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The 15 Most Important Western Conference Players for the Rest of the Season

Blake Griffin, Lou Williams, Nerlens Noel, and the other players out West who will set their teams’ trajectory for the rest of the season

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The NBA season is two-thirds over but there is still a lot of basketball left to be played. The trade deadline shook up rosters, and even on teams that are outside of playoff contention there’s plenty to be learned. Yesterday, we looked at the most important player on each Eastern Conference team over the second half of the season; today, we review the Western Conference.

Houston Rockets: Lou Williams

Williams is having the best season of his career at 30 years old, so it’s only appropriate he’s now playing for the best team of his career. Williams will provide the Rockets with another dynamic playmaker in the two-man game; he scores 1.1 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, which leads all players with a minimum 100 chances, per Synergy. Williams joins James Harden and Eric Gordon to make up one of the league’s most potent offensive trios.

It’s nothing new for Williams to dominate the pick-and-roll; he’s done it regardless of the situation with the Sixers, Hawks, Raptors, and Lakers. The key now is for Williams to develop chemistry with his new teammates. That isn’t a given, considering how limited practice time tends to be by midseason. But Williams has shown the ability to adapt, and if he starts to click, the Rockets will be in a position come playoff time to always have at least one elite pick-and-roll playmaker on the floor.

Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward

Hayward’s scoring numbers have risen every single season of his career, and he’s now averaging 22.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, numbers good enough to earn him his first All-Star appearance. That’s great and all, but I can’t be the only one who thinks Hayward is capable of so much more. Consider that Hayward is effective at everything.

According to Synergy Sports, he ranks in at least the 80th percentile in the following scoring categories: pick-and-roll, spot-up, off-screen, transition, and cuts. The Jazz wing scores 1.05 points per possession in the half court, which ranks in the same ballpark as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kyle Lowry. Hayward performs like a superstar, yet he averages only 15.7 shots per game (less than old Dwyane Wade and inferior Harrison Barnes). Just watch him ball and put dudes on posters:

The Jazz might be figuring out what they have in Hayward. In February, the 26-year-old is averaging 26.2 points on 18.2 shots per game, both career highs for a single month. All it can take for a player to elevate his game is a chance, and Hayward’s efficiency has only risen with his increased role (from a 53.4 effective field goal percentage on the season to 58.8 in February). Once the playoffs roll around, you might hear a lot about how the Jazz are deep but lack a superstar. The thing is, they have one. His name is Gordon Hayward. Even deep, versatile teams need a high-usage superstar to lean on when the playoffs turn games into half-court battles; leaning on Hayward might be what the Jazz need to advance.

Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram

I included Ingram as part of my preseason list of rookies you shouldn’t panic about, since, well, I had a feeling this might happen: Ingram is scoring an inefficient 8.3 points per game, complemented by only 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists on a bad Lakers team. Ingram is scoring only 0.79 points per possession, per Synergy, which ranks below Chandler Parsons and only a hair ahead of the washed-up Joakim Noah.

But the rookie is still only 19! Expectations were set too high in the first place; Ingram is not Kevin Durant. But he still has considerable upside. The second half of the season is often when rookies begin to show why they were top picks in the first place, and if that’s the case for Ingram, he’s off to a fast start after the break, scoring a career-high 22 points against the Spurs on Sunday.

This is the type of progress we want to see from Ingram: lefty finishes at the rim, pull-up jumpers over tiny guards, pinpoint 3-point accuracy even with a hand in his face, and loud dunks. The performance looked like a positive step forward. Now the next phase is to make it the norm.

There are big-picture implications here. Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson (and general manager Rob Pelinka) pursued a trade for Pacers star forward Paul George before the deadline, according to multiple reports. One league source suggested to me that the negotiations were purely to set the table for a summer blockbuster.

Magic has a high school crush on George:

It’s plausible that the Lakers could include Ingram in an offer with their top-three pick (they presently have a 46.9 percent chance of keeping the pick, otherwise it’ll be conveyed to the Sixers). A package including Ingram and a top-three pick is arguably too much in a George trade, but the option is there if Magic insists on making a splash. But for that to be a more viable option, Ingram will need to show progress over the closing two months of the season.

Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant

Durant’s chemistry with Stephen Curry has improved, and as we’ve seen with superteams, it can take years to reach an optimal level. Still, they are capable of so much more with just a simple tweak to play calling. I want to see more slip-screen pick-and-roll actions with Durant setting picks for Curry, or vice versa. They’ll look something like this:

Maybe Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is saving that attack for the playoffs, but can we at least get teased with a few instances of it now?

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin

The list of players who have averaged more than 20 points, seven rebounds, and five assists at least twice includes Larry Bird, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Scottie Pippen. With averages of 22.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.1 assists so far this season, Griffin could soon join that group loaded with current or future Hall of Famers.

I want few things more than for Griffin to stay healthy; his injury list is longer than Nicolas Cage’s tally of half-assed film performances, but like Cage, Griffin is unbelievably entertaining when he’s performing to his potential. How can you watch Blake drop 43 points with 10 rebounds and five assists against the Hornets and not fall deeper in love with the NBA?

The 2016–17 Clippers story could end up being the same self-fulfilling prophecy that’s recurred seemingly every season — a first- or second-round playoff loss, or some freak injury to one of their stars. For the team to break the cycle, Griffin needs to be at full strength. Let’s hope he makes it the rest of the season without another leg injury.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kris Dunn

Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau anticipated that rookie point guard Dunn would be the starter about 20 games into the year, sources told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski before the season. That was a clear overestimation of Dunn, whose progress has been negligible. The bad habits that plagued him at Providence — forcing passes, dribbling carelessly — are still apparent in the NBA. It’s crucial that his shot improves, but he’s yet to show range out to 3.

The numbers don’t inspire much confidence, either. Dunn is shooting 39.8 percent from 2-point range and 28 percent from 3; the track record for players who shot that poorly in their rookie seasons is not good.

Dunn has potential, but he needs to show signs that he is the point guard of Minnesota’s future. Over the next few months, it’ll be important to monitor how (or if) the game begins to slow down for Dunn. Can he show that he can play with composure and reliability? If not, Thibodeau might be wise to start looking for a new guard in the loaded 2017 draft class.

Phoenix Suns: Marquese Chriss

Chriss is difficult to figure out. On one hand, he is already a ferocious scorer in transition capable of wreaking havoc like this:

On the other hand, Chriss scores 0.8 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy, which ranks 291st of 354 players with at least 100 logged possessions. Chriss often looks lost when he isn’t able to run freely and let his athleticism do all the work for him. He sets frail screens, hasn’t shot the ball well, and lacks passing instincts. Though Chriss’s chase-down blocks channel LeBron’s, his defensive effort and awareness is shoddy. It’s hard to rely on him when he commits too many careless fouls. Chriss doesn’t offer much of anything offensively other than making sexy highlights. Then again, the Washington product is still a teenager. What could anyone expect? Chriss was the high-risk, high-reward grand slam swing of the 2016 draft lottery, so lumps were anticipated.

Chriss’s minutes have increased each month of the season and should continue to as the season nears the finish line. With amplified opportunity, and more flashes of greatness like his 27-point performance earlier this month against the Bucks, the Suns’ future could look a whole lot brighter heading into the summer. “He has a unique gift,” Phoenix head coach Earl Watson told me last month. “It’s time for him to take that next step in February, March, and April just like did Devin [Booker] did last year.”

Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris

Harris has developed a reputation as a defensive stopper and a complementary scorer, but midway through his third season he’s beginning to show he has higher scoring upside. Since January 22, the Nuggets guard is averaging 16.2 points with a 45.3 3-point percentage. Harris always had shooting ability going back to his sophomore season at Michigan State; the hurdle was extending his range, and he’s done that this season.

