Most crucial questions facing Western Conference’s elite
The NBA is gearing up for a return next month, and the expectation is that we will have playoff basketball. As the Western Conference’s elite teams prepare for the return of the season, we take a look at the most critical question that will define each team’s chances at contending for a championship.
(You can find the biggest questions facing the Eastern Conference’s top teams here)
Los Angeles Lakers: Is there a third option?
At first place in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers are tasked with a similar dilemma as their Eastern Conference counterparts, the Milwaukee Bucks. Like the Bucks, the Lakers have few concerns about how their superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis will perform come playoff time. But similar to the Bucks, the rest of the Lakers’ roster is comprised of unproven players, and veterans who are past their primes. The Lakers have done an excellent job of surrounding James and Davis with complimentary rotation players specializing in skills like spacing the floor and defending. However, they still lack a trusted third scoring option to help carry the weight offensively.
When the season began, many felt that this role would be occupied by Kyle Kuzma. At 12.5 points per game, Kuzma is the only other Lakers player besides James and Davis to eclipse an average of ten points per game this season, but that number also represents a career-low for the third-year forward. Combine that with Kuzma’s woeful 29.7 percent on long-range attempts and his career-low field goal percentage this season, and it’s not hard to see why the Lakers have been reluctant to give Kuzma a more substantial role offensively. The Lakers may be able to capture their seventeenth NBA championship this summer off of James and Davis’ brilliance alone, but finding even one more trusted option would make them one of the most daunting teams in recent history.
Los Angeles Clippers: Who does Rivers trust in a close game?
In the NBA, the saying “less is more” holds little to no merit. The first step for any front office attempting to craft a championship-caliber team is assembling as much talent as possible. Since signing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard last summer, the Clippers have continued to add to their already immensely talented core throughout the season. Down the stretch of a close playoff game, Leonard and George are both locks to be on the floor, but the Clippers are one of the rare teams in the NBA that can choose who plays in the three remaining spots based on what the matchup dictates.
This leaves the Clippers with seven capable players vying for the final three spots. Head coach Doc Rivers could deploy any combination of Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson, Landry Shamet, and Lou Williams in the backcourt. Williams and Beverley are the best bets to receive most of the backcourt minutes, but they may not share the court late in close games. Rivers will be able to interchange them on a possession by possession basis, with the two-time reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Williams bringing his offensive fireworks, while allowing Patrick Beverley to focus solely on his irritating brand of defense. In the frontcourt, Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac will all be competing for minutes. Based on the regular-season rotation, expect Rivers to start Morris and Zubac for their size and physicality while bringing Harrell off the bench in tandem with Williams. Top to bottom, the Clippers have the most talented roster in the NBA, and it will be up to Rivers to ensure this group realizes their potential.
Denver Nuggets: What kind of shape will Nikola Jokic be in?
After coming into the Nuggets training camp on the heavier side, Nikola Jokic’s play in the latter months of this season cemented his status as one of the most impactful bigs in the NBA. When the NBA’s return to play plan was announced, questions about Jokic’s readiness to return to the court began to arise. With only eight dress rehearsal games in Orlando before the start of the postseason, it was justifiable to wonder what kind of shape Jokic would be in when the playoffs did eventually start. That question, however, was seemingly answered when an image of noticeably slimmer Nikola Jokic surfaced.
During the playoffs last year, Jokic’s minutes skyrocketed from his regular-season average of 31.3 a game up to 39.8. The Nuggets relied on Jokic for virtually everything in the postseason — a fact that was highlighted by the triple-double he posted in an NBA playoff record 65 minutes played during the Nuggets’ quadruple overtime loss last summer to the Trail Blazers. Jokic became just the fifth player in NBA playoff history to record over 60 minutes played, and with his listed weight at 284 pounds, he was more than 75 pounds heavier than any of the other players that accomplished the feat. For the Nuggets to contend with either of the Los Angeles teams, they will need “slim Jokic” to be more than just a mirage.
Utah Jazz: Can Mike Conley fill the void left by Bojan Bogdanovic?
