Western Conference Contenders
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The Biggest Problem For Every Western Conference Contender

The Western Conference has been the more competitive conference in the NBA for an extended length of time, but the higher standards required to contend in the West do not preclude Western Conference contenders from having fatal flaws that could derail their title hopes. The sheer amount of talent in the Western Conference has given rise to numerous “pretenders” that can play like contenders here and there but cannot consistently perform at the elite level required to be a true contender. Only four teams have proven that they are capable of true title contention: the Pheonix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Utah Jazz. All four teams consistently play to their full potential, but all four have a significant issue that could dash their chances for a ‘chip.

Utah Jazz – Lack of Elite Star Talent

The Utah Jazz have been blowing out opponents all season and look like one of the best teams in the entire NBA. The team has multiple players in contention for the 6th man of the year award, and center Rudy Gobert is once again a candidate for defensive player of the year. Head coach Quinn Synder has led Utah to the #1 seed in the Western Conference and put himself on the shortlist for coach of the year in the process. The Jazz are an intimidating matchup come postseason basketball, as they rank top five in both offense and defense while leading the NBA in overall net rating. However, critics argue that Utah’s success in the regular season is a fluke and that they are unlikely to see the same success in the postseason because they lack a true superstar that can get them a bucket in the finals seconds of a playoff game.

Although their roster is not devoid of talent by any means, the Jazz lack the elite star talent that other Western Conference contenders can put forward. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are both All-Stars, but they are a tier below the truly elite players elsewhere in the conference. The Jazz have a deep roster but team depth takes a backseat to superstar talent in the postseason. In fact, it’s for this reason that teams lacking an elite individual talent have a title drought going back to the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons. Other teams, like the the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, have attempted deep postseason runs based on team depth in recent years, but none have found success in the postseason. If the Jazz are to contend for a title, they must break this mold.

Phoenix Suns – Postseason Inexperience

Chris Paul has earned MVP buzz taking the Phoenix Suns to the next level in the 2020-2021 season, but the team has little playoff experience on its roster. The only two players on the roster that have significant experience playing in the postseason are Jae Crowder, who most recently played in the 2020 NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, and Chris Paul, who has missed the playoffs only twice in his career. The Suns, currently sitting second in the West, have announced themselves as true contenders this season, but the inexperience for key players like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, & Cameron Johnson could cost them a series against more experienced western conference contenders.

Not only are the Suns’ players largely unfamiliar with postseason basketball, but head coach Monty Williams has never made it past the first round as a head coach. Paul has revived his career in the past two seasons as a team ceiling-raiser, first with the Oklahoma City Thunder and now with the Suns, but the lack of postseason experience across the board could spell disaster for the title hopes of Pheonix. A year of postseason experience for key players like Ayton and Booker could propel this team right back into contention next season, but whether or not they can maintain their form for four straight playoff series this season is entirely up in the air.

Los Angles Clippers – Paul George

The Los Angles Clippers looked like the favorite to win the 2020 NBA Finals but were stunned by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, blowing a 3-1 series lead in the process. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had poor outings and the Clippers ended up losing one of the most important games in their history in an embarrassing fashion.

The Clippers would love nothing more than to put last season’s playoff woes behind them and they have positioned themselves well to do so. They are catching fire right as the postseason arrives and George is leading the charge. His inconsistency and postseason shortcomings during the Clippers’ 2019-2020 campaign earned George the nickname “Pandemic P”. George has been playing at an MVP level this season but if he falters in the playoffs again, the Clippers have little chance of surviving three rounds in the West to make the finals at all. With Leonard’s free agency fast approaching, the ramifications of another early Clippers exit from the postseason could be catastrophic for Clippers fans and the organization itself.

Los Angles Lakers – Playoff Seeding

The Los Angles Lakers have not exactly had a season conducive to back-to-back titles. Major injuries to both LeBron James and Anthony Davis mean that the team could end up fighting to escape the Play-In Tournament. This is a legitimate cause for concern because no team has ever won an NBA Championship from the 7th or 8th seed, and the Lakers may find themselves in full panic mode. The Lakers desperately need James to be healthy going into the postseason, but even he said that he may never be 100% again.

Former player Jalen Rose argued that if the Lakers are a part of the NBA Play-in Tournament, they will not win the championship. Frankly, it’s getting harder to disagree. If Davis cannot lead the Lakers out of Play-In territory while James is sidelined with injury, the Lakers will have to go through an incredibly difficult playoff gauntlet with neither of its stars consistently at full strength. Betting against James is difficult to justify, but if the Lakers have to go through the playoffs without any home-court advantage, it might prove to be the wise move.