Harris is shooting 45.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season, per SportVU, which has helped open the floor for his explosive drives and one-dribble pull-ups from midrange. The Nuggets are trying to hold on to the 8-seed in the West, but without any title chances, development is still the important subplot of their season. The Nuggets are loaded with combo guards and traditional 2-guards, from Harris to Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Will Barton, and Malik Beasley. There’s a logjam at the position, and Harris is beginning to create separation. If this trend continues, it’ll provide clarity for the Nuggets front office when it comes to future personnel decisions; either Harris will become a more valuable trading asset, or it will allow the team to more willingly put its other young players on the table.

New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins

“We can’t go in thinking we’re just an amazing team. We have to go in and play hard,” Cousins said after his Pelicans debut. “Because right now, we’re still a bad team.” You can say that again, Boogie. The roster hasn’t changed much after the deadline. Jrue Holiday was the engine behind the Pelicans’ midseason turnaround, and he’s now largely frozen out playing alongside two dominant bigs. Solomon Hill is just a glue guy. They’re relying on E’Twaun Moore and Tim Frazier to man the bench backcourt. Hollis Thompson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Dante Cunningham aren’t moving the needle.

The Pelicans are 0–3 since acquiring Cousins, and more alarmingly, they’re being outscored by 11.1 points per 100 possessions when Anthony Davis shares the floor with Cousins. They’re even worse when just one of them graces the court (in which case the team has a minus-19.3 net rating). This is more an indictment of the rest of the roster than it is of the stars, but this trend obviously needs to change for there to be any chance of catching the Nuggets for the 8-seed. They’re 3.5 games back with four teams ahead of them in the race.

The burden is on Cousins to be the difference-maker over the second half. Boogie needs to learn how to integrate himself within the established system and evolve some of his ball-dominant habits now that he’s playing with another star for the first time and the second-best point guard of his career. It’ll take a collective effort to make it work, but Boogie is the new guy who needs to adapt most.

Sacramento Kings: Buddy Hield

It’s only a matter of time before Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé channels Chris Crocker and makes a Leave Buddy Alone video. Vivek has good reason to. The Buddy backlash is overblown. Hield is indeed a flawed prospect (and lacks Stephen Curry upside, Vivek!), but he has a history of exceeding expectations. We should give him a chance to.

Hield’s best skill is shooting, and despite a rocky start, it has already started to translate (he’s drained 41.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per SportVU). Now it’s about developing the rest of his game with the extra leeway he’ll be given in Sacramento. Hield has shot just 11-of-47 off screens, per Synergy; to become a J.J. Redickesque perimeter weapon, Hield needs to be more than a one-dimensional spot-up shooter. Shooting is an art form that involves understanding the intricacies of making reads, timing when to run through screens, shooting off-balance, and footwork.

Part of that falls on the coach. Kings head coach Dave Joerger should also put Hield in countless pick-and-roll situations to help him develop his handle. Moves like this were nonexistent from Hield just one year ago as a college senior at Oklahoma:

Hield gets loose with his dribble, and a plus defender probably would’ve stripped him clean, but these are important reps that’ll pay dividends. On Saturday, Hield made another crossover out of a right-side pick-and-roll to waltz to the middle of the floor:

Hield didn’t pop onto the NBA draft radar until he was an upperclassman at Oklahoma. Though he’s less than a year younger than fourth-year veteran Ben McLemore (seriously!), player development is not a linear process. Hield has an elite work ethic, and players who have that tend to reach their potential; it just remains to be seen how high his upside is. We’ll find out more over the final two months of the season and possibly beyond if the Kings sneak into the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook

Get hype. It’s the final stretch of Westbrook’s remarkable bull run for the first season-long triple-double average since Oscar Robertson in 1961–62. Westbrook is averaging 31 points with 10.6 rebounds and 10.3 assists, and at his current pace would need to record 193 total rebounds (8.4 per game) and 215 total assists (9.5 per game) over the final 23 games of the season to match an achievement previously thought to be unreachable in the modern era. Westbrook is averaging “only” 9.7 assists since the calendar flipped to 2017, so he could be in the danger zone should that number slump any further.

San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili

I saw the Spurs play the Clippers last week in Los Angeles and it struck me watching live how incredibly energetic Ginobili still is. Ginobili is 39 and very clearly at the doorstep of the end of his career, but he was as active as any player I’ve watched live this season. Any athleticism he’s lost has been more than made up for by his effort.

