Nylon Calculus: Reviewing preseason predictions for the Western Conference

Feb 15, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) reacts after guard Austin Reaves (15) scores a basket and draws the foul against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 15, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) reacts after guard Austin Reaves (15) scores a basket and draws the foul against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /
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Here’s a look back to our 2022-23 NBA preseason predictions, and how each Western Conference team performed against our expectations.

At the beginning of this season, we offered some statistically inclined predictions for every team in the Western Conference. With the regular season concluded, we’re assessing how we did.

Prediction: Denver Nuggets finish in the bottom half of the league defensively

The Nuggets are worse defensively this season, according to the numbers, but team defense league-wide has regressed so their relative ranking improved compared to a season ago. This season, they allowed opponents 1.14 points per possession, which ranks as the 17th-best defense in the association, per Cleaning the Glass. Last season, they limited opponents to 1.12 points per possession, which was the 15th-best defensive rating.

Given that this was a relative prediction, it was technically incorrect, but the premise behind it was sound. The Nuggets are the West’s number-one overall seed and the favorite to advance to the NBA Finals in June. But, should they be given how inept their defense is and has been over the past few seasons?

Denver has a stronger home-court advantage given the city’s altitude and lower oxygen levels; they’ve been the fifth-best defense in the NBA at home, allowing only 1.11 points per possession in these games, per Cleaning the Glass.

If the Nuggets can continue to dominate at home, maybe it’ll be sufficient for them to reach their first NBA Finals. It will be worth noting how Michael Malone handles defense with a standard-shortened postseason roster, given they will need to perform on that end to advance.

Grade: C+

Prediction: Minnesota Timberwolves finish as a top-10 offense and defense league-wide

Few would have predicted that this team would be great defensively but struggle mightily on the offensive end. The Timberwolves are a difficult team to diagnose because of their inconsistency. Injuries, like losing Karl-Anthony Towns for most of the season, explain some of it — along with the general roster overhaul that came as part of the Rudy Gobert trade.

Last season, the Wolves were strong offensive rebounders, took care of the ball, and upped their looks at the free-throw line. This season, they’ve been in the bottom third of the league in each category, their lackluster offense only sustained from overall efficient shooting as a team.

Should we consider this one year a blip for a team with otherwise strong offensive expectations going forward? It remains to be seen, but I would bet on the Wolves returning to the form they showed on that end of the floor in the 2021-22 season. If they’re able to solidify their offense to pair with a defense built around Rudy Gobert, they should be a tough out in the West for the next couple of seasons.

Grade: D

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder regresses to a bottom-10 offense and remains a bottom-10 defense league-wide

Oklahoma City has impressed this season, enough to believe that their relative success against consensus expectations of another mediocre season is anything but fluky.

As the league’s 16th-best offense and defense, this latest rendition of Thunder basketball is officially in the throws of competitive basketball. Their strongest advantage has come in the possession battle, where they turn the ball over on 4 percent fewer of their possessions than opponents do. These extra possessions equate to a six-point advantage for Oklahoma City, the largest such differential in the NBA.

Oklahoma City does drain some of those points back to opponents through offensive rebounds and free-throw attempts; their defense is among the worst in both categories, per Cleaning the Glass. The Thunder were an average team in transition this season, even off of steals. If they can improve their efficiency on takeaways, they’ll further maximize their offensive efficiency.

Their offensive efficiency is below average, but there are encouraging signs to expect further growth next season. They take the third-most attempts at the rim rather than settling for long jump shots, but shoot the worst percentage of any team on these looks. Even a marginal improvement finishing around the rime will bode tremendously for their offense.

The Thunder made improved strides this season that displayed how versatile their young talent is. While they won’t likely make any noise in the postseason this spring, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take another step forward next year.

Grade: C-

Prediction: Portland Trail Blazers finish as the NBA’s median team; with a middle-of-the-pack record, offense, and defense

This is the biggest miss on the board, even if my prediction wasn’t a resoundingly strong vote of confidence for the Blazers to begin with.

Damian Lillard had statistically the best season of his career, and still, the Blazers underachieved in a fashion that left most of the basketball world scratching its head.

Portland was average on offense — it took Lillard’s dominance to keep them afloat on that end. The only areas of the game that Portland excelled at were making tough shots and getting to the free-throw line, both marks ranked in the upper half of the league.

Defensively, there were no silver linings for this group. The Blazers finished as the league’s fourth-worst defense, affording opponents 1.19 points per possession. They ranked in the bottom-third of the league in opponent offensive rebounding, opponent free-throw rate, and limiting opponent possessions on turnovers. Opponents shot far above league average against the Blazers, which was partly due to tough outside shooting luck.

Portland once again finds itself outside the play-in race and postseason contention. Were they to improve their defense they could find themselves finishing as a median NBA team, but it’s worth questioning if that’s something to strive for.

Grade: F

Prediction: Utah Jazz finish in the play-in race (seeds 7-10 in the conference) due to their above-average offense

While the Jazz missed the play-in tournament, their offense proved to be legitimate beyond the stretch of hot play that began their season. The Jazz averaged 1.16 points per possession on 55 percent shooting, the tenth-best mark in the league. They were able to supplement their average overall efficiency with second-chance opportunities and extra attempts at the free-throw line.

While they’ll miss the postseason entirely, the Jazz has the foundation of a legitimate NBA offense that they can point to for the future. Lauri Markkanen’s improvement and Walker Kessler’s emergence as an interior threat bode well for a team that started the season without an identity.

Grade: B