This is part two of my NBA preview. To see my thoughts on the Eastern Conference, see my previous article: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/233815-joes-eastern-conference-preview-for-20092010.
Though the top teams in the Eastern Conference have improved considerably in the last few years, the West is still the superior conference.
The bottom tier of the West is extremely weak, but it has a healthy second tier of quality teams that would all be a major threat in the east.
Much like my other article, I have included notes on the dividing line for the various tiers of quality within the league.
1) Lakers—This isn't exactly a surprise. Kobe and Gasol is probably the best inside-out combo in the league. Odom and Artest are talented forwards and Andrew Bynum still has significant upside. They can go big or small up front and are generally a tough team to deal with.
2) Spurs—If Ginobili stays healthy, they're a legitimate threat for #1. They need his versatile offensive repertoire and shooting ability to balance the interior dominance of Duncan and the slashing ability of Parker. Jefferson will work as a third option if Manu misses 20 games or so, but they'll need him in the playoffs. Hill, Blair, McDyess, and Mason should let them give their stars some chances to rest.
---Drop-off, though nowhere near as big as the one from 3 to 4 in the East---
3) Nuggets—I think Melo has a much better year on paper this season, and Billups also helps a lot. Their frontcourt is solid but not spectacular with Martin, Nene, and Anderson, and Smith adds an explosive wing scorer. If they have injury issues with any of their starters, they are likely to drop several spots.
4) Trailblazers—I honestly didn't realize they won 54 games last year. They had a quietly successful season despite a somewhat weak supporting cast. Roy was great and Aldridge was solid, but the rest of their roster was average or worse. They have a lot of intriguing players but they don't all produce.
Miller is an upgrade at the point, but I honestly think Hinrich would have been a better fit because he is more capable of playing off the ball and a better outside shooter to capitalize on the attention Roy gets.
They have the potential to blow up as a team if Oden or Fernandez become an above average starter. They'd also be scary if they could get an elite sniping wing like Michael Redd or Kevin Martin, which may be possible given their collection of talented young guys and the general ineptitude of those player's respective teams.
5) Mavericks—They have plenty of shooters with Dirk, Terry, and Howard. Kidd is still relatively effective at the point and Marion is still a solid athlete. However, I can't see them playing enough D to be a real contender. They don't have a true center, and Kidd and Terry can't guard anyone at this point.
I'd feel a lot better about this team if they had another truly elite second scorer instead of two okay ones to complement Dirk, as he hasn't gotten much done when it matters of late.
6) Hornets—The supporting cast was fairly poor last year, but Paul and West are still elite. Okafor gives them a little more scoring inside than Chandler did, but they're still a capable wing short of being really dangerous.
7) Jazz—I'd probably leave them here even if they were to trade Boozer for junk, though I'd also likely drop them below the cut-off. Williams is still one of the best point guards around and they have enough punch inside even without Boozer to stay competitive. I also really like Brewer as a complementary player at the 2.
8) Suns—They'll still score in bunches, but they were horrendous defensively last year and there's no real reason to expect that to improve.
Thanks to cost-cutting measures over the last several years that cost the team Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and picks that could have brought them guys like Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Rajon Rondo, or Rudy Fernandez, this team is unfortunately past its peak and no real threat to win anything.
9) Thunder—They should come out on top of a rather uninspiring group of bottom feeders out West. They have a ton of interesting wing players but basically nothing inside, which will prevent them from doing too much in the standings.
For them to win significantly more than 30 games, Durant will have to improve his defense and cut his turnovers or Westbrook will have to make significant strides in becoming a true point guard.
10) Clippers—This may sound weird, but they actually have an interesting collection of talent. Gordon and Griffin are highly talented young players, Davis is one of the better point guards in the league when he wants to be, and when healthy, Kaman and Camby are great at doing the dirty work inside.
They still have no depth, will likely have some chemistry issues, and are highly injury prone, but could be interesting down the road if they move one of their spare big men for something useful.
11) Warriors—This roster looks a lot more interesting on paper than it really is, especially when Nellie is playing the wrong guys. Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette have talent but take way more shots than they should, and Monta Ellis is not a point guard.
They also insist on going incredibly small despite the fact that they have two talented young power forwards, making life extremely difficult for Biedrins.
I'd like this team an awful lot more if they dumped Jackson and Maggette for whatever they could get, picked up a legit passing point guard like Sessions, and played a lineup of Sessions-Ellis-Azubuike-Randolph-Biedrins with Curry, Wright and Morrow coming off the bench.
Then maybe between the slashing of Ellis and the potential development of Randolph and Wright you might have something, instead of a team stuck going nowhere letting talented players rot on the bench because Nelson doesn't like them.
---drop-off to the teams in the race for John Wall---
12) Rockets—This is going to be an ugly year for them. I think on paper you can make a case that they're the worst team in the league, especially while McGrady is hurt.
However, they always seem to out-perform their talent because they have a number of solid, productive role players. They don't have a single player I'd be comfortable having as one of my top-2 scorers, but somehow I think they'll make it work well enough to finish ahead of some more dysfunctional teams.
13) Timberwolves—I love Jefferson, Love is a double-double guy, and Flynn looks like he'll be a legit point, but their wing players are atrocious. You'll probably see a lot of games where Jefferson goes for 25-10 and they still only score 88 points.
That's what happens when you waste the #5 pick on a guy that is going to stay in Europe.
It also doesn't help that Jefferson and Love are average athletes at best and should both be playing PF, which kills their defense. They need a complete overhaul, which is pretty pathetic given how young their roster is.
14) Grizzlies—Zach Randolph? Really? That move made no sense whatsoever. Now they're probably going to play a brutal frontcourt of Randolph and Thabeet regularly while benching the decent but not stellar Marc Gasol, which will probably cost them wins.
Mayo and Gay will spend the entire year trading awful contested shots on the way to another sub-30 win season. It's a shame, because they're both very talented players stuck on a messed up roster, and Conley quietly played well down the stretch as well.
15) Kings—They were the worst team in the league last season, and I don't really see them making major strides.
I really don't like Tyreke Evans as a point guard, and I think forcing him to play there will hurt his efficiency as well as that of his teammates. It's kind of a waste, because Kevin Martin is one of the best scorers in the league when he's healthy and Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes are serviceable big men.
With a pass-first point guard I think they could have had a relatively interesting and entertaining roster.
That said, their other players are simply not very good and their defense is brutal. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they dealt Kevin Martin in a Gasol-like deal to save money.
They're probably already printing up jerseys for guys like John Wall and Derrick Favors.