An NBA check-in: the Western Conference Edition

Pima Post

A couple of days ago, the NBA’s reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, continued his unprecedented play with a historic game log and a win to keep his team securely in the playoffs, even without his best two teammates.

Then on Sunday, Jayson Tatum — one of the best young stars in the league — had a career performance and his Boston Celtics remain the best Net Rating team since the All-star break.

Still, the collective basketball media world chose to focus on Lebron James’s 56-point performance in a rare win for a Lakers team that is inconsequential for the playoffs.

James and his team have been covered with exhausting detail, and at this point, it feels like we’re watching “Keeping Up With the Lakers” and not the NBA.

When instead we should be talking about what will be the most competitive playoffs we’ve had in years and how good NBA basketball is right now.

We’re at the last stretch of the regular season, and the quality of basketball will get better as games now have real playoff implications.

So for the last quarter of games remaining, let’s take a look ahead at how the playoffs may play out.

Because there was a significant trade made in the Eastern Conference between two consequential teams — we’ll only talk about the Western Conference this week.

Western Conference

With fewer than 20 games left in the regular season, the Phoenix Suns look like the favorite in the West and maybe the league.

The Suns can match up against any lineup, they have a great defense, they’re well-coached … and you can throw in any other sports cliché to describe a title favorite.

However — and this is key — their most important player has to come back healthy and remain healthy through the postseason.

Chris Paul is out with a broken thumb but is scheduled to be back in the lineup in time for the playoffs. And if Devin Booker and company can keep playing at this level, they’ll remain at the top of the Conference to keep home court advantage.

Even as the favorites, and even if they’re putting up historic numbers as a team, the fight for the West will not be an easy one for our local state team.

Lurking behind them and fighting for second place the rest of the regular season, are the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. 

After two lackluster years, general manager Bob Myers retooled the team around the original core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Through the first part of the season, it looked like the mix of young players and established veterans made them look like their pre-Durant incarnations. 

Curry was playing at an MVP level, Green was making a case for DPOY, Andrew Wiggins rescued his career and the young pieces were fitting in perfectly.

Thompson also made his return after missing two seasons: an addition that would catapult them to the top once again. 

Fast forward to more recent times and you’ll find: A Curry shooting slump, a Green injury and a rusty Thompson. But the Warriors won enough games at the beginning of the season and have been good enough to keep them as the third seed in the West at worst.

The Memphis Grizzlies have had the opposite season arc. With their best player in Ja Morant flying around like ’80s Michael Jordan — they look scary as the embodiment of the sports cliché “peaking at the right time.”

The rest of the roster is also playing great basketball with a gritty attitude to match. And it seems they’re positioning themselves to be a surprise but a true contender for the West.

Any Conference Finals combination of Suns, Warriors and Grizzlies will be an instant classic.

It will be a medley of veteran superstar players and an exceptional talent pool of rising stars that will soon be the faces of the league.

But the teams below those three in the standings have generational star players who’ll show out in the playoffs: Luka Dončić with the Mavericks, Jokić with the Nuggets and Donovan Mitchell with the Jazz.

Their teams have fatal flaws and are a clear tier below the Suns, Warriors and Grizzlies, but with those players, we might get a classic game almost every night of the playoffs.

The final playoff spot will be determined between the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, and New Orleans Pelicans; by the Play-In Tournament 

These teams have close to no chance to win the conference, but the battle for a postseason spot will be an appetizer before the playoffs.

It will be a fun slate of high-stakes games with fun players to watch and scrappy teams that will make for competitive matchups. 

Anthony Edwards is the Timberwolves’ future and a star in the making. James is playing to salvage his legacy from what is looking like a failed Lakers stint. And the Clippers and Pelicans continue to play like they have something to prove without their respective stars.

Next week, after we get a larger sample size of games from the 76ers and Nets, we’ll take a look at how those teams are changing the Eastern Conference landscape.