The Western Conference will still be a tough place to play this season even though it lost a lot of talent to the Eastern Conference. Kobe Bryant is getting older but the Lakers are getting stronger. Kevin Durant may be a little tired this year but he also got a little tougher. The west could have only one or two teams win less than 35 games in my opinion, so let's get to how the playoff picture will stack up and what we can expect from each team?
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Again, Kobe Bryant is a year older, wiser, better, healthier and so is his supporting cast. Since no one really knows how long Andrew Bynum will be out the Lakers are in jeopardy of losing the number one seed to a team that is younger and cares about the regular season a bit more. But the Lake show still has a big enough edge on talent and depth compared to their fellow conference foes so that should be enough to still carry them to number one. Ron Artest will be even better in the triangle this year and with the addition of Matt Barnes the Lakers will have another ball handler with their second unit that can cause matchup problems. This team is a Swiss army knife that plays basketball. They could play Odom, Barnes, Artest, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter together for extended minutes and still be a better team than most other units in the league. That's why the Lakers are so dangerous, not just because of their height but also they can matchup with anyone. And you know who I'm talking about when I say anyone. TheFinals are going to be good this year.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks care about the regular season. They make it a point to do so. They don't feel like going on the road in the playoffs if they don't have to but they will if necessary. This team is a bit of a mixed bag this year because you could write them off as old and say that their window has closed. Or you could say that this team is also one of the deepest in the conference and can matchup with most. The number two seed fits them because you really don't know who will be able to maintain consistency over the course of an 82 game season. The Thunder could take this spot, but last year they were virtually injury free and many weren't expecting much from them so they snuck up on teams for most of the year. By the time the rest of the league knew who they were their playoff position was already secured. The Mavericks know that this is one of their last gasps as a group so they need to ease themselves into the playoffs. They will do that by winning games that they should because they're a veteran team with just the right amount of youth behind them at the guard positions and center spot. Now this also could be the year where Dirk Nowitzki finally breaks down and is out for 30-40 games because of some freak injury. Did you know that Dirk has never missed 6 games in a season? Let's hope his health remains in tact and the Mavs do what they're supposed to.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
A year wiser, battle tested, deeper and James Harden can only improve. The Thunder is in this spot just because I expect one key player to go down for a while and Kevin Durant to be a little, just a little, fatigued. That's no knock on him; it's just that it is hard scoring 30 points a night for what, 270-300 days out of the year? I've seen charts that show players aren't usually adversely affected from playing in the summer tourneys but Durant is an exception. He was working just as hard in Turkey as he does in Oklahoma. He wasn't coming in for 15 minute stints and just going with the flow, he was dominating. This will be one of the great athletic achievements of the year in all of sports if he is able to keep up this pace for two full seasons, and he probably will. The key for this year's team will be James Harden. After a rookie year in which he came off the bench, his production will be key to the Thunder making it to the second round and beyond. In two playoff wins against the Lakers he shot .535% on his field goals and 5 for 8 from three while scoring 18 and 15 points respectively. In four playoff losses he scored 13 points, total. His regular season numbers were decent for a rookie averaging 9.9 a night and just over 3 extra rebounds a game on .403% from the field and hitting .375% of his threes. Everyone will know what to expect from the Thunder this season but James Harden is still a mystery to most. An improvement from him off the bench will really make this team a contender. And of course good health for the entire team as well.
4. Portland Trailblazers
Brandon Roy is a nice guy on the court, he doesn't really get angry nor does he show too much emotion. One would think that he and the rest of the Blazers are all seeking a bit of vengeance for having such an injury riddled year and having their star player go down at the most inopportune time of the season. This team is still deeper than most and no one will want to play them in April or May. The elephant in the room is still Greg Oden's health but this team has grown accustomed to playing without him. They will be dangerous and will surprise some and will probably push the Lakers in the second round to 7 games. Will they win? That will depend on Greg Oden's health.
