Yesterday, we talked about the East. Today, it's time to do the West, and if you subscribe to the famous Phil Jackson 40/20 contender rule, well then we have 3 true contenders and they only live in the West. No East team won 40 before their 20th loss. Not the Sixers, not the Nets, not the Bucks. Since 1988, only 3 teams have won a title without winning their 40th game before their 20th loss. That's pretty fucking nuts. That even includes the Lakers weird bubble year. So, if you put any stock into that rule, chances are one of the teams in this blog is ultimately going to reach the top of the mountain. But that dosn't mean each of the 10 teams currently jockeying for position in the West don't have some concerns heading in. Let's talk about em,
As a reminder, these are just things I consider interesting and have questions about as we head down the stretch. It doesn't mean they can't be overcome, but the point is there is no perfect team in the league. Everyone has something, even the best of the best. We'll once again go in the order of the current standings.
Concern: The wildcard that is Deandre Ayton
Remember when the Suns started 8-8? Of course you don't because since that moment they are 39-10. That's 6 wins better than the Jazz for the most wins in the league since that point. Suns fans will be happy to know that this team does qualify for the 40/20 rule, so they have that working for them. For pretty much the entire season, the Suns appear to be a team with few holes. They have an elite offense, they defend at a high level and they have an extremely balanced roster. An NBA best 25-8 against teams .500 or better, everywhere you look you see the Suns are fucking ridiculous. Clutch games? A West leading 23-11 in those bad boys. Games decided by 3 or less? An NBA best 7-3.
So what could even be a concern for this team that has been absolutely dominant since January 27th?
For me, it's Deandre Ayton. We know what we're getting from Chris Paul. We know what Devin Booker can bring. But if these Suns are going to make a deep run, Deandre Ayton is a pretty important piece for me. When he's locked in and motivated, he's a force. At the same time, his struggles at times on the defensive end are a potential issue. The Suns Drtg goes from 110 to 104 when he steps off the floor. Getting a good version of Ayton is so important because if you look at their big man depth chart, you see names like Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, and rookie Jalen Smith. That's a pretty big drop off in my opinion. Do you love that front line against someone like a healthy Lakers?
You also factor in that this is the first crack at the playoffs for a lot of these main Suns rotation players and it's fair to be a little nervous how they will handle it.
Concern: Can Rudy Gobert stay on the floor?
Welcome to another 40/20 team. Shit, just like the Suns we could see the Jazz achieve the rare 50/20. In terms of their dominance, everything I said about the Suns is basically true with the Jazz. 23-12 against teams .500 or better, top 5 offense/defense/net rating, and a loaded and balanced roster. They've been nails since the start of the season. Did you know the Jazz have not lost 3 games in a row at any point this entire season? How about this. In the games where they've lost 2 in a row, something that's only happened 4 times all year, in 3 of those the second loss was either in OT or by 1 point.
Surprisingly, my concern with the Jazz is also similar to PHX. It revolves around Rudy Gobert.
The playoffs have not been kind to Gobert. There's a reason you hear about him being played off the court so often. We're seeing this season opposing guards foaming at the mouth when they see Gobert switch onto him. The thing with Rudy is he makes such an impact during the regular season it's always so bizarre how that doesn't exactly translate to the postseason. While Mitchell might be their best player, it feels like they Jazz's chances really rely on what version of Gobert they get and how effective he can be. Especially when their playoff path could consist of some elite guards and teams that would love to go small.
Los Angeles Clippers
Concern: Is Playoff P going to suck ass again?
It's actually pretty crazy that the Clippers have such a good record (44-22) considering how much time their best players have missed. They are the 3rd and final team to notch the 40/20 marker despite Kawhi only playing 48 games and Paul George 50 up until today. Pat Beverley has only played 32, Luka Kennard 58, Mook 52, Ibaka 39, the list goes on and on. I think it's safe to say that the Clippers are heading into the playoffs with some of the most pressure of any team out West. Not just because of Kawhi's current contract situation, but because of how last year ended. Blowing a 3-1 lead when you're a title favorite is not a great look.
