Western Conference Preview: The 8 NBA Teams That Will Play Postseason Basketball
Each and every NBA season, 30 franchises arrive at training camp with the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
For one team it will become a reality, and for the other 29 reality will set in at some point along the way, turning what once was a goal into a mere pipe dream.
For some organizations, a championship is not an accurate barometer of overall success, as developing talent and team chemistry takes priority.
For others, it is championship or bust, and the season is a complete and utter failure, unless the championship banner is raised into their rafters come June.
The landscape of the NBA is ever-changing, and this year will be no different. A handful of veteran teams will make a run at the title, a few possibly for the last time, while others will continue the slide to irrelevancy.
We also have young teams loaded with talent, looking to build upon success from the previous season, and hoping to climb the ladder to prominence.
First, let’s take a look at the eight teams from the Western Conference who will continue playing after the 82 game regular season comes to an end.
This is the order in which I predict the teams will finish, starting with the eighth seed and finishing with the first.
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The race for the eight seed will be as competitive as ever, going down to the final week of the season. I see the Sacramento Kings beating out the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The additions of DeMarcus Cousins and Samuel Dalembert, combined with the maturing star power of Tyreke Evans, could see the Kings take a path similar to the path taken by Oklahoma City last year.
In order to compete at an elite level, and have success in the playoffs, a team needs star power, and make no mistake about it, Sacramento has two budding young stars in Evans and Cousins.
Youngsters Omri Casspi, Donte Greene, and Jason Thompson are all looking to elevate their games to the next level, and Carl Landry and Beno Udrih should provide a steadying veteran presence.
While the Kings will not get out of the first round, and getting back to an elite level is a few seasons away, getting the eight seed will be a major success for this franchise that will look to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2006.
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Every question surrounding Houston this season will be centered around Yao Ming. Whether Yao will be able to battle back and become the player he once was is a legitimate question.
Earlier this summer there were reports implying Yao was considering retirement, although he now has the green light from the organization to play 24 minutes per night, and will be sat on the second night of back to backs.
But the question still remains, and will remain for quite some time, about how healthy Yao really is. Only time will tell.
Assuming Yao’s foot will allow him to play 24 minutes per night, for the majority of the season, give or take a few games, the Rockets will make the postseason.
One of the more underrated players in the league in Luis Scola is coming off a breakout year, both in the NBA and the World Championships, and should develop into a go-to option for the Rockets.
Newly acquired Brad Miller is a great insurance option on nights when Yao is struggling, or can’t suit up at all, and should fit in perfectly after having played for Rick Adelman previously in Sacramento.
A healthy Kevin Martin will help tremendously, as he and Aaron Brooks will form one of the more offensively potent backcourts in the league.
Houston could slide up a few spots if Yao’s foot holds up to the rigors of an entire NBA season, or they could fall out of the playoff race altogether, if Yao isn’t able to make it to the finish line.
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Utah is a team I expect to come out of the gates relatively slow, and gain traction around the All-Star break. The acquisition of Al Jefferson is one of the more underrated offseason moves.
Jefferson is far more talented on the offensive end than the man he replaces in Carlos Boozer.
While Jefferson is not accustomed to running the pick and roll, once he adjusts to that style of play, he and Deron Williams will be a lethal combination.
Raja Bell is a cheap alternative to the departed Wesley Matthews, and I expect rookie Gordon Hayward to contribute immediately.
Andrei Kirilenko had one of his better seasons in recent memory last year, and Mehmet Okur is on schedule with his recovery from a horrific Achilles injury.
Jerry Sloan is as disciplined and hard-nosed of a coach you will find in the modern sports world, and his teams usually gain momentum heading into the playoffs. This season will be no different.
Portland Trail Blazers
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Much like how the success of the Houston Rockets depends largely on the health of Yao Ming, the success of the Trail Blazers depends largely on the health of Greg Oden.
Oden has the size, talent, and physicality to dominate an NBA game, both in the regular season or playoffs, if his health allows. Oden showed flashes last year of his potential to be the most dominant defensive center in the league, with all due respect to Dwight Howard.
But until Oden’s health allows him to perform consistently, flashes will be all Portland fans will see, and Howard will remain the most dominant force in the league on the defensive end.
Portland has the talent and depth to sneak into the playoffs whether or not Oden is healthy, but a healthy Oden is a must-have if Portland hopes to finish in the top five, and have a decent shot at getting out of the first round.
While Oden might be the most important piece to the Trail Blazers playoff hopes, Brandon Roy is their most talented player, and unquestioned leader.
While Roy is not on the same level as Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, he is the crème of the crop when it comes to second tier shooting guards. Roy is a game changer, and can carry a team on his shoulders down the stretch and lead them to victory.
LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the more offensively gifted power forwards in the league, and both Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are on the brink of having a breakout season.
Andre Miller and Marcus Camby are both still solid contributors, and only add to the depth on this roster.
Talent has never been the issue with Portland recently, but instead health. If Oden and Joel Przybilla can remain healthy, this team will be a dark horse to make a deep run into the postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder
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Is there any team which has risen as quickly as the Thunder has in recent memory? Kevin Durant is entering the realm of “superstar” as we speak, and is primed to not only lead his team back to the playoffs, but with home court advantage in the first round as well.
The defending NBA scoring champion has only added to his arsenal, and appears to have taken his game up a notch this past summer.
Not only is Durant the most lethal of scorers in the league today, but in this past summer’s World Championships he developed a “killer instinct,” a key attribute shared by the most successful of athletes.
Jordan had it. Kobe has it. And now Durant is developing one of the key ingredients needed to push deep into the playoffs. This spells trouble for the rest of the league.
