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The big question facing each of the West’s muddled middle class, Part II

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MARCH 15: LeBron James attends the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on March 15, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
LeBron James' health remains the key to the Lakers' season. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

We’re finishing our run through the West’s congested middle class by looking at the one big question facing teams No. 9 through No. 12 as they sprint into the stretch run.

The 2023 NBA postseason starts in just one month, and there’s still so much left to be decided. — particularly out West, where just 3.5 games separate the fifth and 12th seeds.

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With so many teams so tightly bunched, each night’s results trigger a fresh round of musical chairs. And with multiple playoff berths and all four spots in the play-in tournament all hanging in the balance, each team’s performances cast into stark relief the major issues that they find themselves facing in the sunset of the season.

After hitting the first four Wednesday, let’s dig into the rest of the bunch, starting with some youth being served:

Oklahoma City Thunder (34-35, No. 9 seed): Can OKC score enough to score an upset?

In the grand scheme of things, I understand the take that the Thunder — in Year 3 of their rebuild, with the NBA’s youngest roster, with No. 2 draft pick Chet Holmgren coming next season and control over as many as 15 first-round picks between now and 2029 — are basically playing with house money right now. But while they might not necessarily be heartbroken if they wind up back in the lottery, they’re sure as hell not playing like a team that’s indifferent to the prospect of making the playoffs. Just ask the Nets, who watched OKC turn a 16-point deficit into a 14-point win Tuesday:

Rather than shutting down All-NBA candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander after he missed a handful of games with ankle and abdomen injuries, the Thunder have continued to play through him, giving them an elite shot-creation engine and one-on-one scoring threat down the stretch. They’ve got a pair of capable secondary playmakers in Josh Giddey (averaging about 17-8-7 over the last two months) and Jalen Williams (arguably the best rookie in the league in that span). They’ve got a stout defense, led by point-of-attack ace Luguentz Dort, with enough size, length and athleticism to pressure the ball on the perimeter, create a ton of miscues (second in the NBA in opponent turnover rate) and force tough, contested shots. OKC’s tied for 10th in defensive efficiency for the full season; in fact, quiet as it’s kept, the only Western team with a better net rating than the Thunder since Jan. 1 is conference-leading Denver.

Your standard caveats about young, inexperienced teams in the hothouse of a playoff chase apply, but the Thunder have a lot of ingredients for postseason success. The stumbling block, though, could come against opponents that can put the clamps on: Oklahoma City has gone just 8-17 against top-10 defenses this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, scoring 4.5 fewer points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions than their full-season average.

The Thunder’s most effective offensive lineups this season have featured either Mike Muscala or Kenrich Williams as a stretch 5 to space the floor for SGA, Giddey and J-Dub to work underneath. But Muscala is now a Celtic, Kenny Hustle is out for the year, and without either of them on the floor, the Thunder have scored just 112.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions this season — a bottom-five mark.

Maybe coach Mark Daigneault takes a longer look at Dario Saric, who’s shooting 55.6% from the field and 38.2% from beyond the arc since coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline, with the starting quartet. Maybe he leans even harder on rookies with more minutes for Jaylin Williams, who’s drilled 41.1% of his long balls in 22 minutes a night since the start of February while also becoming one of the NBA’s preeminent charge-takers. Maybe Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who had shot 38.2% from deep and started for most of the first two months before a nasty ankle sprain derailed his season, can work his way back into the mix. Whichever direction he turns, if Daigneault can find ways to create more space for his ball-handlers to cook, the Thunder might not just make the play-in tournament; they might be able to make it through, and even make some noise on the other side.

Los Angeles Lakers (34-36, No. 10 seed): Will we get a version of LeBron healthy enough to make this all sing?

After completely revamping their team at the trade deadline, the Lakers got one (1) game in which tentpole superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis played a full complement of minutes alongside reinforcements D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. They won it, and then Russell sprained his ankle, and James “heard a pop,” and it seemed like the Lakers — 12th in the West and three games under .500 at that point — might be down for the count before they even got back in the fight.

