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Making the Finals Case for Each Western Conference Contender

Which team will come out on top in a stacked Western Conference? The Crossover examines the case for each of the West's top contenders

The Warriors’ reign is over in the Western Conference, and what’s left in their wake is one of the most intriguing conference battles in recent memory. The Lakers are a favorite with their fair share of question marks, while the four teams trailing Los Angeles (all due respect to Dallas and Oklahoma City) each have their own case for the conference crown. Will Kawhi Leonard seize the mantle of Best Player Alive once again? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook defy the odds with the small-ball Rockets? With All-Star weekend in the rearview mirror, we at The Crossover examined the case for each of the Western Conference’s Finals contenders.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Case For

The Lakers have the league’s best duo and the West’s best record. Their defense is stifling with a collection of behemoths, and who wants to face playoff LeBron? Have we forgotten The King so soon? LeBron ran roughshod through the Eastern Conference in the 2018 playoffs with a deeply flawed roster. The West is far better this season, but Anthony Davis remains a top-seven talent, more than making up for the difference in competition. The case for Los Angeles isn’t complicated. When the going gets tough, the Lakers have two legitimate superstars to bail them out.

The Case Against

While James and Davis provide the Lakers a sturdy foundation, their tertiary pieces still remain a questionable collection of players. Los Angeles is thin at point guard. The Dwight Howard-JaVale McGee duo is exploitable despite an impressive start to the season. Kyle Kuzma is the lone Lakers’ youngster not dealt for Davis, but even he is struggling to find his footing in the postseason. We saw a similar issue arise for James and Co. in Cleveland. He (and often Irving) would erupt for nearly 40 points, but the rest of the Cavs would clank a consistent stream of jumpers. It’s not hard to see the same play unfold again in a series with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley. The Lakers have proved plenty of skeptics wrong this year, making preseason predictions look foolish. They’re still far from a Finals lock as we roll into March.

Denver Nuggets

The Case For

Remember our early concerns over Nikola Jokic? The NBA intelligentsia spent much of the season’s first month worried about the Joker, concerned over his weight and lack of offensive progression. Jokic was out of shape, to be fair. But question him at your peril.

Jokic is averaging a cool 25-11-8 in his last 20 games, shooting 54.7% from the field. It may be a guard’s league, but Jokic controls the action with the grace of a Steve Nash or Chris Paul. Every Jokic pass is on point. He understands the gravity he creates, consistently looking to punish defenders who leave the weak side. Michael Porter Jr. (an impressive talent in his own right) is feasting next to Jokic, receiving as many corner threes as his heart desires. Denver may not have a reliable No. 2 scorer, yet Jokic is the rising tide that lifts all boats. The Serbian center rolling through the West remains the spring’s most delightful potential outcome.

The Case Against

We’ll be forced to ride the Jamal Murray train in April, and the results may not be pretty. The Canadian point guard struggled in spurts throughout the 2018-19 playoffs, and his postseason chops are anything but proven. Murray is a talented scorer, and his mid-range game should prove valuable in the playoffs. Yet his shot selection remains concerning, especially late in games and late in the shot clock. It’s far easier to naturally play through a star guard or wing. Feeding Jokic can be more difficult. If the Nuggets abandon their best player down the stretch, they could face an early exit.

USA TODAY

USA TODAY

Los Angeles Clippers

The Case For

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No closing five in the league is as talented as the Clippers, and we just saw Leonard obliterate the Eastern Conference less than a year ago. Leonard remains a truly dominant force when he wants to be, and any internal strife over load management will fade after his first 30-point playoff effort in Los Angeles. The Clippers are long and physical. They have a pair of dynamic, playmaking forwards, and Lou Williams is a reliable late-game force. Everybody is a threat in Los Angeles, similar to the Raptors in 2018-19. There are no immobile centers or brick-laying guards. The outline of a title team is evident. It may be simply a matter of getting everyone on the floor come April and May.

The Case Against

Does the extreme lack of cohesion in Los Angeles bother anyone? Even if you dismiss the rumors of a slightly-fractured locker room, the Clippers’ on-court product remains disjointed. Paul George continues to battle a slate of injuries while Leonard remains an enigma. Marcus Morris jumbles the Clippers’ rotation, and Reggie Jackson could potentially do the same. The Clippers haven’t won more than four straight since November. Betting on an extended playoff run could be a dicey bet.

Utah Jazz

The Case For

The Jazz are a stifling defense, led by the game’s best rim protector in Rudy Gobert. Playing in Utah can be a nightmare for opposing teams (just ask the 2017-18 Thunder), and it’s plausible the Jazz host two playoff series. Utah’s defensive bonafides are clear. Do the Jazz have enough firepower to win the West?

Utah certainly has a better chance this season compared to previous years. Bojan Bogdanovic has been superb in his first season with Utah, averaging 21 points per game on 42.5% from three. Bogdanovic has a knack for hitting big shots. Just ask the Rockets. He could make a key difference in a playoff game.

Bogdanovic was one of two marquee additions from the Jazz, and Mike Conley is beginning to return to form after a dismal opening stretch. Conley may ultimately play a bench role for Utah in the postseason, but that’s not the worst thing in the world despite his hefty contract. Paired with Jordan Clarkson (who’s been surprisingly reliable), Utah’s backcourt is far deeper than in previous seasons. Quin Snyder has options if Donavan Mitchell struggles from the floor.

The Case Against

This rotation still feels a bit light despite the additions in the backcourt. There is no reliable center behind Gobert, and Royce O’Neal still lacks scoring punch in late-game situations. Snyder will have to be smart toggling between O’Neal and the Conley/Clarkson combo. Go too small, and the West’s stronger backcourts (hello, Houston) can thrive. But playing O’Neal and Gobert together can seriously shrink the spacing. Mitchell isn’t in the Harden stratosphere, nor is he necessarily close. Utah may still be a year away from truly competing for the Finals.

Houston Rockets

The Case For

Russell Westbrook has been absolutely dominant since the calendar turned to 2020, exiting the All-Star break with 34 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in his last 14 appearances. Houston’s shipping of Clint Capela has completely cleared the lane for Westbrook, who is increasingly efficient as he excises threes from his arsenal. If Houston’t MVPs are firing on the same night, there are few teams in the league who can truly keep up. The Rockets’ offensive firepower should scare any Western Conference opponent.

The Rockets endured a brunt of criticism following the Capela trade, with skeptics denouncing their plan as simply too radical. Hemorrhaging rebounds is no way to win, even in the current three-happy era. Houston has held its own thus far. They’re 19th in defensive rebounding since the Robert Covington trade, not good, but certainly respectable. Besides, the Rockets are wreaking havoc in passing lanes, earning extra possessions via turnover generation. Houston’s offensive firepower could vault them to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference by the end of March. If the bracket breaks right, the Rockets could finally reach their first Finals of the Harden era.

The Case Against

Houston should be able to minimize its size disadvantage in the regular season, but the dynamics can change in a playoff series. One game of getting beat on the boards isn’t lethal. Allowing Nikola Jokic to feast for six-plus games could take a severe toll. James Harden has faded down the stretch in previous postseasons. Houston’s switch-heavy scheme could exacerbate that problem. An early exit at the hands of Jokic or Rudy Gobert could mark the end of the Mike D’Antoni era.