Heat Check: 2021-22 Western Conference predictions

By , Audacy

Welcome to the Heat Check (formerly called This League), my NBA Podcast now on the Audacy Network.

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We break down the Western Conference on tomorrow’s episode, so in conjunction with that, here’s my opinion on where each team will fit in the coming NBA season.


Why did the Lakers trade for Russell Westbrook? We know that the formula for LeBron James to succeed is to surround him with shooters, and the last time I checked? Russ is a high volume chucker who bricks a ton of shots. He also basically stands around when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Which begs the question, what is Russ going to do when Bron has the ball in crunch time? If Frank Vogel had a spine, Russell Westbrook would be drinking Gatorade. But, not only is Frank not that kind of guy, there are new reports that lead me to believe that Bron is handling rotation decisions.

Russell Westbrook and LeBron James on the Lakers.
Photo credit USA Today Sports

The Lakers will definitely start Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, but Frank Vogel says the team hasn’t decided on the other two players who will join them. He outlined how those decisions will be made after a recent practice.

Here’s Problem No. 1: The spacing on this team makes no sense. Russ, Bron, and AD are hard enough to design offensive sets for, so let’s add someone like Dwight Howard and Melo into the mix shall we? That’ll make it easier. LOL. Can AD and Bron actually stay healthy? Without either one of them, this team gets downright stinky.

The only thing holding me back from projecting this to be a trainwreck is that I’m afraid of getting trolled by LeBron on the internet when somehow, someway, he figures out a way to carry this strange ass roster to the Finals.

PROJECTION: 49 wins and 4- or 5-seed

UTAH JAZZ: BetMGM Win Total 52.5

The Jazz are going to win a lot of regular season games this year. They have a dynamic backcourt with Spida and Conley and a DPOY in Rudy Gobert. They are going to shoot a ton of threes just like last year. Probably have a great ATS record just like last year, too. And then the Jazz are going to flame out earlier than expected, just like last year.

This is a team that has given away series leads against hampered or lesser opponents in two straight playoffs. They have two wings that can’t rotate on defense and no moves they can make midseason to make their team better. No one, and I mean no one, is trading for Joe Ingles given his contract situation. This team is fun, and until they trade Rudy Gobert, who is a liability on defense in the playoffs or against more athletic wings, they are going to speed through the regular season right into a brick wall in the playoffs.

PROJECTION: 58 Wins and the No. 2 Seed

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PHOENIX SUNS: BetMGM Win Total 51.5

The Phoenix Suns are being slept on. They were one of the most balanced teams in the league last year and they got better with the additions of JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet. They are a monster on defense, a team with the ability to push out in transition, but also patient and steady enough to run a playoff-ready half court offense. They simply don’t turn the ball over and have players who can get buckets everywhere.

The thing that takes them over the top is that they still have chips on their shoulders given how little credit the world is giving them. They just went to the Finals and everyone just keeps talking about the Lakers. Can Chris Paul stay healthy? Will Deandre Ayton play like the unselfish, gritty, screen setter/roller he was all last year or will he be focused on putting up numbers to force the Suns to pa him max money this offseason? They’ve already paid everyone else and yet stalled giving Ayton what he deserves. That could be dicey. They’re deep, they’re talented, and they’re the best-coached team out West. Because of this, Phoenix has the best chance of heading back to the Finals in the West if they just continue to do the things that made them great last year.

PROJECTION: 61 Wins and No. 1 Seed


Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic
Photo credit USA Today Sports

Jason Kidd got a lot of bad press from the Giannis book but the truth is that people don’t realize how important Kidd was in Giannis’ growth as a player and human. This is why Dallas is intriguing this year, because everyone thinks Kidd’s sole reason for being hired was to work with Luka, when in fact, it’s more important he fix Porzingis.

With Kristaps standing around on the outside doing nothing? This team got beat by the Clippers in a series they should have won. Luka can’t do everything himself. So far (at least in the pre-season), Kidd has got Porzingis to buy into being a two-way player, and not only is he effective, he’s happy and it looks like he's there to stay. That makes Dallas VERY dangerous. On top of re-signing Tim Hardaway, the Mavs found another sharp shooter in Reggie Bullock to be a safety valve for all of Luka’s ridiculous passes. Look for Luka to be a legit MVP contender and the Mavs to be a big surprise out West.

PROJECTION: 51 Wins and No. 3 Seed


Golden State fans are delusional and thus Vegas is delusional. Klay Thompson isn’t walking through that door until AT LEAST Christmas and maybe as late as February. When he does return, do you actually believe he’s going to magically be the exact player he was before the injury? He made his money on not just his shooting but being a two-way guy, one that is pesky on defense. Hard to do when you’re coming off of an ACL and Achilles tear.