Credit L.A., though, for not falling apart once yet another set of best-laid plans got immediately scuttled. The Lakers have won five of eight since James’ injury, and are now 9-6 with the NBA’s stingiest defense since the deadline. The oft-derided Davis has been equal to the task of putting the team on his broad shoulders, averaging 27.9 points on 55% shooting (and nearly 10 free-throw attempts per game) to go with 13.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 blocks a night since LeBron’s injury. Russell’s kicking in a shade under 19 points and six assists in 29 minutes per game while shooting 41.1% from deep on seven attempts a night. Beasley’s jumper has run hot and cold, but the promise that he’ll launch (11.1 3-point attempts per 36 minutes as a Laker) can warp defenses by itself … and, on nights like Tuesday, when he dropped seven triples on New Orleans in the first half alone, it can break them:

The Lakers have scored at a top-10 clip with AD and Russell on the floor. They’ve been absolutely suffocating on the other end whenever Davis has shared the court with Vanderbilt, whose length, quickness, frenetic ball pressure, board-crashing and general predilection toward havoc-wreaking has made him a perfect fit in a rotation that needed a bit more chaos. Dennis Schröder and Austin Reaves offer complementary ball-handling and shot-making; Troy Brown Jr.’s knocking down 3s and guarding on the wing; Rui Hachimura and Wenyen Gabriel have added athleticism and versatility up front.

That’s a thumbnail sketch of a pretty good team — not a 60-win juggernaut, but one better suited to replicating the great defense/just enough offense recipe that made the 2020 Lakers so tough, and eventually propelled them to a title. Provided, of course, it also features the all-time offensive evolutionary/half-court locksmith who can diagnose, digest and disassemble the defenses that they’ll face, and deploy L.A.’s newfound “lasers” to their most damaging effect.

For LeBron to have that kind of on-court impact, though, he must first … y’know … get back on the court. Post-shootaround free throws sans walking boot represent a good start, but it’s a long way from that to not only suiting up for games that matter — like upcoming meetings with the Mavericks, Thunder and Timberwolves, all of whom are scrapping for the same postseason spots as the Lakers — but showing out in them and finally turning this team into the “nobody wants to face them in Round 1!” matchup nightmare that basic-cable talking heads have been salivating over.

Utah Jazz (33-36, No. 11 seed): Can the Jazz develop more core pieces while competing?

When Danny Ainge dealt Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell over the summer, the expectation was that their departures would send Utah down to the NBA’s basement for a long, cold, dispiriting rebuild. Instead, the Jazz have been consistently competitive and watchable, thanks to the emergence of Lauri Markkanen as a bona fide No. 1 option and All-Star (and maybe All-NBA selection?), helping vault Utah to a surprising seventh in offensive efficiency.

The offense has dipped below league-average since the trade deadline, but Utah has stayed afloat in the play-in mix due in part to an increasingly stout defense that sits just outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession during that span. At the heart of that: rookie skyscraper Walker Kessler, who came to Salt Lake City in the Gobert deal and who has been about as good as (if not better than) the three-time Defensive Player of the Year on a per-minute basis this season.

Opponents take way more midrange shots against the Jazz and way fewer shots at the rim with the 7-foot-1 Auburn product patrolling the paint, and they’re converting 52.1% at the cup against him — the fifth-best mark of any defender to contest at least 100 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum. Kessler’s coming on stronger down the stretch, too: He’s blocking a league-leading 3.1 shots per game since the All-Star break, with the Jazz preventing points like a top-five defense with him on the court.

Utah has outscored opponents by 6.2 points-per-100 with both Markkanen and Kessler on the court — on par with the net ratings of the league’s best teams. Netting two legit building blocks in the Mitchell/Gobert deals before any of the future draft equity bears fruit already puts Utah ahead of the game; the trades of Beasley, Vanderbilt and Mike Conley, though, have opened up minutes on the perimeter for young players that the Jazz wanted to give a closer look.

Rookie Ochai Agbaji has logged more than 27 minutes a night since the deadline. His shot’s a work in progress (42% from the field, 34% from deep in that span), but the 6-foot-5 swingman has shown more confidence at attacking closeouts, putting the ball on the deck and pressuring the rim, shooting 61% on drives to the basket over the last 13 games. He’s also earned enough confidence from head coach Will Hardy to be thrown into the fire defensively against some of the toughest covers in the sport, including Ja Morant, Anthony Edwards, Gilgeous-Alexander and Kyrie Irving. He’ll lose those matchups more often than not — those guys are All-Stars for a reason — but getting more chances to guard them in games that matter should only help spur the development of an athletic young wing who could help connect Utah’s foundational frontcourt to its point guard of the future.

