Last season, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in six games to win their 17th championship in franchise history. The team cruised through the postseason thanks to the outstanding performances from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The addition of Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, and Montrezl Harrell gives this team plenty of depth, but which teams in the Western Conference have the best chance of taking down the Lakers?
1: Denver Nuggets
One team that we got to see the Lakers matchup with in the playoffs were the Denver Nuggets. Over the last couple of years, this team has developed some of the best young players in the league. Nikola Jokić has blossomed into a consistent All-Star player since being drafted in 2014, as his ability to score at will while also being an elite passing big man makes him an offensive nightmare for defenses.
The biggest reason why the Nuggets took the next step in the bubble was due to the progression from former University of Kentucky product Jamal Murray. After averaging 18.5 points per game in the regular season, the 6-foot-4 guard quickly became the number one option for the team offensively. Murray went off in the postseason, leading the team in scoring at 26.5 points per game.
Now that the Nuggets have two young stars they can build their future around, the next step for this team is to find a third player who can develop into a consistent scorer alongside Jokić and Murray. The most likely candidate for that spot is Michael Porter Jr., who is going into his second full season and has the offensive talent to be another dominant scorer in Denver. If he can stay healthy and continue to play like he did in the bubble, the sky’s the limit for him.
A core of Jokić, Murray, and Porter along with the veteran presence from Paul Millsap gives this team every opportunity to be a title contender this season. Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Monte Morris also give this team plenty of backcourt depth.
In terms of matching up with the Lakers, the loss of Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig in free agency could cause some issues on the defensive end. When these teams played in the Western Conference Finals last season, Grant and Craig had the responsibility of guarding LeBron James. If the Nuggets were to face the Lakers in the postseason again, there is nobody on the current roster that can make things difficult for the Lakers superstar.
Bol Bol is one x-factor for this team that has a chance to be an impactful player. With Mason Plumlee leaving in the offseason, the team has a hole at the backup center position. It looks like Isaiah Hartenstein will be selected to fill that void, but Bol has the versatility to be a quality player off the bench if given minutes.
Going into this season, the Nuggets have a mix of talent and experience to be one of the best teams in the league. If Murray and Porter Jr. can take the next step and the rest of the rotation continues to step up, this team will pose a big threat to the Lakers in the postseason.
2: Dallas Mavericks
After selecting Luka Dončić with third overall pick in the 2018 draft, the Dallas Mavericks have quickly become one of the most exciting teams in the league. The team added Kristaps Porziņģis through a trade back in 2019, giving Dončić a young star to play alongside him for years to come.
In the first round of the playoffs last season, the seven seeded Mavericks faced off against the two seeded Los Angeles Clippers. Dallas lost the series in six games, but Dončić had plenty of electrifying moments to make things interesting. At the end of game 4, the Mavericks were down by one with less than four seconds to go. Dončić took a step-back three over Reggie Jackson, and knocked it down to tie the series at two. Dončić averaged 31 points per game in that series, showing that he can be a dominant player in the playoffs for years to come.
One important note to mention is that Porziņģis missed a majority of that series. The Mavericks were leading by five in the third quarter of game 1 when the former New York Knick was ejected after picking up his second technical foul of the game. Porziņģis also missed the final three games of the series due to a reoccurring knee injury. If the Mavericks had both of their stars against the Clippers, many believe they had a great chance to win the series.
When the team opens their season against the Phoenix Suns, Porziņģis will still be recovering from the injury he suffered in the bubble. The Mavericks will likely fall in the Western Conference standings without one of their best players for the time being, but they should be ready to go when the playoffs come around.
A point of emphasis for the team going into this season was to improve on the defensive end. The Mavericks gave up an average of more than 126 points per game in their playoff series with the Clippers, proving the team’s inability to contain the likes of Kawai Leonard and Paul George.
In the offseason, the team acquired 27-year-old Josh Richardson from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Seth Curry and the draft rights to Tyler Bey. Richardson will give the Mavericks another quality defender on the wing alongside Dorian Finney-Smith. Willie Cauley-Stein will also add another interior presence to the rotation after choosing to sit out the bubble.
With the return of point guard Jalen Brunson and big man Dwight Powell, the depth of rotation already looks much deeper. The Mavericks could also get contributions from Tyrell Terry and Josh Green, who were both selected in the 2020 draft.
If Kristaps Porziņģis can come back to full health and Luka Dončić continues to progress in his third season, the Mavericks will be one of the most high powered offenses in the NBA. How this team shapes up defensively will be the most important question come playoff time, but head coach Rick Carlisle is capable of helping the Mavericks become one of the biggest threats to the Lakers in the conference.
3: Los Angeles Clippers
Going into last season, the Los Angeles Clippers were considered one of the favorites to win the title. After signing Kawai Leonard through free agency and acquiring Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the expectations quickly rose for the team.
In the playoffs, the Clippers didn’t perform to the level they were expected to reach. The team crawled through the first round against a young Dallas Mavericks team, but their luck ran out against their next opponent. The Clippers met up with the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals, and the series was tied at three going into a win or home game 7.
It would be an understatement to say the Clippers two most talented players did not show up when they were needed most. Leonard scored 14 points on 6/22 shooting from the field and George scored ten points on 4/16 shooting from the field in the elimination game. The Clippers had an opportunity to make their first conference finals appearance in franchise history, but they completely blew it.
A season ending in disappointment caused the team to make a lot of drastic changes. Head coach Doc Rivers was fired after seven underwhelming seasons with the team. On October 15th, Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue was named the new head coach on a five-year deal.
The front office also made plenty of roster changes in order to give this group another year in title contention. Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka, and Luke Kennard were the most notable additions the Clippers made in the offseason. It is important to mention that Leonard and Ibaka played together with the Toronto Raptors during their finals run. His leadership and championship experience will give this team another dimension that will help them in the postseason.
Two important departures from last year’s roster include Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet. Harrell decided to sign with the Lakers after winning the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. Shamet has been a knockdown shooter ever since he got drafted, but his role for the Clippers diminished in the playoffs. The 6-foot-4 guard only played 18.7 minutes per game, scoring 5.2 points per game.
With a new coach and a newly constructed roster, it will take some time for the Clippers to mesh. Even after a disappointing postseason, Leonard and George are still All-Star caliber players in the prime of their careers. If veterans like Ibaka and Batum can come in and contribute at a high level, this team is good enough to be near the top of the standings in the Western Conference.