US basketball

Biggest questions surrounding West postseason teams

Joe Viray
Biggest questions surrounding West postseason teams

STAR POWER. Steph Curry’s Warriors and LeBron James’ Lakers still pose as threats despite landing in the middle of the standings.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Uncertainties lie ahead for every team in the West, making this compressed and jam-packed season arguably the most exciting one in years

The Western Conference has always been a bloodbath – even in the years where the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic inevitability lorded over an otherwise elite cast of teams. Those years are long gone, replaced by the kind of uncertainty that glues fans to their seats and keeps the television screens running.

Every team in the West – including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers – have pressing questions and uncertainties heading into the postseason, which makes this compressed and jam-packed season arguably the most exciting one in years. 

Utah Jazz: Do they have enough to win a championship?

In addition to currently being the top seed in the West, the Jazz have the unique distinction of being the only team in the league to be within the top 5 in both offensive efficiency (5th) and defensive efficiency (3rd). They also lead the league comfortably in net rating, outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions.

Rudy Gobert is the prohibitive favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. The Jazz outscore opponents by a whopping 15.7 points per 100 possessions in Gobert’s 2,159 minutes on the floor, including a defense that gives up 11.7 points per 100 possessions fewer when he actively anchors it. He leads several advanced defensive metrics, including defensive estimated plus-minus (+6.1), defensive RAPTOR (+8.3), defensive LEBRON (+5.05), and defensive real plus-minus (+7.96).

The Jazz offense is a well-balanced one, combining passing, movement, shooting, and pick-and-roll efficiency to dissect defenses in any method they want. They have capable shot creators and ball-handlers – Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley among the starters, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles off the bench – who can captain the offense and can capably path their avenues of attack.

The Jazz have proven they are a well-oiled machine in the regular season, but the postseason has a knack for throwing a wrench into efficient setups.

Gobert is an intimidating paint presence, but will he get “played off the floor” on switches against smaller lineups with quicker perimeter operators, as some of his biggest critics have claimed? Can the Jazz count on the likes of Mitchell and Conley to rescue their offense if things bog down and stagnate?

If the Jazz can address those concerns, being the best team in the regular season may just have been the harbinger of a championship team.

Phoenix Suns: Is Chris Paul enough to address postseason inexperience?

Forget the talk about championships and rings: Chris Paul is a winner. Every organization he has played for has won more with him than without him. The Suns are the latest team he has inundated with his winning touch, helping them clinch a playoff berth and ending a 10-year playoff drought.

Paul’s impact goes beyond the counting stats – the Suns outscore their opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But it is a testament to the Suns depth – and the presence of another star in Devin Booker – that they still outscore opponents by 6 points per 100 possessions with Paul off the floor and Booker on

The Suns have the ideal balance of offensive firepower and defensive discipline; they are within the top 10 in terms of offensive rating and defensive rating. They have Paul and Booker to count on to create something out of the numerous nothings that will probably become commonplace during the playoff grind.

The biggest question isn’t Paul performing in the playoffs, but whether the bright lights of the postseason might affect the youth and relative inexperience of the Suns’ roster.

Booker, Deandre Aytron, Mikal Bridges, and several others on the roster are entering the first postseason of their careers. Paul has inundated them with his winning aura during the regular season; can he impart his playoff experience onto them and help them – and himself – win their first title?

Denver Nuggets: Can Nikola Jokic carry the Nuggets without Jamal Murray?

Nikola Jokic is the MVP – that much is definitive. He leads pretty much every advanced impact metric out there: estimated plus-minus (+8.0), RAPTOR (+9.9), LEBRON (+6.67), and box plus-minus (+11.7)

The advanced metrics merely back up what he can visibly do on the floor: a 7-foot center who is the playmaking hub of an entire team, who can distribute from the top, from the elbows, or from the low post. His vision and passing instincts are boundless, making him already one of the greatest passers in the history of the league.

Add his increased scoring efficiency (26.4 points per game on 64.8% true shooting, both career highs), and Jokic has evolved into one of the best offensive players in the NBA.

But the season-ending ACL injury to Jamal Murray has placed nearly all of the Nuggets’ playoff hopes on Jokic’s shoulders. Murray was Jokic’s running mate during their fairy-tale bubble playoff run, where they came back from a 3-1 deficit twice to reach the Western Conference Finals.

In 1,363 minutes on the floor this season, the Jokic-Murray duo has outscored opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. With Jokic on the floor without Murray, that drops to 2.7 points per 100 possessions – a thin thread that will allow only a small margin of error for the Nuggets in the playoffs, especially with the possibility of facing the Lakers in the first round.

