The Western Conference is loaded this season (what’s new?) yet most people seem to peg one team as the favorites: the Los Angeles Lakers.
This is partially due to the fact that the Lakers are supremely talented; as odd as it sounds, they’re less than a year removed from being NBA champions. But it’s also due to the continued postseason shortcomings of the Utah Jazz, and severe injuries to Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard putting the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers seasons in jeopardy.
As could the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors and Lakers took different paths to a very similar end result in 2020-21. They finished within three games of each other in the standings, and faced off in a play-in game that was one of the highlights of the season for the league.
The Warriors were eliminated a few days later, and the Lakers a few games later.
Los Angeles enters the season as Western favorites, ranked far ahead of the Warriors, on the basis of two things: they’re not far removed from being champions with the same core, and they have better health.
Each team sports a star trio, but one member of the Warriors trio — Klay Thompson — remains a question mark. When will he return? How good will he be when he returns? How many minutes can he play? Will he stay healthy?
We’ll find out the answers to those questions soon enough. Until then, let’s put the cart ahead of the course: if Klay can stay healthy, are these teams on par?
Let’s start with the basics: the star power. Here we pit LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook against Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Thompson.
Their best stars are roughly even. I’m willing to call that a wash. Maybe I’m a homer here, but I think most people would put James and Curry in the same tier, even if James is ranked higher within that tier.
Their second-best star is a clear win for the Lakers. Whether you think Dray or Klay is the Dubs’ best player not named Curry, Davis is comfortably better than both at this stage in their respective careers.
As for the third star? Assuming Thompson is at least 90% of the player he was when he got injured in 2019 — and that’s quite an assumption, admittedly — I’m rolling with the Warriors here. Give me Klay or Dray over Westbrook.
Whatever. Westbrook is must-see TV, and an incredibly easy to root for player ... and I think at this stage in his career, not someone who impacts winning quite as much as a player like Green.
Which transitions us into the next category ...
For all the talent that the Warriors have, a huge part of what led to a dynasty was the fit.
Curry, Green, and Thompson are not the most talented trio in NBA history or, frankly, anything close to it. But they’re among the best because of the way their talents complement each other.
Curry is Curry, an offensive wunderkind who wants to spend time on and off the ball, and wants to make sure his teammates are involved. Thompson is one of the best shooters in NBA history, content to never dribble the ball, happy to run off screens until he’s open, as long as he’ll be rewarded with the rock, plenty pleased being the recipient of Curry’s gravity rather than the lead singer of the band. And Green is a masterful playmaker who doesn’t want to be a lead ball handler, providing just enough passing to work when Curry is off ball, but not detract from Curry’s on-ball prowess.
The Lakers have a few question marks on that end. James shot 36.5% from deep last year — a respectable, if not great number — while Westbrook made 31.5% of his triples, and Davis just 26% of his. Already we have spacing issues, and that will only be exacerbated if Davis continues to insist on playing the 4 instead of the 5.
James and Westbrook are also both primary ball-handlers; they finished 9th and 15th, respectively, in usage rate a year ago. Westbrook averaged 5.33 seconds per touch in 2020-21, and James 4.43 seconds.
“There’s only one ball” is a silly adage, but it’s fair to wonder if there will be diminishing returns on the Lakers with such overlapping styles.
Mind you, the pairing of Westbrook and James will do wonders for the Lakers bench unit, since one of them can be on the court at all times. But their starting and closing lineups could struggle more than a collection of that talent should.
The benches are, in my eyes, a wash. The Lakers sacrificed much of their depth for Westbrook (a poor move, in my eyes), and their reserves aren’t much to get excited about.
In a vacuum, I’ll take Jordan Poole, Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Damion Lee over some combination of Kent Bazemore, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Talen Horton-Tucker, Rajon Rondo, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, and Carmelo Anthony (two of those players need to be added to the starting lineup — take your pick).
But Iguodala, Porter, and Bjelica all have notable injury concerns, and Poole will likely spent the first few months of the season as a starter until Thompson returns.
So call it even, I guess, but you could talk me into either team here.
So who wins?
This isn’t a math equation. I’m not saying that the stars and bench are a wash, and the fit leans the Warriors way, so the Dubs are better than the Lakers. Not at all. If I had to pick one of these teams to win the west, I’m still taking the Lakers, if for no reason other than the sheer number of question marks facing the Warriors.
But if they’re healthy, and if Klay is Klay, I’d feel pretty comfortable lining up this Dubs squad against the prohibitive favorite’s down south.
We’ve seen Curry vs. LeBron in four NBA Finals, and one play-in game. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for another round.