Conference USA Season Preview
by Stephon B. Smythe
It would be tough to say that this division is anything other than the best in the league. Having provided the last seven WBA champions (Rage and Firestorm), no other division has come close to the level of performance. Every season, the Rage are a championship favorite, with Miles and Bailey leading the way. This season appears to be no different, with the Rage as the early favorite to win the division and compete for another WBA championship. Mario Bailey is now 32 years old and his career is closer to the end. If Bailey begins to slip, the door will open for division foe Boston Massacre to take over the reins in the East Division. Unlike Brooklyn, Boston has a roster composed of young talent that is poised to compete for many years to come. Frank Mathieu is coming off of a season where he averaged a double-double, and is only 22 years old. The chemistry is remarkable, and the youth/athleticism will keep Boston at the top of the league, even if this isn’t the season where they win the division.
The final three teams in the league, Toronto, Miami, and New York, all appear to be jostling for the right to third place in the division. Playing the likes of Brooklyn and Boston throughout the course of the season results in a tough strength of schedule, adding to the difficulty of making a playoff run. Toronto is my favorite to finish third in the division. The acquisition of Damien Bohm should provide a new threat to help win a few more close games. New York is currently in a tough spot, with plenty of potential, but lots of talent yet to develop. The decision of two rookies to remain in the Euro league was certainly not positive either. The pieces are there to win some games, but without any additional free agency acquisitions, the Firestorm will be heading for a tough year. The Miami Xtreme are similar to New York in the fact that they have young talent still needing to develop, but the overall depth of the team is lacking. The development and performance of Omar Rozier will likely determine if Miami finishes 4th or 5th in the division.
Division Prediction: Brooklyn (Playoffs), Boston (Playoffs), Toronto, New York, Miami
Potentially the deepest of all divisions, the Central boasted four playoff teams. Some of the top talent in the league plays in this division, which will keep the three top teams in playoff contention. Perhaps the best young talent in the league, Alston Irving and Demarcus Walton, both left Salt Lake City in free agency, meaning SLC will likely drop back out of playoff contention after a first round exit only one season ago.
The Colorado Pioneers are set to remain at the top of the division, returning the duo of DaRond Lyons and Tony Henderson. A well balanced starting five will keep them competitive, but the lack of overall depth and supporting pieces will make it difficult to vie for a WBA championship. This team beat Las Vegas in five games last postseason before getting swept out by the Rage. Without any major acquisitions or moves, there would be no reason to believe the same type of result wouldn’t happen again in 2020. With a savvy GM that always tends to make good moves, however, I wouldn’t discount the potential success.
Two words explain why Kansas City will remain towards the top of their division – Jeremy Sims. The departure of longtime GM Dave Williams means this team will certainly have a new look. While it may take time, a change of pace may be a good thing for a team that was beginning to see a decline in postseason performance, being swept by the Rage in round 1 last season. Omar Jefferson was a big acquisition last season, but the team now has three stars on a cap-maxed roster with little around them. Similar to the Pioneers, without any major additions to this roster, it is doubtful that results will be much different than last season.
With perhaps the most well rounded starting five in the division, the Fort Worth Warriors also appear ready to repeat the successes of last season. This is a team that took Boston to the brink, finally falling in game seven in the first round. Returning Whittaker, Tomlin, Starman, and Weidner should, barring injuries, basically guarantee another postseason run. The question will be whether or not they can overcome the Rage or Fighting Cocks. For teams in this conference, the playoff route goes through Brooklyn or California, with Forth Worth and Boston next up.
The bottom two teams in the Central appear to be destined for a similar fate. Salt Lake City had such a promising improvement last season, only to see two of their top talents leave in free agency. Irving undoubtedly hurts the most. While still loaded with young talent, and having only two players on the roster over 23 years of age, it is obvious that Salt Lake City will once again be in building mode, developing young talent with the hopes they will resign after the end of their rookie deal. The free agency signing of Shermar Mahara was certainly huge, but I think the youth movement will take 1-2 more seasons to really make a huge impact.. The Cincinnati Hitmen also have a young team, but not quite to the extent of Salt Lake City. With six players under 25, the Hitmen also will be focused on player development in order to dictate the team’s future. Both teams own their own 2021 draft pick.
