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The big question facing each of the West’s muddled middle class, Part I

The 2023 NBA postseason starts in just one month, and there’s still so much left to be decided — particularly out West, where just three games separate the fifth and 12th seeds.

With so many teams so tightly bunched, each night’s results trigger a fresh round of Musical Chairs. And with multiple playoff berths and all four spots in the play-in tournament all hanging in the balance, each team’s performances cast into stark relief the major issues that they find themselves facing in the sunset of the season.

Let’s take a run through the West’s congested middle class and consider one big question facing every team from No. 5 through No. 12 as they sprint into the stretch run. We’ll split them up into two pieces — four teams Wednesday, four more Thursday — starting with the defending champs.

Golden State Warriors (36-33, No. 5 seed): Whither Andrew Wiggins?

Everybody knows about Golden State’s ludicrous home/road splits — 29-7 at Chase Center, 7-26 elsewhere — which loom exceptionally large for a Warriors team that, barring a late surge that allows them to overtake the now Kevin Durant-less Suns (just one game up in fourth place!), won’t have home-court advantage in any Western series. One of the main drivers of that dramatic difference, though, is a wild variation in the quality of the defense that, for all the long-distance audacity and charcuterie-inspired innovation, has long been the Warriors’ bellwether.

In the Bay, the Dubs have given up 108.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — the third-stingiest home mark in the NBA, behind only Memphis and Cleveland. Away from the friendly confines, though, that has plunged all the way to 120.6 points-per-100, which is third-worst, ahead of only tanking San Antonio and Houston.

Whatever you peg as the source of that schism — Stephen Curry, for one, finds himself at a loss, though you could do worse than starting at the relative randomness of opponents shooting nearly 41% from 3-point range against Golden State in their own gyms compared to 32.4% from deep at Chase Center — it’s clear that for the Warriors to have any chance of defending their championship, they’re going to have to defend like champions. And their best chance of doing that starts with getting their No. 1 perimeter defender back on the floor.

Wiggins’ combination of length (6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan), strength, quickness and discipline makes him head coach Steve Kerr’s top choice to lock onto opponents’ top perimeter creators — a role he played beautifully throughout the 2022 postseason, harassing the likes of Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum in Golden State’s run to another ring. Even in what’s been a rollercoaster campaign, the Warriors’ defense has been elite whenever Wiggins has shared the court with Draymond Green. Golden State has allowed just 109.5 points-per-100 in Draymond-Wiggins minutes this season, a mark that leads the league over the course of the full season, turning opponents’ water off whether they line up in downsized looks that bump Draymond to center and Wiggins to the 4, in mix-and-match sub lineups, or in their league-best starting five alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and stalwart Kevon Looney.

We haven’t seen that look in more than a month, though, as Wiggins has stepped away from the team to tend to an undisclosed family matter. The Warriors have kept close counsel on his absence, offering support to him privately without sharing details publicly. General manager Bob Myers said during a recent radio interview that Wiggins missing the rest of the season isn’t “what anybody is planning for,” and Kerr said earlier this week that “the hope” is that the 28-year-old swingman will suit up again this season.

“If he’s able to come back, then that would be great,” Kerr said. “And if not, then that’s the case, and whatever happens, we handle it accordingly.”

But with returning champion Gary Payton II still yet to take the floor after his drama-infused trade deadline reacquisition and surprise rotation piece Anthony Lamb now back in the G League having reached the end of his two-way availability, replacing Wiggins in the heat of the postseason wouldn’t be easy. It’d require more of Thompson (who’s been sensational since his slow start to the season) and Donte DiVincenzo playing up a position, and Jonathan Kuminga continuing the on-ball growth he’s shown throughout his sophomore campaign, and another wing — possibly the just-returned 39-year-old Andre Iguodala, possibly lightly used youngster Moses Moody — shouldering a larger-than-anticipated share of minutes, at a minimum.

