The sentiment surrounding increased balance between the two NBA conferences this season is based on only partial truth. The top halves of the two conferences have indeed been relatively even this season. The top six teams in the Eastern Conference have won only four more combined games than the top six teams in the Western Conference, and while the Bucks ruin the curve in terms of net rating, the teams seeded 2-6 in each conference have nearly identical average net ratings, with the difference coming in at less than 0.2 points per 100 possessions. For maybe the first time since Michael Jordan's second retirement, the teams at the top of the East are just as good as the ones out West.
That balance just doesn't extend to the bottom of each conference. Currently, all seven non-playoff teams in the East have 24 or fewer wins. Only two teams in the Western Conference have so few. One of them acquired a former All-Star point guard in February. The other has been without two All-Stars for most of the season.
And therein lies the conundrum facing the Western Conference next season: Every team is good. There are only eight playoff spots for those 15 teams. Seven of them are probably going to be disappointed.
Figuring out who those teams are going to be at this point relies on a number of largely unpredictable factors. Injuries are going to knock a team or two out of the race. So will offseason moves. Yet as it stands right now, the 2020-21 Western Conference figures to be arguably the most competitive in NBA history.
Barring something very unexpected, the Lakers and Clippers aren't going anywhere as the conference's favorites. The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are good enough and young enough to seem like reliable playoff locks. The Houston Rockets have two former MVPs. The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies were all already in the hunt this season behind future MVP candidates and don't seem too eager to take a step back. And then we have the big, bad Warriors, who will presumably be back to full strength and ready to huff and puff and blow the whole conference down.
The top-of-the-conference war among those teams and whatever unexpected contenders arise to challenge them will dominate most of next season's discourse, but quietly fascinating are the teams that weren't listed above. One of last season's Western Conference finalists didn't make the cut. Nor did this season's No. 5 seed. All six teams left out of that paragraph are earnestly attempting to win, but barring an unexpected pivot from their better-equipped geographical neighbors, will be crowded out of actually doing so.
Somebody has to finish last in the Western Conference next year. A few of those teams, intentionally or not, will be forced to tank. Although plenty of this is subject to change in the offseason, the 2019-20 season's lull provides an early opportunity to figure out who that is going to be, and whether there are moves they might be able to make to embrace their lottery destinies. As it stands right now, the six unnamed teams can be divided into three tiers, from least to most likely to wind up tanking next season:
Tier 3: Unlikely to actively tank
Seeing the Western Conference's two perpetual tankers earn this qualification might seem jarring, but nothing about either team's season suggests it is destined for the cellar anytime soon. Both the Suns and Kings have rare flexibility in this uncertain environment. Phoenix is in line for meaningful cap space if it chooses not to retain Aron Baynes. Not only does Sacramento control all of its own draft picks for the first time in what seems like eternity, but it is owed five external second-round picks in the coming years. Both franchises have impatient owners and front offices with limited job security. Winning is a priority.
And that's before considering anything that actually happened on the court this season. The Suns and Kings have both been startling competent relative to their typical performance. Phoenix has already won more games this season (26) than it had in any campaign since 2014-15, and there are still theoretically a month's worth of games to be played (as unlikely as playing all of them seems right now). Sacramento reached the hiatus only 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed following an impressive 7-3 stretch. Both figure to get better next season before external additions are even factored in.
Phoenix's ideal starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre and DeAndre Ayton barely played together due to injuries and a suspension, but it has decimated opponents by 20.2 points per 100 possessions this season. Slot Baynes in for Ayton and that figure jumps to 26.7. Four of those six players are 24 or younger. The Suns are onto something with this core even if those numbers are unsustainable, just as the Kings seem to have found equilibrium with Buddy Hield coming off of the bench. Since doing so, the Kings have a better net rating at +2.2 than the Rockets (+2) and Philadelphia 76ers (-0.4). That is a 20-game sample, and the Kings will likely have a healthy Marvin Bagley next season. Both of these teams should be better in a year than they are now even if that improvement doesn't lead to a playoff spot.
