These N.B.A. Contenders Simply Acquired Higher

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These N.B.A. Contenders Just Got Better

Recognition…Darren Abate / Associated Press

Why they will win the final: The Clippers faced questions after they collapsed in the bladder. (You will remember they had a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets in the conference semifinals.) Paul George took much of the criticism for his poor play. It has seen its ups and downs this season – who hasn’t? – but seems to be in better shape. The Clippers are contenders because of Kawhi Leonard, but George’s postseason game will determine if they are actually able to win it all.

Why she not: The Clippers hope that Rondo Rajon, acquired at close of trade, can take the kind of lead they missed last season. But they still lack depth and the team have been terrible in clutch situations, which goes back to last season’s bubble implosion. Championship teams are adept at closing games. The clippers aren’t.

Why they will win the final: LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed the damage they could do together last season as they rolled through the playoffs to lead the Lakers to their first championship since 2010. For James in particular, it was a resurgent season proving (if anyone needed proof) that a team with two of the best players in the world is a pretty safe bet to make a championship run regardless of the complementary parts. James and Davis are back this season, of course – and if they’re healthy for the playoffs, watch out for that.

Why she not: James (ankle) and Davis (calf) are not healthy, and that’s a huge problem – for now, if not forever. Davis hasn’t played since February 14, and coach Frank Vogel recently said Davis was “still a long way off”. The Lakers were already fighting without him when James sprained his ankle on March 20. He could take a break for at least another month. At the same time, a number of smaller Lakers have been working with their shootouts: Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol. Make your choice. It’s windy?

Why they will win the final: In hindsight, the good work the Suns did in taking over Chris Paul in the off-season was one of the best moves an aspiring team could have made. He brought experience, toughness and defense to a team that made big jumps – the Suns ended the 2019-20 regular season by going undefeated in the bubble – and he’s allowed Devin Booker to play the ball. The window is closing for Paul, an 11-time all-star who, at 35, has never played in an NBA final. Maybe this is the moment when he finally makes it.

Why she not: Inexperience. Booker, the team’s best player, hasn’t gotten a taste of the postseason yet. The reality is that a lot of young players are being asked to take a very deep boost on their first run through the playoffs, even if Paul is leading the group.

Why they will win the final: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray keep developing and improving. Now is the time for the team to capitalize on it. The Nuggets front office signaled this at close of trade when it acquired Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee, veterans who were supposed to help improve the team’s mediocre defense. Gordon also gives the nuggets another rating option.

Why she not: The nuggets have been hugely inconsistent this season, and it didn’t help that they lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee – two precious role-players – in the free hand. Michael Porter Jr., who emerged as the team’s third goalscorer, has great potential but has missed a lot of time and is still developing.