Division Prediction: Colorado (Playoffs), Fort Worth (Playoffs), Kansas City (Playoffs), Salt Lake City, Cincinnati
Historically one of the weaker divisions in the entire league, the West division produced only 2 playoff teams a season ago, with the second requiring a 7 game win streak at the end of the season to get the 5th seed. That lack of divisional strength bodes well for the California Fighting Cocks, but also hurts their overall strength of schedule. Without any major acquisitions in free agency, or during the draft, a lot of the development will come from within, but that shouldn’t impact much across the league.
The California Fighting Cocks are far above the next best team in this division. Kurt Beck and Hasson Watt will win this team plenty of games, and Jesse Szcygiel just resigned. The addition of a very athletic Kelley Brandon last season has been a positive move. Already above cap, the key will be how GM Lawrence fills in depth with minimum contract pieces. Take a look at the defensive ratings on this team and you will quickly realize that this team doesn’t need to add scorers in order to win, just role players.
The Las Vegas Gamblers were the other West division team to make the playoffs. After starting the season strong, the middle of the season was atrocious. It took a late push to make the playoffs a possibility. Once there, it took only five games for Colorado to send them home. Some interesting offseason moves will have to play out during the season to really see how much this team has changed. Almantas Talacka was the team’s leading scorer, only to be shipped out for Javonte Bolk and pick #7. That pick resulted in a league-ready center, but the cohesion of Bolk and Friedrich will be pivotal to the team’s success. Overall there is a much similar look that should lead to a similar result. Maybe plus or minus five in the win total, but no major postseason push.
Seattle appears to be the next team up, with the potential to overtake the Gamblers for the second spot in the division. A pretty solid starting five, as well as good depth makes the race for second a tight one. An injury to either team could make the difference. While having a roster full of decent players, one miss for Seattle is the lack of a true point guard. The highest passer rating is a C+, meaning there isn’t one true distributor. While the team has plenty of firepower, the lack of rebounding and defense may make matters worse.
The Arizona Dragons started the offseason by winning the draft lottery and getting the #1 overall pick. In a move that could be questioned by some, that pick was traded for Matias Gutierrez and pick #3. That pick resulted in Jarius Sulivan, an 18-year-old point guard that will take years to develop. Regardless of whether they kept the top pick or not, Arizona would be slightly better this year, but not enough to compete in the division. Without major free agency moves, it will be another sub-par year for the Dragons.
The Los Angeles Gargoyles round out the division and appear destined to remain near the bottom. Drafting a very promising 17-year-old power forward helps set up the future, but it will take time for him to be ready to make an impact. The best trade assets are their future picks, and it may be time to part with those picks in order to get additional talent to help win now.
Division Prediction: California (playoffs), Las Vegas (Playoffs), Seattle (Playoffs), Arizona, Las Angeles
Conference USA Playoff Predictions
Overall, the playoffs in Conference USA will contain many of the same teams that were there last season. The lone exception will be Salt Lake City, who will fall from playoff contention. In their place, Seattle and Toronto will fight for the 8th spot, with Seattle eventually earning their right to face the top seed.
Despite the teams remaining fairly similar, the order will slightly change. Even with having a third divisional team make the playoffs, California will come away with the best record in the conference, earning the top seed. Brooklyn, after having resigned Mario Bailey, will finish in a surprising second, jostling with Boston within the East. Boston will earn the third seed, improving once again with their young core of players. Colorado will win the Central Division, as well as the 4 seed, with division rival Fort Worth hot on their tail and receiving the 5th seed. Las Vegas will jostle with Colorado and Forth Worth for the 4-6 seeds, but ultimately end up at 6, dropping one seed from last season. With an interim GM, Kansas City will get the 7th seed, with Seattle rounding out the bunch.
Ultimately, California is going to surprise the WBA world and be the team that represents Conference USA in the WBA Finals. California, Brooklyn, Boston, and Colorado will all move into round 2, with California and Brooklyn squaring off, once again, in the conference finals. This season, California will have what it takes to knock off goliath, winning at home in game 7.