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Are The Rockets Really Favorites In The NBA’s Stacked Western Conference?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Hello! Let’s talk about the start of the NBA season, which tips off on Tuesday! We’ll begin with the Western Conference today and dig into the East on Tuesday.

I want to start with the team that still ranks No. 1 in our NBA Predictions, even after all the fancy changes we made to our model over the summer. Are you guys buying the Houston Rockets as championship favorites? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook co-exist better than Harden and Chris Paul did (a partnership that reportedly soured by the end of CP3’s tenure in Houston)?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I’m not. It’s not the craziest thought, but it would definitely surprise me if that happened.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I mean, I think we’ve gotta reorient ourselves to a world in which there aren’t any teams as dominant as the Warriors.

Everybody has flaws. Everybody has warts. Everybody could use another player.

chris.herring: Except the Clippers, seemingly!

I really like their roster, and I think they’re close to being a complete team.

natesilver: The Rockets have been maybe the second- or third- or fourth-best team during the Warriors’ run — depending on how you count the Cavs and the one-year version of the Kawhi Raptors. And they’re the only one of those teams that’s still relatively intact.

So it’s not crazy to think they start as the favorites, sort of by default?

Even though RAPTOR does NOT actually like Westbrook very much and preferred CP3.

neil: Vegas agrees with Chris, for what it’s worth.

chris.herring: Yeah. Someone’s feeling on the Rockets — good or bad — probably has to be taking how they feel about Westbrook’s fit there into account.

natesilver: Vegas has never had a ton of respect for the Rockets, though.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Wow, Nate, you know we have a new video series debating players. (See Giannis vs. Jokic.) CP3 and Westbrook was another one we were doing. Way to spoil the ending.

neil: LOL

natesilver: Is that the video series with a dinosaur in it?

neil: The premier Dinosaur-Suit-based NBA analysis video series on the web.

natesilver: Here’s the other tricky thing about debating championship odds: Some teams are going to have more ability to improve their rosters by the spring. And adding one player can make a BIG difference. Hell, we just moved Matisse Thybulle into the Sixers’ rotation, a player that RAPTOR happens to like a LOT, and even that move made a relatively big difference in their championship odds.

So … which teams can add another piece? I think the Rockets actually don’t do great on that front. The starting five is pretty set. Harden and Westbrook aren’t super easy to pair with other players. And there aren’t a lot of tradable assets on the roster.

neil: That’s a good point, Nate. John Hollinger had an interesting column over at The Athletic recently about how much this season could be defined by trade flexibility for contenders.

One admitted blind spot for our projections is that they’re in some ways based on how a team looks right nowsee the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bullish projection, for example. So maybe that’s an area where the Rockets look good now but may not look as good later on.

natesilver: There are also optionality issues that are hard to model.

Like, the Clippers have several rotation spots where there are open competitions. And the odds are that the player who WINS the completion will be better than our projections.

chris.herring: The Clippers basically have two completely different lineups that look like they can do damage. I just think they have the best balance in the league, along with a team like Philly.

neil: Just how good can the Clippers be? They were the most improved team when we installed RAPTOR into our projections a couple of weeks ago, mainly because our new metric is pretty enamored with Kawhi Leonard and especially Paul George.

chris.herring: The very idea of Patrick Beverley, PG and Kawhi on the court at the same time defensively seems unfair.

natesilver: The Clippers’ frontcourt is kind of a mess.

chris.herring: !!!


It may be a fixable mess because it shouldn’t be that hard to acquire frontcourt talent at a reasonable price.

But, like, that frontcourt might prevent them from winning a title in the GSW era. In the new era? It’s survivable.

chris.herring: So I think they’re a different sort of team.

Their second-unit uses a ton of pick and roll, with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. So they don’t have to play out of the post much.

But I also think that, offensively, they may find a ton of success with PG and Leonard in the post.

