NBA Insiders: Who Did Enough to Contend in Wild Western Conference?

NBA Insiders: Who Did Enough to Contend in Wild Western Conference?
Eric Pincus@@EricPincusTwitter LogoFeatured Columnist IMarch 2, 2023

NBA Insiders: Who Did Enough to Contend in Wild Western Conference?

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 01: Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns brings the ball up court while guarded by Dennis Smith Jr. #8 of the Charlotte Hornets in the second quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on March 01, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

    Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

    The NBA standings in the Western Conference are extremely tight.

    Three teams are well situated (Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings), and two are chasing Victor Wembanyama in the lottery (San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets).

    The rest of the West, however, is so close that the difference between the No. 4-seeded Phoenix Suns and the No. 13 Oklahoma City Thunder is 5.5 games. That’s 10 teams fighting for seven postseason spots, each with between 18 and 20 games to go.

    With so much parity, franchises were aggressive in the trade and buyout markets to bolster their chances. Some made substantial changes, like the Phoenix Suns going all-in for Kevin Durant. Others made moves with eyes on the future, like the Utah Jazz.

    Ignoring traded draft picks and future considerations, the question is: Which teams did enough to make a run in the wild, wild West ahead of the 2023 postseason?

Didn’t Need a Splash

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    CLEVELAND, OHIO - FEBRUARY 23: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets waits for a rebound during the second quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 23, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The Denver Nuggets (44-19) are within range of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference (Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics), and they are the clear regular-season standout in the West.

    Still, the team was active at the deadline, primarily sending out Bones Hyland to the Los Angeles Clippers.

    “They had some locker room issues with Bones. His style and personality, whatever it was, was clashing with [coach Mike] Malone,” an Eastern Conference executive said.

    Denver added another backup center in the deal, getting Thomas Bryant from the Los Angeles Lakers, and then it signed Reggie Jackson—who had been traded by the Clippers to the Charlotte Hornets—off the buyout market.

    “Reggie is a more polished version of Bones, and he’s a good locker room guy,” the executive said. “I’m not sure the Nuggets’ changes will matter; the team was already really good.”

    The Memphis Grizzlies (38-23) added a shooter in Luke Kennard from the Clippers in a multiteam deal, giving up veteran defender Danny Green (coming off injury) to the Rockets.

    “You can never have too many shooters,” one NBA source said. “Especially when you have a guy like Ja [Morant].”

    Memphis isn’t as experienced in the postseason as the Nuggets, but it’s been a credible threat all year.

    Finally, the Sacramento Kings (36-25) didn’t make any significant moves, preserving the on-court chemistry that will see the team back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Given the drought, the result once they’re in is almost immaterial.

    “I’m not sure how far the Kings will get in the playoffs, but credit to that front office for turning things around,” the Eastern Conference executive said.

The Big Swing

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 1:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns is interviewed after the game against the Charlotte Hornets on March 1, 2023 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

    “If you have the chance to get [Kevin] Durant, you’ve got to take it,” a Western Conference executive said. “I wish, for the [Phoenix] Suns, he was younger and less injury-prone. But they went for it.”

    The Suns (34-29) sent Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and multiple picks to the Brooklyn Nets to reinvigorate a group that went to the NBA Finals in 2021. If Chris Paul and Durant stay healthy, Phoenix could be the last team standing in the West.

    Some polled sources have long-term concerns. “I’m not sure how they find their Chris Paul replacement,” one said. “But that’s not today’s problem.”

    Others had questions about the team’s depth and defense but were generally optimistic about the team’s chances this postseason.

    Phoenix also added Darius Bazley from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Terrence Ross on the buyout market via the Orlando Magic.

In the Mix (If Healthy)

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 15: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates a basket and foul of LeBron James #6 against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at Crypto.com Arena on February 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. On his home debut Russell scored 21 points to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans, 120-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Many were impressed by the Los Angeles Lakers’ (30-33) flurry of moves at and leading up to the deadline.

    “They were dead in the water. Now they have a chance,” one source said. “They had to get out of [Russell] Westbrook and have a more balanced roster.”

    LeBron James recently suffered a foot injury that may derail the Lakers’ hopes. But with teams so close together, even a No. 10 spot for the play-in may be enough if James can return to form in time.

    The additions of D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba and, slightly before the deadline, Rui Hachimura, give the Lakers an entirely different look with size, shooting and depth.

    How good can the Lakers be this season (if healthy)?

    “I wouldn’t bet against LeBron,” an NBA source said.

One Move Too Many?

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    DENVER, COLORADO - FEBRUARY 26: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Clippers plays the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter at Ball Arena on February 26, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The L.A. Clippers (33-31) have high expectations, and their moves at the deadline to add needed depth at center (Mason Plumlee) and guard (Eric Gordon and Hyland) were very well received.

    John Wall, Jackson and Kennard are gone, but neither guard was making a significant impact. If the Clippers miss anything, it would be Kennard’s shooting, though the team never seemed to get him enough looks consistently.

    The addition of Westbrook on the buyout market from the Utah Jazz was more polarizing. While he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, not everyone is a fan of his game.

    “I’d much rather have Eric Gordon and [Terance] Mann closing games than Westbrook. What does he do that they don’t do? Gordon can shoot and is fine on defense. Mann is the [team’s] best perimeter defender,” one scout said. “I don’t like it. I don’t get it.”

    Westbrook is still one of the league’s most aggressive attackers, which could help the Clippers through stretches of games. But he may be a liability closing games, especially in the playoffs. Coach Tyronn Lue has roughly six weeks to figure out where and how he can use Westbrook, and that may cost L.A. in seeding while he does.

