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Resetting Western Conference playoff race in case Phoenix Suns falter on way to NBA title

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Shifting through the ambiguity around Kevin Durant’s timetable to return from a sprained left ankle, it’s tough to determine when he will return. Durant has missed the last four games for the Phoenix Suns. There is a consensus that Durant won’t return until a few games before the playoffs at the earliest. But if the Suns can manage to stay.500 in their games until the season ends, they might not bring him back until the playoffs start to ensure he is well-rested.

Until then, the rest of the Western Conference will be jockeying to improve their playoff positioning, as both conferences have never been closer in records and margin for error. We’ve checked in on the most likely contenders out West to see who has the best chance to derail the Phoenix Suns while breaking down their strengths and weaknesses.

Sacramento Kings

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Strengths: The Kings have the top offense in the NBA, filled with three-point shooters, slashing guards, grizzled vets, and a do-it-all center who is a slightly quicker version of his Euro-star father.

Domantas Sabonis has become one of the best bigs in the NBA with his high-IQ advanced passing, elite footwork around the rim, and freight-train-like rolling to the basket. Paired with De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have the third-best fourth-quarter margin (+1.4), second in offensive rating (118.9), third in net rating (6.7), and first in fourth-quarter points per game (25). This season, Fox is the best clutch performer, leading all active players in clutch PPG (6) and second in fantasy points per game (7).

Between Fox’s ability to break defenders down off the dribble, and Sabonis’ shifty, high-level passing, the duo is impossible to guard in pick-and-roll sets. That they are surrounded by capable shooters makes it even tougher. Good luck outsourcing them, as there’s a 3.1 points per game difference between them and second place in scoring. New head coach Mike Brown has taken what he’s learned as Steve Kerr’s associate head coach these last six years during their Golden State dynasty and applied it to the Kings, dragging them out of the NBA gutter and into playoff contention.

Weaknesses: The Kings are the only NBA team on the list without a superstar, although both Sabonis and Fox have made the All-Star team this year, deservingly so. The two are a top-five pick-and-roll duo in the league and complement each other and any other star pairing around.

But compared to the other future Hall-of-Fame talents on the list, they remain a tier below in overall explosiveness. The Kings also have many first and second-year players comprising the rotation, including rookie Keegan Murray and sophomore Davion Mitchell. These unproven
players will be called upon to carry significant weight offensively and defensively come playoff
time. Mitchell and Murray are the team’s two best defensive perimeter players.

The Kings’s two-decade playoff absence doesn’t have much to draw from on analytics. And Brown has a pretty horrid NBA playoff record when not paired with LeBron James in Cleveland. The Kings will need their league-leading offense to click on all cylinders, as they are 26th in defensive rating.

Denver Nuggets

denver nuggets
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Strengths: For starters, they have the two-time reigning MVP in Nikola Jokić. He currently leads the Denver Nuggets in minutes (33.9), points (24.7), rebounds (11.9), assists (10), and second in blocks and steals. The Serbian big man is averaging a triple-double, an insane stat given the depth and talent of the Nuggets roster, and he’s doing it from the center position.

Next to him is Jamal Murray, a slashing, gritty guard who is finally healthy after two injury-plagued seasons and back averaging 20 points per game, 6 rebounds per game, and 4 assists per game. Before he went down with an ACL tear in April 2021, he had memorable dueling contests with Utah’s Donovan Mitchell in The Bubble in 2020, getting the best of him on the Nuggets’ way to the Western Conference Finals.

Also back and healthy is Michael Porter Jr., who is chipping in 17 ppg on 41.8 percent shooting from three as the third option. The Nuggets have gotten great production from first-year Nuggets Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Reggie Jackson. They will need more of it and continued leadership from Coach of the Year frontrunner Mike Malone, who deserves his first award this season.

Weaknesses: During Jokić’s tenure with the team, they have been bedeviled by injuries. They
will need a fully healthy Murray and Porter Jr. throughout the postseason. Aaron Gordon is
having his best season as a pro. It must continue to give the Nuggets a fourth option with NBA playoff
experience and versatility to help when the three-pointers aren’t falling.