The bigger question is whether they have the bodies, aside from Ivica Zubac and Harrell, who are comfortable down there defensively. It’s not completely ideal, and they’re def much better on the wings.

tchow: Let’s play GM for a minute. Who should the Clippers target before the trade deadline to make this lineup even more complete than it already looks on paper?

natesilver: I mean … Kevin Love?!? Los Angeles connections, postseason experience, post-up game, rebounding.

chris.herring: Yeah. It’s an interesting argument: Does adding another star make them better than having the depth other teams don’t? Especially if that player weakens them on defense?

natesilver: I’m not sure that Kevin Love is a star.

IDK, in the abstract like a Paul Millsap could be a good fit there. But Denver obviously has title contention dreams of their own.

neil: And L.A.’s only expiring contracts of note to fetch anybody in a trade are Harrell and Maurice Harkless.

natesilver: Williams also has a very tradable salary, and you could imagine that he could be moved.

The other thing you could do is trade for a point guard and play some smaller lineups. I’m not really sure there’s enough passing on that team.

neil: OK, let’s pivot to talk about other contenders in the West. If the conference champ isn’t either Houston or the Clippers, who is it? The Lakers have the second-best odds in Vegas, but our model likes the Nuggets and the Jazz to win more games. And is the media-at-large counting out the Warriors at its own risk?

natesilver: We have the Jazz projected for a better regular season than the Lakers, but the Lakers as being more likely to win the title. But, basically, RAPTOR is fairly bullish on Denver and Golden State and bearish on Utah and the Lakers, relative to the consensus, so I’m splitting hairs a bit.

With the Lakers it’s like, just as is the case on the Clippers, there are a lot of open competitions for rotation spots. Unlike with the Clippers, though, some of the players competing for those spots are not just league-average but BAD — y’know, like Rajon Rondo.

chris.herring: I don’t know what to make of the Lakers.

tchow: If you look at our projections right now, it gives a 61 percent chance of either the Rockets or Clippers making it out of the West. I don’t think anyone would look at that number and think we’re crazy. The team with the third highest chance of making it to the finals is … Golden State at 12 percent. That might be where I personally disagree with our projections a bit. (Sorry, Nate.)

natesilver: Steph Curry might still be the best basketball player in the world. Draymond Green might be the best defensive player in the NBA. Klay Thompson might be back for the postseason. D’Angelo Russell is … a piece?

chris.herring: To be honest, I kind of hate that the Warriors and Lakers have basically only played each other this preseason.

The Warriors haven’t looked all that great. They’ll improve, but I don’t think they have enough good bigs to where I feel comfortable projecting them winning it again.

tchow: Wait … looking at this closer, we’re projecting the Nuggets to have a better record than the Warriors (I buy that) but give them a lower chance of making it to the finals? Explain THAT, Nate.


Well, Tony, there are a couple of things going on:

  1. Klay will probably be back for the playoffs.
  2. We still give a small bonus for playoff experience, and the Warriors have that.
  3. Rotations are shorter in the playoffs, which helps a thin team like the Warriors.
  4. Draymond has historically been a much better player in the playoffs, and our model accounts for that, too.

tchow: Yeah … see … uh … I knew that. I just wanted you to explain it as a service to our readers. To be clear, I would NEVER doubt the projections.

natesilver: Literally LOL’ed at that in the Amtrak quiet car.

The Warriors are scary AF in the playoffs, is what I’m saying,

This season is also gonna be a big test for Kevon Looney, whom the advanced stats have always liked but who is going to be thrust into a much bigger role now.

neil: Even after everything that’s happened over the past half-decade, people still sleep on Steph and Draymond some, I think.

tchow: Since we’re on the Warriors, I just want to take a minute here to note that we talked about reorienting ourselves for this season because the Warriors aren’t the Warriors anymore. Also, they didn’t even win last year! (#WeTheNorth) But I do sense this sort of excitement heading into this season that no one really knows what’s about to happen. That’s kinda cool and can’t be overstated.

natesilver: This is the first season in a long time when you’re allowed to play with the Warriors in NBA 2K without it being lame.

tchow: Oh, guys! Someone made our Space Jam lineup in NBA 2K and is currently undefeated!!

chris.herring: They must be from the Pelicans, then.

natesilver: We should probably have a RAPTOR-ized 2K roster that you can download.

tchow: Sorry, I take that as a big personal win. OK, back to this season.

chris.herring: I still don’t know how the Warriors are going to play on offense.

