If the Western Conference took the top two teams to play in the conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers (14-5) and Utah Jazz (15-4) would meet in a best of seven series. Out of the NBA, the Lakers and Jazz rank second and third respectively in points allowed per game. This series may not feature a lot of points as both teams would be struggling to find quality shots. Both teams are holding opposing teams to around 44% shooting from the field, so we could expect to see a grind from both offenses.
With that said, both teams are capable of putting up big numbers. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and even Dennis Schroder, the Lakers have three potential 20-point scorers each night. As for the Jazz, nobody can discount the potential of Donovan Mitchell going off any given night, while Rudy Gobert is a rebounding machine. There’s a chance that we could see the Western Conference Finals feature both of these teams, so let’s get a jump on the full comparison.
LeBron & A.D. vs. Mitchell & Rudy
Through 19 games, LeBron is putting up another solid season statistically from the offensive side of the ball. He is averaging 25.2 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. After averaging a double-double in points and assists, as well as leading the league in assists, Lebron doesn’t have to play primary ball-handler anymore. With Dennis Schroder added to the team, the Lakers have a true point guard. This allows LeBron to go back to focusing on finding his shot, which we know can go in at any given moment.
As for Davis, he is averaging the lowest amount of points per game since 2013 but that comes when you add depth to a team. His assist total is the second-highest in his career, which means he is trying to get more guys like Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell involved. He is on pace towards competing for another Defensive Player of the Year award after finishing second last season. Just because his numbers are not as flashy compared to year’s past, doesn’t mean that he is not a top-10 player in this league.
Speaking of flashy, Mitchell’s numbers were off to a slow start compared to his usual production. After shooting poorly to start the year, Mitchell is back up to averaging 23.4 points per game, but also owns career highs in rebounds (4.4) and assists (4.9). We saw Mitchell score over 50 points multiple times in the first round of last year’s playoffs, so we know that he can lead any comeback.
Rudy Gobert is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, who is averaging a career-high in rebounds (13.8) this season. He has secured 18 or more rebounds in a game three times this season. His most recent performance featured 18 points, 19 rebound night against the New York Knicks. No easy basket comes with him in the paint and no easy opportunity for second-chance points comes with him either. With that said, until somebody dethrones the dynamic duo of LeBron and Davis, they get the respect they deserve.
The Lakers were a top-5 team in defensive efficiency last season and nothing has changed after nearly one-third of the season is complete. The Lakers trail the New York Knicks by 0.7 points allowed per game. That all starts with Davis as the anchor. While Marc Gasol starts at center, Montrezl Harrell has closed out games and is proving to be a solid asset to the team on both sides of the floor. As a team, the Lakers allowed 104.5 points per game with only the Knicks (103.8) ahead of them. The Lakers rank seventh in allowed field goal percentage; however, five teams are holding teams to about 44%.
Along with LeBron, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schroder round out the starting lineup. Schroder was the runner-up for Sixth Many of the Year last season and is making the most out of starting. Schroder is averaging 13.6 points and 4.2 assists. His numbers are down from 15 points and 5.0 assists from earlier but they are still quality numbers from a starting point guard. The better surprise is Caldwell-Pope, who is shooting a career-best 50.0% from three-point range, while his overall field goal percentage (52%) is a whole 12-percent higher from last season.
For the Jazz, starting at point guard is the all-time leader in points for the Memphis Grizzlies in Mike Conley. While this may not be an All-Star season for Conley, he is playing near to what his career numbers sport. His 16.5 points, 46% shooting percentage, 3.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.5 steals are all higher than last season. Paired along with Mitchell, the Jazz has two All-Star caliber guards in their backcourt.
Many forget that Bojan Bogdanovic was averaging 20.2 points per game last season before he lost the playoffs due to injury. If he played in the postseason, would the Jazz have lost in Game 7, and would it have been Utah, not Denver, in the Western Conference Finals? At power forward, O’Neall is having the best season in his four-year career, averaging 7.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, while also shooting nearly 50% from the field.
When comparing the lineups, the Jazz makes a great case for a better starting lineup. Conley is currently outplaying Schroder, while Mitchell is the better shooting guard to Caldwell-Pope. Right now, Gobert is the superior center to Gasol, who is averaging the lowest minutes per game in his career. While LeBron and Davis are superstars in their own right, the Jazz holds a better 3-2 hand at the surrounding positions.
