It is definitely not ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, as the popular Netflix movie goes. There is chaos, there is uncertainty, there is drama, and a lot of surprises that make for a wild unpredictable finish for the NBA Western Conference regular season. It is a war out there, and no modern-day basketball Nostradamus can clearly pick who will be the 8 lucky teams to be bestowed the honor of stepping forward to do battle in the Western Playoffs.
Only three (3) teams have a clear shot at the playoff slots at this time: the front-running Denver Nuggets (46-20) with likely repeat-MVP Nikola Jokic leading the pack, the youthful Memphis Grizzlies (39-26) despite the recent Ja Morant gun caper, and the pleasant surprise of the season, the Sacramento Kings (39-26). After these 3 however, the teams are so bunched together that a single win or a single loss could mean a huge rise or tumble in the team standings. And a totally different complexion come the playoff match-ups.
Consider the 4th-running Phoenix Suns. At 37-29, the Suns were earlier favored to make a serious challenge for the top spots in the West, with the acquisition of one of the league’s top forwards in Kevin Durant. Unfortunately, that trade wasn’t without the consequent backside. Kevin’s arrival saw the departure of Mikhal Bridges, Cam Johnson and the veteran Jae Crawder, 3 very important pieces in the Suns’ elite rotation.Their departure, followed by Durant’s recent ankle injury, has placed the Suns in an awkward situation. They need the 4th spot, or even the 3rd if possible, to secure homecourt advantage and a much better match-up position in the playoffs. Without Durant now, and with a very shallow bench, there is uncertainty – and the possibility of more injuries as their key players accumulate more playing time – that make the Suns’ season-end more challenging. Without Durant for much of the rest of the regular season, they could retain their place at 4th, or go as far south as 6th or even play-in bound 7th.
The LA Clippers (35-33), the Golden State Warriors (34-33), the Minnesota Timberwolves (34-33) and the Dallas Mavericks (34-33) are going nose-to-nose in the battle for 5th place. They are most likely to take the 5th to 8th spots unless a major catastrophe hits these teams. These teams will try to avoid the 7th and 8th slots, as these slots will have to go through a mini-play-in, before facing the top 2 seeds in the West. The tricky race here is for 6th place, as a 5th place finish could merit a first round match-up with the Phoenix Suns, expected to be at full strength with Durant ready for playoff action.
The 5th-running Clippers (35-33) added Russell Westbrook, jettisoning John Wall and Reggie Jackson from the team’s point guard roster. Still, this supposed upgrade hasn’t shown much of an improvement in the team as the Clips, despite Kawhi Leonard’s return to outstanding form, took a 5-game losing streak with Westbrook taking lead PG chores. Obviously, the desired chemistry between Westbrook and the rest of the team has not really kicked in yet, and this could be the Clippers’ weak point, unless corrected in time for the playoffs. As for the newly-acquired Eric Gordon and Mason Plumlee, both have clearly shown positive results in bolstering this already well-stocked roster.
The defending champs Golden State Warriors (34-33) have not shown its championship form despite the return of lead guard Steph Curry from injury. Coach Steve Kerr has been relying more on a small-ball rotation with Draymond Green taking the center position. Andrew Wiggins, who was arguably the team’s second best player in last year’s Finals against the Boston Celtics, has been conspicuously absent due to ‘family matters’, and this has been yet another mental issue hounding the Warriors this year. Conspicuously absent is that magical chemistry that this team rode all the way to the crown last year.
The Minnesota Twolves (34-33) are still without big man, Karl Anthony Towns, who’s out due to a calf injury. Expected to suit up before the end of the regular season, he will take some time to jell with new lead guard acquisition, Michael Conley. The verdict on KAT’s frontcourt pairing with Rudy Gobert is still up in the air.
With the acquisition of elite guard Kyrie Irving, the Dallas Mavericks (34-33) were expected to zoom up the west’s leaderboard as well. However, something still seems missing as the team has found itself losing with both Kyrie and resident superstar, Luka Doncic, playing together. With Doncic suddenly hampered by a thigh injury, injuries and team chemistry once again loom as the prevailing issues. Once Luka does get to play again, it is the seamless jelling between him and Kyrie as co-leads which will matter most. Should they fail to show a good blend together, this could be the next team that could blow-up at the end of the season.
After these teams, we have the comebacking LA Lakers (32-34), the New Orleans Pelicans (32-34), the Utah Jazz (32-35), the Oklahoma City Thunder (31-35), and Portland Trailblazers (31-36), all jockeying for position to join the 7th to 10th mini-tournament. Only two out of these 5 teams will find themselves in the mini-play-in to further determine who gets to take the 7th and 8th slots.
The Lakers are banking on a rejuvenated Anthony Davis, while awaiting the return of Lebron James. But their supporting elements have been showing a different kind of spunk to reach 9th despite Lebron’s absence. New acquisitions D’Angelo Russell, Jared Vanderbilt, Malik Beasely and Rui Hachimura have added wonders for this previously under-achieving team.
Zion Williamson is expected to return to the Pelicans’ bench before the start of the playoffs. Like Lebron with the Lakers, his return will create a massive change in the Pels’ offensive and defensive systems. If Brandon Ingram remains healthy (he’s been in and out physically and mentally the past few months), the Pels will be another force to reckon with.
As for the Jazz, the Thunder and the Blazers, each has a fairly good chance to reach the play-in (7th to 10th). Their chances will depend much on their own team chemistry and injuries. If they’re ok on both counts, we foresee epic match-ups in the west. Topping the list in the chemistry and no-injury profile are the front-running Denver Nuggets and the surprising Sacramento Kings. Whosoever wins in the west could come out the big winner come summer.
Overall, the key factors that will matter most in these last few games in the regular season will be: how the new players (Durant, Irving, Westbrook, etc) integrate into their new teams’ systems; how the injuries (Lebron, Durant, Zion, Towns, etc) affect their teams’ standings at the end of the season; and how other issues (Morant, Wiggins, Ingram) pan out. We have here a long list of outstanding players. But do they fit in? Will they bring out the best out of the rest of the crew? Are they healthy enough – physically and mentally – for the rigors of the playoffs?
Gentlemen, welcome to the wild, wild west!!!
Cover photo care of Lake Show Life. Other photos care of NBA.com, Silver Screen and Roll, LA Times, Twitter, Kyodo News, Clutchpoints, Sports llustrated, Lakers Nation, the Kansas Star, CNN, NBA Analysis Network and KSL Sports.
i got a chance to watch the kings before the all-star break and I was pleasantly surprised at their pace. somewhere where I wasn’t noticing, they seemed to have started playing competent basketball and I’m glad for it.
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It’s gotta be the coach. Mike Brown, I think, was able to bring in the winning attitude to this team. Been a long time! was cheering for them during that time they got robbed by the LA Lakers. I believe they could have won the title that year.
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glad to see it all working for mike brown. by the way, do you watch ncaa? just a heads up that march brackets are due. enjoy the week!
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not lately. but yeah, I will start covering the ncaa too. March madness, here we come!!!
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