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N.B.A Western Conference Preview: The Return of ‘Beautiful Basketball’

The Lakers were a smoldering mess by the start of the playoffs last season. LeBron James was run down. Anthony Davis kept getting hurt. The result was a first-round loss to the upstart Phoenix Suns in a generational battle that went in favor of youth.

If that loss seemed to signal that the Lakers ought to consider getting a little younger, well, they lumbered off in the opposite direction. James, operating as de facto general manager, opened up his Brentwood manse to a series of potential recruits this summer. The new-look Lakers now feature the likes of Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, an old friend in Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers are — what’s the word? — experienced. If they can keep their appendages intact, they could challenge for their second title in three seasons. But that’s a big if. Five players on the roster are at least 35 years old, including the 36-year-old James.

— Scott Cacciola

There’s no timeline for Kawhi Leonard’s return from a partial anterior cruciate ligament tear sustained against Phoenix in last season’s Western Conference finals. The Clippers are still brimming with talent without him, but do they have enough to make noise in the West?

Paul George carried Los Angeles through nearly two playoff rounds without Leonard last season, dispelling growing beliefs that he could no longer lead a team by himself. This year, he will need Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris to repeat their fruitful production from the last postseason.

Since then, the Clippers have traded Patrick Beverley for Eric Bledsoe, and Serge Ibaka is expected back from injury. Although it will be tough to compensate for Leonard’s scoring and defense, Coach Tyronn Lue should have enough to work with. Without Leonard in a stacked West, though, the Clippers are likely to fall short of an N.B.A. title, again.

— Alanis Thames

Klay Thompson has not played basketball in public in quite a while. In the roughly two years since he went down with a knee injury in the 2019 finals, the Raptors, Lakers and Bucks have won championships, a pandemic has gripped the globe and Thompson ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon in a workout before the start of last season, delaying his return by about another year. Golden State, it should be noted, has not won many games in his absence.

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