Los Angeles Lakers: Contenders
There has been a great deal of turbulence in recent weeks as the defending champion LA Lakers have had to play without Lebron James and Anthony Davis due to injury. The Lakers are just 3-7 in their last ten, but with Davis back on the court and the return of James getting closer by the day, Lakers fans can take a sigh of relief. Both the health and effectiveness of those two are make or break for this Lakers team that finds themselves on the wrong end of the playoff standings sitting one game back of the Portland Trail Blazers for 6th in their conference. If James and Davis can return to the lineup and elevate their play the way they’ve done so many times in the playoffs then the Lakers are absolutely a contender to win the championship for a second year in a row. However that is a big ‘if’ considering James said that he would never be 100% again following this injury. As well, the biggest question surrounding the Lakers in my eyes is whether their surrounding cast can do what it has to do to provide enough support for their two stars. The acquisition of Andre Drummond has not been what many fans thought it would be, with Drummond averaging just 11 points per game in 17 appearances for the purple and gold. However, as long as they get consistently good guard play from both Dennis Schröder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this team’s ceiling is a championship.
Los Angeles Clippers: Contenders
Staying with the Los Angeles theme, should all things go well the Clippers are definitely contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The combination of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are a very tough duo to beat in terms of two-way players. Both can defend at an elite level and are extremely tough matchups at the other end. The Clippers’ ceiling got even higher at the trade deadline when they obtained Rajon Rondo from Atlanta. Rondo was stellar in the playoffs last year for the Clippers’ stadium roommate and should he provide that sort of value to the Clippers, the rest of the West should watch out. The Clippers have also added valuable veterans to their roster this season, including Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum who should help the depth of the team when PG and Kawhi sit down. I think it is highly unlikely we see the same sort of collapse from the Clippers as we did last season but stranger things have happened. The Clippers are contenders.
Phoenix Suns: Pretenders
The Suns surprised everyone this season with their play and excellence all year. The addition of legendary point guard Chris Paul was questioned in the beginning with many wondering if CP3 could still elevate a team like he used to, and boy can he ever. Paul is without a doubt a honourable mention for the MVP award this year and has helped to improve the Suns’ win total by 14 wins with four games remaining in the regular season. The reason Phoenix are listed as pretenders is because of their depth and playoff experience. Phoenix currently ranks 21st in the NBA in paint scoring so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to a slower half-court game in the playoffs if they cannot score inside. As well, this will be the first playoff appearance for a number of Suns, including Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges. While there are a few veterans who have playoff experience like CP3 and Jae Crowder, it will be imperative that the young guns come to play for the Suns going forward. Given the youth of this team and the lack of a consistent bench performer it would be a surprise to see the Suns represent the Western Conference in the NBA finals regardless of their regular season success, and for that reason the Suns are pretenders.
Denver Nuggets: Pretenders
The Nuggets' run to the conference finals in the bubble was an incredible spectacle. Unfortunately, the Nuggets are now missing the biggest spectacle from that playoff run; Jamal Murray. With Murray falling victim to an ACL tear in mid-April the Nuggets title aspirations fell with him. Of course this is no knock on Nikola Jokic and the rest of Denver’s roster with Jokic having a historic MVP season and the supporting cast stepping up in Murray’s absence. However, without the explosive scoring of their best guard, they’ll have a tough time beating the other elite teams in the West four out of seven games. The other question surrounding the Nuggets is where their secondary scoring will come from without Murray. Michael Porter Jr. has been stellar in Jamal’s absence but when Jokic moves to the bench other rotation players must fill in the gaps both in terms of playmaking and shot making. With Murray, the Nuggets could’ve made a splash come playoff time, but after a devastating injury to their best guard, Denver are pretenders.
Utah Jazz: Contenders
The Jazz have the best record in the association four games out from the postseason and have been without Donovan Mitchell since April 16th which is very impressive. The Jazz have gotten over the hump this year unlike in recent years. Both Rudy Gobert and Jordan Clarkson are the favourites to win Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year respectively, and they’ve received excellent contributions from Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. Utah also leads the NBA in both 3PM and 3PA while shooting the third best percentage from downtown. Of course that is impressive and equates to a successful regular season if you have the roster that Utah has, however it is also my biggest question heading into the playoffs regarding the Jazz. There’s the cliche ‘you live by the three you die by the three’ and this will be the story of the Jazz’ playoff run whether short or long. If they are able to maintain that shooting clip against the best teams in the NBA during the playoffs they are absolutely primed for a run at the title. Though once the game slows down and matchups become even more important in the half-court, can Utah maintain their scoring and shooting? The signs from the regular season point to yes and if that is the case, the Jazz are major contenders.