The Whiteboard: NBA’s 3 unpredictable Western Conference playoff teams

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After a furious flurry of moves over the last week, the brunt of the NBA offseason is already in the rearview mirror. The 2020 NBA Draft feels like it happened a month ago, most of the major free agents are already off the board and there have been about 45 trades go through — the majority of which involved Sam Presti cramming more first-round picks into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s draft cupboard.

While it’s been a challenge keeping tabs on all this player (and pick) movement, we’ve got a basic understanding of the lay of the land again. Out in the Western Conference, it remains as treacherous to navigate as ever.

The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers both re-upped and aren’t going anywhere. Fresh off a conference finals appearance, the Denver Nuggets got worse by losing Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, but they’ll still be a playoff team. The Portland Trail Blazers are fully healthy and had a quietly superb offseason. The same (to a slightly lesser degree) goes for the Dallas Mavericks as Luka Doncic only gets better and better, and the Utah Jazz, despite a mostly quiet offseason, will still be in the hunt.

The Thunder are clearly tanking, but that’s already six teams expected to be in the playoff hunt. There are a few completely unpredictable teams expected to join that hunt, and they are our focus today. Whether it’s because of new arrivals, guys getting healthy or potential implosions, these three teams fit the description of “unpredictable playoff hopefuls.”

Houston Rockets

Seriously, does anyone think the Houston Rockets will get past this turbulent moment and soar back to the heights of title contender status this year? General manager Rafael Stone has been busy trying to make moves away from Daryl Morey’s philosophy in a last-ditch effort to keep James Harden happy, but they’ve already lost the support of a star that no one really wants in Russell Westbrook.

Harden wants out, Russ wants out, P.J. Tucker is unhappy with his contract situation, and no amount of Christian Wood or DeMarcus Cousins is going to change that. It wouldn’t be surprising if neither Westbrook nor Harden is on this roster a year from now.

However, as much as Houston needs to dump Westbrook somewhere before the new season, it has no incentive to trade Harden just because he wants to play for the Brooklyn Nets. It’s a messy situation, but you don’t just give up a top-5 player and perennial MVP candidate for whatever package you can find. Unless the Rockets recoup some of the draft assets they’ve lost over the years and get a young, established star in return, working out a Harden trade will have to wait.

That means the Rockets could very well surge to a top-four or top-five playoff spot, much like the Thunder did last year when everyone assumed they would blow it up. Harden is still an offense unto himself, and flanked by Russ (or not!), Wood, Boogie, Tucker, Eric Gordon and Danuel House Jr., that’s still easily a playoff-caliber team.

The question is not a matter of talent, but rather, whether the discomfort and uneasy tension boils over to a complete roster implosion that officially closes the curtain on the James Harden era.

Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns needed to go 8-0 in the NBA bubble to finish five games below .500. Sure, they were banged up for a lot of the year, and Deandre Ayton’s 25-game suspension on opening night didn’t help matters, but the point still stands: As real as Orlando’s coming-out party felt, Phoenix’s ascending youngsters still have to learn how to win consistently in this league.

There aren’t many better people to learn that lesson from than Chris Paul, who just led a similarly young Thunder squad to the 5-seed out West. CP3 is older now, but he’s still a top-25 player in this league, and he represents an upgrade on Ricky Rubio — you know, the underrated but still league-average point guard who just helped unleash the best season of Devin Booker’s career.

Throw in Jae Crowder, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway, bring back Dario Saric and Jevon Carter, and suddenly something’s cooking in the desert. For the first time in 10 years, the expectation for the Suns is to make the playoffs. The question is where they will end up in those top eight spots and how quickly they’re able to come together.

Can Monty Williams figure out the right lineups with an ultra-versatile, switchable roster? Does Devin Booker have another gear entering his age-24 season? Will CP3 strengthen Ayton’s mental fortitude and unlock a new gear, or will he just completely break him? Are Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson poised for their breakout seasons? Is Jalen Smith ready to contribute from day one? The Suns have a lot of questions to answer, but for the first time in a decade, they’re all good problems to have.

Golden State Warriors

There’s no way around it: Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear is a devastating blow to the Golden State Warriors‘ hopes of contending for a title in 2021, and it may very well have shut the door on the Dubs’ dynasty for good. However, it’d still be foolish to leave the Warriors out of the playoff conversation, and that was true before they went out and snagged Kelly Oubre Jr. from OKC.

A heathy core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Oubre is still a playoff core, even if Andrew Wiggins’ fit remains a big question mark. Kevon Looney is underrated. No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman should fit their system as a rim-running big. Brad Wanamaker is a capable backup, Eric Paschall has a lot to offer and Kent Bazemore is returning to his roots to help with the team’s wing depth.

The Dubs are still reeling from the Thompson news, and rightfully so. His absence makes it impossible to predict what to expect from a group that felt invincible just over a year ago. But Oubre is coming off a career year in Phoenix as an emerging two-way wing, Green has every reason to turn his dial back up to 11 after a tank season, and as long as he’s healthy, Curry is still one of the singular unstoppable forces in the NBA.

Ruling out a group like that, that knows how to win, seems to be foolish … even if no one has any remote idea of where they’ll end up in the playoff picture when all is said and done.

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Speaking of Oubre, Warriors fans should be very excited about the unique kind of individual they’re getting.

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