The years of Western Conference dominance and royalty appear to have taken a hiatus for a season, and it could be the case for the near future.
It’s so jumbled and things are so uncertain, one could reasonably consider the new-look Los Angeles Lakers as a team to make some noise should they emerge from their current play-in tournament status.
Kevin Durant’s ankle injury not only halted his debut for the hometown Phoenix fans but put another delay in him acclimating himself with his teammates, and they with him. Now, he’s the most amenable star this league has probably ever seen, able to easily fit into any system because of 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 hiccup, particularly involving Durant or Chris Paul, will blow this all up in smoke.
Their lack of depth and continuity with each other will make it a hard trek no matter where they land in the playoff picture, even if the Suns’ ceiling is higher than anyone's in the conference.
It would be easy to believe in them, if there was actual evidence. But there isn’t a body of work yet, and probably won’t be before the playoffs.
It felt like the Memphis Grizzlies were next in line. They had it all, from a budding superstar to a hungry young core, even getting knocked down in the second round last year to the Warriors to add some heartbreak to the bravado.
But Ja Morant’s uncertain status, along with the Grizzlies’ own inconsistencies, has made Morant’s “I’m good in the West” comment feel more like a challenge to the competition than a statement of fact.
Steven Adams being out for the rest of the regular season and Brandon Clarke missing the playoffs following Achilles surgery aren't small issues. Adams’ size and Clarke’s activity cannot be replaced easily, definitely not in a playoff setting.
Dillon Brooks got the better of Draymond Green, barking and biting, but his decision-making isn’t trustworthy when it counts. If Morant comes back and looks like a reasonable facsimile of himself, what’s to stop the up-and-down Brooks from hijacking a playoff series all on his own?
There’s no reason not to believe in the Denver Nuggets. Their defense has improved from a rough start to the season, their point differential has consistently been near the top of the West and, oh yeah, they employ the odds-on favorite to win MVP: Nikola Jokic.
When those things traditionally describe one team, it feels like an overwhelming favorite — except the Nuggets aren’t, simply because they haven’t done it before.
It’s a pretty big reason why the MVP conversation feels so ugly to this point, but regardless of the circumstances for the last two years, the Nuggets haven’t advanced to the conference finals.
Jokic is unselfish, averaging double-digit assists and creating enough real estate for Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to do their thing. Injuries prevented both dynamic perimeter players from being on the floor in the Nuggets’ first-round series loss to Golden State last year, and if health holds, that won’t be the case this time around.
Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both unselfish by nature, but when the time called for ultimate singular performances to get their clubs over the top in dire situations, they produced. We haven’t seen Jokic do that yet when the stakes are highest, but it doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. It hasn’t penalized him in MVP discussions the last three years, but there won’t be any excuses this year.
The champs have erased their own excuses from the past and are relying on that corporate knowledge to kick in at some point — particularly on the road. But maybe it’s just not in the cards for them this season. A team can’t go 7-26 away from Chase Center and believe it’s really built for a title run. The Warriors have withstood so many barriers and body blows yet remained to stand tall, particularly last June when capturing their most improbable title of this era.
But there’s nothing besides blind faith that would lead one to believe they’ll make it through four grueling playoff series to claim another title, or even three to get back to the Finals stage.
The only teams in the same class as the Warriors on the road are the ones honking for Victor Wembanyama — Detroit (7-26), San Antonio (6-27) and Houston (6-28).
There have been injuries, controversies and starts and stops across the board, but they’re going to be so unserious about winning when it matters, in hostile environments and doing it with guile and verve, why should anyone believe in them this season?
It doesn’t discredit their championship last year or any of their previous sustained excellence. But this year stands alone and unlike last year, when the Warriors got off to a torrid start before having their issues, there’s no sweat equity this season to lean on. Their defense has only looked title-like during small stretches, but for the most part, disinterest has been the only constant.
It’s unclear when Andrew Wiggins will return to the team from a personal issue, or if it’ll have a positive effect. They’ve been given the benefit of the doubt because of various issues, particularly Curry’s injuries, but they’ve had a better record without him than with him in uniform (20-21 with Curry).
The Clippers have been battling availability and their own identity all season. It would be easy to say they’re lurking, but the same could be said for multiple teams. Yes, Kawhi Leonard has looked like the 2021 playoff version before his ACL injury halted a possible run to the Finals, but something still feels off.
Tyronn Lue is experimenting with more small lineups, using Leonard as a big, but adding Russell Westbrook, whom it’s believed Lue asked for, complicates matters more. Westbrook has shot 52% from the field and is averaging 8.1 assists in seven games as a starter — whatever ails the Clippers won’t be on Westbrook’s shoulders, similar to the mess that used to be in Lakerland — but it’s still a fragile situation at best.
Either of these teams could overcome their issues and potholes, and someone will emerge from this mess to be playing in the first week of June.
Or, it could be the Sacramento Kings.