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Roundtable: Ranking The NBA’s Conferences

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Houston Rockets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome back to the Brew Hoop Round Table, where we ask that everybody use coasters and please don’t feed the pups from the table, thanks. Today, with the offseason coasting to a close and training camp around the corner, the staff comes together to look at the entire league and not just answer some questions, but actually see if we can predict (as a group) where we think the standings will end up next April.

Which team in the East do you think improved the most?

Collin: Offseason headlines resembled love letters for the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Indiana Pacers subtly added a contention-caliber supporting cast. Former Buck Malcolm Brogdon will share the backcourt with new editions Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, and T.J. Warren, all of whom provide valuable skills next to Victor Oladipo, who will return from a quad injury that kept him sidelined through the second half of last season.

(Side note: There are three T.J.’s on this team, which will bother me to no end.)

Kyle: I agree with Collin; Indiana added quality players to support Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis. While I have doubts that Brogdon is truly a point guard, he at least is very capable of being a primary ball handler that the team needs. The Pacers would have likely gotten a three or four seed had Oladipo stayed healthy and I expect them to be in the top four of the East.

Mitchell: Indiana has some well-earned shine, so let me try and make the case for Brooklyn. (Sorry Philly, I’ll get to you soon...) The plucky Nets earned the 6-seed last season despite Caris LeVert missing significant time...and they went from D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, Jared Dudley, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, and Wilson Chandler. This isn’t to speak ill of the first group, and obviously Durant’s future is under question with that Achilles injury, but Brooklyn took big swings this summer, and big swings can lead to deep playoff runs.

Patrick: Well, I think my cohorts have covered the improvements by the Pacers and Nets pretty well, so I’ll derail this a bit. The aforementioned teams probably improved the most due to their offseason changes (and Oladipo hopefully getting back to full strength), but I think the Atlanta Hawks might be the most improved in terms of added wins.

Adam: I think the Nets probably top this grouping, but I’ll make the case for two other teams, as sickening as it may be, in the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. Brad Stevens’ teams always operated better when it was a group of misfits rather than a science-questioning star, and I think the swap of Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker will be an underrated boon to their chemistry. Losing Horford smarts, but I liked their draft class. Grant Williams is going to be annoying as hell for years.

And ah yes, the Bulls. They finally decided to get a proper point guard in Coby White, who should only help the development of Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen, on top of value guys like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky.

Which Eastern Conference team experienced the largest decline this offseason?

Collin: The Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard, and with it, any sensible grounds for another Finals run. If his presence was enough to make them a contender, then his departure is enough to send them into rebuild mode. Look for Toronto to gradually decline the next few seasons as their nucleus passes its prime and the Canadian appeal strikes out in free agency.

Kyle: If you win a title, it’s rare to get any better plus losing the best player of last year’s playoffs, will make Toronto the de facto choice. The other contenders are Boston as losing Al Horford will really hurt them defensively, and Charlotte is lacking a lot of top-tier talent with Kemba Walker’s departure.

Mitchell: It’s hard to ignore the fact that Philadelphia added Al Horford and Josh Richardson to a squad that is already a 50-win team...but they lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and failed significantly improve their depth. It might be unfair to classify that outcome as a “decline,” but it’s easy see the Sixers’ worst case scenario. Their starting lineup features Richardson (a good shooter) and Tobias Harris (a good shooter and great scorer), but they’re alongside Horford (a good-but-unwilling shooter), Joel Embiid (a monster who doesn’t shoot well), and Ben Simmons (a monster who doesn’t shoot at all). I remember the Jason Kidd era Bucks; I know what a team with poor spacing and low priority on threes looks like on offense. Philly maybe didn’t lower their ceiling, but I get the impression that they did lower their floor...

Patrick: I don’t mean to beat a dead horse...no, wait, I totally do—the Charlotte Hornets lost Kemba Walker and signed Terry Rozier. I feel bad for their fans.

Adam: Patrick hit this one right on the nose. Most of the other teams at least found comparable talent swaps. Charlotte, just, well, they Charlotte’d.

What impressions do you have of the Western Conference landscape?

Collin: Let’s just be happy Milwaukee is on the Eastern side of the playoff bracket. The West offers up formidable depth and a handful of legitimate title contenders. The Jazz improved quite a bit, the Rockets inked Russell Westbrook to pair with James Harden, while the neighbors in L.A emerged as frontrunners after making huge splashes in free agency.

Kyle: The west has 12 teams that you could make the case can make the playoffs. The L.A. teams look to be the front runners while Denver and Portland will look to continue last season’s success. Houston is taking a gamble that will either work out perfectly or be a disaster with no in-between; Utah improved their roster and the young talent at Sacramento and New Orleans can give them a fighting chance. Minnesota and Dallas will have to start proving it with their young players at their disposal and then there’s always the San Antonio Spurs. This is without mentioning the Warriors who will be dangerous with the return of Klay Thompson.

Mitchell: Ordering the top eight of the West was tough, because the summer brought so much volatility. The Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers take the place of Houston and Golden State towards the top of the presumptive rankings, but neither team is a sure thing. Denver has a lot to offer but didn’t deliver last season, Portland is still around, and Utah took huge strides. It always comes down to health, but the West is going to have the effect of injuries magnified ten times over. It already has with DeMarcus Cousins injuring his knee, forcing the Lakers to bring back Dwight Howard alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis...who was traded from New Orleans only a few months ago.

The NBA is so weird and so great.

Patrick: #Analysis: S-T-A-C-K-E-D (am I doing analysis correctly?).

(Editor’s note: yes, Patrick. Yes you are.)

Adam: It was a useful exercise in seeing just how imbalanced the two conferences are, particularly when I had to put the plucky Kings just outside the Playoff race, while the Heat were my odd team out in the East. I like Houston to climb back up the rankings. They had about as horrific a start to the year as possible last year, and while I’m not sure about the Russell Westbrook fit, he’ll certainly be more available than Chris Paul.

Alright, here’s the staff’s rankings of each conference, 1 through 15.

Does anything stand out to you about this list?

Kyle: We are probably underestimating the Spurs again.

Patrick: There’s some disagreement about who will be the worst. In the East, especially, it should be a self-inflicted blood bath.

Collin: Seeing the Warriors fall towards the bottom of the playoff picture seems like a hasty decision. Yes, Kevin Durant left for New York. Yes, Klay Thompson’s ACL provides a whole lot of uncertainty. But, there’s still an All-Star big-three left standing. Steph Curry is widely considered to be first or second in MVP odds. If Draymond Green’s antics don’t get in the way then he’s still the league’s top glue guy. And in wild offseason, I feel like the pick-up of D’Angelo Russell may have slipped through the cracks. The Oakland dynasty isn’t gone just yet.

Adam: Any chance the Bucks are even more conservative in the regular season this year and somehow don’t get the top seed? Just a thought given their consensus across the staff.

Mitchell: There’s a massive chasm in the West between the teams that have a legitimate shot and those who don’t. It just so happens that the conference is nearly evenly divided between the former and the latter; seven teams (Denver, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Houston, Portland, Utah, Golden State) all earned at least one vote for 3rd place or higher, once again making the Western Conference playoff race must-see TV.