Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out whether somebody is smart like a fox or dumb as a rock.
Like when you tell your daughter’s boyfriend to have her home by 10:15 and he says: “OK, the middle of October. Great.”
That’s where I’m at when looking at the Western Conference. It’s easy to fall in love with several teams. You can make a case for the LA Clippers, Phoenix, Denver and, of course, Golden State. Minnesota, Memphis, the Mavericks, the Lakers and maybe even Sacramento could easily qualify as trendy picks.
And yet, you can find reasons to doubt all of those teams.
But since the season will be here in about a week, here’s my preseason choices for the Western Conference – again, with the proviso that this could be pure genius or the biggest idiot projections of all time.
Memphis is going to finish with the best record in the West. How so? Glad you asked. This remains a young, rising team. They value the regular season a bit more than, say, a Warriors’ team that cares solely about the playoffs, or a Clippers’ team that will be resting a lot of players during the regular season, but should be a very tough out in the playoffs.
Memphis, with Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the rest of the gang, will be atop the West come April. And it probably won’t require the 56 wins they finished with last season to get there.
The rest of the top four: Phoenix, Golden State, LA Clippers. Those three teams have the most veteran talent and that alone will keep them in the home-court-advantage conversation.
After that, I’m taking Minnesota, Denver, the Mavericks and Sacramento to round out the top eight.
The Mavericks are going to have to figure things out as they go this season. Getting Christian Wood comfortable is going to be the big priority and one of Luka Dončić’s priorities.
After that, throw the Lakers, New Orleans, Portland and anybody else you want in a hat and pick a name. They could round out the top-10 and get into the play-in tournament.
And with that, here’s this week’s Mail-It-In question-and-answer session.
Question of the Week: Who is Dallas’ second-best player. Joche via Twitter.
Sefko: This would seem to be an obvious-answer question. But it’s not as simple as just saying Spencer Dinwiddie is No. 2 behind Luka Dončić. Too often, we equate scoring with the rating a player deserves. And Dinwiddie does other things, too. He can be a ball-distributor when needed. And he’s an OK defender. But the other contenders for this designation have strong cases, too. Dorian Finney-Smith is the best defender on the team and one of the most reliable 3-point shooters. He rarely misses games and he’s a hero in the locker room. When healthy, Tim Hardaway Jr. might have the second-best skill set on the team. Maxi Kleber does a little bit of everything. But if you want my drop-dead answer on this, it’s got to be Christian Wood. His rebounding is going to be more important to this team than any other asset anybody besides Luka can bring to the table. And Wood can score. If he’s not the second-best player on this team, then something probably has gone awry. Either that, or Dinwiddie has regained that all-star level he was playing at before his knee injury, which would be a wonderful thing for the Mavericks.
Question: Josh Green’s likely stat line for the season? I say, 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.7 steals. This could be his breakout year. Brad M. via Twitter.
Sefko: That might be a little ambitious for a guy who is entering his third season and has averaged only 4 points (and 14 minutes) in his first two. This needs to be a breakout season for the Australian swingman. I agree with that. But I’m thinking more in terms of eight points and two or three rebounds per game, with his minutes bumping up to 18 or so. He’s not this team’s sixth man. Or seventh. His minutes are going to have to be earned. I expect Green to be grouped with guys like Davis Bertans and Dwight Powell and Jason Kidd will be going with whoever has the hot hand on any particular night.
Question: What’s a successful season for Jaden Hardy? Sergio I. via Twitter.
Sefko: If he leads the Texas Legends to the playoffs, then it’s a great season. Hardy will spend a fair amount of time with the Mavericks. But he will need playing time and that’s more likely to come in Frisco with the G-League Legends. That’s not a bad thing for a 20-year-old rookie. You’ve heard me talk in the past that young players need to pass the G-League eye test. If you can’t dominate that level of competition, you’re probably not quite ready to step up to a significant role in the NBA. Let’s allow this kid to learn, to make mistakes and grow into his talent, which is considerable, by the way. But you can’t skip steps. Throwing young, exuberant and impressionable players to the wolves can have an undesirable impact if you aren’t careful.
Question: Conley, Clarkson and Vanderbilt for Hardaway, Ntilikina, Bertans, Green, a lottery-protected first-rounder and a second-rounder? DomiNos, via Twitter.
Sefko: No thanks. First off, I doubt you’re getting Jarred Vanderbilt in any deal. Utah’s rebuilding and the big man fits in with everything they are trying to do. Also, do you really want Mike Conley’s $47-million over the next two years, knowing how he looked in the playoff series against the Mavericks? To be honest, I’m not sure either team would do this, even if the Mavericks could magically come up with some draft assets to trade.
Question: Is the team as currently constructed as good as last year’s team? Or should we place our expectations at a more moderate (7th– or 8th-seed) level? TodoMavs via Twitter.
Sefko: For decades, the motto has been the same in the NBA. If you’re not getting better, you’re going to slip in the pecking order. What we don’t know for sure is whether the Mavericks got better this year or not. Christian Wood and JaVale McGee will help. So will a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. But Jalen Brunson was a beast. Without him, the Mavericks probably don’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. So until we know more about the personality and talent on this team, we should take on this battle cry: We’re No. 6. Finish in the top six in the Western Conference, avoid the play-in tournament and take your chances in the playoffs. That would constitute a satisfying regular season.
Question: Are fans sleeping on Christian Wood? Like they did when we got Tyson Chandler back in the day? Jimmy J. via Twitter.
Sefko: Hopefully. When the Mavericks got Chandler, they were getting damaged goods. At least that’s what the rest of the NBA thought. But they had inside information from athletic trainer Casey Smith, who was involved in the U.S. national team that Chandler was part of at the 2010 World Championship. Because of his injury past, it was forgivable if fans weren’t sold on Chandler. That quickly changed when he got here. But with Wood, there’s no guesswork, other than hoping he wasn’t putting up nice numbers for a bad team simply because somebody has to. Wood is going to be fine, especially if he can average double-figure rebounds. To me, that’s more important than the scoring. But to the point of your question, I don’t think people are sleeping on Wood. They expect a lot out of him and that’s fair. He’s going for a major contract this year and if he earns it, the Mavericks are going to be a far better team because of it.