The Wild Wide-Open West

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Updated: March 4, 2022
paul curry

At the turn of the New Year, it appeared the West had two tiers, Phoenix + Golden State…and everyone else. The CP3 run Suns’ machine was at the top of the league in clutch minutes and close game victories, while the Warriors were sporting the best defense in basketball matched by a top 5 offense. Fast forward to today and all of the established variables that defined the equations for the title have been distorted by an array of unknowns.

The Phoenix Suns when healthy, are the unanimous best team in the NBA. There are no question marks about their chemistry and zero holes in their roster which appears to be well equipped to handle any matchup the West has to offer in a 7-game series. When healthy though is a disclaimer that historically for Chris Paul teams have plagued countless playoff pushes in the past. With a fractured thumb on his shooting hand, he will be out until the postseason, which on paper at least allows him to rest and rejuvenate before the true war begins.

However, these types of assumptions often are counterbalanced by reality. Paul was on a smooth streak of elite point guard play this season. At the ripe age of 37 (which he will be in the playoffs), being sidelined and coming back after a multi-month hiatus has no guarantees he comes back the same player in the same zone he was in before. Thumb injuries also tend to be lifelong issues that never fully heal and when on the shooting hand, even if the physical discomfort evaporates, it can psychologically linger. With 20 games left, and CP’s minutes taken up by the rest of the roster, there may also be additional wear and tear injuries that occur in his absence to the Suns who have for the most part avoided injuries this season.

 All that said, if Paul comes back and is 90% of what he’s been they will still be the favorites to represent the West in the Finals. The same cannot be said against the once-best team in basketball, the Golden State Warriors. With Klay Thompson in after 2 missed seasons and Draymond out with nerve issues in his back, the Dubs as a whole have regressed. The Curry slump that was attributed to his chase towards the 3-point record has extended well past his 3,000th 3-pointer and is having his historically worst shooting year of his career.

With the juice of Klay’s return, they still were able to steal a handful of games, however, they are 3 and 7 in their last 10 and their lack of size without Draymond in the lineup has made opposing tier 2 bigs look like monsters exposing the Warriors’ nonexistent rim protection. Wiggins and Jordan Poole have also regressed since Klay’s return as his thirst to score has stolen a significant number of shots and possessions from the previous 2nd and 3rd options for the Warriors.

It is impossible to accurately gauge where they will be once Draymond is reinserted in the lineup since he is not only their defensive general but their primary facilitator on the offensive end. He is essentially the remedy for their lack of size at the end of games, but if he is physically comprised for the playoffs, it is unlikely the Warriors will be able to stop any of the arrays of centers they will have to get past in the West to get to the Finals.

It is not only though that the juggernauts at the top now have question marks surrounding their primary facilitators, but Ja Morant and Luka Dončić have also now eliminated the unanimous First Team All-NBA vote of Steph and CP. On the most recent Hoop Collective ESPN podcast, they implied their votes would put Ja and Luka as their two guards for First Team if the vote was to be cast today. Not only are they playing out of their minds individually, but their franchises are cooking with gas at the right time.

The Memphis Grizzlies have been solid all year. They have been that young franchise that starts hot and yet everyone around the league holds their breath to see if it’s real. Well, not only are they the Blackhorse for the title, but they might also just surpass Golden State for the 2nd seed next week and solidify themselves homecourt throughout the playoffs up until the conference finals. With Morant’s recent explosive performances, he has been ideologically removed from the most improved player since he is now in the top 5 of the MVP race. The young squad appears to truly love playing together and the electricity from Ja and the blossoming stars of Desmond Bane and Jacksons Jr. have created an opponent no one in basketball wants to face in the playoffs.

Luka and the Mavericks made what appeared to be a lateral trade at the deadline, offloading Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie, yet it appears to have unlocked The Don. The addition by subtraction has been tremendous in this small sample, and with their recent two dominating wins against the Warriors, they look to be a dangerous matchup for any team in the postseason. There have been many who have preached the gospel that if Luka had not matched up against Kawhi and the Clippers the last two years that Dončić would already have had a taste of playoff success. With their current momentum, it appears they will get their opportunity.

With all this said, we still have yet to include last season’s defense of player of the year Rudy Gobert and the reigning MVP and quite possibly this year’s MVP in Nikola Jokic. The Jazz have played well all year yet have been branded the show me when it matters team…which if we remember was the title given to the Milwaukee Bucks last season. Jokic has been playing with the most diminished roster in the conference and may get his 2nd and 3rd options back before the playoffs in Murry and Porter Jr. There is an argument, that the Joker is the single most unstoppable force in the Western Conference at this moment. With his dominance in the paint and surgical precision out of the double team, if his Robins come back healthy who knows what the Nuggets look like in a series.

Unlike some years, there will be no easy ways to the Conference Finals this postseason. Depending on which team’s health is blessed by the basketball gods, there is a world where we see two teams in the Conference Finals who no one would’ve predicted at the beginning of the season. In the modern NBA, just like no lead is safe, there are no sure things this postseason in the West.

 

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