There’s not a stat for this, but I know in my heart that Ginobili grabbed 100 percent of all 50–50 balls he was in the vicinity of. Ginobili led the Spurs with a plus-23, and perhaps that’s the best way to statistically detail his knack for making unmeasurable positive plays. If the Spurs have any advantage over the Warriors, it’s their depth, and Ginobili’s role will be important in closing the gap in the standings and also maintaining their lead over the reloaded Rockets.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

After Nurkic’s Blazers debut, head coach Terry Stotts remarked, “He’s 22 years old. His game is not refined or defined yet.” That’s a fact. Nurkic is a guy I loved entering the 2014 draft; I had him ranked higher than the consensus and endorsed draft analyst Dean Demakis’s nickname for Nurkic: “the Bosnian Boogie.” It’s an apt comparison; Nurkic’s tenacity, bruising interior style, and negative body language was so reminiscent of Cousins.

But Nurkic’s development has come slowly in the NBA. I’d go as far as to say he hasn’t improved much at all since he was drafted; fouls are still an issue, his shot hasn’t progressed, and his effort still comes and goes. Still, maybe a change of scenery is all Nurkic will need to elevate his play. Playing overseas, Nurkic showed flashes of being able to hedge pick-and-rolls and pressure a ball handler. In the NBA, he’s getting smoked. Maybe the talent level is too high for Nurkic to stand a chance, but his potential is still there. If the Blazers coaches can turn the Bosnian into the player that he can be, they’ll have the two-way interior presence the team lacks.

Memphis Grizzlies: Chandler Parsons

The Grizzlies signed Parsons to a four-year, $94.4 million contract last summer, which already looks like a horrible mistake. Parsons is averaging 6.2 points in 19.4 minutes per game, plays as stiff as an old man at the local YMCA, and is still not playing on the second night of back-to-backs. After undergoing two knee surgeries in recent years, Dallas’s concerns about Parsons’s knee holding up seem to be legitimate. Parsons worked himself back into shape and played the best ball of his life to cap off last season, but then got hurt again. There isn’t much reason for optimism regarding his long-term outlook.

Parsons is dating reality TV personality Savannah Chrisley, who recently appeared on Access Hollywood with her father, Todd Chrisley, to discuss her new relationship with Parsons. This exchange feels relevant:

“As long as I’m the main, I’m good,” Savannah said in response to her father’s criticism of the polyamorous lifestyle. Todd replied, “Well, you never know. That’s the problem. The [side] always thinks they’re the main.” The Grizzlies better hope they’re the main. They need Parsons to return to his former level (and stay healthy) to warrant paying him nearly $100 million through 2020 and to have any chance of playing playoff spoiler. If that doesn’t happen, Parsons might be closer to a reality TV or modeling career than we realize.

Dallas Mavericks: Nerlens Noel

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle runs a heavy dose of pick-and-roll actions with an athletic rim-running center spaced by a shooting power forward. This has been one of his trademarks, ever since he coached Pistons rosters featuring Ben Wallace at the 5 and Clifford Robinson at the 4. That formula eventually led to an NBA title in 2011 with Tyson Chandler rolling down the lane and Dirk Nowitzki throwing dagger 3s. The present-day Mavericks lacked a player who fit this role, so they acquired the new Chandler in Nerlens Noel.

Noel is a lean, explosive center capable of throwing down lob dunks, as well as protecting the rim and switching screens on defense, much like Chandler. The Mavericks have yet to install Noel into Carlisle’s complex actions, but already the mere threat of Noel rumbling down the lane has opened up space for Dirk 3-pointers:

The Mavericks dealt Andrew Bogut in the Noel trade and waived Deron Williams, two moves that signal the deal was made with an eye toward the future, not to make a playoff push. Noel will help the Mavericks on both ends, and could help boost them back into the playoff conversation. Then, the Mavericks will need to decide, as Shakespeare once wrote in Act III, Scene I of Hinkie, “To tank, or not to tank, that is the question.”