Russell is a huge pick and roll threat, and the Warriors have always relied on pick and roll less than everyone else. And he clearly won’t be a plug-and-play replacement for Klay Thompson.

natesilver: I don’t think they have the option to NOT incorporate Russell fairly heavily.

chris.herring: And none of that even gets into the step back they’ll potentially take on defense. Or the fact that they look like they’ll be a subpar defensive-rebounding club now, as Golden State tied for the worst defensive rebounding percentage among NBA teams this preseason.

natesilver: Maybe Russell can become a different type of player. But they NEED his high usage rate.

chris.herring: True. But if that’s the case, I think they run the risk of looking ordinary when Steph isn’t extraordinary.

natesilver: Well, sure, they’re gonna be pretty ordinary without Steph. Perhaps a bit worse than ordinary, in fact.

The mercenary thing would be to turn around and trade Russell if Klay looks like he’s gonna be healthy.

chris.herring: If they were to flip him for a player who fit better, they could be scary again.

natesilver: I should say, though: I think people are too quick to assume that injured players will just come back at full strength.

chris.herring: That’s true, too

natesilver: We find, and this is now incorporated into the RAPTOR projections, that a player coming off a serious injury like an Achilles/ACL tear is going to be something like -1.5 points per 100 possessions worse in his first year back.

Which is a serious setback.

tchow: Wait. I’m sorry. When did Willie Cauley-Stein join the Warriors? I think it’s going to take me until the All-Star break to get used to all these rosters.

neil: This is the season of NBA Roster Shuffle mode.

natesilver: I mean, you really don’t want to look beyond “Kevon Looney” on the Warriors depth chart. You might hurt your eyes a little.

chris.herring: I just see something missing in their athleticism. I don’t think of Cauley-Stein as a huge difference-maker. But him missing training camp and not being there from the start seemingly hurts their bounce.

Looney fits them so well, but I’m not excited about the other bigs as much. And it shows so much when they’re playing the Lakers, who have Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee.

The Warriors honestly miss JaVale.

natesilver: The Warriors MAY benefit a lot from the buyout market.

The back end of their rotation is SO bad that even mediocre veterans who are -1.0 per 100 possessions would help quite a bit.

neil: How seriously should we take Denver and Utah as West contenders?

tchow: We have Denver projected to win 53 games and Utah to win 51 wins, which is more or less what they did last season (54 wins for Denver, 50 wins for Utah). I would put A LOT of money (if I had any) on both of them overachieving and making a leap this season, even if it’s just by two or three games.

natesilver: RAPTOR takes the Nuggets sorta seriously!

neil: Is that a Nikola Jokić thing?

natesilver: Holy shit does RAPTOR love Jokić, maybe because he’s the NBA player who looks the most like a T-Rex.

But, yeah, from RAPTOR’s standpoint, you have a legit superstar in Jokić, a player who’s ready to emerge as a major No. 2 sidekick in Jamal Murray, and a LOT of depth.

chris.herring: The Nuggets deserve to be taken seriously. Their pickup of Jerami Grant was one of the best ones this entire offseason. He fits them so well and gives them a lot of bounce. Michael Porter Jr. could be a big find for them, too.

natesilver: Some of that depth could probably be flipped for another starter-level talent, but the Nuggets have a lot of flexibility there, too. They have guys like Porter and Bol Bol and Jarred Vanderbilt who rebuilding teams might be interested in.

Utah, though, looks like more of a regular-season team to RAPTOR. It thinks that Donovan Mitchell needs to make a BIG leap forward — and that otherwise the Jazz lack the high-end scoring talent you usually need in the playoffs.

tchow: That’s disrespectful to Mike Conley.

natesilver: RAPTOR actually likes Conley a lot. And it loves Rudy Gobert. So this really is about Mitchell.

