The NBA season is a quarter of the way through and the Western Conference is perhaps the most unpredictable it has been in years. We asked our writers to weigh in on the battle between the Suns and Warriors, the Lakers’ playoff chances, a trade they would like a West contender to make and if they could choose one player from the Western Conference to win a single game, who would it be?
Suns vs. Warriors in a seven-game series. Who you got?
Howard Beck: Since this hypothetical series would be played next spring, I’m going with Steph-Klay-Dray and the NBA’s only reigning dynasty. Presumably, Klay Thompson (and James Wiseman) will be healthy and productive, bolstering a group that’s been dominant even without them. The Suns are excellent, but the Warriors have the experience and the firepower.
Chris Mannix: Currently? Phoenix. But Golden State has a pretty good player eyeballing a return this month. 6' 6", good shooter, a little ornery about missing out on the NBA’s 75th-anniversary roster. I don't know what to expect from Klay Thompson, but if he is 75% of what he was before the injuries, he's going to be a big difference-maker—against Phoenix and everyone else.
Michael Pina: The Warriors have the best player, more versatility, depth and upside. Klay Thompson is coming back, and he’s an extremely good, hungry basketball player! As a roster, Golden State is also able to upgrade before the trade deadline in a way the Suns can’t. It’s here where whiffing on the Jalen Smith pick really hurts. Imagine if Phoenix selected Tyrese Haliburton instead. Not only would it enhance their present, but he’d also make the Suns an intriguing buyer that could better maximize the twilight of Chris Paul’s career.
Rohan Nadkarni: If the series happened literally as of this moment, I would give the Suns the win in seven, because they have home court, and the Warriors are down two rotation pieces in Klay and Wiseman. If the series happened in the playoffs, I’m giving the Warriors the nod assuming Klay is healthy. However, I wouldn’t rule out the Suns picking up an impact player either near the deadline or during the buyout period. They have a roster spot open and an aggressive general manager in James Jones. The Warriors can certainly make a big move, too, though they seem somewhat reluctant to move all the young guys. This is a long way of my saying many things can change between now and the playoffs, so I’m hedging my bet. But the Warriors have the ultimate edge because of the Thompson card.
Robin Lundberg: It is hard to answer this series without knowing what version of Klay Thompson we will see. But if the Splash Brothers are back together with Draymond and a retooled Warriors roster, I have to lean Golden State. I've simply seen what they can do together too many times.
Chris Herring: I’d like to see how this rehabbed version of Klay looks and fits with this Warriors group, which lacks playoff experience with some of its newer pieces. But for now, I’d take the team that’s gone undefeated for 18 games in a row, that beat Golden State without its All-Star in the second half.
What odds would you give the Lakers to make the playoffs?
Pina: 10 to 1? There’s a decent shot they don’t make it, but it’s also hard to see them fall below the Kings, Spurs or Thunder and out of the play-in. And in a single-elimination format, as a healthy roster with DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard expelled from the rotation, betting against LeBron James and Anthony Davis isn’t the smartest move.
Herring: Playoffs? 65%? To at least make the play-in? 100%. There’s a pretty clear drop-off between the Suns, Warriors and Jazz, and then another between the teams vying for the spots between four and 10. I don’t trust the Lakers or their health all that much in a one- or two-game scenario. But if—if—LeBron can stay healthy the rest of the way, perhaps they can avoid the play-in altogether.
Beck: 99%, as long as LeBron is upright and functioning. As flawed as this roster is—and it’s absolutely flawed—it’s not bad enough to sink the Lakers into the lottery. Are they still title contenders? I’m not convinced. But on talent alone, this team shouldn’t finish any lower than six—or win one of the other two spots through the play-in tournament.
Mannix: High, well more than 90%. I'm deeply concerned about the Lakers’ ability to do anything in the playoffs. But to suggest they are going to miss it means you are placing faith in the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, the injury-ravaged Nuggets and the Kawhi Leonard–less Clippers to be better than them. I don't see it. I think the Lakers can—and likely will—get taken out in the first round. But a lottery team, they are not.