Which brings me to Paul George. The man who signed his massive extension heading into the year and someone who is coming off a playoffs in which he put up just 20 a night on 39/33% shooting. In fact, for his career he's only a 41/35% postseason shooter. We all remember his 10 points on 4-16 (2-11) performance in Game 7 against the Nuggets. The Clippers don't have many flaws, but if you look at the two best players for all the contenders, I think it's fair to not really know what you're going to get from George. The other side of that is the fact that George has had a great bounce back season this year, but until he shows he can keep that going in the playoffs against elite teams, it's always going to be a question. You can't call yourself Playoff P and then disappear in the playoffs when your team needs you. Even as good and deep as the Clippers roster is, they won't win shit if George has another Nuggets type series.
Concern: Who is going to help Jokic?
First, it was Jamal Murray going down with his ACL. Then Will Barton fucked up his hammy. The fact that the Nuggets have continued to win despite all that is pretty insane and for the most part locked up Jokic's MVP. But as we know, once you get to the postseason and things slow down it's going to be very hard to Jokic to carry this team by himself in a playoff series. That means their secondary scorers/players become all that more important.
Michael Porter Jr is making a great case that he can fill that #2 role. Since the deadline he's putting up 23.5/7.8/1.5 on 56/45% and 3.1 3PM. That's about as legit as you can get. He actually shot the ball pretty well in his 19 playoff appearances last year at 47/38%, but remember that was also playing with Jamal Murray on the floor commanding all that attention. The issue with MPJ is mostly on the defensive end. He's not great, the team has a 112 rating when he's on the floor and over the last month we're seeing the Nuggets barely hold onto their top 10 defensive rating.
This is also a huge opportunity for Aaron Gordon, but as someone who has a total of zero (0) playoff games under his belt, it's fair to question how he reacts. The thing is, helping Jokic isn't just going to come on the offensive end, the defense matters too. If their perimeter defense struggles and that forces Jokic to rotate and potentially foul, this team is cooked. Will Campazzo get playoff minutes and if so, how will they handle when teams target him on that end?
It really sucks that after the awesome season the Nuggets have had that they've been hit with these type of injuries to their main players, and how their supporting cast steps up will go a long way to shape how they might do.
Concern: Defense, defense, defense,
If there's one thing we know the Mavs can do, it's score. When you have Luka running the show, you're going to put up points. I wouldn't be concerned about that as a Mavs fan, even without Porzingis. What continues to be the most important factor for the Mavs success comes on the defensive end. Last year they had a historic offense. One of the most unstoppable offensive seasons we've seen in recent history. Then they got to the playoffs and couldn't stop a nosebleed. They finished with a 121 rating which was the 2nd worst in the entire playoff field and were out in 6 games. It didn't matter how good their offense was, when your defense is so bad you finish with a -9.3 net rating, that's all that matters.
Enter this season. The Mavs once again have a top 10 offense. On the other end, a 112.2 Drtg. That's worse than the Pistons and Bulls and tied with the Wizards. I'll remind you that last year during the regular season they had a 111.2 rating. No matter where they finish, whether it's 5, 6, 7, or 8, the Mavs are going to face an elite scoring offense. Luka Magic can only take you so far, you have to defend in the playoffs if you want to make a deep run. Even teams we saw coast during the regular season like some of those LeBron Cavs teams turned it up in the postseason.
God forbid the Mavs find themselves in clutch games in the postseason, they've shown to have the 28th ranked clutch time defense in the league. That's an issue. Until this team shows they can defend at a not league worst level in the playoffs, its' fair to be nervous about their chances.
Los Angeles Lakers
Concern: LeBron and AD's health
This is the only thing that matters for the Lakers. Not the seeding, not the rotations, not the bench, none of that shit is more important than the health of their two best players. When they are fully healthy, the Lakers are the title favorites. Until someone knocks them out, that's the reality. You have to basically throw out everything we've seen from the Lakers over the last like two months because of those guys being out/hurt.
You have to remember, LeBron will be getting his usual playoff whistle. Fully healthy, he's an unstoppable postseason force. AD actually tries all the time in the postseason. They are simply a completely different beast when those guys are at 100%. Now, will they be? LeBron is nursing his ankle and we might not see him for the next few games. If those guys aren't fully right, the Lakers do become beatable. It forces guys to change their roles a little bit. But outside of their health, there aren't too many concerns. We saw how good this team could be when healthy.
Portland Trail Blazers
Concern: Stopping a nosebleed
I feel like the Mavs and Blazers are a lot alike. Both have elite offenses led by dominant guard play, but both have serious issues defensively. If you think that's true of the Mavs, may I inform you that the Blazers have the 29th ranked defense in the league this season. They give up 114.8 points a game which is the most of any team in the top 10 seeds. Much like the Mavs, their inability to stop anyone was a huge reason they were out in 5. In their 4 losses to the Lakers they gave up 111, 116, 135, and 131. That's not gonna get it done.
