Which West Playoff Contender Poses Biggest Matchup Problems to Lakers?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IApril 24, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, is defended by Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The NBA defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are the favorites to come out of the Western conference, assuming good health for their top stars. That's a big if as Anthony Davis just came back and the team is taking his return slowly with a minute restriction. Meanwhile, LeBron James is continuing to rehab his high ankle sprain with no clear timetable for his return.

Despite the injuries, Los Angeles still has the best odds in the West to win the title. Assuming everyone is healthy come playoff time, is there one team in the conference that should worry the Lakers more than others?

As the season draws to an end, teams begin to look at their potential playoff matchups. Running into the wrong matchup can sink even some of the best teams. The "We Believe" Golden State Warriors upset the top seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007. The "Grit and Grind" Memphis Grizzlies shocked the 2011 San Antonio Spurs. Even last year, the Miami Heat were the worst matchup for the Milwaukee Bucks. 

It has not been uncommon to see a team try to manipulate its seeding to avoid a team. For example, the Denver Nuggets were accused of trying to avoid the Houston Rockets in the second round of the  2019 playoffs. It is not an easy thing to pull off and it can lead to a "be careful what you wish for" moment, like the Portland Blazers knocking out those Nuggets in the second round. 

Before we get to the team the Lakers should be concerned about facing, let's go over the teams that may not be as big of a threat to them as many may perceive. 


Denver Nuggets

DEFCON Level: 4

Just a few weeks ago this would have been one of the bigger threats to the Lakers and could be their first-round matchup this year. With the MVP front-runner in Nikola Jokic at hand, Jamal Murray rounding into form, Michael Porter Jr. developing as a third star and the trade that brought Aaron Gordon, Denver was looking like a big problem for L.A. 

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

Then the injury bug stung when Murray tore his ACL, which will sideline him for the remainder of this season and significantly lower the team's ceiling. Either way, the Nuggets have not had an easy time trying to stop the Lakers.

Last season, Anthony Davis feasted on the Nuggets, averaging 29.3 points on 54.4 percent from the field during the regular season. He ramped it up in conference finals against them, putting up 31.2 points as the Lakers beat them in five. 

With the Murray injury, the Nuggets might struggle to put up enough points against the Lakers stout defense, which has held strong even with all their injuries. Cross the Nuggets off the list as a real threat to the Lakers.


Phoenix Suns

DEFCON Level: 3

Aaron Gash/Associated Press


The Suns are sitting second in the West at 42-17 and are 2-0 against the Lakers this year. Phoenix has a top-five defense and top-10 offense. Devin Booker is leading the team in scoring at 25.1 points. Chris Paul is pulling the strings perfectly and stepping up in the clutch. Deandre Ayton has made a leap and has been a double-double machine for the Suns. 

The Suns have a strong half-court offense, getting a lot of opportunities out of the pick-and-roll and hitting spot-up shooters. According to Synergy Sports Technology, they have the sixth-best points per possession in pick-and-rolls, including passes and spot-up PPP. 

The problem for Phoenix in a matchup against Los Angeles in the playoffs is that those are two areas where the Lakers excel defensively. The Lakers are sixth in points per possession against pick-and-rolls including passes and are eighth in spot-up defense. 

There are a few other questions the Suns would have to answer in a Laker playoff series. For example, how will they defend James? In his lone game against the Suns, he dropped 38 points and shot 66.7 percent from the field. Jae Crowder will likely be the most responsible for slowing down James, but after him the options get really thin, literally. Mikal Bridges is a good defender, but at 209 pounds he just does not have the weight to take on James. 

The other issue is what they do when the Lakers move Davis to the five. That will put a lot of pressure on Deandre Ayton in his first playoff experience. He has made massive strides this season, but pulling him out of the perimeter will leave the Suns vulnerable on the glass. 

Finally, the playoff-tested Lakers will be able to overwhelm the Suns, who have very little playoff experience after Paul and Crowder. That will tip the scales in favor of the Lakers. 


Utah Jazz

DEFCON Level: 2

Ironically, the team with the best record in the NBA has the fourth-best odds to win the championship this year. The Jazz is probably the most underrated No. 1 seed in history. Donovan Mitchell has blossomed as a number one option this season, scoring 26.4 a night. Rudy Gobert is making a run at Defensive Player of the Year again and remains the Jazz's biggest strength. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

It is not just Gobert's defense, but his presence as a roller opens up the opportunities for the Jazz's drive-and-kick game. As the third best three-point shooting team, they take full advantage of defense collapsing on them in the pick-and-roll. Utah's offense drops from 117.7 when Gobert is on the court to 109.6 when he is off. That is the largest drop off of anyone on the team. 

Utah won the season series against Los Angeles this year but have not gone up against Davis in any of the games and faced James just once. But last season it was a different story, with the Lakers sweeping the season series. Davis was a thorn in the Jazz's side, scoring 29.7 points against them on 51.8 percent shooting. Davis's mobility and ability to stretch the floor makes him a tough matchup for Gobert. 

Just like the Suns, the Jazz have the issue of who is going to guard James. Royce O'Neale will start with that match up, but after that it becomes a problem. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic will also be called upon, but that did not slow down James last season. He averaged 24.7 points and 10.3 assists while shooting 50.8 percent from the field.  

The Jazz have been dominant all season but have not faced a fully healthy Laker squad this season. A Laker playoff matchup is one of those traps for the likely top-seeded Jazz. 


Los Angeles Clippers

DEFCON Level: 1

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

The Clippers are the biggest threat to the Lakers in the playoffs. They can match up with several lineups the Lakers can throw at them in different ways. The Clippers can go big and small without taking too many skills off the table. This is something no other team in the West could do. 

Assuming the Clippers are fully healthy, they can play several different ways. They feature two of the best two-way wing players in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who lead the team in scoring. And the addition of Rajon Rondo at the trade deadline has taken some of the playmaking duties off their plate. Rondo's institutional knowledge of the Lakers will also be an asset for L.A. 

Ivica Zubac's size allows the Clippers to match up with size to start games. After that, Tyronn Lue has several options when the Lakers go small by playing either Serge Ibaka or Marcus Morris Sr. at center. Lue could also play both together with Leonard and George at the wing without sacrificing shooting or spacing. 

Looking at the Lakers' games last season, Davis averaged 28.3 points on 46.1 percent shooting while James put up 21.3 against the Clippers. On the other side, Leonard averaged 30 points and George dropped 26 against their cross-hall rivals. 

The series may come down to the three-point line. The Clippers are the best three-point shooting team this season at 41.9 percent while the Lakers are fourth in three-point percentage against at 34.9 percent. 

The Clippers' depth and versatility will always allow them to match up with any lineup the Lakers throw at them in a playoff series. 

The Lakers are currently in fifth in the West standings and are closer to sixth or seventh place than fourth. All of that can change who they may match up with in the first or second round. The longer they can delay facing the Clippers will help buy the Lakers more time to get Davis and James back in the flow. 


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.