With the NBA trade deadline passed and so many teams out West making moves, the Western Conference is just too intriguing not to make some bold predictions.
Just 5 games separates the top-seeded Hornets from the 9th-seeded Warriors.
Honestly, if any of those teams in the top 9 ended up winning the West, I wouldn't be shocked.
But here are my predictions.
8th Seed-Denver Nuggets
Denver will once again find its way back into the postseason for the 5th consecutive season, hopefully not to be ousted again the 1st round.
Denver is currently 33-20, its best record at this point in the season in years, but is only hanging on by a thread in a very competitive conference.
The good news is that with Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, the team is never out of a game. There's always a possibility that they'll score on any possession.
The downside of this team: awful defense.
While Denver is 6th in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage, they still give up over 104 points per game because they allow so many offensive rebounds.
Unless the defense shapes up, there's no way they advance far in the postseason.
They're just too inconsistent.
7th Seed-Houston Rockets
The Rockets are on a tear right now, but with their next game at New Orleans, their 10-game win streak could come to an end.
Yao Ming has been a solid presence down low and has been consistent all season.
Tracy McGrady is battling back from an elbow injury as well as the flu, but he finally seemed to play like his old self last night in a win over Miami.
Houston plays good enough defense that it can stay in a series with any of the West powerhouses.
McGrady and Yao will be the primary scorers, but the Rockets will need solid contributions from guys like Shane Battier, Luis Scola, and Rafer Alston in order to make a real run.
I don't think they have the consistent point guard play to be a serious contender this season.
6th Seed-New Orleans Hornets
I see the Hornets dropping down to 6, as they're only ahead of the 6th-seed Dallas Mavaricks right now by 3 games.
Experience always plays a factor down the stretch, and the Hornets have none.
Don't get me wrong, at 37-15 this team has been beyond impressive, and maybe they will continue at this pace.
But outside of Peja Stojakovic, the starters have barely seen the playoffs.
Byron Scott has done a great job with his young team, and Chris Paul is in the MVP discussion but I just think they're too young and inexperienced.
In my opinion, they're a year away.
5th Seed-Phoenix Suns
They play no defense whatsoever.
After trading for Shaq people thought that the defense would improve and they would play a different style of ball.
However, in the first game with the Big Aristotle, the Suns lost 130-124 to the Lakers.
130 points? Seems like the same old Suns to me.
I know Kobe went for 41, but they still needed to find scorers to get the remaining 89 points.
Shaq's not in top shape right now for this running offense.
Nash and Stoudamire are both incredible offensively, but their lack of defense will hurt them once again.
Trading away Shawn Marion was a dumb move.
Trading away Kurt Thomas in the offseason was much, much dumber.
Defense wins championships, which explains why the Suns have zero.
4th Seed-San Antonio Spurs
This is by far the most inconsistent I've seen the Spurs in the past 5 or so years.
But they always seem to turn it around after the All-Star break.
They're 36-17 right now, and that includes the games that Tony Parker missed.
Parker returned last night in an epic 101-100 victory over Minnesota, but he was still a step slow.
We all know what Tim Duncan is capable of, and Manu Ginobli is having a career year. The man is Mr. 4th Quarter for San Antonio.
The Spurs' defense remains the best in the NBA. They box out, they rebound, and they don't allow second chances.
I'm predicting a first-round matchup with the Suns, who they seem to face every year in the playoffs. The outcome will be no different this year.
Defense gets it done, and the Spurs may be on their way to their 5th title in 10 years.
3rd Seed-Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs will take the division now that they've acquired Jason Kidd.
Although Devin Harris was beyond effective for Dallas during his time there, the Mavs need to win now, and with Harris being injured, the Mavericks won't get anywhere with JJ Barea running the point.
Although I think this move will kill Dallas in the long run, if they want a title this year, it was a must.
Keeping Jerry Stackhouse was vital, as he's an integral part of the offense.
Kidd looked a bit off in his first game, but he's still learning the offense.
With Dirk, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Stackhouse, Dallas will finish the regular season strong.
I don't see them going too far in the playoffs now that their front line is depleted after trading away Dasagna Diop.
The Lakers have Pau and Bynum, Houston has Yao, the Spurs have Duncan, and Utah has Boozer.
Erick Dampier can't do the job alone down low, and Dallas is Calista Flockhart-thin at the center position.
2nd Seed-Los Angeles Lakers
They could easily be the 1 seed when all is said and done, but Andrew Bynum remains injured, and Kobe's finger isn't getting better anytime soon (though it didn't seem to be a problem after dropping 41 on Wednesdsay).
Since the acquisition of Pau Gasol, not only has Gasol himself been tremendous, but Lamar Odom has stepped up his play immensely since defenses can no longer concentrate on him.
When Bynum returns, the starting 5 will be Fisher, Kobe, Odom, Gasol, and Bynum, leaving Lamar as the 4th scoring option on the team.
Not too bad.
Phil Jackson has coached the triangle offense to perfection this season, and the defense has been solid as well.
Combine that with one of the top benches in the league (Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmonovic, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza) and you have a serious title contender.
1st Seed-Utah Jazz
Yes, this pick is kind of crazy, but hear me out.
The Jazz have 4 games left against Minnesota. That's right. Four.
Even though Minnesota has improved over the past month or so, Utah should pick up 4 wins right there.
Their remaining schedule is far easier than any other team out West.
Carlos Boozer has been dominant all season, and Deron Williams is one of the top point guards in the game.
They have solid 3-point shooting from Kyle Korver and Mehmet Okur, a big-time defender down low in Paul Millsap, and energy guys off the bench like Ronnie Brewer, Ronnie Price, and Matt Harpring.
And that Andrei Kirilenko guy is kinda good too.
The Jazz play great defense, have plenty of scoring options, and have one of the best coaches in NBA history in Jerry Sloan.
I'm not saying Utah is at all a lock to go to the finals, but seems like they got the pieces in place.
Golden State is the odd team out.
I know this may disappoint some people who find them to be the most exciting team in the league, and they very well may be.
But they rely far too much on the 3-point shot. Some nights it'll fall, but it's far too inconsistent to win multiple 7-game series.
If this were the NCAA tournament, the Warriors are built perfectly.
Unfortunately to win a title, you have to win 16 games and could play as many as 28. Golden State just can't handle that.
Too much up and down basketball, and zero defense.
Stephen Jackson got hurt at the wrong time for this team, as the next couple weeks could decide a lot out west.
I very well may be completely wrong with these predictions, and probably will be but that's my take on the wild, wild West.
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