After running down the Eastern Conference a few days ago, here’s the Western Conference from top to bottom. Last season, I really believed that the Houston Rockets were the team to unseat the Lakers. Well, they ended up being the team that came closest, taking L.A. to 7 games in the playoffs, but nothing could untrack Kobe’s big ride to the trophy. With this year be any different?
1. Los Angeles Lakers- Ok, I’m a believer. I said before last season that the Lakers needed Ron Artest to get over the top before he found his way to Houston. Well, now they have him, and they didn’t have to give up Lamar Odom to get him. This team is a prohibitive favorite out West, which means they’ll probably lose. But if all goes well, and injuries stay away, they should be able to return to the NBA Finals for the third year running.
2. San Antonio Spurs- In my mind, this is the only team in the West that has a chance of beating the Lakers in the playoffs. They are significantly stronger, and deeper, after a fantastic off-season that saw them add, among others, Richard Jefferson for some used, worn-out parts. The new depth should allow the Spurs to better manage the minutes of their big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, hopefully getting all three in one piece for the playoffs. With the problems the Lakers have with physical teams and especially super-quick point guards (see: Aaron Brooks last season), if all goes well, they have a very real shot at getting back the crown.
3. Dallas Mavericks- The conference muddles up a bit after the top two. I’m picking Dallas here in a hard-fought battle with the next two teams. The Mavs have Dirk Nowitzki, the most unappreciated great player in the league, and pretty good depth. Sure, their guards couldn’t defend a fire hydrant, but neither can the Laker point guards. While the top two teams will likely get into 60 wins, the rest of the pack will be well behind.
4. Denver Nuggets- Last season was a great ride for Denver. Chauncey Billups’ arrival heralded a new beginning for a talented team, Carmelo Anthony showed some maturity (and willingness to play defense), J.R. Smith developed into possibly a great all-around player, Chris Andersen emerged from purgatory, and Nene and Kenyon Martin stayed healthy (mostly) all season. The core group remains intact, but the loss of Dahntay Jones and Linus Kleiza takes a big chunk out of their depth. And don’t expect the injury free ride to continue indefinitely. Still, they’ll be pretty good, sometimes great, but they missed their best chance to reach the finals last year.
5. Portland Trailblazers- For the third season running, Portland is a team everyone expects will rise up to contend. It says here that they’ll (again) be a middle of the pack playoff team. I don’t believe Greg Oden will ever be what he was supposed to, they’ve already lost a key component in Nic Batum (particularly defensively) to injury, and I don’t see how Andre Miller fits in. Still, they’re easily a 50 + win team, and can get to the second round before getting stomped by the real contenders.
6. Utah Jazz- At some point this season, Utah will find a taker for malcontent Carlos Boozer. Deron Williams will further show that he’s the real deal, and the Jazz will once again be a team no one wants to play come playoff time. Jerry Sloan always has them ready to play, it’s just that the talent level doesn’t match the elite clubs any more.
7. Phoenix Suns- Barring major in-season trades of Amare Stoudemire and/or Steve Nash, the reconstituted run-and-gun Suns will continue to win more games than they lose. With the lower portion of this conference in an obvious decline over the past couple of years, that will mean a return to the playoffs before an off-season make-over.
8. Houston Rockets- I know, Yao Ming is out for the years and Tracy McGrady likely much of it. Plus, the return from major knee surgery seldom works so quickly, but I still think the Rockets have enough to eek back into the playoffs. Remember, two years ago, this team won 22 straight games without Yao. By the end of the season, the Rockets will be a tough out for whichever top flight team lands them in the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies- I am an Allen Iverson fan. There, I said it. With A.I., O.J. Mayo, and Rudy Gay, this team has enough firepower to approach .500 and toy with the playoffs in a weakened conference, in spite of Zach Randolph.
New Orleans Hornets- Chris Paul is amazing. How long before this team starts to shed everyone else not nailed down?
Oklahoma City Thunder- Youth does some pretty incredible things, like bringing this black hole of a team back to respectability. Kevin Durant is a star. We’ll just have to wait a little longer to see him show it in the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors- That upset of Dallas in the playoffs seems like forever ago. Now, the Warriors are a mis-matched collection of unfittable parts. Let the trades begin, starting with Stephen Jackson.
Minnesota Timberwolves- A newly svelte Al Jefferson and talented young point guard Johnny Flynn does not a playoff team make, especially when last season’s rookie sensation Kevin Love is already out with injuries.
L.A. Clippers- Poor Blake Griffin. The Clipper curse got him already with a broken kneecap before he even played a real game. What lottery pick joins him next year?
Sacramento Kings- Worst team in the league. Enough said.
Ok, now that I’ve run down both conferences, here’s my picks for how it breaks down come playoff time. In the East, the Celtics will get back to the Finals by dispatching Orlando and Cleveland on the way. Out West, the Spurs and Lakers will both cruise to a titanic battle in the conference finals, won by San Antonio in seven. (Yes, I’m picking the Lakers to lose again. I haven’t really leaned my lesson.) In the NBA Finals, the Spurs will win in 6 with Tony Parker taking home the Finals MVP award.