5. Utah Jazz
Al Jefferson is an unknown commodity. Most NBA pundits claim to know him but he truly is underappreciated. His presence will help the Jazz even though Paul Millsap is still there. The Jazz might have been better served committing their assets to a proven wing scorer since they had been grooming Millsap to replace Boozer. One was not available though, so they had to settle for yet another potential 20 & 10 big man. This team is not very deep but it is used to dealing with injuries. They will occupy this spot simply because they have more talent in their starting five than anyone else we could put here. We already know about Deron Williams and he just might threaten the 25 and 10 mark this season because he will have to score more this year now that Wesley Matthews won't chip in those extra easy buckets and Mehmet Okur will be out for quite some time. That will be good enough for this team to maybe tie with the Blazers but still be relegated to the 5th seed.
6. San Antonio Spurs
This is a weird spot to put the New England Patriots in, err... I mean Spurs. Tony Parker missed a lot of time last year and Richard Jefferson wasn't what they expected. The Spurs feel like a team that's window has closed but their fingers are still stuck under the window. They're in pain and will need a lot of strength to push it back open. Everyone's older and after seeing how the Suns ran against them in the playoffs last year you just have to wonder how much longer this honeymoon will last. Tim Duncan has lost weight and that should help but Manu is 33 and will have to have one last big year in him for them to contend. Tiago Splitter could be a revelation and put up 15 & 10, which isn't likely but is a possibility. If that happens, then this team will contend for another title. For now though they're good enough for 6th.
7. New Orleans Hornets
Before Chris Paul was hurt last year the Hornets weren't exactly setting the league on fire. They will have a very thin bench this year but their starters will be able to run and play defense. Everyone is expecting Trevor Ariza to return to his championship form but really, the key to this team will be the form of Omeka Okafor. No one knows why he had such a sharp decline in production last year including him. He will be the difference between them making the playoffs and not. Well, maybe it's not that serious because Marcus Thornton will now be a starter and David West will still be running the pick and roll with Paul. When you look at them on paper this team's starting five has no holes in it. In addition, Paul’s strengths will be able to compensate for most of his teammates’ weaknesses. The story of his supposed trade request won’t be an issue. His happiness has nothing to do with this season's prospects because he can't go anywhere for another two years. This will allow him and the franchise to relax and make some progress towards a higher seed next year and brighter future.
8. Golden State Warriors
Call me a homer but this is where I'm hoping they will be. Allow me to show you how a Warriors fan can talk himself into his team making the playoffs. First of all we won 26 games last year but a new coach means new energy for this team which should account for at least 3 more wins. That brings us to 29. We have a new shiny rebounder in David Lee and if Andris Biedrins is healthy then the glass problems of last year will be completely solved, yes completely, which brings us to say 34 wins? Monta Ellis will be far more efficient this year thanks to a renewed since of life and putting aside his rift with Stephen Curry from last year, 38 wins. Stephen Curry should join the 20 & 7 club which will account for another 2 wins, 40. This team will play better defense and we will finish as the 23rd ranked team in points allowed thanks to Dorell Wright and the return of Biedrins. 45 wins. We need maybe a couple more to get to the playoffs and I’m going to say that David Lee and his extra 20 points and 3-5 dimes a night will get us over the hump. 47 wins and the 8th seed baby!
9. Houston Rockets
Yao Ming is back but only for half the games next year. This team is in a very interesting position for the future because Aaron Brooks wants a new contract, so does Shane Battier and they have to work Kevin Martin into the flow of a Brooks, Luis Scola and the return of Yao scoring rotation. I think it will work and this team is deep, but much like last year they're still reliant on the health of Yao. 24 minutes of action is better than nothing but how will his presence affect the chemistry of the team when they feel pressured to try to work him into the game. That will be tough for Brooks and Rick Adelman to manage and we will see how they do. They will be in the playoff hunt until the very end but will fall just short of those new look defensive minded Warriors! Look someone has to bite the bullet in order for my dubs to make.
10. Phoenix Suns
We should know by now that Steve Nash should never be discredited or counted out. At the same time why didn’t the Suns resign Amar’e Stoudemire? Let’s do a little math on the new salaries they will be paying this year.
Josh Childress 5 years/$33 million
Hakim Warrick 4 years/$18 million
Hedo Turkoglu 4 years/$43 million
Channing Frye 5 years/$30 million
That’s $124 million in salary. The Suns supposedly would not guarantee $100 million to Amar’e over the next five years because of injury concerns. Interesting, how would you have spent the Suns’ money? Hedo could end up being the 05’-06’ version of Boris Diaw for the Suns but that will be the only way this team makes the playoffs since it looks like Warrick doesn’t appear to be the starter heading into the season. This team is deep but there starting five will be far less intimidating than it once was. There defense could improve but it could also be countered this year since teams will be expecting their zone now. Unfortunately, it looks like the sun will finally start to set in the valley.
