1) Los Angeles Lakers 68-14
(low: 64 high: 72)
The Western Conference just seems to keep getting better and better, huh? With the Lakers’ long-time nemesis Spurs having retooled, the Blazers adding even more depth in the same area that happens to be the only spot of concern in the Lakers’ lineup (point guard), and Denver being a year stronger under Chauncey Billups’ potent leadership there’s plenty of cause for concern in Los Angeles, right?
If winning the Western Conference by over 10 games last year wasn’t enough to give the reigning Champions the benefit of the doubt, the acquisition of Ron Artest is. Oh, and there’s always the fact that they’re reigning champions.
Not only do the Lakers play in the least competitive division in the Western Conference, but they open with 17 of their first 21 games at Staples Center where they won just under 88 percent of their games last season.
Has the Western Conference gotten more competitive? Sure, but given the stark gap in between the Lakers and the rest of the Western Conference, there’s no reason to believe they don’t have at least another couple of years being its number one team. After all, it has taken the conference this long just to catch up to where the Lakers were two seasons ago.
People who will question the mental stability of Artest fail to understand the man’s passion and drive to win and the strength of the Lakers’ locker room. Artest knows this is his last real shot at winning a title, and if a locker room with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, over-lorded by Phil Jackson, isn’t enough to keep Artest focused, nothing is.
The most legitimate question around this team is this: When the Lakers approach the 70-win mark, do they push for the record or do they pace themselves for the postseason?
2) San Antonio Spurs (62-20)
(low: 58 high: 64)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A team underachieves, sees their championship pattern broken, and suddenly finds themselves looking up at the Western Conference’s elite. Said team attempts to boost themselves back into supremacy over their reigning champion arch-rivals by luring two titleless superstars in the offseason.
San Antonio, did you really have to go channelling the ghosts of the 2003 Lakers?
All jokes aside, San Antonio’s offseason has turned them from paper contenders to a legitimate threat once again. As many are quick to point out, the Spurs’ roster now contains the best supporting cast Timmy, Tony, and Manu have ever had, the problem is that it may be too little, too late.
It's almost tempting to pencil in San Antonio next to Los Angeles in the 2010 Western Conference Finals right now. The question is what happens when they get there? The Spurs have lost seven of their last nine meetings with Los Angeles, and have historically performed poorly against them in the postseason, losing four of the teams' last five postseason series.
For a team that narrowly avoided being swept out of the playoffs first round a year ago, a Western Conference Finals appearance would constitute as a successful season in the eyes of many franchises and fan bases, unfortunately for the Spurs, San Antonio isn’t one of them.
Still, with Manu’s knee as unstable as ever and Tim Duncan’s own sobering admittance “I have slowed down," this team still has more than a few questions marks, and they may find out the answers sooner than they’d hope. There’s no question that this team will make plenty of noise in the regular season, but the problems for this team will come in the postseason when endurance is tested the most, particularly in such a competitive conference.
3) Denver Nuggets (57-25)
Low: 53 High: 58
With the Boston Celtics, Paul Pierce may be the team’s face, but Kevin Garnett is the team’s backbone, and it's not all that much different in Denver. Carmelo will always be the best Nugget statistically, but much of a team’s success comes from intangibles.
Leadership, hustle, clutch plays, and, most importantly, defense are universal factors of championship teams, and before Chauncey Billups arrived, Denver had none of the above.
Now that he’s here, the question is, how far up does the ceiling reach?
Last year, during what was arguably the greatest season in Denver’s franchise history, the Nuggets accomplished monumental things. They jumped up six spots in the Western Conference’s playoff seeding from the previous year (No. 8 to No. 2), beat the New Orleans Hornets by an unprecedented 58 points on the road, and routed the eventual NBA Champion Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals by 19 (120-101).
Still, the Nuggets hit a brick wall after the Lakers took off the proverbial gloves and one has to wonder if last season’s emergence was in fact the extent of their ceiling. Things certainly haven’t gotten any easier in the Nuggets’ own division and due to their surprisingly silent offseason, they’re in danger of slipping from one of the league’s elite teams to a team good enough to bother the elites.
