Breaking down the Western Conference Play-In teams

Published April 11, 2023, 2:00 PM ● Yoyo Sarmenta

The No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers will take on the No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves while the No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans face off against the No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder. 

A topsy-turvy finish to the regular season brings us an exciting play-in tournament in the Western Conference. 

The winner between the Lakers and Timberwolves will move on to the playoffs while the loser will challenge the victor of the Pelicans and Thunder. 

Which of the teams will come out on top and join the playoffs? Let’s take a closer look at the four squads competing. 

Are the Lakers actually title contenders?

The Lakers were able to salvage their season thanks to a couple of midseason trades. The insertion of abled wing players plus a high-caliber guard in D’Angelo Russell has morphed the once-floundering team into a group that nearly secured a seat in the top six. 

They own the second-best record after the All-Star break (16-7) behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Impressively, the team was able to find success even when LeBron James was still nursing an injury. But the main question for the franchise is: can this group get banner No. 18? Among all the play-in teams, they have the loftiest ambition. 

The Lakers certainly have the tools with Anthony Davis and James at the forefront of their campaign. At the peak of their powers, the two were unstoppable in the 2020 Bubble where they both averaged roughly 27 points per game. Injuries the past three years have hampered this potent combination but there’s no denying that when the duo is at the top of their game, the Lakers always have a better chance of winning. But here’s the rub: can AD and Bron stay healthy for a deep playoff run? 

You’re asking a lot for your other players to play big roles in the postseason especially if LeBron and AD can’t always do the heavy lifting. Playoff wins are often determined by stars but it also comes down to which role players can step up. We have to wait and see if the likes of Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Rui Hachimura, and Austin Reeves are ready to take their games to the next level.

The Lakers can certainly come out of the play-in tournament given their retooled roster and Hall of Fame-bound stars. Losing twice in the play-in or even a first-round exit will be nothing short of a disappointment for this franchise. 

Can the Timberwolves figure themselves out before it’s too late?

It seems that the Timberwolves have more problems than thinking just about their play-in matchups. Their regular-season finale turned out to be an eye-opening moment for the franchise. 

Minnesota has been the talk of the town because of the midgame altercation between Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson. We’ve seen teammates get into heated arguments all the time but this encounter carries more weight considering the franchise essentially gave up its future for an All-Star center only to see him punch a teammate in a very important game and have him sent home. 

And beyond the scuffle with Anderson, the Timberwolves have yet to maximize Gobert alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. These two were supposed to be the new twin towers in Minnesota but an injury to KAT early in the season has left more questions than answers. They’ve played only 27 games together this year. Can they figure things out in one or two games in the play-in?

Another punch (pun intended) to the gut for the Timberwolves is the loss of Jaden McDaniels for the season after punching a wall and fracturing his hand. McDaniels is an elite defender who can defend the best on the perimeter. 

It’s a shame that the Timberwolves are limping their way to the postseason especially since Anthony Edwards just had an All-Star season. 

Do the Pelicans have enough firepower?

The Pelicans were one of the feel-good, surprising teams in last year’s postseason. They defeated the San Antonio Spurs and the LA Clippers to get into the playoffs and gave the Phoenix Suns a run for their money in the first round. 

In his first playoff series, Brandon Ingram averaged 27.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting (40.7 percent from deep), 6.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists in six games. He also got to the line nearly eight times per contest. Not bad for his playoff debut. 

This season, Ingram is putting up a career-high 24.7 points while owning an efficient 48.4 percent shooting clip. The caveat is that he’s only played a career-low 45 games, mostly due to a toe injury. The good thing if you’re a New Orleans fan is that we’re seeing a more well-rounded version of Ingram over the last month. He had his first career-triple double against the Hornets then followed it up with another one versus the Nuggets a week later.

CJ McCollum should be able to work alongside Ingram well but the team still lacks the star power to compete in the playoffs. This is where the loss of Zion Williamson hurts them. The former No. 1 pick has logged in only 29 games this year. He still has no timetable for his return because of a hamstring injury. 

The Pelicans are still a good up-and-coming team like they were a season ago. However, it’ll be another uphill climb for them this year. 

Can SGA will the Thunder towards the playoffs?

There is certainly a lot of buzz coming out of Oklahoma City. They currently have a young solid core who will only get better. They have yet to incorporate No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren and still have a lot of first-round picks to play around with for next season. The future remains incredibly bright for one of the youngest teams in the league. 

But focusing on the now, all eyes will be on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and how he’ll lead this group in the postseason. The Thunder may be the 10th seed but SGA can singlehandledy win them a game or two to burst into the playoffs. 

SGA was only one of six players in the entire league who averaged at least 30 points a game this season. His shooting splits were 51/34/90 in an incredible display of marksmanship. He’s proficient in the midrange and one of the top players who can get into the free throw line. 

It’s a long shot for the Thunder to get into the playoffs. It’ll all rest on the young shoulders of SGA.