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The Most Important Player for Each Western Conference Team – Sports Illustrated

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From an unlikely pair of big men to two dominant rookies, here are the players who will have the biggest impact for each Western Conference team when the 2019-20 NBA season resumes.

The resumption of the 2019-20 season is rapidly approaching despite rising COVID-19 cases in Florida, and eyes are beginning to return to the floor ahead of what should be one of the more thrilling playoffs in recent memory. Both Los Angeles teams eye the title with a pair of superstars, while Milwaukee looks to secure both the Larry O’Brien Trophy and a long-term commitment from Giannis Antetokounmpo. With the Warriors dynasty halted, there is no shortage of competition for the next NBA champion.

The Crossover dived into the Eastern Conference playoffs on Wednesday, assessing the most important player for each team. We’ll do the same today with the Western Conference, starting with an unlikely pair of big men.

December 25, 2019; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (39) grabs a rebound against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half at Staples Center.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers – Dwight Howard & JaVale McGee

Los Angeles’ greatest advantage over the competition may be its sheer size, with the Lakers sporting a frontcourt headlined by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the Lakers can truly supersize when James assumes point guard duties. Enter Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.

The pair of centers have found a home in Los Angeles, thriving as interior behemoths as a slate of other Western Conference contenders attempt to ride small-ball to the Finals. The Lakers are outscoring teams by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when Howard and James share the floor, and the margin holds steady at plus-5.7 points per possession when Howard teams up with Davis. McGee has been similarly effective with both James and Davis, allowing the Lakers’ All-NBA big man to excel at the four. Many originally assumed Los Angeles would go small in crucial moments, placing Davis at center with three wing shooters and LeBron. The Lakers have taken another path thus far, riding their size to the best record in the West. If Howard and McGee continue their strong play in Orlando, that should be the formula throughout the playoffs.

Mar 1, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) gets by Philadelphia 76ers forward Al Horford (42) as he drives to the basket in the first half of the game at Staples Center.

Mar 1, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) gets by Philadelphia 76ers forward Al Horford (42) as he drives to the basket in the first half of the game at Staples Center.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Clippers – Paul George

Perhaps it’s a symptom of his recent playoff failures, but it seems as though we’ve underrated Paul George over the last few seasons. Not counting teammate Kawhi Leonard, George is perhaps the best two-way wing in the Western Conference, and the former Pacers forward has emerged as a downright lethal shooter in recent seasons. Only four players have hit more threes than George since 2015-16. Of the six players to hit 1,000 triples in that span, only Steph Curry sports a better percentage. We know what the Clippers will get from Leonard in the playoffs. If George is playing at his peak, it’s hard not to tab the Clippers as the Finals favorite.

Denver Nuggets – Jamal Murray

Assuming his rapid weight loss doesn’t hinder his play, we have a good idea of what to expect from Nikola Jokić in the postseason. Denver’s center fully proved his playoff chops last season, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game on 50.6% shooting. But while Jokić appears to be a sure thing, the rest of Denver’s supporting cast is anything but bankable.

Mar 9, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) finishes off a basket over Milwaukee Bucks forward D.J. Wilson (5) in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center.

Mar 9, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) finishes off a basket over Milwaukee Bucks forward D.J. Wilson (5) in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets’ cast of non-Jokić contributors is led by point guard Jamal Murray, who remains a bit of a question mark entering the playoffs. Murray is a truly microwave scorer when he’s right, though as we saw last postseason, his shaky shot selection can derail Denver at times. A disciplined and impactful Murray could allow the Nuggets to truly compete with both of the Los Angeles juggernauts. Though if the 2019 playoffs repeats itself, Denver could see a round-one exit.

Utah Jazz – Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson

Apologies for the double-dip once again, but Utah desperately needs one of its two point guards to shine alongside Donovan Mitchell in Orlando. Adding Mike Conley marked one of the summer’s marquee moves, but the former Grizzlies point guard has yet to provide any sort of scoring relief for Mitchell in 2019-20. Conley is shooting 40.5% from the field this season, and he generally looks a step slower than he did in the previous decade. He’s gone from one of the game’s steadiest point guards to a true question mark.