Right now, the most favorable thing I can see in Denver’s favor is the number seven.
No, I’m not talking Chauncey Billups’ jersey number. I’m talking about Chauncey’s Conference Finals appearance streak. His seven straight Conference Finals appearances places him in the category with Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kurt Rambis as the only players to accomplish that feat since the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s led by Bill Russell.
The problem is that streaks, by definition, don’t last forever and the Nuggets have stood pat while rich have gotten richer. Denver’s front office is banking very heavily on the improvement of the players they already have and the benefit of having training camp and opening the season with Chauncey Billups already in the mix.
This would be fine if advancing a playoff round or two is all Nuggets had their hearts set on. However, to become NBA Champions they’re going to need a more consistent interior scoring presence. Part of their failure against the Lakers was due to the inability of “Birdman” Anderson, Kenyon Martin, and Nene to produce against the Lakers’ big triumvirate of Odom, Gasol, and Bynum.
Despite the fact that the walls are closing on Denver more quickly than they realize, I think they’re good for at least another second round appearance. Expecting anything beyond that may be asking too much.
4) Portland Trailblazers (56-26)
(Low: 52-30 High: 57-25)
Portland is without a doubt, the third most talented team in the Western Conference...so why then are they ranked fourth?
Production beats potential any day of the week.
Until the Blazers actually win a postseason battle, they don’t deserve to be ranked any higher than fourth, but with the level of talent on their roster they can’t be ranked much lower either.
There’s simply no other way to say this: Portland has a team of starters.
Adding Andre Miller essentially turns Portland into what the 76ers dream of being: a young team with consistent offense, better defense, and the skill to complement their athleticism. Don’t count on Ron Artest hailing Brandon Roy as the best shooting guard in basketball this season, but make no mistake, Roy is on a short list of young, proven, elite talent in this league and he’s only going to get better.
I honestly can’t find a real flaw in this team on paper. The only real problem is that youth is a two-edged sword. While Portland may have the athleticism to run most teams ragged, a veteran team with enough stamina to keep up with them will burn them in a playoff series just about every time.
Their playoff loss to Houston last year should have shown us that this team isn’t quite ready to be elevated to contender status and while Miller’s veteran leadership will help, it's doubtful that they’ll be able to advance past the second round in this very top-heavy Western Conference.
However, if management holds patient and gives these players enough time together, we could very well be talking about the best team in the league in a season or two. Or three.
5) Dallas Mavericks (55-27)
(low: 53 high: 56)
I used to rule the world. Seas would rise when I gave the word, now in the morning I sleep alone—
Oops. I got mixed up, thought I was writing to Cowboys' stadium. I was going to suggest they play this song as the Mavericks come out of the tunnel on opening night. It's not exactly inspirational battle music, but hey it fits.
Just how far away are the seasons when Dallas came within 4.5 quarters of the franchise’s first NBA Championship in 2006 or when they achieved regular-season immortality by winning 67 games in 2007?
Well, look at it this way: two seasons ago, there was talk of the Mavericks being a dynasty in the making. Last year it wasn’t certain they’d make the playoffs until April 8th.
Sure they picked up Shawn Marion, but anyone who thinks Shawn is gonna be THAT much of a difference maker must have been on some kind of hiatus from the NBA for at least the last two seasons.
How to best describe Marion as he is in today’s NBA? Well three phrases come to mind: injury prone, offensively inconsistent, and unmotivated.
Now he may be a bit more motivated in Dallas than he was in Toronto, but for a player of his age, the truest (and some would argue only) motivation comes from playing for a championship contender, and just being honest, we know that Dallas isn’t going to be bringing the Larry O'Brien trophy home.
Are they good enough to scare a Los Angeles or San Antonio for a couple of quarters? Yeah, but win it all? No. Its just not going to happen.
The irony is that on paper, the Mavericks now aren’t really that far underneath where they were in 2007. What changed?
Blown opportunities take a lot out of a team, and no one from 2006-2007 had a better opportunity to win than Dallas, and they know it. They also know that the Western Conference is a whole hell of a lot worse for them now than it was back then.
