The Pressure is on in the West

The key word to the Western Conference playoffs? Pressure.

Many Western Conference contenders have traded substantial parts of their future for the opportunity to win a championship now. A slew of aging stars have accumulated playoff disappointments to the point where an early exit this year would irrevocably damage their legacy. There are many teams who can win the Western Conference. There are many more who must win.

Perhaps no group is under more pressure than the Phoenix Suns. This February, Phoenix dealt Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, and four first-round draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Durant. The Suns lost two of basketball’s best young players in Bridges and Johnson as well as a significant sum of draft capital for a thirty-four year old star. Phoenix may have the most talented roster in the West behind Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deyandre Aytron. The franchise needs to justify their enormous risk and match their talent level with playoff success. 

Phoenix’s stars, however, don’t have a record of playoff success. Chris Paul has had some historically bad postseason blunders and has never won a title in his eighteen seasons in the NBA. Durant has never won a championship outside of Golden State and many believe he must prove that he can win without Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Paul is thirty-seven and Durant is thirty-four; they will never have a better opportunity to win than this year. An early exit from this year’s postseason – especially since they’re one of favorites – would be deemed an unacceptable failure that would continue to stain the reputations of Durant and Paul.

The Suns and the Clippers have compromised their futures to acquire older stars, many of whom have never won the NBA Finals.

The Suns will play the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. In 2019, The Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and traded five first-round picks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to acquire Paul George. The Leonard and George Clippers were once seen as the team to beat in the Western Conference. However, they’ve had early exits in each of their three postseasons together. Paul George is now thirty-two, has never made it to the NBA Finals, and has been the object of constant derision for his playoff disappointments. Thirty-four year old Russel Westbrook, the newest addition to the Clippers, is another star who has yet to win a title and has seen his unique brand of basketball blasted for his entire career. 

The Suns and the Clippers have compromised their futures to acquire older stars, many of whom have never won the NBA Finals. They’ve each blown series leads and lost to heavy underdogs in the past few playoffs. The loser of this series will be lampooned for being unable to perform in the playoffs and risking their futures for inconsequential stars. Failure is impermissible for both sides.

The Minnesota Timberwolves also made a massive trade that has yet to lead to team success. Last summer, Minnesota traded Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt and five first-round picks for center Rudy Gobert. The immense package the Timberwolves gave up is already being considered a historically bad trade. The Timberwolves need some degree of success this postseason to validate their trade.

Failure is simply not an option for many of this year’s contenders.

Minnesota will be underdogs to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. Denver is led by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. Jokic is a generational offensive talent whose regular season statistics exceed some of basketball’s all-time greats. However, Jokic’s Nuggets have had very marginal success in the playoffs, never reaching the Finals. The Nuggets are fully healthy this year and boast a deep roster of scorers like Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, and Micheal Porter Jr. Jokic is the best player in the league who leads the best team in the Conference; the Finals for the Nuggets are thus an expectation, and anything less is a disaster.

Championships are the most important aspect to any star’s legacy. Many of today’s best players have never won the NBA Finals because of the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have won the Western Conference in six of the past eight seasons. Their dominance has left many stars without a title and resumes that are thereby stained or incomplete. Russel Westbrook, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, and Chris Paul have all lost to Golden State and have never won an NBA Finals. However, the Warriors have had a poor season by their standards and have already lost the first two games of their series to the Sacramento Kings. The juggernauts are vulnerable, making 2023 the perfect, and perhaps the only, opportunity for some of the game’s aging and untitled stars to win their championship. 

Failure is simply not an option for many of this year’s contenders. The problem, of course, is that only one team can win. This adds an immense degree of pressure to the 2023 NBA playoffs that can be felt in each moment of each game.

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