The Most Important Player On Each Western Conference Team In The 2024 Playoffs

The Western Conference playoffs always seem to be a war of attrition, and this year, it sure looks like we’re slated to have that happen again. With seven teams already decided and an eighth up in the air until Friday night, it’s difficult to pick which team will be able to navigate things and earn a berth in the NBA Finals. Yes, Denver are the favorites to do so as the defending champions, but all it takes is one or two games where they aren’t quite at their best to open the door for someone else to pounce through.

As such, we decided to look at the most important player on each team in the West as the playoffs get underway. Whether it’s the team’s top dog or a supporting player who will have to find an extra gear, every team has one guy who has to be at their very best this time of year if they are going to make their way through the postseason.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made the leap from a star on a mediocre team to a superstar who impacts winning at an elite level this year, and he’s going to get rewarded with all the stuff (a top-5 MVP finish, a first-team All-NBA nod) that comes for guys who do that in the regular season. Now, it’s time for him to carry that over to the playoffs, where the Thunder are the surprising 1-seed in the Western Conference and have to figure out how to navigate what could be an absolutely hellacious postseason run.

Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t played in the postseason since 2020 and didn’t make it out of the first round in either of his first two appearances. Since then, he’s leveled up his game every single year to the point that he’s now one of the best players in the NBA, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, where he’s a killer from the midrange and at the rim. He makes everyone around him better, too, which is the skill that separates superstars from everyone else. And as Oklahoma City attempts to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since the Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook era, Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to do that will be more important than ever.

Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.

The obvious thing here is that Nikola Jokic is going to be a handful no matter what. But it’s worth remembering last postseason, when Denver had a rock solid 8-man rotation: Its usual starting five, then Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and Christian Braun off the bench. Among those starters, Porter played the fewest minutes and struggled the most during the playoffs, as he only shot 42.3 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from three. His rebounding was a valuable asset, but his struggles in the NBA Finals, in particular during games 2-4, were a problem the Nuggets had to solve. (Fortunately, Jokic is the best problem solver in the game, so they ended up winning a ring in five games.)

This year, Brown and Green are gone, and while guys like Braun, Reggie Jackson, and Peyton Watson have done a nice job in reserve roles, it’ll be a little harder to navigate a bad series from Porter this time around. We know Jokic is going to be Jokic, and we can safely assume that Jamal Murray (if he is healthy) will level up like he usually does in the postseason. If Porter can provide the offensive spark that he’s capable of providing this time around, it’s going to be really hard to keep Denver from going back-to-back.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns

A common criticism of Karl-Anthony Towns is that he shrinks when the playoffs rolls around. He shoots 52.4 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from three during the regular season in his career, but in three trips to the postseason, those numbers drop to 47.1 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively. With how crucial his ability to stretch the floor and provide a scoring punch is to everything Minnesota does on offense, he absolutely cannot have that sort of a postseason stinker again, especially because the Timberwolves’ first round opponent, Phoenix, is able to score in bunches and has given them some problems this year.

Anthony Edwards showed last year that he’s going to be a handful as the No. 1 option on a playoff team. There is a very good chance that’s not enough if Minnesota wants to make it out of the first round since 2004. Towns, who has only played in two games since returning from a torn meniscus that he suffered in early March, is going to be looked to first as a major weapon on offense. Considering his history this time of year, there’s no guarantee that ends up happening. But if it does, don’t be surprised if the Timberwolves go on a run.

Los Angeles Clippers: James Harden

We do not need to go through the list of high-profile James Harden playoff stinkers, in large part because someone else has probably already done that this week. Harden, more than any other player in the sport, is defined by his propensity for shrinking when the lights are at their brightest. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that he’s now a member of the Clippers, as the franchise has been desperate to get over the hump ever since the Chris Paul trade brought them a level of respectability they never had.

Kawhi Leonard’s health will obviously be crucial as Los Angeles begins its playoff run, and if he’s not healthy or he’s severely compromised, Harden’s role is going to become far bigger. But even if he plays, Harden has to thrive in his role as the team’s point guard. He has to get the ball to Leonard and Paul George in their spots, and when the opportunity is there for him to get his own shot, he has to take it — if there is a source of optimism, it’s that Harden has done a good job with this when the team has been humming this year. The Clippers brought him in to be the difference maker, and it’s time to show why.

Dallas Mavericks: Kyrie Irving

The idea behind the Mavericks mortgaging their future to bring in Kyrie Irving was basically that Luka Doncic just needs someone else capable of shouldering some of the offensive burden. Kristaps Porzingis ended up not being the guy they needed in that role, while they fumbled the Jalen Brunson situation and saw him leave for the Knicks. As such, they brought in Irving, who has been an incredibly good fit next to Doncic when the two have shared the floor this season.

We know that Doncic is going to bring his A-plus game during the postseason, particularly against a Clippers team that he’s now facing for the third time in five years in the first round and has never gotten past. Can Irving, who has reached some incredible playoff highs during his career, do the same? If he can remove some of the load that Doncic has historically had to take on and keep the Mavs’ machine humming, and Dallas’ defense can hold its late season form, then Dallas is going to be a very, very dangerous team in the West.

Phoenix Suns: Bradley Beal

The Suns decided that depth wasn’t going to be all that important this season if they had a third star alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. The bad news is that Beal was only able to appear in 53 games due to lingering injuries that he could never quite shake, but the good news is that he (along with Booker and Durant) were able to play enough to keep Phoenix above the Play-In line. And when the three of them are on the floor together, things tend to go pretty well — per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with the three stars together are outscoring opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions.

Beal gets the nod as the most important Sun over the other two for no reason other than this is not a stage he’s been on in a while. Last year, Booker and Durant took it to the Denver Nuggets with some incredible individual performances, as the Suns were the only team to take two games off of the eventual champs. While that happened, Beal sat at home, as he did for four of the last five postseasons. The bet that Phoenix’s front office made this offseason was that Beal is the sort of guy who could help them take that next step, and now, he has the chance to show that was a smart bet.

Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis

“It was just a lot of, like, the talking and all the Lakers, there was just so much of that going on,” Davis said in the lead-up to the season about how Denver reacted to their sweep of Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals last year. “Like, alright, we get it, y’all won, but I think me and Bron had some conversations, like, we can’t wait.”

Well, good news, Anthony! Ducking the favorites to get out of the West to prolong a playoff run would have been totally understandable, but instead, the Lakers are getting the exact thing they’ve wanted: A chance at revenge. And of course, Davis is going to be under a microscope, both because of that comment up above and because he just always is. His defense is always superb (which it has to be against Nikola Jokic), but he comes under scrutiny in the postseason because his offense fluctuates so much. He needs to bring it on that end of the floor every single night, and if he does, we’re going to get the best version of the Lakers.

8 seed: Brandon Ingram or De’Aaron Fox

Unfortunately, either the Pelicans or the Kings would go into the playoffs with crucial players on the shelf due to injuries — Zion Williamson for the former, Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk for the latter. Either team could win Friday night’s Play-In Tournament game and earn a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and upon getting to that stage, they’re going to need their best offensive player to rise to the occasion. Ingram has generally played better when he’s out there as the main guy (i.e.: without Williamson), while Fox has once again played at an All-Star level this year, even if he did not make it to Indianapolis in February. Both teams would face a major uphill battle to get out of the first round against a Thunder team that has been rock solid on both ends of the floor this season, but if they’re going to pull the upset, it’ll require a monster series from either of these guys.