The other day, I looked at the NBA’s Eastern Conference and it’s relative lack of depth. Today, it’s the West and it’s over-abundance of good teams. In fact, there are only two teams out of 15 that I couldn’t conceive of any possible chance at making a playoff run. Every other team has either the pieces in place or the potential to get it done. Not that they all will, and there are a couple dominoes left to fall in terms of possible big-names on the trade market, but here is an early look at how I see the West shaping up.
15. New Orleans Hornets- This is a team that, if they keep Chris Paul and the young guys improve, could sneak into the lower area of the playoffs. They did a great job playing without Paul last season. But they have a rookie coach, a rookie GM, and the scuttlebutt is that Paul is fed up and wants out now. Either traded or disgruntled, without a top-flight Paul on the floor, these guys have no chance at the playoffs. I expect a bad trade that nets them very little in return for Paul, the young guys to regress a bit when faced with having to carry the franchise and things to get a whole lot worse in New Orleans before they get better.
14. Golden State Warriors- With Don Nelson still ruling the roost, these guys are going nowhere fast. Monta Ellis may soon find himself elsewhere, David Lee’s production is certain to fall off a bit, and the Warriors are pretty clearly going to be the worst team in the Conference’s worst division this year. Hopefully for them, another bad, directionless season might signal the end of Nellie.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves- This is the other team that has absolutely no possibility of seeing playoff basketball under any scenario. They’ve gone from a team that had little talent to one full of career underachievers, like Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley and Martell Webster. If guys like Kevin Love and Johnny Flynn continue to grow and one of the before-mentioned threesome decides to actually play up the their potential, and if Ricky Rubio come to the NBA next year, and if he is some sort of other-worldly immediate superstar, then they might be able to talk about being a .500 team in 2011-12. But this year, it’s another likely top five lottery pick.
12. Denver Nuggets- Has anyone noticed how old and mediocre this team really is? Without George Karl late last season, they went completely belly-up. If Karl either can’t go or has to step away again this year, these guys are toast. Melo is likely to want out with other high-profile superstars grouping in different places around the league. Billups is another one who could be traded to a contender. Everyone else on the roster is either a role-player or a major injury risk. This team could go south and get that way in a hurry. Still, the 12th spot out West is probably good for at least 40 wins, though.
11. Memphis Grizzlies- I’m just not sold on Memphis. Sure, they had a great first half last year and held it together enough to finish at .500, but really, can we expect Zack Randolph to get through another complete season looking and playing like an actual all-star? Rudy Gay is a solid player who was somewhat overpaid, but that is understandable. O.J. Mayo is 22 and still figuring it out, although he could be a big star in the next couple years. And I love Marc Gasol. An actual physical European center. They have a couple pieces that have solid future potential, but lightning doesn’t strike twice that often. Without another fast start, Memphis regresses a bit from last year. But just a bit.
10. Sacramento Kings- Go big, young man. If DeMarcus Cousins is for real–and in my eyes, all signs point toward yes, he is–then the Kings have a young inside/outside duo potentially better than anyone else in the league sooner than later. They drafted size, traded for size and seem to have a plan. Bang down low, do all of the dirty work and rely on a slashing guard who can do it all. Sounds good to me. They won’t get into the playoffs this year, but in three years time, OKC-Sacramento Western Conference Finals matchups could become a regular occurrence.
9. Portland Trailblazers- The last team out of the playoffs. Realistically, how many years is everyone going to keep saying, “this is the season Portland puts it all together.” Is Brandon Roy healthy and going to stay that way? Is Greg Oden a complete bust and will he ever stay on the floor for enough games for anyone to find out? Will Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum or Jerryd Bayless step up and fulfill predictions of greatness that guys like Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster before them were unable to? Why, again, did they sign Andre Miller, a complete mis-match as a point guard for this team? But the biggest questions of all are, now that GM whiz Kevin Pritchard is gone, who will be the first team to fleece the Blazers on the trade market, and is head coach Nate McMillan next out the door?
