2024 Western Conference Playoffs: Each team’s biggest question heading into the playoffs

2024 Western Conference Playoffs: Each team’s biggest question heading into the playoffs

This article is part of a two-part series preview for the upcoming 2023-2024 NBA Playoffs.

With the 2023-2024 NBA Playoffs starting, all eyes will be on all teams competing for the championship as fans and players look on for a taste of postseason action. As eight playoff teams in each conference gear up for what promises to be an intense battle for the title, each team faces its own set of unique challenges. In this article, we take a closer look at the biggest question facing each Western Conference team heading into the playoffs, from injuries and roster changes to key matchups and strategic decisions.

Oklahoma City Thunder - How far can their youth and inexperience take them in the playoffs?

The Thunder got away through the regular season with historic from MVP frontrunner Shai Gilgeous Alexander, an impressive rookie season by Chet Holmgren, a star sophomore leap by Jalen Williams, and a coaching masterclass in a genius coach Mark Daigneault.

However, the playoffs as we know it is a different beast – will Mark Daigneault be able to sustain the good coaching he has done with his team throughout this regular season?

How much of this youth and inexperience be a factor for them to advance deeper in the playoffs; will they be able to use it to their advantage? Or will it be a hindrance against other experienced teams when they face each other in these tight situations? Most of the time, these situations require patience and discipline – teams with playoff experience have shown over time and have done it time and time again on their way to a deep playoff run.

Denver Nuggets - Can they go back to back?

There’s really no other question for a team like the Nuggets at the peak of their powers: Can they win back-to-back titles? There has not been a back-to-back champion in the NBA for the past 5 years, with the last one coming in 2017 and 2018 when the Warriors won it all.

Like Boston, it is a title or bust status with Denver as of now. They have been fairly healthy throughout the regular season, have a mostly intact roster that won it all last year, and have the best player in the world in Nikola Jokic in his absolute prime. Denver this year has again all the necessary pieces to win – the right amount of shooters, defensive guys, scoring in the paint – which are all the makings of a championship team.

A couple of questionable factors though would be how much of an impact the loss of Bruce Brown would have in these playoffs. Brown was arguably the 5th, or 4th best player in their championship run last year – maybe even the 3rd in some games. He was essential on offense and defense, guarding the opponent’s best perimeter threats while providing off-ball scoring and cuts that fit perfectly with Jokic.

Second, they’ll be facing championship-caliber teams with hunger and drive to defeat them, and all have been competitive with the Nuggets this season. The Lakers, although the Nuggets swept them last year in the Western Conference Finals, still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and they won’t take that lightly – likely coming back with a vengeance.

The Suns have won the season series with the Nuggets 2-1 and they pose a threat to the Nuggets with their formula of having three elite shotmakers that can explode anytime – which the Nuggets may not cover all at the same time.  The Wolves, who perhaps have the best lineup suited to defeat them, are lurking in the same bracket waiting to pounce on them at sight. 

These are all challenges a defending champion must go through to achieve a rare feat because the playoffs are supposed to be hard.

Minnesota Timberwolves -  Will they finally break through after years of heartbreak?

This has already been a win of a season for the Timberwolves, achieving their second most wins in franchise history (56) since 2004 when they won 58 wins and reached the conference finals.

However, this has not stopped them from wanting more, and the wolfpack is not satisfied nor contented with just this achievement – they want more.

Minnesota wanting to go win that first playoff series like a hungry pack of wolves has been evident since trading for 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Although they fell short last season due to untimely injuries to key players, the Wolves ran it back and have proven their little experiment with two bigs in star Karl Anthony Towns and Gobert would work. 

Led by their resurgent young superstar Anthony Edwards equipped with the best defense in the league, Minnesota certainly hopes this team would be the one – the one to end the longest playoff series win droughts in the league for quite some time now.

Los Angeles Clippers - Will they be able to meet the expectations this time around?

The Clippers trading for James Harden signaled one thing for the franchise: They are going all in with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and surrounding them with all the help they can get. They are far from a perfect team, but the Clippers want to have the best possible results this season before transferring to their new arena next year.

The Clippers have only appeared in the conference finals once in the Leonard-George era after being plagued by several injuries during their different playoff runs. Due to that, people haven’t been able to see what the team is capable of when their two stars are fully healthy in a playoff run.

However, this year might just be their year. Their core of Harden, George, and Leonard have been mostly healthy all season long. The front office has also surrounded them with complementary pieces to help them win. LA now has usable bigs in Zubac, Plumlee, and Theis; they have Terrance Mann as their designated stopper; Norman Powell being the sixth man off the bench microwave scorer; a 3-and-D wing in Amir Coffe; and Russell Westbrook as the spark plug that gives them the boost and the energy off the bench.