I don’t think Talen Horton-Tucker’s going to be that guard, but he sure seems intent on entering the conversation. With Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker gone to Minnesota, and Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton on the shelf with injuries, THT has gotten the keys to Hardy’s offense. He’s worked to make the most of his opportunity, averaging 15 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds per game over the last month. He’s not really a pure distributor — he’s coughed the ball up four times a night alongside those six assists — but playing on the ball gives him a size advantage (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) over most point-guard defenders, and he’s using it to get downhill into the paint and look for either his own shot or kickouts to waiting teammates. That size plus a 7-foot-1 wingspan also makes Horton-Tucker an intriguing piece for a defense that switches as much as any team besides the Celtics and Nets; there aren’t many point guards you can feel comfortable bodying up Paolo Banchero, Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler.

Markkanen still has two years and $35.3 million left on the contract he got to join the Cavaliers in a sign-and-trade before last season. Kessler and Agbaji will make just over $14 million combined over the next two seasons before becoming eligible for extensions of their rookie deals. Horton-Tucker’s got an $11 million player option for next season; whether or not he chooses to exercise it, how well he plays over the final few weeks could go a long way toward influencing the Jazz’s decision on whether to try to keep him around. If things go south, the Jazz will happily look forward to the lottery. With the search for building blocks already going so well, though, why not get a little greedy?

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 23: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans sits on the bench during the second half of their NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena on February 23, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
The Pelicans' season went off the rails the moment Zion Williamson was injured. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

New Orleans Pelicans (33-36, No. 12 seed: Is there a path to enough points without Zion?

The results seem to suggest there isn’t!

With Zion Williamson in the lineup, the Pelicans looked like a legitimate title contender, thanks in large part to a brutalizing offense that smashed opposing defenses until they broke. On Jan. 2, New Orleans was tied for sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring 116.2 points-per-100; with Zion on the floor to repeatedly bulldoze his way to the front of the rim, that soared to 118.1 points-per-100, which is top-three territory.

As you’re probably aware, though, Williamson hasn’t played since Jan. 2, suffering a hamstring injury that has kept him off the court ever since. While hope reportedly springs eternal that he’ll return before the playoffs, head coach Willie Green and Co. have had to try to piece things together without their centerpiece for the last two and a half months. It hasn’t gone great: Only the tanking Pistons, Spurs and Hornets have worse offenses than New Orleans over the past two and a half months, and only Detroit, San Antonio and equally decrepit Houston have fewer wins than the Pels in that timeframe.

Even accounting for how incredible a talent Williamson is and how central he was to the Pelicans’ entire approach, it still feels like a team with Brandon Ingram, C.J. McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas should be capable of something better than The Worst Actually Trying Offense in the NBA — especially because, you know, they just did it last spring.

The mix has been decidedly different this season, though. Ingram’s missed more than half the season, thanks in large part to a toe injury, and the Pels have had a bottom-five offense in minutes played without him and Zion. McCollum’s struggled with the additional defensive attention that has come with being thrust into No. 1 option duty, posting his worst shooting percentage since his rookie season. The offense has often stagnated into “your turn, my turn” ponderous rock-pounding in the midrange when Ingram and McCollum share the floor, generating a dismal 109.1 points-per-100 when they play together minus Zion. It’s been even worse than that when they play alongside Valanciunas, alignments that get New Orleans’ best scoring talent on the court but too often condense it into an elbows-and-in traffic jam that defenses can pretty easily smother.

The lack of consistent outside shooting outside of rising sniper Trey Murphy III doesn’t help matters, but that construction puts the onus on the Pels to find more creative ways of putting to the individual offensive weapons in better position to succeed: staggering Ingram and McCollum more, finding more opportunities to feed Valanciunas touches in the post or rolling off high screens (possibly against second units), opportunistically going smaller to try to get more shooting on the floor to decongest the paint, etc. Whether the onus is on Green as the one choosing which lineups to feature, on the players whom he picks to make better decisions and execute more effectively in the context in which they’re placed, or a bit of both, it’s clear that the results aren’t matching the talent — and that frustration’s mounting.

Maybe no lineup change, rotation shakeup or staggering scheme will really matter if Williamson’s not in the fold; he is, after all, the lone game-changing lightning bolt in Green’s quiver, the floor-raiser and ceiling-destroyer whose early-season performance seemed poised to elevate New Orleans into the kind of rarefied air the franchise has rarely inhabited. But just 12 months ago, the Pelicans were able to put a scare into an excellent Suns team featuring most of these same ingredients. If Green, his staff and his still-ambulatory stars can’t rediscover that recipe, and soon, Pels fans could wind up with a sour taste in their mouths all summer long.