Last week took a look at the possible 1st round playoff opponents of the NBA Eastern Conferences top four teams, examining how excited those top end teams would be to face their first round foe: the ‘Nobody Wants To Face Them In The First Round’ factor. Now, it’s to swing our gaze to the West (the top four at the time of writing: Suns, Warriors, Grizzlies and Mavericks) and take in their NWTFTITFR teams.
(Stats and records are correct as of Monday US time)
Record: 45-31 (6th in the Conference)
The Nuggets will be a tricky out for whoever they find themselves matched up within the 1st round of the playoffs. Nikola Jokic is just that damn good. The 7th year pro is putting up 26.3 points, 13.6 boards, 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals and close to a block per night, all on 58/35/81 shooting splits – all numbers practically mirroring his MVP campaign.
Jokic’s remarkable production and consistency can almost be taken for granted and that’s before you even consider that he’s missed his two best teammates for practically the entire season.
This is where things get especially dicey for the Nugget’s first round opponent. The team have yet to officially rule out the possible return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Even if they’re not at full strength, their mere presence makes the Nuggets a legitimate top four team. Nobody in the first round wants to see that version of the Nuggets standing across from them.
The Utah Jazz and Denver are in a tight race for the 5th/6th seeds. It will be fascinating to see how the Golden State and Dallas – currently 3rd and 4th in the conference respectively – ‘manage’ their roster to try to avoid the Nuggets, should they return to full health.
Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 36-39 (8th)
At full strength, these Clippers are talented, deep, versatile and tough. Unfortunately, their best two players are at the moment very much sidelined. Kawhi Leonard is yet to suit up this season and Paul George hasn’t played since Christmas. Even their big trade deadline acquisition in Norman Powell only lasted three games before breaking a bone in his foot.
Like the Nuggets, there is a chance that both – George in particular – could return in time for the playoffs. Having just one of those stars on the court make the Clippers a nightmare match up in the play-in and a genuine NWTFTITFR contender.
As currently constructed, the Clippers will have the shot making of Reggie Jackson, the toughness of Marcus Morris and the underrated defense of Ivica Zubac. They are versatile, have loads of shooting and in Ty Lue an excellent coach at making tactical adjustments on the fly.
Throw in a rested, hopefully, healthy and somewhat up to speed Paul George, and this is a team that nobody would wish to see in round one.
Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 31-43 (10th)
It really hasn’t worked out for the Lakers this season. From the moment they took to the floor season 2021/22 has been a catastrophic – yet perversely entertaining – undertaking.
Because of that, it’s so tempting to simply say that everyone would love to see the Lakers in round one. Assuming they make it through the play-in tournament. Assuming they qualify for the play-in tournament. The Spurs are charging up the standings and at just a half game back from the Lakers, are a very real chance to hand the Lakers even more embarrassment by relegating them to 11th in the standings.
Let’s assume that the Lakers do hold off San Antonio and make the play in. They would then have to win two games, both against higher seeds – for context, the Lakers haven’t won two games on the bounce since the first week of January – and both away from home.
But what if they do manage to get through the play in and into the playoffs proper? Shouldn’t they be an easy out? Well, LeBron James might be as old as the hills, but he’s still LeBron Freaking James. Knowing that his teammates are about as useful as a pedal powered wheelchair, James has gone on a tear of late. In March, he’s averaged 34.3 points, with as many 50 point games as he has games scoring under 25. There is not a player alive excited about seeing James in the playoffs.
Then there’s Anthony Davis, a two-way beast when healthy who showed in 2019 that he can produce in the big moments. Then there’s Russell Westbrook who….um….Carmelo Anthony was….ahhh….Avery Bradley can….nup. I’ve got nothing.
Unless LeBron goes Supernova, the Lakers are cooked.
Record: 43-33 (7th)
It’s still a touch discombobulating to this writer to see something good happening in Minnesota. Some draft luck at the top end, astute scouting at the bottom of the draft, a trade that they somehow lost and won, a new coach and a few choice free agency additions have this Timberwolves side looking close to confirmed for a playoff berth.
With all of their offensive talent and the genius of Chris Finch on the sidelines, it’s somewhat surprising to see that the Wolves are led by their defense. Patrick Beverley has made a career at that end of the floor. Youngster Jaden McDaniels is already a defensive menace. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns have matured into solid team defenders. Anthony Edwards has the tools to be a wrecking ball at that end of the floor.
Of course, those three star men – Towns, Russell and Edwards – are all offensive dynamos, though they still haven’t quite clicked as a trio with the Wolves often leaning on the hot hand rather than any particular team offensive wizardry.
Whilst they have the potential to light up an opponent if their offense clicks, their inconsistency at that end as well as a thoroughly unproven playoff defense will see the Wolves picked off quite comfortably by whoever they play in the first round.
A NWTFTITFR team, they are not.
New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 32-43 (9th)
Let’s deal with the elephant – the term is used loosely – in the room: Zion Williamson is not coming back this season. Now that we have that out of the way….
The trade deadline acquisition of CJ McCollum undoubtedly breathed new life into a Pelicans season that was presumed dead. His combination with Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Ingram has given New Orleans a legitimately very good offensive tandem to work around.
They’re 9-7 since the All Star break and whilst that might not sound like much, it has been enough to drag them from 13th in the West all the way to 9th and a chance at reaching the playoffs.
That said, they’re simply not good enough – even with Zion – to avoid a first round loss to a top four opponent. They’ll be better than cannon fodder, but won’t win more than a single game in a series.
Record: 45-30 (5th)
In the context of this article, the Jazz are most perplexing.
They’re a legitimately excellent basketball team. They have a gifted shot maker in Donovan Mitchell. They’ve surrounded him with shooting and playmaking. They have an acclaimed coach. They’ve improved their offensive depth. Of course, they also possess the most dominant defender in the league in Rudy Gobert, a defensive system unto himself.
Utah has suffered through injuries to Mitchell and Gobert – by the longest way their two most important players – and that has seen them drop in the standings. That said, the talent is there as is a proven game plan. The Jazz should be terrifying.
Yet, they’re really not. Why? Because the book is out on how to beat them.
Gobert is the engine that makes the Jazz go. His interior presence covers for – with apologies to Royce O’Neal – the defensive sieves that surround him. Offensively his long limbs create a vertical gravity that sucks in defenders which, in turn, opens up Utah’s whirring passing game and devastating array of shooters.
There’s just one teeny, tiny little issue: Gobert cannot and or/will not take advantage of switches.
The Clippers showed that if you can play genuine five-out basketball you give Gobert his version of Sophie’s Choice: defend the rim and leave his man open in the corner or defend his man and watch his teammates allow a procession of shots at the cup.
That wouldn’t be a problem if Gobert could go down low and stuff his 6’5” marker into the hoop with the basketball. Despite showing some promise at the Olympics, he hasn’t been able to take advantage of smaller defenders in NBA settings.
The Jazz are incredibly talented and well coached. But until either Gobert dominates on the low block and/or his teammates show at least a little bit of perimeter resistance, the Jazz will once again flatter to deceive.
This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.