Welcome to the new NBA.
For years pundits were screaming for a more balanced NBA playoff format that took overall record into account instead of breaking the teams into East/West conferences. The West was too strong, went the argument, some times leaving near fifty-win teams out in the West while teams under .500 enjoyed the playoffs in the East.
In short, the Western Conference was home of the NBA’s dominate teams, the East housed its dregs.
Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the most anticipated free agent period in the history of the sport, a new leader emerges in the battle between NBA divisions. The East looks formidable while the West looks, well, old and worn.
Lets examine the eight Western Conference playoff teams last year and see where they stand at this point in the free agent period.
8th - Thunder
They were able to convince Kevin Durant, a future MVP, to stay in OKC inking him to a long term deal. His signing really goes against the grain. Either he really loves OKC, wanting the extra money the Thunder could offer, or *gasp* saw the Thunder as his best place to win a championship and grow with a very exciting team.
My guess it was more the latter and less the formers. Durant is a special player and its unfortunate his signing was over-shadowed, eclipsed actually, by James' circus-show.
Cleary, the Thunder aren’t getting old, they are getting better. They remain young however and although a move out of the first round is very likely next year, I don’t seem them competing for a Championship in 2010-2011.
7th - San Antonio
Old. Warriors, but old warriors. Picture a large lion who has led his pride for years. A large mane, a fearsome growl, but no teeth. These are your 2010-2011 Spurs!
I’m hearing that 38 year old Shaquille O’Neal is interested in joining the Spurs next year in an effort to stick around the Association for another two years. That signing, should it happen, will only make an old team older.
6th - Portland
This team is a bit of a dark-horse going into the new season. Brandon Roy was coming off an injury as the team made the playoffs and was not 100 percent. Additionally, could we see Greg Oden give it another go? All indications are he is ready to see some time on an actual basketball court this month in preparation for next season.
The Blazers seem to me to be a few years ahead of the Thunder, but still not ready to compete at an elite level. A good team, no doubt, and certainly not old or weakened by the free agency moves, but, like John Belushi, not yet ready for prime time.
5th - Utah
This is where it starts to get a little ugly. Deron Williams is a stud, but he can’t do it alone. The defection of Carlos Boozer and his 11 plus rebounds to the league’s best rebounding team, the Chicago Bulls, hurts the team with the worst nickname in the Association.
Can you even find any good Jazz in Utah?
The team might find a way to make the playoffs on the will of Williams and under the direction of Jerry Sloan, but their stay should be a quick one. This is a damaged team, stuck in that weird no-mans-land where they are too good to be rebuilding but not good enough to be contending.
4th - Denver
Last year was the Nuggets year. If they were going to break through the glass ceiling, it was then. Instead, the ceiling came crashing down on them again.
With Carmelo Anythony being the prize of next year's free agency period, I don’t see anyone’s heart being in it in Denver. Melo is as good as gone, and so is the Nuggets time as serous contenders in the West.
3rd - Phoenix
See Utah. Nash is older and now without a superstar to pass to. Nash will continue to dish, but the players on the receiving end won’t finish like Amar’e finished.
Phoenix is done.
2nd - Dallas
The Mavericks brought Nowitzki back in the fold and will have a full year with Caron Butler. They should improve, but their window is closing like everyone else's in the West, with the exception of OKC and Portland.
The thing about the Mavericks is that their most intimidating precense is their owner; dude, is wacky. The Mavericks have never had a swagger to them, at all; I don’t see that changing next season.
That leaves the Champion Lakers who seem to be primed for another go at a Championship. Look up at that list, do you see any team capable of challenging the Lakers next season? I don’t. The Thunder have the best chance if they can find that magic ingredient all championship calibre teams posses. It's possible, but not likely.
The West has become the Mild, Mild West leaving both Los Angeles teams with a unique opportunity. The Lakers, with a chance to three-peat and the Clippers with a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
The new look NBA looks pretty good from Los Angeles.