Steph Curry
Photo credit USA Today Sports

Outside of Draymond and Steph, this team is filled with youngsters that no one should be relying on. Wiseman is still hurt, now Kuminga is banged up, and they didn’t bring in any reliable veterans in the off season to take the pressure of Steph. Do not try and convince me that Iguodala has anything left in the tank or that Otto Porter is going to revive the “Big Three” in San Francisco. Curry will have to be Superman every night which is great for NBA fans but bad for the Warriors. I think the Warriors will be one of the biggest disappointments given how lofty the expectations for them are. Don’t forget, they haven’t made the playoffs since KD left.

PROJECTION: 44 Wins No. 7 Seed


Denver is a very fun, very flawed team. In the off season they paid both Aaron Gordon and MPJ the bag, but without Jamal Murray (who people are now projecting to miss the entire 2020-2021 season) I just can’t see this team doing any damage in the postseason. They will, however, win their share of regular season games, mostly because Nikola Jokic is incredible. But how will Michael Porter Jr. react to being a second option? Who’s going to run the point? Monte Morris? Austin Rivers? Yuck. This is a team that has hit their ceiling in the bubble. Aaron Gordon is not a key piece to help anchor the defense like they’d like to have you believe. Truthfully, they should have given the bag, and a bigger role, to Jerami Grant. Things haven’t quite been the same since they left the happiest place on earth.

PROJECTION: 49 Wins and 4- or 5-seed


Without Kawhi, the world isn’t expecting much from the Clippers but this team beat the Jazz and gave fits to the Suns without him so maybe the pessimism is a little over exaggerated. The good news is that this team is better when the world isn’t expecting them to do anything. They have shooters everywhere, can get to the rim and have the ability to defend if they lock in. Losing Beverly makes them certainly less gritty. Is Ibaka coming back? When? Can Terrence Mann take another step forward and build on his monster performances in the playoffs? What about Reggie Jackson? Are they going to get John Wall in the buyout market? They can’t keep PG on the floor for 45 minutes 82 games in a row, and without his scoring and playmaking, do they have enough depth to win random games in February against another contender? Probably not. The one thing they have going for them (really two things) is they are well-coached and have one of the greatest talent evaluators of our generation operating as their co-GM. Because of that, anything is possible.

PROJECTION: 46 wins and No. 6 seed


Damian Lillard
Photo credit Getty Images

All Dame wants is SOMEONE to help him. Anyone. And management gave him Cody Zeller, Larry Nance Jr., and Quin Cook. Ouch. So much for appeasing your star player. Good news for Portland fans is that Dame has done some soul searching over the summer and has recommitted to the franchise regardless of whether they win a title or not. Dame thinks what Portland can do is emulate Milwaukee’s success, and that is a lie. If C.J. and Nurk can stay healthy? They can win 50 games. The problem is, they never are. And now Nurkic has hired Klutch Sports and is squeezing the Blazers for more money than he’s worth. New coach Chauncey Billups is supposed to bring in a defensive identity. We’ll see about that. We’ll also see if he can actually coach, since this is his first time around. What’s Portland’s upside? A second round sweep. Gross.

PROJECTION: 43 wins 8- or 9- seed


How good is Ja Morant? That question will help you to seed the Memphis Grizzlies. The truth is, he’s very good, but if he takes another step? Look out. The Grizz are a dangerous team that no one wants to play in May. This team is athletic and they’re deep. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tilman off the bench might be the best second unit in the NBA. Jaren Jackson Jr. is back and they just locked him up with a long term deal. Losing Valanciunas’ offense opens up the floor for Jackson, and his replacement Steven Adams brings some much needed rim protection and rebounding. This team is still learning so I think veteran teams have an advantage in close games, but damn… they will be very fun and who knows? They could surprise everyone.

PROJECTION: 43 wins and 8- or 9-seed


Zion Williamson flexes during a Pelicans game.
Photo credit USA Today Sports

Zion, Zion, Zion and Zion. Those are the four issues facing the Pelicans this year. This is Zion’s third straight year he hasn’t been healthy, and he hasn’t been in shape. He looks like Shaq on offense but on defense? The statue of Shaq outside Staples Center. He barely can be bothered to run back and get set because why? That would expend far too much energy, energy that he doesn’t have because he’s too big. When he doesn’t play defense, the rest of the defense doesn’t either. You know it’s bad when historically great defensive coach Stan Van Gundy can’t get them out of the bottom five in team defense. Now there’s a new coach in town, a new point guard in Devonte Graham, and another big who doesn’t play D in Valanciunas, but they still have the same big problems. A GM nobody trusts or likes, ownership that is cheap as hell, and an injury prone star player who has his eyes set on Madison Square Garden. Ruh roh. This team isn’t better than last year, and last year they were a trainwreck. New coach Willie Green is in for a long year.