Golden State could “handle it accordingly” if Wiggins doesn’t make his way back — if we’ve learned nothing else over the years, we should by now understand that through Steph, all things are possible — but it feels like the Warriors’ best chance of consistently producing a championship-level defense will come with Wiggins back in the fold and on the floor.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Kawhi Leonard #2, Paul George #13 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the LA Clippers celebrate after a timeout during the first half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Crypto.com Arena on February 28, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard need to get the Clippers' defense together. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Clippers (36-33, No. 6 seed): How does Ty Lue get his defense back?

Early in the season, the problem with the Clippers — well, besides the fact that Kawhi Leonard wasn’t playing — was that they couldn’t get buckets. But despite dismal shooting, an allergy to dribble penetration and shots at the rim, and an alarming affinity for live-ball turnovers, the Clips stayed afloat, thanks to a swarming defense that ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed per possession on Dec. 31.

The last two-and-a-half months, though, have effectively been the photo negative of L.A.’s start to the season. With Leonard now back to (mostly) full-time work and looking like the destroyer of worlds he was before his ACL tear — just under 28 points, 6.5 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game over his last 25 outings on 53/49/91 shooting splits — the Clippers have scored nearly six more points-per-100 since the calendar flipped to 2023 than they did through the first 31 games. But those gains have been offset by severe slippage on the other end, where Lue’s squad has dipped to 25th in defensive efficiency — far below the standard you’d expect for a team featuring Leonard, Paul George and a host of 3-and-D wings in what was purported to be the most switchable, smothering, amoebic attack in the land.

As with the Warriors, 3-point shooting tells some of the tale: Opponents have drilled 40.3% of their triples against the Clips since Jan. 1, the highest mark in the league in that span, compared to just 34.7% through the end of 2022. It’s not just shooting variance, though. The problems start at the point of attack; only five teams have given up blow-bys on drives to the basket more often than L.A. in this span, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Those clear runways have led to a ton of damage on the interior. Opponents have shot 69% at the rim against the Clippers over this stretch, effectively stampeding to the basket whenever center Ivica Zubac (who recently missed four games with a calf strain) isn’t plugging up the middle. Trade-deadline arrival Mason Plumlee has produced in other areas, but not there; he’s got six blocks in his first 10 games as a Clipper, with opponents shooting 61.8% against him on up-close tries since coming over from Charlotte.

Combine struggles stopping the ball up top in the half-court and a lack of rim protection behind it with ongoing shoot-yourself-in-the-foot cough-ups that create fast breaks for the opponent and land you at the bottom of the league in transition defense — only the Hawks have committed a higher rate of live-ball turnovers, according to PBPstats — and you’ve got a recipe for the kind of play that doesn’t typically lead to a long postseason stay.

None of the Clippers’ core lineups has consistently gotten stops; then again, given all the injuries, load management and overall rotational upheaval in L.A., you’d be within your rights to wonder if the Clippers even really have core lineups. With Reggie Jackson now in Denver, they have just one five-man unit that’s played at least 100 minutes this season: Leonard, George, Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr. and Terance Mann. That was the starting lineup … until Russell Westbrook came to town. And that hasn’t even gone badly! It’s just that integrating him midstream — while also onboarding Plumlee, Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland, and losing sixth man Norman Powell to a shoulder injury, as expected defensive contributors like Robert Covington just kind of hang out waiting — represented yet another instance of disruption for a team that seems to be in dire need of some continuity.

“I still need to see some more,” Lue recently told reporters when asked if he’d yet developed a sense of which of his potential lineup combinations worked best. “I do like the group that we’ve had, the only consistency we’ve had this year — the last couple of years — has been Marcus, Kawhi, PG and Zu. That’s the only consistency we’ve got right now, and so we’ve got to continue to keep working with that.”

