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Is a Lakers-Clippers Western Conference finals inevitable?

For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. As teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.

You can count on one hand the number of players who have gone toe-to-toe with Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James in the playoffs over the past 15 years. Only two of them will be on the court in the NBA’s bubble, and they have joined forces on his chief Western Conference rival.

In 2013 and 2014, when James was at his peak, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard respectively played consecutive Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals against the four-time MVP, finishing with a 12-13 record, including a pair of seven-game series. Nobody else but Kevin Durant has come so close over the past decade to unseating James as the game’s most dominant two-way player.

Their matchups have delivered some of the most breathtaking basketball we have seen in recent memory, and with any luck they will give us another series with Anthony Davis thrown into the mix.

Actually, it feels less like luck and more like inevitability. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Lakers and Clippers share 81 percent of the odds of winning the Western Conference finals. The Houston Rockets have a 13 percent chance, and no other team has better than a 3 percent shot.

Same goes for the casinos. The Lakers and Clippers are far and away the favorites to reach the conference finals, per BetMGM. Houston’s long-shot odds are between three and four times as high as the two L.A. teams, and no other West team is given better than a 14-to-1 shot of making it.

Statistical analyses yield similar projections. The Lakers and Clippers are the only two teams in the West to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, generally a predictor of playoff success. The only other team with a net rating within three points per 100 possessions of either L.A. team is the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks, who since losing starting center Dwight Powell to a season-ending injury have dipped closer to a pack that also includes Houston, Utah and Denver.

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