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This is nothing new for the league, but the 2021 NBA Playoffs are about to be an entirely different animal in the Western Conference compared to the East.
The difference is, with no clear-cut favorite to win the title and as many as eight teams with legitimate championship expectations in a wide-open season, that disparity from East to West will matter a hell of a lot more this time around.
The reason? One of the five contenders that could conceivably win the West — the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — will be going home in the first round this year. And if you’re high on the Portland Trail Blazers, two of six teams capable of representing the conference in the NBA Finals will be done before the second round even begins.
Good teams fall short in the playoffs every season, but rarely does it stand to matter this much, when so many teams are going for it all at once and there’s no longer the empiric shadow of the Golden State Warriors hanging over the Larry O’Brien Trophy. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis currently banged up for the defending champs, this is the time for a new team to stake its claim. The candidates are many, but they’ll have to traverse a Western Conference gauntlet to get there.
The Lakers, after all, will probably be healthy — or at least have James and AD back in some capacity — by the time the postseason rolls around. That will make them the favorite in a seven-game series against any first-round opponent (except maybe the Clippers) no matter where they wind up in the standings. Even if they’re not fully healthy or in prime playing mode with limited time to shake the rust off, they’re still the defending champs and will be a tough out in any matchup.
The Clippers, who didn’t live up to their end of the bargain in last year’s highly anticipated “Battle for L.A.” that never came to be, are still a force to be reckoned with thanks to Kawhi Leonard, Tyronn Lue and the addition of Serge Ibaka. The health of Paul George — and the possible return of “Pandemic P” — makes them a difficult team to peg in terms of championship readiness, but they won’t be a pushover in any series and could go all the way if PG is able to fight through his current bone edema injury.
Then there’s the Jazz, who have been the best team in the NBA by every regular-season measure. We’ve seen this team flame out in the playoffs plenty of times before, but this time feels different, especially without their tormentor, James Harden, lying in wait out West. The Jazz are one of three teams with a top-10 offense and defense, but they’re the only team with a top-3 offense and defense. They own the league’s best record, best point differential, and they’re incredibly well-balanced. They’ll have a lot to prove in the postseason to live up to their billing as this regular-season juggernaut, but nobody will want to see them in any round.
The team right behind them, the Phoenix Suns, similarly looks like a top-3 squad this year. Led by Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns have star power, defense and the league’s best bench. That depth will matter less in the postseason, where four of Phoenix’s top-seven players will be playing in their first playoff game ever, but even with that inexperience working against them, the Suns have shooting, versatile lineups with stifling defense, and two stars capable of closing games out. Phoenix’s first playoff appearance in 11 years could very well come with a much deeper run than anyone expected if the team’s youngsters don’t shy away from the big moments.
And of course we can’t forget about the Nuggets, who made it all the way to the conference finals last year and somehow got better (albeit later in the season) with the addition of Aaron Gordon. Denver hasn’t lost since adding Gordon’s defense and cutting to Nikola Jokic’s passing and MVP-caliber play, and it’s no wonder they’re surging up the standings with the 3-seed now in reach. The Nuggets have been the NBA’s best offense for the last month or so, and they’re getting better on defense at the right time.
The Blazers probably aren’t in the same echelon as those other five teams, but they’re not far off with Damian Lillard playing at an MVP level, CJ McCollum finally back, Robert Covington entering the fold this year and Norman Powell ready to pack a wallop off the bench. Even the Dallas Mavericks, currently in seventh, aren’t an easy out thanks to Luka Doncic. It’s a bloodbath for pretty much everyone except the 1-seed, and even then there are no promises.
The reason? The Lakers’ downward trajectory feels impossible to predict, especially with LeBron and AD still out for a few weeks. Thanks to their 3-6 record since James went out and their 10-13 mark without AD, they’ve already slid to fifth in the standings out West, and they’re only 0.5 games ahead of Portland in sixth place. The seventh-place Mavs are still 2.5 games behind Los Angeles and the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies are a distant 5.5 games back, so the Lakers plummeting all the way to the play-in scenarios feels unlikely unless both superstars suffer serious setbacks. Even so, there’s a very real scenario where LA falls all the way to No. 6 or even No. 7 before James and Davis return.
That’s obviously a nightmare scenario for whichever team winds up as the 2-seed (currently the Suns, who are 2.5 games behind the Jazz for the 1-spot), but even if the Lakers only drop to fifth or sixth, one of those four other contenders with title aspirations will be facing the fully healthy defending champs in a first-round series that could only be described as unfair and unwelcome. You typically expect a good matchup in the 4-5 series, but it doesn’t usually involve the defending champs who may be fully healthy again at the opportune moment, and it certainly doesn’t apply in your standard 3-6 matchup, especially when all six of those top teams have legitimate reason to believe they can win it all.
And that’s just the first round! The reward for whichever team survives that ordeal is facing an even better, possibly better-rested team in the second round, before an all-out brawl for Western supremacy in the conference finals … and then having to face either the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks to win it all.
Today, it’s the Nuggets sitting in fourth who are looking at that possibility of starting their postseason off with a brutal LA matchup. One Blazers win/Lakers loss later, it’d be the third-place Clippers in that boat. It’s impossible to predict where these teams will end up as they jostle for position. Phoenix and its current six-game win streak could catapult up to first if it beats Utah in two upcoming matchups. The Nuggets could pass the Clippers for third if they keep their undefeated streak with Gordon going. It’s all still up in the air with 20-some games left.
But first-round playoff exits typically come with major ramifications for NBA teams with title hopes. Even if it feels like that’s just an occupational hazard of playing out West this season, one of those five teams with legitimate championship aspirations is going home early by necessity, and the “abolish conferences!” outcry from that fanbase may be harder than ever to ignore in the aftermath.
New on The Aesthetic, our own Ian Levy writes about how Ja Morant is a stylistic chameleon.
Speaking of the lay of the land out West, where does The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor have all five of these teams stacking up in his latest NBA Power Rankings?