Who will emerge in a wide-open West after Kevin Durant’s injury and uncertainty around Grizzlies, Warriors?
The Western Conference years of dominance and royalty appear to be on a season-long hiatus, and it could be in the near future.
Everything is so confusing and everything is so uncertain that it is reasonable to view the revamped Los Angeles Lakers as a team that will make noise if they exit their current tournament status.
Kevin Durant’s ankle injury not only halted his debut for the Phoenix hometown fans, but once again delayed his acclimatization with his teammates, and they with him. Now he’s the most accommodating star this league has probably ever seen, able to easily fit into any system with his style of play and basketball acumen. But this two-to-three-week injury exposes the fragility of the Suns’ ambitious plan: The slightest health glitch, especially with Durant or Chris Paul, will blow it all up like smoke.
Their lack of depth and continuity with each other will make it a tough road to take no matter where they end up in the playoff picture, even if the Suns ceiling is higher than anyone in the conference.
It would be easy to believe in them if there were real evidence. But there is no work yet, and probably will not be until the playoffs.
It felt like the Memphis Grizzlies were next in line. They had everything from a budding superstar to a hungry young core, even a second-round knockout last year against the Warriors to add heartbreak to the bravado.
But Ja Morant’s uncertain status, along with the Grizzlies’ own incoherence, made Morant “I feel good in the West” the comment is more like a challenge to competitors than a statement of fact.
The absence of Stephen Adams for the rest of the regular season and the absence of Brandon Clark from the playoffs due to Achilles surgery are no small problems. Adams’ size and Clark’s activity cannot be easily replaced, especially in a playoff setting.
Dillon Brooks got the better of Draymond Green by barking and biting, but his decisions are not credible when it counts. If Morant comes back and looks like a sentient version of himself, what’s to stop the flighty Brooks from grabbing the playoff series on his own?
There is no reason not to believe in the Denver Nuggets. Their defense improved after a rough start to the season, their points difference was consistently at the top of the West and, oh yes, they use favorite to win MVPStory by Nikola Jokic.
When these things traditionally describe one team, it seems like an overwhelming favorite – with the exception of the Nuggets, simply because they haven’t done it before.
That’s a pretty good reason MVP talk seems so ugly to this day, but despite the circumstances of the past two years, the Nuggets didn’t make it to the conference finals.
Jokic is selfless, averaging double-digit assists and creating enough real estate for Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to do their thing. Injuries kept both dynamic perimeter players off the floor last year when the Nuggets lost to Golden State in the first round, and if health continues, it won’t happen this time.
Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both selfless by nature, but when times called for exceptional performances to propel their clubs to the top in tough situations, they succeeded. We haven’t seen Jokic do it when the stakes are high yet, but that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. It hasn’t punished him in the MVP discussions for the last three years, but there won’t be any excuses this year.
Champions have erased their own excuses from the past and rely on that corporate knowledge to work at some point, especially on the road. But maybe that’s just not in their plans this season. The team can’t walk out of the Chase Center 7-26 and believe it’s really made for a title run. The Warriors have withstood so many hurdles and body shots, but have remained standing, especially last June when they won their most incredible title of this era.
But there’s nothing but blind faith to believe they’ll go through four grueling playoff runs to claim another title, or even three to get back into the finals.
The only teams in the same class as the Warriors on the road are the ones honking Victor Wembanyama – Detroit (7-26), San Antonio (6-27) and Houston (6-28).
There have been injuries, disagreements, starts and stops across the board, but they’ll be so light on winning when it counts in a hostile environment and do so with cunning and verve, why should anyone believe in them this season?
This does not discredit their last year’s championship title or any of their previous consistent superiority. But this year stands apart, and unlike last year, when the Warriors got off to a hot start before running into trouble, this season has nothing to fall back on. Their defense only looked title-like for short stretches, but for the most part, disinterest was the only constant.
It is not clear when Andrew Wiggins will return to the team from a personal question, or if it will have a positive effect. They had doubts due to various issues, notably Curry’s injuries, but they had better results without him than with him in form (20-21 with Curry).
The Clippers have been fighting for accessibility and identity all season. It would be easy to tell they are hiding, but the same can be said for several teams. Yes, Kawhi Leonard looked like a 2021 playoff version before his anterior cruciate ligament injury halted a possible run to the finals, but something is still off.
Tyrone Liu is experimenting with smaller lineups, using Leonard as the big one, but the addition of Russell Westbrook, whom Liu is thought to have asked for, complicates matters further. Westbrook shot 52% from the field and averaged 8.1 assists in seven games as a starter — whatever happens to the Clippers, it won’t be on his shoulders, like the mess Lakerland used to have — but it’s still a fragile situation at best.
Any of these teams can work their way through their problems and potholes, and someone will get out of this mess to play in the first week of June.
Or it could be the Sacramento Kings.