LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have been at the top of the West all season, and now they’re closing in on the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league. The LA Clippers, meanwhile, have favored load management over wins all season but still have a small lead over the Denver Nuggets for the No. 2 seed in the West.
Is Denver the biggest title contender outside of Los Angeles? Which teams are the biggest threats to a Lakers-Clippers Western Conference finals? Our experts answer the biggest questions and make their bold predictions about the likely West playoff teams.
MORE: How many real title contenders are there in the East?
1. Fact or Fiction: Denver is the most legitimate West title contender outside of L.A.
Kirk Goldsberry: Fiction. You want legit? Check out the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the best record in the Western Conference since Dec. 15 (29-10). How legit is that? The Thunder have a knack for playing their best in clutch situations. As Royce Young pointed out a few weeks ago, the Thunder’s crunch-time five (Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams) is statistically the best lineup in the league right now. That group is outscoring opponents by 30 points per 100 possessions, and is leading this team to big-time wins like the come-from-behind win in Boston on Sunday afternoon. You know who wants to see Chris Paul and the Thunder in Round 1 or even Round 2? Nobody, that’s who.
Kevin Arnovitz: Fiction. Most nights, the Nuggets are a solid team with an offense that knows how to generate the shots with a well-honed dribble handoff, action on both sides of the floor and some nice misdirection. The defense has its nights but has never quite achieved the consistency to bother the league’s more prolific scorers and systems. When the gears grind during the latter minutes of a tense playoff game, will the Nuggets find a way to get what they want?
Kevin Pelton: Fiction. The Nuggets sit a semi-distant fifth in the West in point differential, and while injuries have been a factor, their roster doesn’t seem to lend itself to obvious playoff overachievement. I would consider the Rockets the most legitimate threat outside Los Angeles.
Tim MacMahon: Fiction. I’m skeptical about the Nuggets, especially considering their recent struggles. Believe it or not, the Thunder look like the biggest threat to an all-L.A. West finals. Oklahoma City has the second-best win percentage of all West teams in 2020, second only to the Lakers. The Thunder are 22-9 since New Year’s Day and are the last team anyone wants to face in the final few minutes of a close game. The Rockets, with two recent MVPs, have the highest ceiling in the conference outside of L.A.
Royce Young: Fact. The Nuggets have their flaws, to be sure, and they certainly aren’t playing very well right now, but they have a roster built to contend. On all cylinders, the Nuggets score and defend, and have a track record of winning close games. They cut their teeth last postseason, when inexperience nearly sent them home after the first round, and they present any team with a matchup nightmare in Nikola Jokic.
2. Fact or Fiction: Luka Doncic is the best non-L.A. West player this season.
Arnovitz: Fiction. It’s very, very close and Doncic wins on style points, but even as James Harden is mired in a woeful shooting slump, he has the slightest of edges. Both players have an intuitive understanding of how to control a possession, but it’s easy to forget just how much Harden scoops up from the margins of the game, like his magical ability to manufacture free throw attempts from thin air. Once Doncic can nudge his 3-point shot into the 35% range (he’s last among the 29 qualified shooters attempting at least seven 3-pointers per game), this fiction will turn to fact.
Goldsberry: Fiction. I love Doncic, but I’m not ready to put him ahead of Harden just yet. Yes, Harden is in a shooting funk, but he’s on pace to score 34 points per game and win the scoring title yet again. Doncic will be the definitive offensive player in the Western Conference soon enough, but let’s not shovel dirt on Harden in March.
Young: Faction. It’s complicated because Doncic has missed some games while Jokic has done the opposite, carrying the banged-up Nuggets for an entire month. Doncic has been the best overall non-L.A. player in the West when healthy, though Russell Westbrook has certainly made a strong case to be in this conversation in the past two months.
Pelton: I know Harden’s 2020 play hasn’t lived up to the standard he set over the first two months of the season, but based on overall level of play, he’s rated better than Doncic at both ends of the court by most advanced metrics — including ESPN’s real plus-minus.
MacMahon: Fact? I’m on the fence about the order of Doncic and Harden on my MVP ballot — after Giannis Antetokounmpo and James, in that order — unless I change my mind. Doncic and Harden have both faded after their hot starts, and their efficiency numbers have dipped to concerning levels. Since Jan. 8, Harden’s effective field goal percentage is 46.9 and he’s shooting 29.6% from 3. Doncic’s numbers are 49.5 and 28.6%, respectively, in the same span. Will either have enough gas in the tank for a playoff run?
3. Which team (outside of the Clippers) matches up best with the Lakers?
Goldsberry: The Houston Rockets, at least when their shots are falling. They’ve already proved it. In Robert Covington’s first game back with the Rockets on Feb. 6, Houston went into Staples Center and won by 10. Eric Gordon and Covington both made 3s. Westbrook scored 41. As soon as Houston’s role players start making their 3s and Westbrook gets going, the Rockets can beat anybody. The Lakers are built around strength and size, but Houston’s small-ball approach nullifies those things when it’s clicking.