That quartet has outscored opponents by a strong 7.7 points-per-100 this season, defending well and scoring like gangbusters. If Leonard and George keep playing the way they’ve been, if all four stay healthy — always an adventurous hypothetical for this team — and if Lue can pick the right situation-dependent fifth man from a group that includes Westbrook, Mann, Powell and Nicolas Batum, then maybe the Clippers can turn into the team they thought they’d be in time to make a real run. If you’re thinking that’s an awful lot of “ifs,” though … well, you’re not alone.

Minnesota Timberwolves (35-34, No. 7 seed): When will KAT come out of the bag?

This one isn’t particularly clever, I’ll grant. But it does seem like a pretty big deal that Karl-Anthony Towns — the Wolves’ All-NBA centerpiece and supermax-contract-haver — has been out since just after Thanksgiving, that it’s now almost St. Patrick’s Day, that the Wolves have 13 games left in their season, and we’re still sort of unsure when we might see him again.

The calf strain that completely wrecked Towns’ season marked a premature pause in Minnesota’s attempt to pair him with fellow All-Star center Rudy Gobert in a twin towers frontcourt that could, in theory, augment last season’s elite offense with a just-add-water elite defense. That pairing, as you might remember, looked awkward and uncomfortable early in the season, in precisely the way their many detractors projected; the Wolves started 10-11, struggling to find any lineups that could both score and defend at a level commensurate with their lofty preseason ambitions.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Wolves have cobbled together a pretty decent season in Towns’ absence. They’re tied for the West’s third-best record and since Jan. 1, with a near-top-five defense in that span, fueled in part by emerging perimeter stopper Jaden McDaniels. But even with Gobert and McDaniels backstopping the defense, and with Anthony Edwards ascending to All-Star status as the unquestioned No. 1 option with KAT sidelined, the Wolves have remained challenged at generating and cashing in good looks; they score at a bottom-10 clip, and that drops to bottom-two when Edwards is off the court.

With D’Angelo Russell — the close friend with whom Towns partnered during last season’s playoff push — now gone, replaced by the low-key, low-usage Mike Conley, Chris Finch’s club desperately needs more firepower, as evidenced by games like last Tuesday’s blowout loss to the 76ers, in which Edwards popped for 32 points on 12-for-24 shooting, while the rest of the starting lineup managed just 22 points on 25 shots. That’s not to denigrate Conley, who’s posted a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a Wolf and in whose minutes Minnesota’s offense has fared significantly better since the trade deadline; still, though, any injection of juice and shot creation would be a real plus. A returning Towns, the best big-man shooter in the game and a plus playmaker who also became a driving menace last season, would be a massive shot in the arm.

It’s not totally clear, though, when Towns will be ready to provide it. He progressed last week to being “able to do some “‘live-action’ basketball activities,” according to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune, but those activities evidently consisted of “working with player development coaches doing drills either against no or very little defensive resistance” — a step in the right direction, certainly, but also a far cry from “going through any five-on-five practice.” Which, as of the start of the week, he’d yet to be cleared to do.

If and when he gets there, Minnesota’s medical staff might mandate a minutes restriction at first; perhaps Finch would do well to look to ease him back into action off the bench. As we saw earlier this season with Khris Middleton in Milwaukee, an All-NBA-caliber source of offense can do some real damage against opposing second units, even in limited minutes. That look would also allow Finch to minimize the share of minutes the Wolves play with both bigs on the court — an alignment that produced a dismal 107.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, an offensive efficiency mark several miles beneath Charlotte’s league-worst attack, and that forced Towns to defend opposing 4s outside the paint, a task to which he often seemed ill-suited early in the season.

There would be problems to solve — including how to reintegrate Towns without unduly minimizing Kyle Anderson, who’s been pretty damn good next to Gobert in his stead — and not much time to do it. Whatever speed bumps there might be, though, KAT’s sheer offensive talent can’t get back on the court soon enough for a team that badly needs another source of offense for its postseason push and that has invested so much in the theory that Towns/Gobert can work.