Defensive Questions

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    DALLAS, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 28: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Dallas Mavericks on the court in the first half against the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Center on February 28, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

    Tim Heitman/Getty Images

    The Dallas Mavericks (32-31) adding Kyrie Irving a few days before the deadline was another polarizing move.

    “The Mavs gave up their best defender to add another guy who can’t guard next to Luka [Dončić],” one Eastern Conference executive said. “I get what they’re trying to do. They needed to get Luka some help. I’m just not sure this can work as is this [postseason].”

    Dallas needed another shot-creator for when teams blitz Dončić with multiple defenders, and Irving is one of the most creative scorers in the league with the ball in his hand.

    “Both Kyrie and Luka need the ball. Neither plays well without it. Neither defends,” another source said.

    The Mavericks just got Maxi Kleber back from a hamstring injury. He’ll help. Dallas also picked up Justin Holiday from the buyout market (via the Rockets).

    Offensively, the Mavs have a chance with two elite scorers. That may be enough to win a series or two, but the defensive concerns are prominent.

Wasted Wiseman

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    DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 25: James Wiseman #13 of the Detroit Pistons looks on during the game against the Toronto Raptors on February 25, 2023 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Competing executives did not like the Golden State Warriors‘ resolution to the James Wiseman experiment.

    The team drafted Wiseman with the No. 2 pick overall in 2020. Unfortunately, he never quite fit the team’s style, struggled to stay healthy and ultimately ended up traded for Gary Payton II and second-round considerations. That’s after the Warriors chose not to re-sign Payton as a free agent after the team’s title run.

    The Warriors tried to stay on top while developing the stars of the future, but Wiseman is a prime example of why teams rarely go that route.

    “It takes a lot of time on the court, especially for big men, to learn the game,” one source said. “If the Warriors were in win-now mode, they were never going to be able to be patient enough to develop Wiseman.”

    “I’m not sure [No. 3 pick] LaMelo [Ball] was the perfect fit. He kind of needs the ball in his hands to create. But from a talent perspective, yeah, he was the better choice [over Wiseman],” one Eastern Conference executive said.

    That the Warriors earned another championship is beside the point. So too did the Detroit Pistons in 2004 after drafting Darko Miličić (No. 2) ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Missing on a pick that high in the draft can have long-term consequences, especially when so many non-contending teams are eager to take that risk.

    As far as Golden State’s postseason hopes? Payton’s health is a question mark because of an abdominal injury.

    “They’re still the Warriors. They’re not as deep this year, but if Steph is healthy, they’re a handful,” one NBA source said.

‘I Just Don’t Think This Is Their Year’

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    PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 13: Matisse Thybulle #22 of the Portland Trail Blazers high fives Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers prior to the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 13, 2023 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Minnesota Timberwolves (32-32) reunited Gobert with Mike Conley. While D’Angelo Russell is younger, the team didn’t intend on bringing him back. Conley is late in his career but is an extremely steady point guard when healthy.

    The New Orleans Pelicans (31-32) have a lot of talent, but Zion Williamson (hamstring), Larry Nance Jr. (ankle), Jose Alvarado (leg) and Jonas Valančiūnas (calf) are sidelined. The franchise added a capable veteran in Josh Richardson at the deadline by moving Devonte’ Graham, but the more significant issue is getting its potent roster on the floor together.

    “I like the Pelicans’ chances. They’ve got a really exciting squad,” one scout said. “I don’t know about the Timberwolves. Maybe if they get [Karl-Anthony Towns] back (calf), but I’m not sure they get past a round in the playoffs.”

    Damian Lillard will try to will his Portland Trail Blazers (29-33) to the playoffs. He may be talented enough to do it, though the Blazers seem to be on the outside looking in.

    At the deadline, the team added Matisse Thybulle, Cam Reddish, Kevin Knox II and Ryan Arcidiacono, sending out Josh Hart and Payton.

    “The Blazers have some good pieces. I just don’t think this is their year,” the scout said.

Lottery-Bound?

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    SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - FEBRUARY 28: Zach Collins #23 of the San Antonio Spurs defends Lauri Markkanen #23 of the Utah Jazz during the first half of a game at Vivint Arena on February 28, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Many expected the Utah Jazz (31-32) to tank outright when the franchise dealt Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert before the season. Instead, newcomer Lauri Markkanen was an All-Star, and the Jazz were one of the top stories of the first half of the year.

    But gradually, the team fell back to earth. Then an active trade deadline pruned some of Utah’s depth, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Conley, Beasley and Vanderbilt moved out primarily for future considerations.

    Westbrook was bought out. New role players like Damian Jones, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and, via free agency, Kris Dunn and Frank Jackson aren’t likely to bolster a playoff push.

    “I anticipated the Jazz to make some forward-thinking moves,” one Western Conference executive said. “This year was a win for them. Lauri is way better than I ever expected.”

    The Oklahoma City Thunder (28-34) have shown they have an exciting young core with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort and Jalen Williams, while 2022 second overall pick Chet Holmgren has yet to feature because of a Lisfranc injury. The moves at the deadline (trading Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley for Justin Jackson, Dario Šarić and draft considerations) were “playoff push” transactions.

    That said, the executive noted: “I think the Thunder will sit Shai down the stretch. They’ve done enough this year to show they’re on the right path.”

    Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs (15-47) and Houston Rockets (13-49) jettisoned veterans to bolster their chances in the draft lottery.

    “Wembanyama makes a lot of sense in San Antonio, with the French roots and Tony Parker,” one NBA source said. “Scoot [Henderson] would be an interesting fit in Houston.”

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