Pelton: Houston. In answering this question, I think we tend to focus on how to minimize weaknesses rather than how to maximize strengths. The Rockets obviously give up a lot of size in this matchup but can create other issues with their quickness and floor spacing, as we saw in their 121-111 win at Staples Center the night of the trade deadline.
Young: Denver. Its front-line size would test one of the biggest concerns the Lakers have with their interior depth. And not that any team has someone to guard James and Anthony Davis, but the Nuggets are stocked with a number of rangy, versatile bigs. Jerami Grant could be the possible X factor in a series against the Lakers, with assignments on both James and Davis.
Arnovitz: The Rockets. Houston might not be the best of the non-Los Angeles field, but it’s the one with the greatest variance. The Rockets can take any opponent out of its offense by forcing it to play one-on-one against the switch. And the Rockets’ reliance on the 3-point shot means that they can win games even when they’re outperformed. That said, the Rockets would have to produce the outliers of all outliers over a seven-game series to topple the Lakers, because James and Davis demonstrated on Sunday that they can hunt mismatches with the best of them, and there’s enough length and smarts on the floor to find the Rockets’ shooters.
MacMahon: I guess I’ll go with the Rockets. They did pull off a convincing win at Staples Center in the honeymoon game of Houston’s marriage to small ball, also known as Covington’s 2019-20 Rockets debut. But man, that feels like an eternity ago. Two recent MVPs provide enough ammunition for Houston to have a puncher’s chance, though the momentum the little Rockets built with their sprint out of the gates after going all-in on small ball has fizzled in miserable fashion with an embarrassing four-game losing streak.
4. Which team (outside of the Lakers) matches up best with the Clippers?
MacMahon: I’ll go with Oklahoma City just for the potential storylines of the small-market Cinderella stocked with former Clippers trying to shock Steve Ballmer’s superteam. Paul has made the most out of landing in Oklahoma City a couple of years after leaving Lob City by forcing his way to Houston. Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari, part of the package to get Paul George, are the Thunder’s two leading scorers. Maybe Oklahoma City, the league’s best clutch team, could steal a couple of games and make it really interesting.
Young: The Utah Jazz are an intriguing matchup with Rudy Gobert’s interior presence and the potential the Jazz still possess if they can finally find the right offensive mix. But the truth is, outside of the Lakers, there’s no other Western team that has what the Clippers have. The Dallas Mavericks could be a somewhat dangerous matchup because Doncic is that good, but competing with the Clippers’ size and versatility is too much for just about everyone.
Arnovitz: Houston would still be a long shot against a Clippers team with uncommon versatility and isolation attackers who can leverage any switch to their advantage (e.g., the Clippers won’t lose any sleep having Kawhi Leonard confront Harden or Gordon). Yet, the Rockets are the West’s true wild card. They have a knack for creating chaos, and enough firepower to overwhelm anyone with 18 minutes of hot shooting.
Pelton: Utah. It’s tougher to answer this question with the Clippers because their starters have been in and out of the lineup all season. George played just one of the Clippers’ three games so far with the Jazz (they’re scheduled to play again April 7), but in that game Utah won 120-107 at Staples Center against a Clippers team largely at full strength. (Montrezl Harrell did sit out.)
Goldsberry: The Thunder. Nobody in the league knows Doc Rivers better than Paul. In a hypothetical series against the Clippers, Paul would not only be hyper-motivated to shock the world — he’d also be uniquely equipped to make it happen. Oklahoma City has the best record in the West over the past two-plus months and has developed a feisty toughness that could give the Clippers fits. Adams is the exact type of punishing big who could exploit LA’s lack of size up front. The Thunder could definitely steal a game in Staples Center, and Thunder fans would be a nightmare for Leonard and George to deal with. Please let this series happen!
5. What’s your bold prediction in the West?
Young: The Clippers and Lakers will both play in a Game 7 before facing each other in the conference finals. First, the competition in the West is strong with good, high-level teams. Second, it’s going to be hard not to let the eyes wander ahead to what’s coming.
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Arnovitz: The Thunder win a first-round series. A guard rotation of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder, with Adams and Gallinari up front, boasts the kind of ingredients you’d need to cook up a first-round upset: competence, physicality, versatility, with enough experience to hold up under the bright lights.
MacMahon: If the Mavericks manage to avoid the Clippers, they will win a first-round series. Dallas has the best point differential among the West’s non-L.A. teams and has a .650 winning percentage (which would put the Mavs in the fourth seed) when Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis both play. This will be their first taste of the NBA playoffs, but Doncic in particular has performed well on the biggest international stages. Porzingis has been the West’s best two-way big man since the All-Star break.
Pelton: Both the 3-6 and 4-5 series in the first round go the distance.
Goldsberry: The Thunder will get to at least a seventh game in the second round. This team is peaking at the right time and is built for war. The playoff atmosphere in the Thunder’s arena is always incredible, and their entire group has a chip on its shoulder. In other words, they are a dangerous underdog. I predict they will get through the first round and present one of the L.A. squads with a terrifying test in Round 2.