Nadkarni: I’m going to be honest, I don’t understand odds and how they work. Is this question sponsored by Draftboys XL? Whose idea was this? Pina did 10 to 1 like I know what that means. Anyway, the Lakers are making the playoffs. The West is low-key a little rickety this year. This isn’t your cool, older cousin’s Western Conference. Heck, even with their uneven start the Lakers are only two games behind the third-seed Jazz in the win column. Basically every team outside of the top three either has a legitimate flaw or injury. I’ll join the law firm of Beck and Mannix and say more than 90%.
Lundberg: I've been critical of the Lakers’ roster from the very beginning. But if LeBron James plays the majority of the season, they will make the playoffs. Asking him to elevate them to championship status in Year 19 is a bit much, however, it’s more than problematic if he and AD can’t make the postseason. They should avoid the play-in as well.
What deal would you like to see a West contender make?
Mannix: I'd like to see the Blazers get aggressive about a CJ McCollum–Ben Simmons swap. It's not McCollum’s fault that Portland is where it is, but the McCollum–Damian Lillard backcourt has clearly plateaued and Simmons, with all his warts, would bring a different (read: defensive) dynamic to the team. If the Blazers have any hope of salvaging the Lillard era, they need to shake things up. Grabbing Simmons is the easiest way to do it.
Pina: Said with the caveat that I’m not sure how they actually make either trade happen, but the Jazz should do whatever they can to acquire Harrison Barnes or Jerami Grant. In the spirit of adding some defensive and offensive versatility to a team that’s more predictable the deeper they advance in the playoffs, parting ways with Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson or Bojan Bogdanović and whatever draft capital they’re still allowed to surrender feels necessary.
Beck: Can the Blazers find a way to pry Christian Wood loose from the Rockets? Could the Mavericks get him? I know Wood is just 26, and theoretically part of the Houston rebuild, but right now his talent is wasted on a team built to lose (and which will be losing for several years to come). Both the Blazers and Mavs could use an athletic big man with double-double production and three-point range.
Nadkarni: How much longer are the Blazers going to hit their heads against a wall and expect a different result? It’s seriously time to consider a serious change. Both CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić should be on the trade block. Not because they are bad players, not because they can’t contribute to a championship team, but because they’ve proven they ultimately aren’t the right fit around Damian Lillard. Dame is a superstar, and at some point Portland is going to have to take a swing befitting his status. Can they bring back Ben Simmons and some other valuable contributors? The new plan is not a guarantee to work. But we seem to know the current one never will.
Lundberg: I don't think they qualify as a contender, but I’ve long been a proponent of a Ben Simmons–for–CJ McCollum swap. It would be a much needed shakeup for the Blazers to give Damian Lillard some help with size, defense and athleticism and McCollum gives Philly a creator on the perimeter. But I’m mostly saying this to end the Simmons saga and at least quell the Dame trade talk temporarily.
Herring: Not trying to be overly cute here. But between Klay, Kawhi, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and even Ja Morant, Dame and Devin Booker, I’m just eager to see these teams get their best players back.
If you could choose one player from the Western Conference to win a single game, who would it be?
Beck: Cue video of cute kid saying, “LeBron Jaaaames” over and over.
Pina: Nikola Jokić is barely human. His 33.7 PER is not only the highest in NBA history, but the gap between him and second place is about the same as second place and the 27th greatest PER season on record, posited by Shaquille O’Neal in 2001.
Mannix: LeBron. Full stop.
Nadkarni: Is this game happening tonight or is it Game 7 of a playoff series? If it’s a Friday in December give me Nikola Jokić, who is carrying just about anyone who wears a Nuggets uniform these days. If it’s a Game 7, I still think LeBron can exert his control over a game more than any other star. But it pains me deeply to pick him over Steph.
Herring: Stephen Curry, his game against Phoenix notwithstanding.
Lundberg: If you had asked me this question at any other point during the last decade-plus regardless of conference I would’ve said LeBron James. However, Steph Curry is playing the best ball of his career and though the one thing he may be missing on his résumé are signature big-game moments, I wouldn’t bet against him getting them. Chef is special.