11. Denver Nuggets
Carmelo Anthony will be traded at the end of the year which isn’t really breaking news. Still there were other factors the Nuggets had to consider even before that scenario started to play out. In addition to Melo's future keeping the franchise in limbo the Nuggets have a few other players with expiring contracts on their roster that need to be addressed as well. J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and the future of Chauncey Billups all remain in doubt. How will this team play with all of them looking towards the future of not only themselves but each others as well? Once Carmelo gets traded the wheels might fall off because George Karl will also be looking for an extension pretty soon. All of this could change though if Carmelo decides to prove everyone who claims he is not a franchise player wrong and elevate his team to "elite" status. So I guess there is some hope for that, right?
12. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies should not regress this year and they probably won't. With an improved bench they should at least reach the 40 win mark again this season but that will probably be about it. The Western Conference will have so much parody this year that we might have 5 teams in the lottery that won between 35-40 games. Unless Rudy Gay adds 5 assists a night to his nightly performances then I don't see this team being much better than it was last year. Now if Mike Conley turns into a 17 and 7 point guard than this team will challenge for that 8th and final playoff spot. He should have plenty of motivation to do so since he'll be playing for a new contract. The Grizz are at an interesting crossroads as a franchise because they know what they have in O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay. The question for them now will be how much longer should they keep Zach Randolph around? This team has the talent to make the playoffs but yet something was missing last year that kept them from doing so. Whatever it is, it still does not seem to be found.
13. Sacramento Kings
You know what's interesting about Tyreke Evans? If you put him on the Thunder or Grizzlies than you could make the argument that the Thunder would have beaten the Lakers and that the Grizz would have made the playoffs last year. Imagine Russell Westbrook, Tyreke Evans and Kevin Durant together. Kobe Bryant would have had to play defense, Jeff Green would have been able to relax a little bit more and then they would have been the team that could cause matchup problems. Kevin Durant could have played the four with Tyreke at the three spot for extended minutes. Back to the reality of the Kings now. With the addition of DeMarcus Cousins who looks like he will be the starter at center this season, the Kings will be dangerous. They have size everywhere, can score inside with ease from multiple positions and will not be losing very many rebounding battles. The only thing holding this team back will be their ability to play together. Very rarely do young teams put it all together so quickly but the Kings have plenty of reasons as to why they can do it this year. Paul Westphal will make a strong push for the Coach of the Year award as they should be penciled in for 40 wins as well.
14. Los Angeles Clippers
Which Baron Davis will show up this year? If it's the Baron who decides he will be the best point guard in the league than maybe Blake Griffin will be hoisting the Co-Rookie of the Year trophy and the Clippers will be the biggest surprise of the season. The Clippers have just as much talent as any team not named the Heat, Lakers, Celtics or Magic. With athleticism coming from every position and a big man who can get easy buckets in the half court via Chris Kaman, this team has all the tools to be in the playoffs. When they run they will be dangerous. When they play pick and roll they'll be dangerous. When they drive and kick they will be dangerous. Why can't they make the playoffs this year!?!??!??!?! We will have to wait and see exactly why.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
This team is like one big mutual fund right now. Or MUNI bond, there's a lot of talent with big upside but as a whole the annual returns won't be that great right now. This team's roster is built like a Major League Baseball team, on any given night they could start a totally different lineup than from the night before. David Kahn has crafted this team in a way that when a major trade comes along they can be looked to as a team with the assets to pull it off. The only problem with that is in the meantime you still have to play basketball. And with all of the players requesting to be moved lately, their name has not been mentioned. They feel that within their roster portfolio a "star player" might still be lurking, but he will be very hard to find if everyone is playing 20-29 minutes a game. Kevin Love is one player who is universally praised around the league, but other than that this team will have to spend one more season to figure out who they are in terms of style, tempo, strengths and whatever else you want to name. That probably won't happen in just one year though, unless Kevin Love averages 25 points, 12 boards and 7 dimes a night. Then again, Kevin Garnett was doing something like that for awhile too.