After Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray’s season-ending ACL tear April 12, fans were disappointed that some of the Western Conference’s biggest names — LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Murray — would be out for weeks, and for some, months. These unfortunate injuries will upset possibilities and inject drama into the Western Conference playoff picture.
The now-foregone conclusion that the reigning champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, would once again win the West continues to be thrown into question by the continued absence of stars Davis and James, who have been out since Feb. 14 and March 20, respectively. The once-surging Denver has suddenly found its title hopes derailed by Murray’s injury.
As a result, the competitive balance in the West has been restored, and the stage is set for a four-way battle between the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns for the conference crown.
Before the Lakers star tandem of James and Davis succumbed to injuries, the Lakers were the team to beat in the West. Now, with Davis and James most likely out until at least April 22 and May 2 with their respective injuries, there is no telling when the pair will play again. More importantly, we will need to see if the Lakers will be able to replicate the quality of play that earned them a conference-best 21-7 record before Davis’ injury.
The Lakers have crashed in the standings since James’ injury — they have gone 6-7 without him — and they are only 2.5 games ahead of the sixth seed as of April 15. If they do end up falling to sixth place, the Lakers’ first-round matchup would likely be against their biggest challenge in the West and cross-town rivals, the Clippers.
The Clippers have won eight of their past 10 games, including seven wins in a row as of April 15. They seem capable of defeating the Lakers in the playoffs, although Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel’s bench is likely to regain chemistry after a long period without its two stars. As of April 15, FiveThirtyEight gave the Clippers the best chance to win the NBA Finals at 24%.
In all likelihood, however, the Lakers will enter the postseason with the fourth or fifth seed in the West. Their most likely opponent, Denver, won its first seven games after trading for forward Aaron Gordon and looked like legitimate championship challengers. Murray’s injury, though, largely erases any title hopes Denver may have had. Denver center and leading MVP candidate Nikola Jokic will sorely miss Murray, his offensive partner in crime, and Denver’s offense looks to fall short of reaching the finals.
Obviously, injuries are terrible — for players and fans alike. In the short run, the entertainment value of the league will take a severe hit.
Regular-season NBA games can be uninspiring, monotonous affairs with little defense, and casual fans tune in only to watch the stars. With two of the top players in the league — James and Davis — injured, casual fans have even less of a reason to watch. The unparalleled talent of players like James and Davis can make even the most humdrum Lakers games seem exciting for fans. When they are absent, the Lakers’ next best players are Dennis Schröder and Kyle Kuzma, serviceable role players who simply do not possess the same magnetic, TV-friendly qualities of their injured teammates.
Yet James, Davis and Murray’s unavailability also provides unlikely benefits to fans. As Denver’s dark horse potential diminishes and the Lakers deal with the uncertainty of their injured duo, other teams look to the injury-riddled landscape of the West as a golden opportunity.
With 17 games to go, Utah has the league’s best record and is primed for a deep postseason run as the West’s top overall seed. Led by Donovan Mitchell, who is scoring 26.5 points per game on 38.5% three-point shooting, and Rudy Gobert, who holds a league-best 6.27 defensive real plus-minus, this Utah team is more well-rounded and disciplined than the Utah team that blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Another team who will look to profit off of the injuries in the West is Phoenix. Phoenix has quietly won 10 of its past 11 games as of April 14 and has solidified its spot as the second seed in the West. Head Coach Monty Williams’ team is more than just a Cinderella story — Phoenix is capable of matching up with the best in the West, propelled by Chris Paul’s leadership and experience and Devin Booker’s ability to explode offensively on any given night.
Fans may be deprived of the brilliance of James, Davis and Murray for the foreseeable future, but they can look forward to the prospect of the most competitive and entertaining Western Conference playoffs in several seasons.
Christian Baldari is a first-year in the College. Bringing the Heat appears online every other week.