Roundtable: Who From the West Is Set to Breakout?
Last week, we did an OTG roundtable on Eastern Conference players set to breakout. Naturally, we can’t leave the West Coast fans hanging. The Western Conference is stacked with talent and the standings are more chaotic than rush hour traffic in a major city. Tons of teams need elevated play to solidify a playoff spot, so here are our Western Conference breakout players.
Evan Dyal - @EvanDyal
Give me Damian Lillard. Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers have quietly been playing their best basketball of the season. Lillard wants to make the playoffs desperately, and would love to avoid the Houston Rockets or the Golden State Warriors in the first round, and he will do whatever it takes to get them to at least sixth in the West. Lillard has already been spectacular recently with two 40 points games in his last four games, a 12 assists game and a game-winner. Portland's schedule is brutal down the stretch and to win some tough games Lillard will have to be at his best. I expect him to rise to the occasion and put on some breathtaking performances. In February he averaged 31.4 points per game on 48 percent shooting, and barely anyone noticed. Don't be surprised to see another 50 point game or a couple 40 pieces from Dame. He's fully locked in right now and playing the best basketball of his career.
Jake Hirsohn - @JakeHirsohn
Jimmy Butler is out indefinitely and, out of nowhere, the Minnesota Timberwolves first playoff berth in 14 years is in question.
Luckily, Karl-Anthony Towns is still on the team. Unfortunately, sharing the floor with ball stoppers like Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and Jamal Crawford — along with Towns’ own issues with assertiveness — will probably hinder his chances to put up gaudy, Anthony Davis-esque stat lines.
Still, Towns is ridiculously effective, no matter how involved in the offense he is. For proof, look no further than his performance against the Sacramento Kings Monday night, when he put up 26 points on only ten shots.
The Wolves really, really can’t afford to miss the playoffs after already coming this far. Their best chance at keeping pace is to empower their best remaining player, and the future of their franchise. I’m guessing he’s up to the challenge.
Dominic Roney - @DomRoney
Ever since getting moved into the starting lineup earlier this season, 2nd year guard, Dejounte Murray has been quite the surprise for the depleted San Antonio Spurs. Murray first caught serious attention when he almost recorded a triple-double against the Cleveland Cavaliers back in mid-January, with 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 7 steals. Since then, Murray has solidified himself as a quick, shifty, high flying point guard that can do a little bit of everything. It seems the Spurs haven’t been able to keep their veteran presence healthy and have relied a lot more heavily on their up-and-coming talent, led by Murray. Throughout the month of February, Dejounte Murray has averaged 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists. This is more than double the statline he achieved in his rookie season last year. (3 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound.) This guard has begun to prove how high his ceiling really is and he’s only scratching the surface of his long term ability. As the season rounds it’s final corner, keep an eye out for this crafty young talent, as he will likely be putting on a show.
Jac Manuell - @TheJManJBT
KAT is going to be instrumental in ensuring the Minnesota Timberwolves make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. His All-Star teammate, Jimmy Butler is set to be out for an extended period of time after undergoing meniscus surgery, so Towns is going to have to pick up the slack. He certainly has the talent to do so being one of the game’s premier big men despite his relative youth (22 years old).
Coach Thibs has nothing to be worried about in terms of KAT picking up the slack on the offensive end, it’ll be the defensive end he’ll need to lift. He’s shown glimpses of talent on that end of the floor since college, but his consistency remains an issue. With Butler being Minnesota’s anchor on both ends of the floor, Towns is going to have to step up on the defensive side, not only for his own good, but for his team’s postseason hopes too.
If this is anything to go by he should be just fine:
Ryan Wheeler - @Mrwheeler18
On a February 23rd loss to the Houston Rockets, Jimmy Butler had to be carried off the floor after a non-contact knee injury. The non-contact ones are the scariest - when the body just breaks, reminiscent of Shaun Livingston, Chris Webber, and more. Butler is the clear leader of the young Timberwolves and the main reason for their rapid improvement this season. The T-Wolves are currently 4th in the Western Conference standings but are right in the muck of every team outside of Houston and Golden State. If Minnesota hopes to stay in the playoff race they will need someone to step up in a big way and the most likely candidate is Andrew Wiggins. KAT is already an All-Star putting up monster numbers, Wiggins has to be a better running mate for the multi-dimensional center up North. Wiggins is averaging 17 points and 4 rebounds a game which look like decent numbers until you dig further. His PER is 12.9 and he is only shooting 31% from 3. He also seems to be a terrible passer averaging only 1.7 assists and assisting on only 7.3% of made baskets while he is on the floor. For Minnesota to contend, Wiggins needs to step up in a significant way on both ends of the floor. He has more than enough talent to take a leap and has the experience of watching Jimmy Butler be a beast all over the floor. The time is now for Andrew Wiggins to shake off the passive 3rd scorer role and become the two-way force like he was projected to be coming out of Kansas.
Musaab Nadeem - @mnadeem824
Andrew Wiggins is due for a big finish to the year. With the addition of Jimmy Butler this season, Andrew’s scoring average has dropped from 23.6 ppg last year to 17.7 this year. Andrew has kind of faded into the Wolves’ background this season as the focus has been on the Wolves’ two All-Stars. However, when Butler was out for four games in January, Andrew averaged 25.8 ppg and had his season-high of 40. Now that Butler is out for multiple weeks, Andrew has the chance to step up in the Wolves’ offense and reinsert himself as one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming scorers. In the few games that Butler has been out recently, Andrew has been averaging 22.5 ppg and his shooting has gone up to 54%, as opposed to 44% on the year with Butler in the lineup. Andrew clearly can handle taking on a bigger offensive load, and the chance to be a key element in the Wolves’ offense down the stretch of the regular season should give him plenty of confidence heading into the playoffs.
Kory Waldron - @Kwalhoops
The Oklahoma City Thunder can beat anyone, as we saw in their two win against the Golden State Warriors.
Russell Westbrook is still just as great as last year, andPaul George has become a great number two option. Steven Adams is one of the most reliable centers in the game and the glue in OKC. Then there's Melo, let's be real, we all expected a lot more. Well, I did, I was all in on the Knicks being a trash scenario (which it was) & hoodie Melo would rise from the flames to become the third option out in OKC. What a thought right? Future hall of famer, elite scorer as a third option?!?! Unfortunately, Melo has just not found it fully, we've seen glimpses and moments where Melo looks to have found himself. Lately, there's been more talk from media members on his play. He's averaging a career low 16.9 points per game and a career worse 40.8 FG%. It hasn't been his year, but Melo doesn't need to be prime Melo. He just has to hit his shots and let the offense come to him, have his presence felt so it's another threat opposing defenses have to fear. When the Thunder are at their best it's when, shockingly, Westbrook & George lead the way, Adams records a double-double and Melo is efficient. This final stretch of the season for me is watching to see if Melo can breakout out of his old habits and become a lethal, efficient third option.