Lakers Bench: Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alfonso McKinnie, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Jared Dudley, Montrezl Harrell
Jazz Bench: Shaquille Harrison, Trent Forrest, Jordan Clarkson, Miye Oni, Joe Ingles, Elijah Hughes, Juwan Morgan, Georges Niang, Jerrell Brantley, Derrick Favors, Udoka Azubuike
In the offseason, the Lakers signed former Clippers big man and 2020 Sixth Man of the Year power forward Montrezl Harrell. The 26-year old is coming off a season where he averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. After starting the season with fewer minutes, he has risen towards closing out games. He is averaging just three minutes less per game now and is averaging 7.1 rebounds and shooting 63.1% from the field.
Kyle Kuzma went on a stretch of two straight nights of double-doubles. He is putting in 25 minutes a night and is shooting a career-best 39% from three-point range. Alex Caruso didn’t take the demotion from starting in the NBA Finals to backup point guard badly. He is contributing big minutes and running the offense well when Schroder is not in. Markieff Morris provides a defensive option under the rim. Morris is averaging a career-low in points but plays quality minutes when Davis goes out.
The biggest name on the Jazz bench has to be Jordan Clarkson. The former Laker was once traded to the Cavaliers when the team was contending with LeBron. He recently signed a four-year deal with the Jazz and is producing in a big way in year one. He is averaging a career-high in points (17.2), field goal percentage (47.4%), and rebounds (4.4). Clarkson may not be the front runner for Sixth Man of the Year but you will hear his name by the end of the season as a finalist.
Derrick Favors is a quality backup to Gobert. He provides size and a veteran body that can anchor the defense when Gobert is out. Joe Ingles could be a starter in this league and once started for the Jazz. Now, he can come off the bench with his 40% three-point field goal percentage and provide scoring off the bench. Georges Niang is the last major contributor and plays sporadically at times but for the most part, the Jazz is an eight-man deep team.
The Lakers have more firepower coming off the bench. Clarkson could go point for point with Kuzma but Harrell is the better center than Favors. Caruso’s athletic ability may not be as great as Ingles but he is more viable to the second unit on offense than him. Not to mention, Quinn Cook and Talen Horton-Tucker have shown that they can score 10 points in about 10 minutes if needed but just are used as much because of how much depth is on the Lakers team.
Coach: Frank Vogel vs. Quin Snyder
As a defensive unit in 2020, the Lakers allowed the fourth-fewest points (107.6) per game, allowed the seventh-best three-point shot percentage (34.9%), and held opposing teams to the second-fewest rebounds per game (42.2). The Lakers are a top-3 defensive team once again in the early stages of the season and that is no fluke. What makes Vogel stand out is that he listens to LeBron. Tyron Lue and LeBron worked so well together because there was a mutual trust in their relationship. Vogel has proven that he trusts his superstars in LeBron in Davis. In return, they have bought in on this defensive identity.
Snyder has risen through the ranks of the NBA, once winning a D-League Coach of the Year Award in 2009. Synder works so well in Utah that he has received two different contract extensions. Synder brings a similar vision like Vogel to the Jazz. In the last four seasons, the Jazz has ranked in the top-3 in points allowed per game three times, including tying for No. 1 during the 2017-2018 season. Now that Synder has a true offensive juggernaut in Mitchell, the sky is the limit. The Jazz by far has their best-constructed team in Synder’s tenure. He won with Gordon Hayward but those teams never made a Western Conference Final. Can Synder get the job done this season?
Since Synder has never made it past the second round of the playoffs, the Lakers hold the advantage. Don’t forget that Vogel led the Pacers to an Eastern Conference Final two times in 2013 and 2014.
If the Western Conference Finals started today, this would be a great matchup as long as Bogdanovic stays healthy. The Jazz could have likely made a run last year but his injury decimated the team’s offense, so Mitchell had to score 50 points to keep the team in games. That type of gameplay doesn’t lead to long-term postseason success in most cases. When Bogdanovic plays, the Jazz is a better team offensively, especially with Clarkson leading the second unit rather than playing with the starters.
It’s a toss-up on who the better defensive team is right now. Watching Davis and Gobert battle in the paint would be a great matchup to watch. Would Gobert camp in the post or would he challenge Davis on the wing since he has developed an outside shot? Who would LeBron guard? He could be placed on Mitchell, while Schroder plays defense on Conley, and Caldwell-Pope sticks to Bogdanovic. This series would come down to matchups and who takes advantage. The two teams play for the only time on February 24. Keep an eye out for this potential Western Conference Finals preview.