If you mentally plug him in as a top 20 NBA player, of course the Jazz start to look pretty scary. But RAPTOR doesn’t think he’s there yet.

chris.herring: The Conley acquisition was one that I saw as being largely for Mitchell. It’s to make it so he has less responsibility on offense while also giving the Jazz a ball-handler who is a scoring threat. Ricky Rubio wasn’t that.

Our system didn’t love the Bojan Bogdanovic pickup for them, but it gives them even more depth. Joe Ingles as a sixth man is terrifying.

neil: So it sounds like we’re basically higher on Denver than Utah as a West contender. Should I bring up the Blazers just so Portland fans don’t get too mad? They made the Western Conference Finals last year, but our model basically gives them a 3-in-5 chance of not even making the playoffs.

tchow: I put the Blazers in that “let’s wait until after the trade deadline” camp before we decide on what they can do this season. I could see them making some big changes.

natesilver: They made the Western Conference Finals because they were in a pretty easy part of the bracket. With Jusuf Nurkić back, it’s a more interesting conversation.

But they’re a thin team, especially at the 3 and 4 positions. I mean, we have Mario Hezonja getting a lot of playing time. They’re probably one starter AND one decent rotation player away from being a real title contender.

chris.herring: I didn’t love the Blazers’ trade for Hassan Whiteside. It seemed really un-Blazers-like to me. But they seem to have really great leadership with Damian Lillard, and maybe that helps keep Whiteside’s head on straight.

Either way, have a hard time seeing them contending.

neil: All right, before we finish talking about the West, what’s the one team you each have an eye on that we haven’t talked about yet?

(I think New Orleans will be a popular pick here, even with the injury to Zion Williamson.)

chris.herring: The news that Zion is expected to miss weeks of action to start the season because of a knee issue puts a damper on the excitement, even if it is the safest route to take for the long term.

tchow: The Lakers? I guess we “talked” about them, but not really.

neil: We mentioned them. LOL

natesilver: So, there are several young teams where our model is higher than the consensus. One of them is Oklahoma City. RAPTOR doesn’t like Westbrook, so it doesn’t think he was much of a subtraction. And it likes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari a lot. And CP3. Of course, they could trade a lot of those pieces. So I’d take the under relative to our prediction. But if they keep the team together, it’s actually a pretty interesting group.

chris.herring: OKC is so difficult to project, because we also don’t know who’s going to be on the team come February.

neil: Yeah, I think the Thunder are the team our projections differ the most from something like Vegas on.

chris.herring: They lack depth, but I like their starting five. And I have a feeling that CP3 will soldier through since he’s the one name in Oklahoma now. Them getting to 40 wins wouldn’t surprise me. Even 45.

natesilver: Minnesota is sort of interesting. There’s upside there. RAPTOR figures that Karl-Anthony Towns will inevitably become a more effective player on the defensive end. It likes Robert Covington. It sees breakout potential for Josh Okogie and — yes — even Andrew Wiggins, who is just 24 years old somehow! Jarrett Culver might play some point guard, which would be big since Jeff Teague is a weak link in that lineup.

neil: Okogie was one of the players whose projection gained the most under RAPTOR compared with our old system.

(I feel compelled to say this as he is a fellow Yellow Jacket.)

natesilver: Yeah, RAPTOR loves the Marcus Smart-type players. And it figures that Okogie is one of those.

Good perimeter defenders aren’t easy to come by, and if they can shoot at ALL — and to be clear, Okogie couldn’t in Year 1 — they become quite valuable.

chris.herring: The Pelicans could be really solid, even with Zion’s injury. They have nice balance, and I think people forget that JJ Redick is there now. They have a little bit of everything, and they’re going to play fast, which opens things up for Zion, who had a historic preseason for a rookie.

tchow: The Pelicans have so many Duke players that they should actually consider changing their mascot at this point.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Who’s better: Antetokounmpo or Jokic?

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.