PROJECTION: 35 wins and nowhere close to playoffs


This is a talented roster hamstrung by bad ownership and worse coaching. Luke Walton is STILL coasting off the fumes of a fill-in gig in Golden State over half a decade ago. He’s 70 games under .500 as a head coach, and that INCLUDES going 12 games under .500 with a team that included Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Reggie Bullock, the GOAT Caruso and Freaking LEBRON JAMES on the floor. Fun Fact: The only reason he hasn’t been fired is because the way his contract is structured, the Kings would have to pay him a lump sum up front and they lost too much money in the pandemic to afford to do it. They do have talent, and adding Davion Mitchell to De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, and Buddy Hield yielded a four-guard offense even Luke Walton will have trouble screwing up. Yet, this team just isn’t going to be good enough to get over the hump, and now they refused Marvin Bagley’s rookie extension? I’m looking for a huge trade to shake things up this year in Sacramento.

PROJECTION: 38 Wins and nowhere close to playoffs


Considering they fired their GM Gersson Rosas on the eve of a new season, which is about as Timberwolves a move as possible, it would seem to be business as usual in Minnesota. And the usual business in Minnesota when it comes to hoops is to suck. But some really interesting things are happening, and a lot of it falls on the new head coach, Chris Finch, and their electric young star Ant Edwards. Ant grew TWO inches since he was drafted and averaged over 24 a game in the second half of his rookie season. Add in KAT, DLo, Okogie and Leandro Balmaro and this team is going to score a ton of points. They’ll have trouble defending which is why they are not a danger in the playoffs, but this team is one piece away from being a team no one wants to play at any time of the year.

PROJECTION: 40 wins and the play-in


Let’s face it, the Spurs lost a LOT of points this off season. They’re missing over half of their points from a team that averaged 111 last year (bottom third of the NBA). This is not going to be a fun team to watch but it could easily be a fun team to bet ATS. And they DO have some young players who are just starting to ball out. Lonnie Walker is going to have a break out year now that there are buckets to be gotten with Demar and Gay and Mills gone. Keldon Johnson got some GREAT experience at the Olympics and is coming off a season he averaged almost 13 a game. Derrick White averaged 15.4 last year. All this to say is that this team is young and dangerous that will shock people how often they win games outright as underdogs. Will they make the play-in? No. But they should be fun to watch.

PROJECTION: 33 wins and the lottery


Jalen Green dribbles up court during a Rockets preseason game.
Photo credit USA Today Sports

Has any team transformed itself more than the Houston Rockets? The Rockets brought in Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher through the draft, all top 24 picks. They added these to a collection of talent already featuring youngsters such as Kevin Porter Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate, as well as 2020 free-agent acquisition Christian Wood. They literally have eight players on the roster 21 or younger. Which means, this team will lose a lot of games, but they’ll be a LOT closer than last year. And once they move John Wall and Eric Gordon and their combined $60 million? They’re going to start getting A LOT better. Houston fans will watch this season for two reasons. One, to see which of these young guns are in their long term plans, and two, to see if Stephen Silas is the mother hen needed to get them all to fly. Jalen Green will be must-see TV as he pushes for ROTY and Alperen Sengun might surprise early as well. They’ll lose a lot of games in exciting fashion, which makes them a perfect League Pass team.

PROJECTION: 31 wins no playoffs in sight


I really love the OKC Thunder. This is one of the youngest, most exciting, least winning teams in NBA history. They might not win 25 games but who cares? They’ll be a blast along the way. They lost Al Horford and Kemba Walker (before he even played a game) and added Josh Giddey and Derrick Favors and oh I don’t know, maybe 10 more first round draft picks? I wish I loved ANYTHING as much as Sam Presti loves first rounders. They literally had to change the draft rules because of him. The roster has some of the most fun players in the league on it. Shai who if he stays healthy will be a top 15 player in the NBA. Lou Dort. Gabby Deck. Aleksej Pokusevski. Dariuz Bazley. Tre Mann. Just a ridiculous collection of hoopers. Last year they started the season 10-12 and still ended up with just 22 wins. Toss all that out the door. It’s one of those situations where it really doesn’t matter how many games they win, they’re going to be fun.

PROJECTION: 27 wins and the lottery

I’ll be blogging the NBA all year, so check back every Monday-Wednesday-Friday and don’t forget to download and subscribe to the Heat Check! Follow us at @ThisHeatCheck on TikTok and @Trysta_Krick on TikTok, Twitter and IG.

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