8. Los Angeles Clippers- That’s right, the Clippers who did nothing in free agency, are going to make the playoffs. If it hadn’t been for all of the roster upheaval due to free agency and the trade market, L.A.’s other team could well get some of the attention it’s going to deserve for being one of the league’s most improved teams. Plus, they still have all that cap space, and some interesting trade chips with guys like Paul and Melo going to be available sooner than later. Baron Davis has been somewhat on auto-pilot, but with all of the young talent all over the court, he may just wake up. Or he could find himself in the middle of some kind of multi-team trade that ends up bringing a Chris Paul or a Tony Parker to town. Whether or not they add a superstar, these guys, much like OKC last year, could get hot and not know any better, riding it into the last playoff position. How about a Lakers-Clippers 1st round matchup?
7. Utah Jazz- The Jazz look to be a mirror image of themselves, replacing Boozer with a lesser version of him in Al Jefferson, and Kyle Korver with a lesser version of himself in Gordon Hayward. AK47 and Mehmet Okur are another year older into their career downslopes. Deron Williams is a bonafide superstar, and he, along with the fact that even a moderately talented Jerry Sloan team will win lots of regular season games on fundamentals alone, should get them into the playoff tournament. But to me, they look even less suited for playoff success than last year.
6. Houston Rockets- If Yao Ming is back and healthy, the Rockets could climb way up the West standings. When, exactly, has that ever happened? They have some nice, versatile pieces in Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza, but without a close to 100% Yao, they are a bottom tier playoff team lacking enough inside punch to be a serious threat in the West.
5. San Antonio Spurs- Much has been written about the demise of the Spurs this season, with many people predicting their eventual fall right out of the playoffs. Well, hold on just a minute. They still have Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. They resigned Richard Jefferson. They have up-and-coming talent like DuJuan Blair and George Hill playing big, important minutes. And now, they’ve finally added the elusive 6′ 11″ European star-to-be Tiago Splitter. This is a bigger, better, deeper, more talented team that the one that knocked off The Mavs last year, and could conceivably be a major roadblock to any team with championship aspirations. If not for the injury risk to their big three, they’d be even higher. Plus, if Hill continues on the upswing, free-agent-to-be Parker becomes a great trade chip for filling needs later this season.
4. Phoenix Suns- The Suns are another team being written off by just about everyone after the loss of Amare Stoudemire. Again, not quite so fast. After adding Hedu Turkoglu and Josh Childress to an already deep roster, this team has the ability to score tons of points and create matchup nightmares against just about anyone. Add to that the fact that Goran Dragic has grown to the point that team icon Steve Nash won’t need to play 40 minutes a night, and the Suns most definitely haven’t set out West. By the end of this season, it’s far more likely that Stoudemire will miss Phoenix much more that they will miss him.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder- Usually, when a young team comes out of nowhere to suddenly make noise, I’m a little leery of whether they can back it up the next season. OKC is an exception. Kevin Durant is a legit MVP-caliber superstar, and this team is loaded with young, improving talent all over the court. And, unlike most young teams, they play hard defense with high energy. They are a serious threat to unseating the Lakers. Maybe they won’t get it done this season, but their day is most definitely coming.
2. Los Angeles Lakers- Okay, so I pick them second, that doesn’t mean they won’t come out of the West or win it all when all is said and done. What it means is that I think they’ll be a little complacent at times during the dog-days of the regular season. Plus, like it or not, Bryant, Artest, Bynum, Fisher, Gasol et al, aren’t getting any younger and it only makes sense to hold them back some when your real goal is to hoist the trophy at the end. They’re still the best team in the league. The only question is can they stay healthy and motivated enough to get it done?
1. Dallas Mavericks- Dallas had the best record in the league last season after the trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. They’ve added size, strength and athleticism, particularly in the post, and they still have superstar Dirk Nowitzki along with Butler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, etc, etc. Now, they can possibly score with the faster teams and match up with the stronger teams. I can easily see them getting the best record in the regular season. I can also see them getting beaten in the playoffs. But unlike the past couple years, whoever does beat them is going to earn it.
So if the playoffs were the top 16 teams in the entire league, it’s possible that the West could feature 10-12 of those teams. As it stands, the West will likely again be a conference 1-8 separated by less than five games. And whoever emerges at the end will head into the NBA Finals tested and ready, unlike the winner of the East, who likely will get to coast through a round or two.