Yesterday we took a look at which players in the Eastern Conference were most important to their team’s playoff success. Today we look at the most important players for each Western Conference playoff team. Similar to the Eastern Conference, most of the players I’ve chosen are pretty obvious choices, but there are a few picks you may not have expected.
Houston Rockets – James Harden
When you’re the favorite to win MVP, how can you not be the most important player? Harden has had a great statistical season, but that’s not what has impressed me most about him. I’ve been impressed at how Harden adapted his game to fit right in with Chris Paul’s. Many thought it wouldn’t work out, but Harden made it look easy. He led the league in scoring, but also allowed all his teammates to get involved. Chris Paul didn’t take a step back at all from what he’s done throughout his career, Eric Gordon had his best scoring season since 2011, and Clint Capela had a career year. Because Harden is a constant threat to either score himself or set someone else up to score, he’s the most valuable. Chris Paul can score and pass, but Harden’s scoring is on another level.
Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson
I tried to choose one of these guys, but I couldn’t do it. I know they technically have the “big four”, but I left Draymond Green out for one reason, his scoring. Green averages 11 points per game, while Durant, Curry, and Thompson all average 20 or more. If one guy isn’t shooting well, the others probably are. It’s very rare you’ll find all three of these guys having an off night. If they’re all having a good night, whoever they’re playing better not miss a shot. These guys all share the ball and let the hot shooter play their game, which is why I had to choose all three instead of just one.
Portland Trail Blazers – Damian Lillard
Averaging 26.9 points per game this season, Damian Lillard has been on a scoring tear. He led the Blazers in points and assists per game, and was fourth in rebounds. He’s by far the best player on the court. I also think Lillard has become a better leader this season. He’s been able to help his team earn a number three spot in the Western Conference not only because of his play, but because he’s been able to help bring out the best in his teammates. Damian Lillard said the Blazers are for real this season, and he’s the main reason why.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Russell Westbrook
The second player in NBA history to average a triple-double was back at it again this season, becoming the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double in multiple seasons. Score, pass, rebound, steal, or block, Westbrook can do it all. Some people think Westbrook tries to pad his stats, but I think he gives more effort than anyone else on the court. I see a player who wants to win and is willing to do everything he can to make that happen. It’s not his fault nobody else wants to give that kind of effort. Without Westbrook’s incredible play every night, where would the Thunder be? Certainly not where they are right now. A player who gives 100% effort in every game gives your team its best chance at winning.
Utah Jazz – Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell has electrified the Utah Jazz this season. He’s their leading scorer in his rookie season, scoring 20.5 points per game, which is seven points more than anyone else. While being effective on the offensive side, Mitchell has also been a defensive force, averaging 1.5 steals per game. The rookie of the year candidate knows how to excite his teammates and fans. That kind of excitement could go a long way in the playoffs. Regardless of what their playoff fate is this year, Mitchell will bring hope to Utah Jazz fans in the playoffs for years to come.
New Orleans Pelicans – Nikola Mirotic
Not Anthony Davis? That’s right, and here’s why. Over the last seven games of the season, Mirotic averaged 21.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. We have to remember who he’s replacing. DeMarcus Cousins went down earlier in the season and they’d been missing him. Mirotic stepped up his game at the end of the season, giving them a more than capable replacement for Cousins. We know what we’re going to see from Anthony Davis every night. We know what we saw from Cousins every night. If the Pelicans get 21.9 points and 10.1 rebounds a night from Mirotic, it gives them another weapon teams have to defend instead of just Anthony Davis, much like they previously had with Cousins in the line up.
San Antonio Spurs – LaMarcus Aldridge
Without Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge has carried the Spurs throughout the entire season. He’s making over half his shots, averaging 23.1 points per game. The next leading scorer on the team is Rudy Gay, scoring 11.5 points. It’s actually Kawhi Leonard (16.2), but since he didn’t even play 10 games this season I’m leaving him out. Without Aldridge, this team would not be in the playoffs. He’s had to play well every game for them to even stand a chance. It’s going to be tough for the Spurs to win in the playoffs, even with Aldridge, but Aldridge playing how he’s played all season is the only way they get a victory.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Jimmy Butler
Since the return of Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves have come alive again. They won their last three games to get into the playoffs. Butler didn’t have spectacular games in his first two back, but his minutes were restricted a bit. When the Timberwolves needed Butler to come on strong against the Nuggets so they could get into the playoffs, he showed up. 31 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block was Butler’s stat line against Denver. Butler is the veteran leader and star of this team. I’ve previously stated that without Butler, the Timberwolves are a couple of young stars and veteran role players. Butler brings both the veteran and star aspect. He’s got the leadership, the scoring ability, and the defense. It’s going to be a challenge having to play the Rockets in the first round, but as long as they have Jimmy Butler, they have a chance to win.