Clarkson is the next man up if Conley struggles, and despite his notable shortcomings, he could provide a much-needed dose of instant offense. Clarkson remains a pure scorer, one who can flip a game with a 15-point quarter, a la Lou Williams. Utah is in a tough spot with Bojan Bogdanović out for the season. Its pair of point guards need to pick up the slack.

Dec 27, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) shoots the ball against Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte' Graham (4) during the first half at Spectrum Center.

Dec 27, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) shoots the ball against Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham (4) during the first half at Spectrum Center.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder – Dennis Schroder

Oklahoma City will likely be an underdog in its round one series, though it has a fighter’s chance against any non-Los Angeles team. And the path to a round-one victory lies in its backcourt. The trio of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been downright lethal this season, outscoring teams by 26.6 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. Schroder has been the catalyst in the backcourt’s dominant performance. The former Hawks guard is dynamic in transition, and he’s shooting a career-high 38% from three this season. Playing alongside Paul has allowed Schroder to shed much of his playmaking responsibilities, an area in which he fell short in Atlanta. If Schroder continues to thrive, Oklahoma City could sneak into round two.

Houston Rockets – P.J. Tucker

Houston’s ageless wonder may be the NBA’s most valuable role player, and Tucker has taken on even greater responsibility this season. The 35-year-old has assumed starting center duties this season following Houston’s trade of Clint Capela, leaving Tucker to defend the Western Conference’s leading big men. Tucker has been up to the task thus far, and his offensive arsenal continues to grow. He’s added a crafty flip shot in 2019-20, and he remains solid behind the three-point line.

Harden and Westbrook get the headlines, but few players anchor a defense quite like Tucker. He’s truly irreplaceable on Houston’s current roster.

Feb 7, 2020; Washington, District of Columbia, USA;  Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) dunks during the first half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.

Feb 7, 2020; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) dunks during the first half against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Mavericks – Kristaps Porziņģis

This may be Luka Dončić’s first playoff appearance, but I have faith in the Slovenian sensation’s performance holding steady in Orlando. Dončić has already proven his late-game mettle in his first two seasons, and he came to the NBA as the most accomplished European teenager in basketball history. Dallas’s playoff fate could ride on its other All-Star.

It hasn’t been a perfect 2019-20 for Kristaps Porziņģis, with his season marred by injury trouble and an undefined role in Dallas’s offense. But Porziņģis was trending in the right direction before the NBA’s restart. He averaged 27.7 points and 11 rebounds per game from Jan. 31 and March 6, and his pick-and-pop dance with Dončić was hitting its stride. Porziņģis has the talent to take over a game with a 30-point eruption. If he’s at his best, the Western Conference favorites could be on upset alert.

Mar 6, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) drives in the second  quarter against Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) at the American Airlines Center.

Mar 6, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) drives in the second quarter against Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) at the American Airlines Center.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies – Ja Morant

We won’t stray too far off the path on this selection. Ja Morant has been the runaway Rookie of the Year this season, and he’s emerged as a potentially transcendent point guard over the next decade. Morant attacks the tin with a Westbrook-esque ferocity, and his jumper continues to trend toward respectability. Yet more important than Morant’s ability is his mentality. He shines in pressure moments, previously out-dueling Kyrie Irving in his third NBA game. Count on Morant to be up to the challenge in a potential play-in vs. Portland and New Orleans.