After being just the ‘second team in LA’ and ‘that other team in LA’ for years, the Clippers aim to prove the doubters wrong and change the perception that surrounds the team as they pivot into a new era of Clippers basketball. 

Dallas Mavericks - Will Luka finally fulfill the promise he has been showing so far in his career?

Throughout his young NBA career, Luka Doncic has had one of the best starts since LeBron James statistically. He has been in constant range of breaking or matching LeBron’s records in points scored, triple-doubles, assists, and rebounds. However, this has not always translated into wins with Doncic just appearing in just one conference finals in the first six years of his career. But that might change this season.  

This year, the Mavericks have put up arguably the best roster on paper that Luka has had in his career – arguably even better than the 2022 team that made the conference finals.

Alongside Doncic’s MVP act is a true partner in crime in Kyrie Irving; shot-blocking and rim-rolling vertical threats in Daniel Gafford and Lively; rugged forwards that can shoot in PJ Washington, Dante Exum, Josh Green, and Derrick Jones; a microwave off-the-bench scorer in Tim Hardaway Jr; and veteran bigs that have been in Dallas for quite some time now and you can count on in always with Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell.

Can Luka finally overcome the Clippers? This season was one for the books with an MVP caliber and worthy year by averaging close to 34 points a game with 9 rebounds and 9 assists per game. Doncic has taken his game to another level in the regular season – this time, can he take his playoff game to another level as well?

All great young players have to go through someone as the stepping stone to reach newer heights – and Luka has lost to this Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers team twice already in his career in the playoffs.

LeBron had to go through the Celtics, Jordan had to go through the Pistons. Could it be Luka’s turn to get through this Clippers team that has tormented him for two playoff series?

Phoenix Suns - Will this new formula take them over the top?

The Suns have experienced substantial playoff success over the past three years by having a Finals appearance and reaching the conference semifinals twice. However, those groups fell short, with the feeling of something lacking or something missing that could take them over the top.

So lo and behold, Phoenix scrapped it and took a different approach this season – ditching the point guard spot and getting a rugged and physical big that could set screens and not demand the ball much on offense.

In its place came through as the Suns traded for Bradley Beal – going with a new formula by having three shot creators and shotmakers on the floor at the same time – pairing him with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. They also traded away former no.1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkic, a wide-bodied center whose job is to set screens, rebound, and get their three creators open in the lane or for jump shots.

They added an elite shooter in Grayson Allen to space the floor alongside those three, or sometimes Royce O’Neale comes in for more defense against the opposing perimeter threats.

The Suns’ new approach and formula to the game make it incredibly hard to defend because you have to have three elite defenders to contain those three shot-creators, who can explode and get buckets at any point in the game. Although their defense is still suspect at times, the main point of this lineup is not to outscore – but to out-create teams and have a variety of options to dissect and defeat defenses.

If this new strategy works and could take the Suns to the promised land in these playoffs remains to be seen.

Los Angeles Lakers - Will they have enough this time around?

Despite a strong run to the Western Conference Finals as a 7th seed, the Lakers fell short last year vs the Nuggets after being swept 4-0. Throughout the season, the Nuggets’ dominance of the purple and gold continued, and now they have lost eight straight games against this Denver team. 

However, there is optimism that the Lakers will turn it around and have a different result vs the Nuggets. Superstar LeBron James, even at 39 years old, looks to prove that he still has something left in the tank. Although they got outplayed and outcoached last in that series by the Nuggets, James can make those adjustments being the cerebral and high IQ player that he is.

James is perhaps one of the best if not the best tactically sound players of all time, so it would make sense – if they were to defeat Denver, he needs to be able to outsmart Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets this time around. Superstar tandem Anthony Davis will also be vital to the series having to defend the ‘Joker’ and producing buckets himself.

The Lakers will also feature some new bench pieces this year that could be difference makers in the series Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Gabe Vincent, all of whom could defend and hit those spot-up threes if needed.

Then there’s a hungry D’Angelo Russell who had a bad series vs Denver last year raring to bounce back along with an always-solid Austin Reaves to be the stabilizer.

Pelicans - How will they fare without Zion Williamson?

The New Orleans Pelicans start and end with their young star Zion Williamson. After going out with what is to be believed a left hamstring strain, everything now hinges on his health. 

The Pelicans obviously need him no matter what and whether or not he’s healthy for their first-round series vs the Thunder will likely be the answer if they win it or not.

We’ve seen what Williamson is capable of doing, scoring 40 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in his first taste of postseason action in their play-in game vs the Lakers. The burly forward bullied the Lakers’ defense and he showed his once generational type of body and scoring prowess come together after finally being healthy for a full season in his five years in the NBA.

New Orleans has fallen short a lot of times in the playoffs, either failing to make it or to win a series, and it is clear that Zion is the difference that separates them from winning or losing a playoff series.

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