Jokic hasn’t received enough criticism for failing to carry his team out of the second round consistently. He’s only done it once, in 2020 in The Bubble. With fans packing the stands and on the road, he needs to find ways to score at will against opposing frontcourts. Since losing Gary Harris a few seasons back, they have struggled with consistent point guard play. Now Monte Morris is gone too. So is the burgeoning but inconsistent Bones Hyland. That’s a lot of pressure on Murray to be the second scoring option and guard the other team’s point of attack.

Now it’s Jackson’s turn. He was picked up on the waiver wire after being traded by the Los Angeles Clippers. Can he play consistent enough defense to stay on the floor for Denver? He has a career-worst 117.3 defensive rating this season.

Memphis Grizzlies

memphis grizzlies
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Strengths: The Grizzlies are young (fifth youngest), fast (seventh in pace), and talented (tied for the No. 2 seed in the West). The Memphis front office, led by GM Zachary Kleiman, has done an
excellent job scouting and securing guys in the NBA Draft that embody the team’s athletic, defensive-minded (Grizzlies are first in defensive rating) attitude.

Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., and David Roddy make up the young core, all under 25 except Brooks, who is 27. Mentored by grizzled veteran Steven Adams, who brings plenty of playoff experience with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies are building a contender for the present and future. Their young and flashy identity can seem a bit excessive and reckless at times, but it’s part of their swagger that’s gotten them to the heights of the Western Conference.

If the team stays intact (Brooks is a free agent this summer), they could compete for rings for the next decade together.

Weaknesses: Perhaps no team on this list has more glaring weaknesses. Where to start? Their
best player and face of the franchise, Ja Morant, was handed an eight-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team for brandishing a gun in a Denver strip club on Instagram. The timetable for his return is still undetermined.

The heart and soul of the team, Adams, is out for the season after receiving a stem cell injection for his ailing knee. As if that wasn’t enough, Brandon Clarke is out for the season after suffering a season-ending Achilles tear two weeks ago. Those are two starters and a key reserve out for the foreseeable future as the Grizzlies try to maintain their second-place seeding in the West.

No one player is more important than Morant. But will his head be in the right place when he returns? Will basketball even be a priority, as he has admitted to having used partying to deal with stress? They will need to galvanize around Morant as a teammate and friend to overcome their off-the-court setbacks.

Golden State Warriors

golden state warriors
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Strengths: How about four championships in eight years? How about the greatest shooting backcourt in league history? How about a recently named Top 15 NBA Coach of All Time? Oh yeah, and a four-time All-Defense First Team and Defensive Player of the Year? That’s the last decade for the Warriors, who are on the tail-end of one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time.

The Warriors are last year’s champions, dispatching the Boston Celtics in six games and showing the defensive mettle and team-oriented playing style that made them unbeatable for a few years straight. The Warriors’ “Big Three” of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are fully healthy for the first time in a long time and are hungry to add more hardware to their trophy chest. The only thing that can beat them seems to be Father Time, who is slowly creeping up from the end of the bench.

Weaknesses: Hard to find weaknesses with most defending champs. But in Golden State’s case, it’s not that hard. Andrew Wiggins’ absence for personal reasons leaves a gaping hole on the perimeter. He’s their best defender and provided tertiary scoring in last year’s championship run.

Draymond Green has looked a step slow all season, and with James Wiseman proving to be a bust for at least the Warriors, they lack insurance in the post, defensively. The inconsistent Jonathan Kuminga and super sub-Kevon Looney will need to punch above their weight to give the Warriors a fighting chance of making it out of the first round. Curry is another year older at 35. He doesn’t have many more years averaging 30 ppg, so the team should feel the pressure to sustain contention while he’s still healthy and lighting it up from the outside. Sometimes desperation can make people do irrational things. In this case, it could affect Steve Kerr’s rotations and the front office decisions coming this summer.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

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