The Most Interesting Players In The Western Conference For The Second Half Of The Season

Unless the Utah Jazz or the Houston Rockets make a push over the final 25 or so games of the regular season, we can clearly state which teams are going to make the playoffs out of the Western Conference. The order they make it, however, is nowhere near as clear, as the West is affectionately a jumbled mess full of teams that are constantly one winning or losing streak away from a major change to their fortunes.

Four teams are within 2.5 games of the 1-seed. Another four teams are separated by 1.5 games on either side of the Play-In line. At the very bottom of the conference are teams that have LeBron James and Steph Curry on them (although not on the same team, despite Golden State’s best efforts at the trade deadline).

Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

We’ll put these two together because they’re the two biggest stars on the two teams at the top of the Western Conference, and they are entering this stretch with the same goal in mind: finishing in first. Edwards and Gilgeous-Alexander are both magnificent players who have combined to win a grand total of zero playoff series in their careers. That’s totally fine — they’re young, they’ve gotten tastes of playoff basketball, and success is going to come sooner rather than later for both of them.

Edwards has a chance at throwing his name into the MVP discussion with a big second half of the year, while Gilgeous-Alexander has a real shot at just flat-out winning the award. They’ve been great so far for teams that are in the hunt for a championship, and now, it’ll be on them to try and find that extra gear over the final 27 games. The 1-seed and homecourt in the Western Conference are on the line, and there’s a chance a spot in the NBA Finals comes down to a Game 7 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Oklahoma City Thunder. I’m sure either team would love to make sure that game happens in front of their fans. The bad news? They’ve already played four times this year, so there are no more Wolves-Thunder games on the schedule.

James Harden

No one is better at getting what they want than Harden. When he was done in Houston, he wanted a move to Brooklyn, which he got. Same with moving to Philly when he was done in Brooklyn, and same with the Clippers when he was done with the Sixers. And now, he wants a championship and a contract extension, but you don’t need me to remind you what he tends to do when the lights get really bright, as no player in the league has been defined more by their postseason failures than Harden.

The good news is he’s been excellent in Los Angeles after a rough start — the team has the second-best record in the league since getting past the initial, five-game losing streak that happened when he first got to town. The Clipper offense desperately needs his ability to run the show and get guys the ball in spots they like, and when he’s out there with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Los Angeles is just pummeling teams (they’ve been very, very good when it’s Harden and only one of those two, as well). It’s worked out well so far, and keeping this up down the stretch would give L.A. a real shot of getting the 1-seed.

The Pelicans’ Big 3

At some point, the trio of C.J. McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson are going to have to show they are a viable trio long-term. The team is 34-22 and find themselves 5.5 games back of the 1-seed, three games back of the 4-seed and homecourt in the first round, and five games up on the 10-seed. They’re a small losing streak away from falling down into eighth place (they’re 1.5 games up on Sacramento). In these moments, you want to lean on your stars, but the problem New Orleans faces: Things haven’t gone very well when their three stars are on the floor together.

All three are very good players, but per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with all of them on the floor together are being outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions. The team’s most used lineup — McCollum, Ingram, Herb Jones, Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas — is being outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions. The ones with only two of the three on the floor tend to be excellent, and it might behoove Willie Green to lean into those as much as possible. It would help if that trio could stop anyone on defense, as the lineups with all three of them on the floor are allowing 118 points per 100 possessions, which is impressive, considering the team’s defensive rating of 113.4 is seventh in the league. There is a really dangerous basketball team in here, and figuring out how to put their stars into positions to succeed is priority No. 1 down the stretch.

Bradley Beal

Sometimes it’s as simple as being healthy. When Beal plays, the Suns are 19-11. When he does not, they’re 14-12. The idea behind putting Beal with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker continues to make sense in theory, and when they’re on the floor together, Phoenix is a juggernaut — lineups with all three of them alongside one another are outscoring opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions (although it’s worth mentioning that the lineups with Beal and only one of the All-Stars have struggled, particularly the ones without Booker, as those lineups are getting outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions). And for all the concerns about whether they can stay healthy, Durant (played in 49 of 56 games) and Booker (46 of 56) have generally held up their end of the bargain.

But of course, it’s not like this team was assembled without any indication that these are guys who occasionally miss some time. This was the risk Phoenix always was going to take when it decided to go all-in on three superstars with checkered injury histories, and if the team is going to make noise once the playoffs roll around, getting Beal healthy and consistently going is crucial. That’s especially true if they want to avoid the play-in — Phoenix is currently in seventh, and the team is just as close to 10th place as it is third (four games each way). Their biggest problem? Tankathon gives them the toughest remaining schedule in the league with two games left against all of these teams: Boston, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, the Clippers, and Denver. Are those the teams with the six best records in the league? You bet!

Jonathan Kuminga, Brandin Podziemski, and Klay Thompson

Steve Kerr opted to make a bold change in the team’s final game before the All-Star break, as he put Klay Thompson on the bench and leaned into a starting lineup of Steph Curry, Brandin Podziemski, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga, and Draymond Green. Well, it was bold on the surface, but when you look at the numbers, that lineup has been destroying opposing teams all year: It’s outscoring opponents by just over 27 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Amid Thompson’s up and down year, the emergence of Kuminga and Podziemski has the Warriors looking like the Warriors when they’re out there with that trio of veterans. Kuminga appears to have gotten past his gripes about playing time as he’s become nearly indispensable, while Podziemski just has that Warriors thing about him where he seems like he always knows how to make the right play. Thompson, meanwhile, is still a good player; he’s just struggled to reach the highs he reached earlier in his career. That’s fine, and perhaps coming off the bench and getting to feast against second units is exactly what he needs to get on track, especially once Chris Paul comes back and can get him looks in spots where he wants the ball. And while the Warriors are 28-26 and have a bit of a hill to climb in the West — they’re the 10-seed right now and sit four games back of both the 6-seed and the 7-seed — they might actually be able to scale it.