Bojan Bogdanovic may not be a household name, but that doesn’t mean he’s not one of the most reliable wing contributors in the NBA. Posting career-highs virtually across the board, Bogdanovic not only produces, averaging over 20 points per game, but he also does it efficiently, shooting 45 percent from the field, over 40 percent from deep, and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Despite Bogdanovic’s productivity, his season-ending wrist injury has not garnered much national coverage. Bogdanovic has the ability to swing a playoff series, and without him, the Jazz will need to lean on their other offseason addition to replace his production.
When Mike Conley was traded to the Utah Jazz last summer, it appeared the Jazz had elevated themselves from the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture to the upper tier. But the combination of injuries and inconsistent play from Conley kept the Jazz entrapped in the middle of the playoff pack. As a smaller guard, Conley’s noticeable decreased quickness and shiftiness have deterred him from attacking the basket, resulting in him taking fewer shots at the rim. With Conley no longer a threat to blow by defenders en route to the basket, opposing teams have found themselves better equipped to challenge him in the mid-range where Conley is shooting only 36% this season. Despite his struggles, the Jazz remains hopeful that Conley will return to being the savvy shot-maker and reliable distributor that endeared himself to Memphis fans during his twelve-year run with the Grizzlies. But if Conley is unable to find his old form, the loss of Bogdanovic could have the Jazz primed for another early playoff exit.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Will the three-guard lineup continue to dominate?
After Chris Paul was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer, the expectation was that the Point God would not last long in the city where he began his illustrious NBA career. When a trade never came, the Thunder turned their attention to competing this season. The most glaring hole in the Thunder’s roster for head coach Billy Donovan was on the wing. Possessing mostly unproven young wing players, Donvan has excelled in developing players like Luguentz Dort into reliable contributors. But Donovan’s name being mentioned in NBA Coach of the Year discussions is due mainly to his ingenuity in playing all three of the Thunder’s point guards together.
The Thunder outscore their opponents by 28.6 points per 100 possessions when Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder all share the court. This figure ranks first in all three-man groupings that have played over 150 minutes together this season. The three-guard lineup’s offensive effectiveness has centered around their efficiency in the mid-range; all three guards are capable pull-up shooters and have converted on over 47 percent of their mid-range attempts this year. As the tallest of three, Gilgeous-Alexander will likely draw opposing teams’ bigger wings in the playoffs. While he’s been an effective defender for the Thunder during the regular season, it remains to be seen how Gilgeous-Alexander will match up with an elite wing like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in the closing moments of a close playoff game. For the Thunder to continue to shock the NBA in the playoffs, they will need all three of their point guards to continue their excellent play from the regular season.
Houston Rockets: Is Moreyball the answer to Russell Westbrook’s streak of first-round exits?
When the Houston Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook over the offseason, they undoubtedly had their sights set on an NBA championship. But after an inconsistent start to the season, the Rockets traded Clint Capela, their only center receiving regular minutes, and went all-in on the “Moreyball” approach. Westbrook has thrived without a traditional big in the Rockets’ lineup, but smaller players like PJ Tucker are being asked to play upwards of 34 minutes a night and defend players with half a foot of height advantage. The Rockets’ ultra-small lineup has been able to catch opposing teams off-guard during the regular season through their usual onslaught of threes and ability to switch on every pick and roll defensively. This advantage will be lost come playoff time as there are no surprises in the later portions of a seven-game series.
What’s more troubling for the Rockets’ championship pursuit is Westbrook’s recent playoff performances. Westbrook has not won a playoff series since his last year playing with Kevin Durant in 2016 and has failed to shoot at least 40 percent from the field in any of his three subsequent playoff appearances. Westbrook’s game is not well-suited for the playoffs as the number of transition opportunities decreases, and he’s forced to rely on his historically unreliable jump shot. Westbrook and James Harden reunited in Houston with the hopes of capturing their first NBA championships. Still, despite their lofty expectations, a first-round exit seems more destined than a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3