-Paul era, the Grizzlies still have Gasol and Mike Conley and a Grindhouse-worthy defense. Both the Clippers and Grizzlies have some question marks on their limited rosters, but solid starts have energized some real optimism.
From there, the picture gets a little murkier. Vegas over/under had the Blazers, Jazz, Pelicans, and Nuggets right in the mix to challenge for the last spot or two, with everyone else; Mavericks, Lakers, Kings, Suns considered significant long shots. But in the so-far insane 2017-2018 NBA world, can one or two of these teams make a big leap??
Assuming the Top Four are automatic, and the T’Wolves are close, here’s my three teams that could be a nice long shot value to make the Western Conference Playoffs, and be nipping much closer to Memphis and the Clippers heels when things eventually settle down. (i.e. I am not sold that hot starts from Memphis or LAC mean they are legit top-four playoff contenders. In fact, far from it. As the season wears on, teams that struggle to score will struggle to win in the modern NBA. I don’t think Memphis or LAC can score enough or score as easily to be legit top-tier contenders, but we shall see…)
#1. Los Angeles Lakers
It is fashionable to take shots at the Lakers and dismiss rookie Lonzo Ball as a product of an over-hyped media machine. But the truth is, the kid can PLAY. He won’t amass gaudy stat lines, and will probably won’t look any better than fellow rookie De’Aaron Fox on paper. But make no mistake about what young Lonzo brings to the court; he is a winner. He sees the floor like a young Jason Kidd and the players around him are getting noticeably better. Simply put, .
It isn’t a coincidence eight Lakers are averaging double figures in scoring. Lonzo can distribute and keep everyone happy. It isn’t a coincidence that the team LIKES each other and appears to have fun. Good ball movement is magic for chemistry. As the season grows long, the Lakers are going to sneak up on some teams who come flat expecting an easy game. By February or March, it’s quite possible teams will KNOW the Lakers are no longer an easy W.
Yes, they are currently just 28th in Offensive Efficiency. That number will improve as this young core gets more comfortable playing together. Julius Randle has been a bright spot early with a 21.3 PER, and Brandon Ingram has struggled shooting the ball but is still a strong candidate to emerge as the Lakers primary scoring option. Most encouraging, the Lakers are defending. This is a team with great defensive potential and the underrated acquisition of Kentavius Caldwell Pope (along with the interior anchor of Brook Lopez) has them sixth in the NBA in Defensive Efficiency.
They aren’t good enough YET but give this young team a few more months to grow and they are going to be very competitive.
#2. Denver Nuggets
The first few games set a sour tone for the early Nuggets season, but you’d be wise not to give up on the new mix of talent in Denver just yet. The rank seventh in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency, which is remarkable considering how atrociously their backcourt has shot the basketball. Consider this: Jamal Murray was drafted simply BECAUSE he is a knock-down shooter. He is currently shooting 23.7% from distance and just 41.4% from the floor. That HAS to improve, just from a sheer mathematical “regression to a reasonable mean” standpoint. His backcourt mate, Emmanuel Mudiay, is the bigger question mark. He was never expected to be an excellent shooter, and is shooting just 39% from the floor (overall, not three-point range) and averaging an insane two turnovers per game against just three assists. A 1.5 Asst/TO ratio isn’t good enough in the NBA, and the Nuggets current point guard combo is the least efficient in the NBA. And again, despite a disastrous first three week from their point guard rotation, .
Assuming they get any modicum of improved point guard play, the rest of this squad is solid. The frontcourt of Jokic and Milsap is quietly one of the best in the entire NBA. The guard/forward rotation of Gary Harris/Wilson Chandler/Will Barton is a nice blend of athleticism and guys who can both defend and get buckets.
If Mudiay or Murray can pick up their play, this is a team that could easily be playing in the postseason. Their most recent win in dominating fashion over Toronto got them back to .500 after a rough 1-3 start. Five straight home games are next, including visits from Miami, Oklahoma City, Orlando and Golden State. If they can grab three wins (I am assuming the one over Brooklyn, which may not be fair), things will be looking pretty solid in the Mile High City.
#3. Phoenix Suns
I joked a week ago after the Suns grabbed their first win, a two-pointer at home over the hapless Kings, that perhaps it WAS all Earl Watson’s fault. It was a shot at the absurdly quick trigger firing the coach after 4% of the season. In retrospect, perhaps the move WAS a good (and necessary) one. The Suns have ripped off four wins in their last five games and two of them are on the road including the most recent thriller in Washington on the backend of a road back-to-back. The West is brutally difficult (we haven’t even talked about the Jazz and Pelicans, as both are not ‘longshot’ contender), but it is even MORE brutal now that it appears the Suns aren’t a free victory. They are back to .500 and the momentum is great.
However, there is one troubling statistic with Phoenix that makes me like their odds far less than the above two teams. They are averaging an assist rate of just 13.6 – easily the worst in the NBA. And when you are worse at something that the Kings, Bulls and Hawks, you are really doing something wrong! They have two guys who can legitimately FILL IT UP, in Devin Booker and TJ Warren – both are really fun fantasy basketball roster plays regardless of the matchup. But they lack ball movement is going to hurt them on nights when Booker/Warren can’t carry them.
And there is also the whole Eric Bledsoe ‘situation’. Will it be too much of a distraction? It seemed like a deal with Detroit, likely including Reggie Jackson, was close. But according to SI.com, . The Suns could definitely USE Bledsoe if he were content and set on being a productive asset and good teammate. Before his injury last season, he was emerging as a borderline All-Star guard, which is saying something in the 2015 guard-insane Western Conference. A 21/6/5 point guard who can defend?? That is welcome on any roster. But until they can figure out a workable solution in Phoenix, things are at a bit of an impasse.
Well, except Sacramento…
All three of the listed teams have some work to do to move into playoff positioning, but the Clippers and Grizzlies are just a big injury away from vulnerable – and history tells us both Conley and Blake Griffin are likely candidates to miss part of the season. Injuries notwithstanding, I think either the Lakers or Nuggets could sneak into the mix.