Portland Trail Blazers – Jusuf Nurkić

Portland may benefit from the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus more than anyone, coming to Orlando with a pair of potentially impactful additions in the paint. Both center Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkić are slated to return to the Blazers for the remainder of the season, providing some serious depth to what was a shaky frontcourt. Nurkić stands as the more enticing returner, and a potential replacement for Hassan Whiteside in the starting lineup

The 25-year-old center enjoyed a career year in 2018-19, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds as Portland won 53 games. Nurkić suffered a catastrophic leg injury in March 2019, and he was slated to return at some point this March before the league’s suspension. Whiteside’s production has statistically been solid this season, though Portland has been woeful on the glass behind Nurkić’s replacement. A healthy and active Nurkić could certainly help vault Portland past the Grizzlies as Whiteside sees a diminished role.

New Orleans Pelicans – Zion Williamson

The NBA’s decision to include non-playoff teams in Orlando can certainly in part be attributed to the Pelicans’ rookie phenom. Zion Williamson enters the NBA’s bubble with a chance to carry New Orleans to the playoffs, and (albeit unfairly) generate some debate surrounding Rookie of the Year. And don’t discount Zion’s chances of leading a Pelicans playoff run.

February 23, 2020; San Francisco, California, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks the basketball during the second half against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center.

February 23, 2020; San Francisco, California, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dunks the basketball during the second half against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Williamson is averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game since his debut on Jan. 22, and his advanced metrics suggest a budding superstar. The Pelicans outscore teams by 14 points per 100 possessions with both Williamson and Jrue Holiday on the floor. The number balloons to plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions when Williamson plays with Lonzo Ball. The Duke product is the tide that lifts all boats. If Williamson is in shape and ready for Orlando, the Grizzlies could very well be knocked out of the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings – Buddy Hield

Sacramento is being overlooked to a degree in the chase for the final Western Conference playoff spot, currently sitting tied with Memphis and Portland for the No. 9 seed. But the Kings have the firepower to potentially make an unexpected run to the playoffs. De’Aaron Fox continued his growth as a leading man before the COVID-19 suspension, while Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanović have provided quality scoring on the wing. But another guard stands as the Kings’ true x-Factor.

Sacramento is 7-3 in games in which Buddy Hield scores 25+ points, registering wins in 2019-20 over Boston, Dallas and Houston behind strong nights from Hield. This isn’t to say Hield is a franchise player, or really worth the $94 million extension he signed in October 2019. But he is one of the game’s top microwave scorers.

We should note that Hield tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, putting his very appearance in Orlando in doubt. If Hield is unavailable or not quite himself, Sacramento is effectively buried. The Kings will need Hield to be at 100% to reach the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs – Dejounte Murray

San Antonio’s long-shot playoff odds got even worse after LaMarcus Aldridge’s season-ending shoulder surgery, placing Gregg Popovich’s 22-year playoff streak in serious jeopardy. Who could be the key in preserving the postseason run? Dejounte Murray is the most likely candidate.

The third-year guard disappointed to a degree in 2019-20 after signing a four-year, $64-million extension in October. He hasn’t emerged as a high-volume offensive force, and his outside shot remains a touch shaky. But the potential with Murray is clear. He sports a 6’10” wingspan despite standing just 6’4”, and he has a unique shiftiness around the tin. The 2017-18 All-Defense member will have to register the best eight-game stretch of his career for San Antonio to reach the playoffs.

Feb 24, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks the basketball during the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Suns won 131-111.

Feb 24, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks the basketball during the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Suns won 131-111.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

Phoenix should be considered in the “thanks for playing,” pile of teams, though there’s a minute chance at a run to the playoffs if both its offensive stars are shining in full effect. We should expect a solid performance from Devin Booker, who has emerged as one of the NBA’s premier scoring guards. Deandre Ayton’s performance is less bankable.

Ayton posted historically efficient numbers as a rookie, and he’s continued to show off his impressive offensive arsenal in year two. The Arizona product is averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds per game since his season opener on Dec. 17, shooting 54.8% from the field in the process. At his best, Ayton can be an elite interior scorer, one who collapses defenses and creates a slate of open shots for his teammates. Phoenix will need to make it rain from beyond the arc to even sniff the playoffs. A strong performance from Ayton could spur a storm.

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