Have the Lakers hit their stride? Burning questions in the NBA’s West

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In the NBA’s Western Conference, there are more questions than answers at the start of the first round.

While Denver and Memphis have been 1-2 for much of the season – and they have earned it, without question – the landscape of the conference surrounding thoseteams changed before and after the February trade deadline.

Phoenix acquired Kevin Durant in a blockbuster deal. While Dallas traded for Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks fell out of postseason contention, meaning no Luka Doncic in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers made several moves before the trade deadline, and Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins is expected to make his return after sitting out since Feb. 13 due to a personal matter.

The Los Angeles Clippers have dealt with the availability/unavailability of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all season, and George is questionable for the first round. Memphis’ Ja Morant was suspended for showing off a gun at a Colorado strip club, putting his season in jeopardy.

Let’s take a look at five pressing questions in the West:

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Are the Nuggets for real?

Denver has been building for this moment for the past couple of seasons – putting a healthy team on the court led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. The Nuggets have depth, the fifth-best offense and are eager to see how that plays out in the postseason. However, it still seems like Denver is still an overlooked, underappreciated No. 1 seed. The Nuggets stumbled in the final two weeks of the regular season but don’t forget, they have been atop the West since December. The Nuggets had the best winning percentage in the West against teams .500 or better.

Are the Suns really favored to win the West?

Four seeds normally aren’t favored to win the conference and reach the NBA Finals. Four seeds normally don’t have Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. The Suns are 8-0 when all four play and have an explosive offense that posted 122.3 points per 100 possessions. Phoenix will need stops, and that is an area to watch. But the Suns will outscore most teams regardless of their defense. The Suns acquired Durant at the trade deadline and gave up significant assets. The reason you (specifically new Suns owner Mat Ishbia) make that trade is to win a championship.

Can the Warriors repeat – again?

That woeful 11-30 road record for the Warriors is an eyesore and hard to ignore when mapping out the playoffs. You know what else is difficult to ignore? A roster that features Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and coach Steve Kerr. With four titles in the previous eight seasons, including last season’s championship, the Warriors have too much experience – too much playoff wisdom – to discount, no matter who they are playing. The Warriors, a scary sixth seed, are reminiscent of LeBron James’ Cavaliers: until someone beats Golden State, it is a contender.

Have the Lakers hit their stride?

OK, so the Lakers didn’t exactly secure the seventh seed with a convincing play-in game victory. But they won, and it’s part of a larger trend: the Lakers had the third-most victories and No. 2 defense in the final two months of the regular season. That all happened amid a roster makeover as the Lakers added Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt before the trade deadline. Alongside James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have a deeper, more talented roster that also includes Austin Reaves, Dennis Schroder and Troy Brown Jr. It’s not a perfect rotation, but it’s one that has pieces to compete.

Are the Grizzlies ready for what awaits?

For the most part, Memphis was rolling along this season, near the top of the West standings, including at 31-13, a ½ game behind Denver on Jan. 18. They weathered Desmond Bane’s injury, Morant was having an All-NBA season and Jaren Jackson was making his case for Defensive Player of the Year. But then the Morant gun incident interrupted all the good on the court. Memphis still finished with the No. 2 seed. Yet, with the focus on Morant, the trash-talking the Grizzlies do and an injury to Steven Adams, the Grizzlies are about to find out what they’re made of. Dillon Brooks said he wanted to send the Lakers and LeBron packing. Let’s see if Memphis can.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This post appeared first on USA TODAY