Tier 2: Possible tankers
These are the two teams of the six that have most earned playoff expectations. The Blazers played in the Western Conference finals 10 months ago. The Thunder team they beat on the way there retooled its way to a 40-24 record this season. Both probably punched above their weight class in the process, but with All-Star point guards returning, neither necessarily needs to look downward.
But Oklahoma City was when it rebuilt its roster in the first place. Chris Paul was salary filler in the Russell Westbrook trade and only remained with the Thunder when nobody else would take him. Danilo Gallinari was supposed to be flipped for an asset at the trade deadline. OKC is very much accidental contenders. Sentiment won't be enough to sustain it. Sam Presti traded James Harden rather than give him a max contract. He's not going to overpay Gallinari to keep a No. 5 seed together. While Paul looked unmovable over the summer, his rebound season and increasingly favorable contract make him a trade candidate this summer. Nothing is going to stand between the Thunder and their bright future, even their surprisingly bright present. Oklahoma City wouldn't mind winning right now, but would likely eagerly trade that opportunity to win more later.
Portland's prior contention was by design, but all evidence suggests 2019 was an outlier. The Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum core has only won one other playoff series, and the Blazers only avoided a second-round humiliation at the hands of the Warriors or Rockets last spring due to Denver's late-season rigging of the bracket. While injuries didn't exactly help, Portland barely clung to playoff contention this season in a somewhat more open conference. While a Lillard trade would be unthinkable, Portland has plenty of other pieces desirable for contenders. A McCollum trade might be just the thing to break the Blazers out of their "not quite championship-caliber" rut.
Unlike the Kings and Suns, the Blazers and Thunder have front-office stability. Presti and Neil Olshey can afford a couple of years out of the playoffs and are well-equipped to reshape their rosters for future winning without tearing their teams down to the absolute studs. In all likelihood, elements of both current rosters will be in place the next time both are truly in position to compete for a title. Oklahoma City has displayed far more appetite for risk than Portland has, but the Blazers probably weren't going to make the playoffs next season anyway. Steering into the skid is their best chance at avoiding a full tailspin, and if they decide to do so, could set themselves up nicely for a rebound before the end of Lillard's prime.
Tier 1: Likely tankers
The first four teams listed here have a degree of optionality in their approach to the 2020-21 season. Should they decide to tank, they'll find the slide to the bottom to be comfortable and spacious. Were they to try to win, however, the notion of contention isn't entirely far-fetched. There are scenarios in which any of the above four teams reach the playoffs next season. While anything is possible, arguing in favor of these two is significantly harder.
For the Wolves, the issue is defense. With Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor this season, Minnesota has allowed 116.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. It gave away its best defender by far in Robert Covington at the trade deadline and replaced him with an abhorrent one in D'Angelo Russell and two underwhelming ones in Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. Josh Okogie is perhaps the only above-average defender currently on the roster, and the numbers bear that out. No player has earned more than 1.7 Defensive Win Shares in a Timberwolves uniform this season. By comparison, nine Milwaukee Bucks have topped that number. Friendship aside, the notion of Towns and Russell sharing the floor for a full season is a recipe for the worst defense in the NBA. While keeping Towns happy ahead of free agency is an obvious priority, the Timberwolves have four years of team control remaining on him. Another year in the doldrums isn't the end of the world, provided the ship is righted after that.
San Antonio's problems run deeper. There are systemic issues, such as Gregg Popovich's aversion to 3-pointers and the team's generally medieval shot-selection. Development has been an issue as well. Both Dejounte Murray and Derrick White have stagnated, and the Spurs have been slaughtered by 12.7 points per 100 possessions when they've shared the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Roster uncertainty persists as well. DeMar DeRozan was reportedly set to opt-out of his contract prior to the coronavirus-induced hellscape the salary cap is now likely to endure. LaMarcus Aldridge will turn 35 in July, and while extending his range out behind the 3-point line has almost certainly extended his shelf life as a meaningful NBA player, his days as the driving force of an offense are probably numbered.
Neither the Spurs nor the Timberwolves want to tank. Popovich deserves better. So does Towns. But neither team is likely to have much choice in the matter. Minnesota already has sold off most of its veterans to accommodate a youth movement. San Antonio might not be far behind. These teams might have winning in their future, but right now, they are destined for the bottom of the standings.