“Regardless of what happens between here and the rest of the season, getting KAT with this group is such a priority, just to see what we have,” Finch told reporters last week, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “I wouldn’t say it’s not worth it unless we were to fall completely out of the race. But even at that point, we need to discover for offseason evaluation, tweaking, strategy, game plan, whatever it might be, we got to see what this thing looks like.”

Dallas Mavericks (34-35, No. 9 seed): Can the Mavs do anything but try to win shootouts?

It didn’t take a genius to see that the Kyrie Irving trade might present some defensive issues for a Dallas team that ranked just 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per possession at the time of the deal. (I know this because some Extreme Not-Genius wrote just that on Yahoo Sports!) The hope was that pairing Irving and Luka Doncic would result in an offense explosive and overwhelming enough to overcome any deficiencies on the other end, and that Jason Kidd and his coaching staff would be able to find some way to beg, borrow, steal or scheme their way to an average-ish-enough defense to let Dallas’ new power couple carry the day.

So, about that: The Mavs are 5-9 since the trade, and just 3-6 with the two stars in the lineup. And while they have lit up the scoreboard with Doncic and Irving on the floor together — a scorching 124.2 points-per-100, head and shoulders above the league’s best full-season mark — the 232 minutes they’ve shared haven’t been enough to lift Dallas out of the doldrums. Kidd’s club has given up 118.6 points-per-100 since the trade, 25th in that span, and are now closer to missing the play-in tournament than they are to rising up to sixth. (Luka and Kyrie both missing the last two games hasn’t helped matters.)

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 08: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts to a fan during the second quarter of an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on March 08, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The Mavs are 5-9 since acquiring Kyrie Irving. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

With former top perimeter defender Dorian Finney-Smith now in Brooklyn, the Mavs can’t contain the ball, allowing blow-bys on drives nearly as often as the aforementioned Clippers and posting the NBA’s third-worst foul rate since the Kyrie deal. Once the ball gets into the lane, it meets little resistance: Dallas is giving up more points in the paint than anybody but the Spurs, Hawks and Pacers, and allowing opponents to shoot a whopping 74.1% at the rim, worse than anybody but the Magic.

When the Mavs try to throw more bodies at the problem, bringing early help and double-teams, they leave themselves wide open to swing-swing sequences that create wide-open, high-value looks. Corner threes account for nearly 11% of Dallas opponents’ shots since the Kyrie deal, up from 9.5% before it. And as important a defender as Maxi Kleber has been over the years, the hope that his return from a torn hamstring would solve Dallas’ persistent defensive woes always seemed awfully optimistic; the Mavs have been more permissive with him on the floor than off it since he came back.

This is what you get when you play lineups that are, on balance, smaller than the opposition at just about every position, and do it without ratcheting up the ball pressure to a Raptors/Heat/Grizzlies level of havoc-wreaking. (Dallas is 20th in opponent turnover rate for the season, and 24th since the Irving deal.) But if the Mavs’ broader strategic imperative is to try to blow teams’ doors off and hope for the best, then why only play Christian Wood — who averaged 20.3 points per game on 51.6% shooting in the month he spent as a starter before breaking his thumb, who might be Dallas’ third-best offensive player, and whose status as an unrestricted free agent come season’s end makes him kind of a fascinating actor in the Mavs’ ongoing drama — 19 minutes a night off the bench since he came back? Yes, absolutely, Wood’s defensive work can leave plenty to be desired … but on this team, at this time, isn’t that kind of more of a feature than a bug?

I’m not sure that upping Wood’s playing time or switching on the fly to a more aggressive blitzing/trapping scheme on ball screens will really matter all that much to the ultimate fate of the 2022-23 Mavericks; if you’re a below-.500 team with a month left in the season, chances are you’re not likely to linger long once the second season starts. But if the goal really is just to try to outscore everybody, then Kidd might as well roll the dice, and he might as well not wait. No sense in only damning half your torpedoes.