Jason Kidd is clearly on his last legs, Dirk is about as frustrated a superstar as anyone not named LeBron James, and the most talking that comes from this team won’t be on court, in fact, most of it won’t even come from the players. Mark Cuban is going to continue running his mouth until his mouth runs him into the grave.
You’re happy the Lakers picked up Ron Artest, Mister Cuban? Are you sure about that?
6) Utah Jazz (52-30)
(low: 47 high: 54)
I’m actually very impressed with the way Utah’s front office has handled the Carlos Boozer situation.
Instead of letting him walk and getting little or nothing in return, they decided to hold on to him, giving him the opportunity to earn another contract and reassert his value on the market, givinging them the opportunity to actually get some value for him.
Carlos still has the capability of being a 20-10 guy on any given night and with Deron Williams still running the show you can still book this team for the playoffs. Like the Mavericks, the Jazz aren’t that far removed in either time or talent from their more glorious days, but the increasing competitiveness of the Western Conference has taken its toll.
No longer championship-contending material, the Jazz are actually closer than most realize to coming to a dead-end. Denver’s emergence and the Blazers sudden leap in stature may be just enough to do this team in for good.
What’s worse for this team is that Jerry Sloan, having just excepted his Hall-of-Fame induction will be highly unlikely to stick around through the kind of slump that seems to be only a season or two around the corner.
7) Houston Rockets (50-32)
(Low: 43 High: 50)
Yep, I’m gonna do it.
Other than winning championships, Rick Adelman is a master of every aspect of coaching. He’s made miracles happen before.
Besides, if you look at this team, they aren’t any worse than the unit that pushed the Lakers to seven games last year. Sure the Lakers were still muddling around, but even taking into consideration the fact that they simply weren’t playing throughout much of the series, you still have to be somewhat impressed with a team that pushed the eventual champions without their two best players.
Adding Trevor Ariza certainly doesn’t hurt their cause.
A lot of people are down on this team because of lack of a consistent interior presence, and I’ll be the first to point out that without Yao Ming, the Rockets are vastly inferior to a plethora of teams in that category, but this team has as much heart as any the league has ever seen.
You have to give them that much.
I think that a lot of low expectations circling around this team is due to the fact that one can no longer view them as championship contenders. However, in my eyes they never were. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming could never stay healthy long enough for that.
Before last season, the Rockets had zero grit and were nothing more than a first round doormat. Last season’s success was fueled by Ron Artest’s toughness, Shane Battier’s defense, Aaron Brooks' emergence, and Yao Ming having a career year.
While some of those factors are gone, I think that Trevor Ariza will fit perfectly into the system’s athletic, defensive-oriented style of play. He just won’t have the benefit of being as efficient offensively without teammates like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to defer attention away from him.
8) Phoenix Suns (48-34)
(low: 45 high: 51)
Clippers or Suns?
This was actually a harder call than one might think, but at the end of the day I couldn’t pick a team who had made one playoff appearance in the last 12 years over a team whose formula has been proven to gain them a playoff spot more often than not.
After the departure of the Big Subtraction, Phoenix is more suitable to get back into the high-tempo offense they’ve prided themselves in for years. The problem is they don’t have the talent they used to, and the talent they used to have wouldn’t be enough to get them anything higher than fourth seed in this conference.
With Nash slowing down and the success of Amare’s recovery uncertain there are very few positives for this team heading into the season. The rumors of putting Amare at the 5, if true, will only make their already suspect defense worse.
I pick the Suns to make the eighth seed with very little conviction, and if they do make the eight seed, watch out.
Their first-round date with the Lakers, their hated divisional “rival” (and I use that term very loosely) won’t be pretty.
1) Lakers vs 8) Phoenix Suns, PREDICTION: Lakers in 4
2) Spurs vs 7) Rockets, PREDICTION: Spurs in 5
3)Nuggets vs 6) Jazz, PREDICTION: Nuggets in 5
4) Trailblazers vs 5) Mavericks, PREDICTION: Trailblazers in 6
ROUND 2: 1) Lakers vs 4) Trailblazers, Lakers in 6; 2) Spurs vs 3) Nuggets, Spurs in 7
ROUND 3: 1) Lakers vs 2) Spurs, Lakers in 5