Jokic has stayed healthy throughout the season; he hasn’t missed a game so far. The Nuggets will have to rely on him and count on the emergence of Michael Porter Jr as a viable second option to carry them in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers: Can they diversify their offense for the playoffs?

On the surface, it’s an absurd question to ask of the Clippers, who are third in offensive rating and have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on their team. Furthermore, they are putting up one of the best shooting seasons in NBA history – as of this writing, they are shooting 41.4% from beyond the arc on 34.6 attempts per game, on track to be the second highest in NBA history among teams who averaged at least 20 three-point attempts per game.

The Clippers are a jump-shooting-heavy team, ranking 8th in mid-range jumper frequency and 13th in three-point frequency. There are serious concerns about the lack of rim pressure – they are only 26th in the league in terms of shot attempts within 4 feet of the basket. What happens if the shots stop falling in the playoffs all of a sudden?

Leonard and George are certainly capable of bailing out the offense, but they themselves haven’t been pressuring the rim that much according to their standards. Only 25% of Leonard’s shots (30th percentile among wings) and 27% of George’s shots (37th percentile among wings), are at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass.

If the Clippers are counting on a heavy dose of variance going their way during the playoffs, it would be an extremely risky proposition. Diversifying their attack might be the way to go – a floor general such as Rajon Rondo will help stabilize the offense and direct things on the floor. But if they are to succeed, it could very well count on their two stars diversifying their approach and, quite simply, playing like the offensive stars the Clippers brought them in to be.

Dallas Mavericks: Do they have enough perimeter defense to survive?

Luka Doncic is the face of the Mavericks offense, and is potentially on his way to securing a second straight All-NBA First Team selection, with averages of 27.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists on a 48/35/73 shooting split and 58.7% true shooting.

The Mavericks offense, while not nearly as potent as it was last season, is still ranked 8th in the league, and they have Doncic mostly to thank for that. But the question looms as to whether they have enough defense to survive in the playoffs, which has always been a persistent problem for them during the Doncic era.

Not much has changed in terms of their defensive efficiency – they were ranked 18th last season, and they are currently 17th as of this writing. The concern mainly lies in the lack of switchable personnel and versatility; while Doncic has improved defensively, he is still not definitive plus on that end. Josh Richardson, brought in for his defense, has underperformed. 

The prospect of defending pick-and-rolls with the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Dwight Powell as the roll-man defenders is a valid concern. Should the Mavericks’ on-ball defenders die on screens, drop defenses against pull-up artists will burn them; on the other hand, outright switches will put their bigs on an inescapable island.

It’s a predicament that could prove to be unsolvable for this iteration of the Mavericks.

Portland Trail Blazers: Is it now or never for their roster and coaching staff?

Numerous early-round exits and a sole trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019 (which ended in a sweep) have defined the Terry Stotts era of the Blazers. The Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum backcourt has continued to thrive – the pair outscores opponents by nearly 8 points per 100 possessions, which includes an offensive rating of 123.0, easily bypassing the top offenses in the league.

But the lack of defense has continued to plague the entire team. Even with the acquisitions of reputable defenders such as Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr – in addition to the trade-deadline acquisition of Norman Powell – the Blazers defense is the second-worst in the league in terms of efficiency.

The consistent lack of defensive identity is something the coaching staff had years to address, but they have largely failed to do so. Terry Stotts is on the hot seat, and bar a miraculous run in the playoffs, he could very well be out of a job by the end of the Blazers’ season, whenever that may be. That could open up a search for a coach who could imprint a more solid defensive culture.

Another approach would be to find more roster solutions, because this current iteration – like the ones before it – isn’t looking like it can cut it with the big dogs of the West. The Blazers have tried surrounding Lillard and McCollum with a better supporting cast, and they may need to do much better this upcoming offseason.

But the absolute last resort – one that is inching much closer within the realm of possibility – is breaking up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt. That would be a hard pill to swallow, but if things continue to stay the same, then it could be one they’d be forced to ingest.

Los Angeles Lakers: Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis warm up in time for another title run?

Despite the Lakers falling all the way to the 7th seed, there’s still fear among other teams of facing LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the playoffs. Such fears are valid, considering the kind of damage both stars can inflict when they’ve played together on the floor.

The James-Davis duo has outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, including a defensive rating of 104.7 – 2 points stingier than their league-best defensive rating.