Even with guys back this season, things still aren't all that pretty. They are just 24th in defense since the trade deadline. They are below average in terms of opponents 3PM and 3P%. They have issues defending without fouling (22nd) and so far the trade for Robert Covington hasn't really done all that much to change things. You then add in all the pressure they have to make a run or their coach will likely be fired, it's a big postseson for the Blazers this year.
But just like DAL, if the Blazers cannot stop a nosebleed, they are going to be an early exit, no matter what Dame does. If he even remotely struggles like he did last year (40% FG%), they have no shot.
Golden State Warriors
Concern: They stink outside of Steph Curry
The Warriors are dangerous in a sense that they are a play in game threat because Curry can go nuclear on any given night, but outside of that things aren't looking great. If they manage to sneak into the 8 spot, it'll probably be a quick series. Mostly because they struggle playing anyone good. Just 12-23 against teams .500 or better, their talent around Steph just isn't good enough. Do you feel confident with Andrew Wiggins or Kelly Oubre in a playoff series? Draymond can defend, but he is what he is as an offensive player.
With the Warriors, they have sort of the opposite problem that the Mavs/Blazers do. GS surprisingly is a top 10 team defensively. Irt's the whole scoring thing that they struggle with. Just the 24th ranked offense on the season, even furing this insane Curry run where he's making history, they are still 21st and just 10-9. There just aren't enough consistent offensive options to make you feel good about them in a series. The play in? Steph can handle that by himself, but it's different once you make it to the real party.
Concern: Three point shooting
The Grizzlies are interesting to me because they are young, they are competitive, but they may be a little ahead of schedule. Not having Jaren Jackson Jr basically all year is a factor, but this is a team that shows up on the defensive end (9th) which is how they stay competitive in a brutal West. Offensively they are about the middle of the pack. The one thing that separates them from the elite teams in the West is mostly around their style and their three point shooting production.
Essentially, they don't really do it. Only the Lakers and Spurs take fewer threes of any team in the West top 10 seeds, and one of those teams has LeBron so who cares. The Grizzlies only make 11.1 3PM a night (12th in West) and shoot 35.7% (9th in West). All of the top seeded teams are elite three point shooting teams. I just fear that in any potential matchup, the Grizzlies won't have the offensive firepower to keep up. You can't keep trading 2s for 3s despite how good you are defensively.
This isn't to say they don't have shooters. Dillon Brooks can certainly be effective from behind the arc. Ja is known to get hot every now and then. I'm talking more about their approach. In today's NBA you basically have to shoot threes to win, that's just the reality unless you have someone like LeBron.
San Antonio Spurs
Concern: Popovich can only do so much
DeMar DeRozan is a hell of a player. Let's get that out of the way first. He's also sort of playoff cursed. Outside of 2015-16, no team he's ever played on has played more than 10 postseason games. For his career, he's shooting 41/23% in the postseason. Talent wise, considering the Spurs are in a rebuild, it's not the best. They are sort of playing with house money as far as I'm concerned, but I do wonder if their talent plus how they play is simply too much for Pop to overcome. The fact that they are even in this position is a testament to what he can do as a coach, but in the event they even get out of the play in, things don't look great.
This Spurs team is 11-23 against teams .500 or better. Their 20 clutch time losses are the most of any top 10 seed. Offensively, they rank 18th in the league and have one of the lowest TS% as a team (55.6%, 25th). I just don't know how they score against an elite defense. They are extremely disciplined, barely turn the ball over, and play decent defense so that's how they remain competitive, but Pop can't make the ball go in the hoop. He can craft defensive strategies and he can find ways to get DeRozan easier looks, but for a team that doesn't shoot threes and doesn't have an elite collection of talent surrounding DeRozan, who steps up? Dejounte Murray is going to have to really come through as the #2 option, but outside of that things get ugly quick.
If history tells us anything, the NBA champion should come out of this conference. The fact that we could get matchups like LAL/LAC in the first round just give you an idea of how insane the West playoffs are going to be. The most dominant teams in the league both come from this conference and nobody really gives them a chance. LeBron is always lurking. It's going to be awesome to watch.