This is the Western Conference edition of our NBA Pre-Season Questionnaire. First, let’s state the obvious: the West is stacked; absolutely loaded with superstar talent. It’s going to fry our brains with 10 billion Watts of basketball lightning bolts. More importantly, all the player shuffling this offseason has shaken up the hierarchy of the conference, and there will be more than just the familiar faces jockeying for playoff position from the jump. Here are three questions stealing our attention as we approach the coming season:
1) Who will win the battle for Los Angeles?
The Lakers and Clippers have never faced each other in the playoffs. In fact, they’ve only ever both made the playoffs in the same season six times. But things have changed: not only are they both locks for the playoffs, but for the first time they are both legitimate title contenders. LeBron and AD vs. Kawhi and PG. It’s a dreamy matchup of legendary star power—perfect for La-La Land. But both sides have their weaknesses.
The Lakers will need to deal with a mismatched roster sewn together like scraps of cloth on ripped jeans, but more importantly will need to find a winning formula between an aging LeBron and a prime-Anthony Davis itching to be the first option on a contender. The Clippers, with far better role players and cohesiveness, will still need to deal with the load management of Kawhi Leonard in a highly competitive West and hope that Paul George’s shoulder issues are behind him. The two are only scheduled to face each other three times in the regular season, but will likely downplay the matchups and not reveal their full hand. The battle will be won or lost in the playoffs and how far each team is able to advance. A full-strength Lakers-Clippers showdown in the Western Conference Finals isn’t too much to ask for, is it?
2) Can Russell Westbrook and James Harden make it work?
If you started watching basketball in the last couple years, combining Russell Westbrook and James Harden seems about as good an idea as trying to microwave silverware: two ball dominant, stat-hungry guards with a severe allergy to consistent defensive effort—how could that ever work? But if you didn’t just start watching basketball in the last couple years, you’d know that this isn’t their first time as teammates on a title-hopeful team. You’d know that just seven years ago they made a Finals appearance as Thunder teammates in 2012. The two have a winning pedigree and are desperate to cement their legacies with a championship, but they will need to adjust their games in order to mesh on the court.
When Harden played for Oklahoma City, it was Russ’s team (and Kevin Durant’s). But it’s Harden’s team down in Houston, and Russ will need to respect that. The Beard is simply the better offensive player and rightly should be handling the basketball the majority of the time, which will require Westbrook to do more off ball and switch some of his energy to his defensive work. Harden will need to make some sacrifices of his own, too. Last season when CP3 went down, Harden was forced into a 40% usage rate out of necessity and dragged the Rockets back into playoff contention with an absurd 36/7/6 line. It was a mind-bending stretch. But when Chris Paul returned, Harden struggled to revert back to a playstyle that utilized Paul’s strengths, and Houston stumbled out of the playoffs with a lackluster showing against a depleted Warriors team. Alongside Westbrook, Harden will need to forgo his love of hero-ball and understand that the best chance to hang another championship banner in Houston is getting the rest of his team involved. If he can do that and Russ can embrace a new role as second banana, the Rockets will be a frightening team come April.
3) Which young core puts it together first?
I can’t remember the last time there were so many exciting young teams fighting for relevance. The Kings came within a few games of a playoff berth last season; the Pelicans just drafted the most exciting prospect since Kevin Durant and got a nice haul of potential stars in BI and Lonzo in exchange for AD; the Mavericks should be getting a healthy Porzingis back to pair with rookie-sensation, Luke Doncic; the T-Wolves have a legitimate MVP candidate in Karl Anthony-Towns; and the Suns…well, no, the Suns are probably still going to suck. There are seemingly already 7 playoff locks: the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Blazers, and Warriors, which leaves only one spot left (or maybe two if one of those teams severely underperforms or is ravaged by injury) and several teams trying to fill it.
The logical team to take that spot is the Kings, who were the closest last season. D’Aaron Fox has established himself as an elite point guard and Marvin Bagley will be ready to unleash a revenge tour on the NBA after getting injured in the middle of a playoff push last season. The Pelicans and Mavericks seem still one year away from putting their talent together (consistency of roster matters—see the Blazers) and the Wolves don’t quite have the pieces around KAT to contend just yet (ability to avoid terrible, contested midrange jumpers matters—see Andrew Wiggins). The NBA always has surprise teams in store, though, and every one of those teams has the raw talent to put together a solid season. It just won’t be Suns.
Check out Lucas' "The NBA Pre-Season Questionnaire Pt.1" HERE!