The caveat is that James and Davis have spent a considerable amount of time sidelined with injuries, resulting in their duo having only 554 minutes on the floor together. Concerns about rust and continuity still linger, as well as their offense, which is only 24th in efficiency.

But LeBron James is a proven commodity in the playoffs. Anthony Davis proved he was a 16-game player in the bubble playoffs. If any duo can come back from a long layoff and pick up from where they left off, it would be these two superstars.

And if anyone can accomplish the nearly impossible – bring a team from the lower half of playoff seeding toward a championship – it would be LeBron James.

Golden State Warriors: Can Steph Curry and Draymond Green go on a deep playoff run?

There’s a lot to be said about the kind of season Steph Curry has had. The numbers he’s been putting up would place him much higher in the MVP rankings in another year: 31.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.7 assists, on a shooting split of 48/42/92 and 65.6% true shooting. If the Warriors weren’t a play-in team, Curry could very well have been a serious challenger to Jokic in the MVP race.

Draymond Green has continued to live up to his reputation as one of the league’s preeminent defenders. He has been anchoring a Warriors defense ranked 5th in efficiency, and is on his way to landing a spot in an NBA All-Defensive team. It has more than made up for his precipitous fall in terms of raw offensive production; Green is averaging only 6.9 points on a shooting split of 45/27/78. His playmaking (averaging 8.9 assists, 5th overall in the league and leading all frontcourt players) and chemistry with Curry has been his main value on offense.

The Curry-Green duo has outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in their 1,701 minutes on the floor together. When both of them sit, opponents outscore the Warriors by nearly 5 points per 100 possessions, with an offense that becomes the third-worst in the league, besting only the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The lack of scoring diversity and distribution beyond Curry and Green has been a persistent problem, one that started with the preseason Achilles injury to Klay Thompson. Despite such limitations, Curry and Green have carried the Warriors to a 38-33 record and an appearance in the play-in tournament, a playoff-level atmosphere both of them are highly familiar with.

Curry and Green thrive in a high-stakes environment, while the rest of their teammates – a bunch of up-and-comers and role players with no playoff experience – have yet to know how it feels to succeed in the postseason.

The duo deserves the benefit of the doubt, but will their championship pedigree be enough for them to overachieve? Or will their supporting cast’s limitations act as the rate-limiting step on their way to an improbable run?

Memphis Grizzlies: Will their defense carry over when it matters most?

The Grizzlies have been a joy to watch for League Pass aficionados, especially with one of the most dynamic guards in Ja Morant being the face of the team.

They have gone mostly under the radar, mostly ignored by the mainstream media outlets. But the Grizzlies have legitimate depth in their roster. Morant is their future, but young studs such as Jaren Jackson Jr also have star potential. Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been legitimate draft steals. Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson provide some veteran stability. Jonas Valanciunas has been the Grizzlies’ reliable man in the middle.

Head coach Taylor Jenkins has brought out the best in his young squad, mostly through a culture of defense – the Grizzlies are currently 8th in defensive efficiency, with the kind of personnel to switch and give movement-heavy offenses lots of trouble, in addition to the backline rim protection that Jackson provides.

The fact remains, however, that this team is an unproven high-stakes commodity. Their first test will come against Steph Curry and the Warriors. Curry will warrant a lot of defensive attention, and so will other opposing stars should the Grizzlies go that far. Will their regular season defense hold up in the playoffs? Will their defensive culture prove to have a strong foundation? Or will it collapse under the pressure of the postseason?

San Antonio Spurs: Can Gregg Popovich help a young team overachieve?

Gone are the days when Gregg Popovich had the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili executing his schemes and carrying the Spurs to five NBA championships. In its place is a team that has yet to find its collective identity.

The Spurs still have a few reliable veterans left. Patty Mills is a holdover from their days at the top of the West; Rudy Gay is an aging veteran; DeMar DeRozan is their legitimate star and go-to guy: 21.6 points on 49.3% shooting from the field, and a true shooting percentage of 59%.

Beyond the veteran leadership, however, is a roster filled with youth and inexperience. The Spurs haven’t been topping offensive and defensive efficiency lists like before, due to Popovich focusing mostly on the development of his young players – the Spurs are 18th in offensive rating, 16th in defensive rating, and 21st in net rating.

It is highly unlikely that the Spurs will be able to climb out of the play-in tournament, but Popovich has built enough of a reputation for everyone to give him at least a puncher’s chance to survive and make the playoffs proper. But the more likely outcome is an inexperienced team falling short, and Popovich focusing his efforts on continuing to build a new Spurs identity from the ground up. –