LA Clippers – Winners
The Clippers have struggled with injuries all season, this time off should allow them to get to full fitness. The battle for LA in the Western Conference Finals seems inevitable at this point, should the Clippers win it, they will have to rely on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to shoulder the offensive load. Both PG and Kawhi have missed more than 13 games, yet they remain the 2nd seed in a stacked Western Conference. With one of the deepest teams in the entire NBA, there is a very high chance that their championship aspirations will be met. The Clippers boast two of the top 2-way players in the NBA, the league’s premier bench scorer and the scrappiest defensive guard in the Western Conference; expect a real run at a ring.
Cause for concern: As outstanding as the wing defenders for the Clippers are, defence remains an issue due to the lack of rim protection. The route to a championship will undoubtedly run through the Lakers and most likely also the Bucks; both of these teams have one thing in common that makes them a tough matchup for the Clippers, world-class interior scoring. In order to defeat the Lakers they will have to find a way to control Anthony Davis with a combination of Harrell, Zubac and likely Leonard too. With that being said, the Clippers are my pick to reach the Finals from the West.
LA Lakers – Losers
When the NBA shutdown began, the Lakers were just 3 days removed from their double-header wins vs the Bucks and the Clippers, LeBron was on the cusp of wrestling the MVP away from Giannis and were rolling at 8-2 in the last 10 games. Now they have to: recapture that form, hope LeBron does not struggle coming out of the break and deal with healthier opponents. The age of the roster is also an issue, as one of the older teams in the NBA there is skepticism about how well they will have been able to keep in shape.
Reasons for hope: The Lakers have been the best team in the West this season, arguably the best team in the league. The shutdown does not guarantee a break in form and if that is the case then the Lakers can expect to breeze through the first round of the postseason, The acquisition of Anthony Davis in the off-season gives them one of the most lethal pick-and-roll duos in the NBA. AD provides a post-presence that should create matchup nightmares for the two biggest challengers to take the Western Conference’s finals berth.
Sacramento Kings – Winners
To be in the postseason play-in series all the Kings have to do is keep pace with the Grizzlies for the rest of the regular season, and hope the teams tied on record slide back in the standings. After an underwhelming season the Kings should feel relieved that they are even within reaching distance of the playoffs. Following an abysmal start to the season, Sacramento had begun to pick up momentum. Their record of 7-3 in the last 10 games had only been bested by the Lakers and Thunder. Every team in the playoff bubble, aside from the current 8th placed team, should feel very fortunate that they have a fighting chance to advance beyond the regular season.
Cause for concern: Luke Walton continues to neglect Buddy Hield; it certainly does not help that the best player on their roster is playing just 24.6 minutes a game in March. Furthermore, the Kings’ talent pool is vastly inferior compared to both the Pelicans and Blazers. As a team fighting for the last playoff spot, Hield has to get more minutes. Sacramento currently sits 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies and tied with Portland and New Orleans, realistically the chance of the Kings making the playoffs looks very low right now.
Phoenix Suns – Losers
The Suns currently sit 2.5 games behind the pack of teams chasing for a playoff spot. In order to make the playoffs Phoenix will have to go close to 8-0 in the rest of the regular season, and still hope for multiple teams to slip up in order to be even involved in the play-in series. The only thing that Phoenix will achieve by playing well in the rest of the regular season is messing up their lottery odds. In Booker’s fifth season, the Suns still have not made the playoffs or even come close. If this is another season of failure, you can count on the NBA rumour mill to start churning out reports of trade requests.
Reasons for hope: Devin Booker finally has a chance to play in somewhat meaningful games, expect him to go nuclear in an attempt to keep the Suns playoff chances alive. The end of the regular season gives him the opportunity to showcase to the world that he is more than just empty stats. Most of their reasons to be hopeful involve next season, the Suns have proved that if they get Devin a competent point guard then they can be a team that isn’t a guaranteed win on the schedule. If DeAndre Ayton can continue to improve his defence then Phoenix can really challenge for the postseason next year. Finally, if the very small chance to make this year’s playoffs are realised then they will carry huge amounts of momentum and confidence into the first round.