While Durant has become the face of the franchise in Oklahoma City, he is not the only premiere talent on the roster. Durant is joined by fellow All-Star in the making Russell Westbrook, one of the most explosive young point guards in the game today.
Jeff Green and James Harden are developing into two of the better role players in the league, and I expect both to contribute mightily this coming season for the Thunder.
Rookie Cole Aldrich will give the Thunder a defensive presence in the paint and will form a formidable duo with Nenad Krstic, while Serge Ibaka should develop into a more consistent contributor.
Oklahoma City is deep, incredibly talented, and spear-headed by a 22-year-old All-NBA First Team selection, fresh off leading Team USA to the gold medal at the World Championships, and developing a “killer instinct” along the way. This serves as a warning to the rest of the league.
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Dallas doesn’t have enough left in the tank to seriously contend for a championship, but it still is a member of the NBA’s elite, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals is not out of the question.
Dirk Nowitzki is still in his prime, and that alone makes this a dangerous team for any opponent, especially after he has taken two consecutive summers off from international basketball. Nowitzki is surrounded by talented, veteran role players, who know how to win games.
Presently in the twilight of his career, Jason Kidd is still a solid contributor, although nowhere near the player he once was.
However, this season Kidd should get some much needed help in the backcourt with the emergence of Rodrigue Beaubois, an electric scorer who never really got a chance to contribute consistently last season.
Look for Beaubois to have a much larger role this coming season in Dallas.
Caron Butler and Shawn Marion will provide tough, veteran play on the wings, and I fully expect Butler to bring more to the table after having a full training camp with the team.
Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler provide a physical presence down low, and well as the depth at the center position to compete with every frontline in the league.
The Mavericks aren’t a very deep team, nor are they the most talented team in the league.
But having Nowitzki, a former NBA MVP and future member of the Hall of Fame as their centerpiece, along with hard-nosed veterans who know they won’t have many opportunities left to contend for a ring, this team still has enough in the tank to make another run or two deep into the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
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For each of the past few years, San Antonio has gone into the season preparing for one last title run with its current core group of players, and has seemingly extended its lifeline repeatedly, from one season to the next.
This season however, Spurs fans should have a higher level of optimism heading into training camp. While a few years ago the aging San Antonio roster seemed to have a handful of players well on their way to spending time in a retirement community, a funny thing has happened; they got younger.
The best power forward of his generation, Tim Duncan, has finally received some much needed assistance. Duncan can still contribute at an all-star level, and reportedly has lost weight and is coming into training camp in excellent condition.
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are both well rested after taking the summer off from international competition. The “big three” appear to be in better shape entering this season than the previous few. But what makes this team better than the Spurs team you saw last year is the addition of youth.
Tiago Splitter (25) will come in and immediately make his presence felt, most likely as a starter beside Duncan. Splitter is a versatile, high IQ banger, with loads of international experience, and is arguably the most NBA ready rookie this season.
George Hill (24) was impressive enough last season when Parker was injured, that Greg Popovich decided to start Hill over Parker heading into the playoffs. Hill adds quality depth to the backcourt, and is emerging as a force in this league.
Joining Splitter and Hill in San Antonio’s youth movement is the steal of 2009 NBA Draft, DeJuan Blair (21). Blair is the epitome of hard-nosed, blue-collar basketball, and will be a major contributor this season.
A slim-downed Duncan, healthy Ginobili, and a rested Parker still in his prime, makes this team a force to be reckoned with.
When combined with the talented youth which has added a sorely needed spark to this franchise, along with a refocused Richard Jefferson, the Spurs have the best chance of any team in the Western Conference to knock off the defending champions.
Los Angeles Lakers
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Until they are beaten, the Lakers are the favorite to win the Western Conference, the NBA Finals, and accomplish the incredibly rare three-peat.
Everything in L.A. starts and finishes with Kobe Bryant, the best player of his generation, and still a top five player in the NBA. While Kobe’s athleticism has declined over the years, his understanding of the game has only improved, as he is a student of the game, and studies film as if it were his favorite way to pass time.
I would not bet against Kobe, as he has proven others wrong countless times, and all bets are off when he is chasing ring No. 6, which will put him in the same class as Michael Jordan.
Without a doubt, the majority of the credit for winning consecutive championships belongs to Kobe. Without Kobe, there isn’t a parade in downtown L.A. in June.
The same can be said for Pau Gasol. The Lakers were not a contender before Pau arrived, and as Pau has fulfilled his potential and become arguably the best power forward in the game today, the Lakers have made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
Kobe and Gasol have become the league’s most dominant duo, and will remain there until it is taken away from them.
The third cog in this equation is Andrew Bynum, often injured, but incredibly important. The Lakers have repeated as NBA champions, without a healthy Bynum.
Bynum, at 22 years of age, is still not close to entering his prime. He is one of the best young centers in the league, and if he can remain healthy, can add another consistent low-post presence, both offensively and defensively.
Ron Artest and Lamar Odom bring versatility which is challenging for every team to match up against.
In addition, the signings of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes only adds to the depth and experience on this roster.
The Lakers have made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, having won the previous two. The scariest part? They have room for improvement.
If Denver fans are wondering why the Nuggets aren’t included, it’s because I can’t objectively predict where they will finish because it's almost assumed Carmelo Anthony will be traded.
The franchise is in disarray, with Carmelo likely becoming a member of another team by the February trade deadline at the latest, and Billups to follow. J.R. Smith has been on the trading block all summer, and Kenyon Martin’s knee might not fully recover.