Coming off a season that saw the competitiveness in the Western Conference reach historic levels, and an off-season that's seen a few high profile ballers play musical jerseys, there should be no shortage of drama and excitement for those fans who enjoy their playoff races air tight.
The difference between failure and success in sports can lie on a single miscalculation, bad signing or poor performance and the upcoming season in the NBA's West ranks will be no exception. Aside from a few especially crappy teams - Memphis, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Sacramento - all other squads on the sunny side of the continent have playoff aspirations.
So in no order at all, here is Part I of the Western Conference X-Factors:
Golden State Warriors - The PG Spot
When Baron Davis bolted from Oakland to the bright lights of La La Land, he took a lot more than just his averages of 21 points and 7 assists; he robbed them of the soul of their offense. The combo looking at the daunting task of replacing Davis's production at the one spot is Monte Ellis and Marcus Williams.
Ellis will get an immediate chance to start earning his freshly signed contract as he transitions over from the shooting guard to that of the point variety. An emerging scorer, Ellis hasn't had to distribute the ball yet in his NBA career and there is definitely some doubt. For what it's worth though,
I think there are two things working in the Warriors' favor:
A) Don Nelson's creativity on the offensive side of the ball.
B) A Wealth of good ball handlers at different positions (S. Jackson, Maggette, Randolph, Bellinelli, Harrington)
I'm sure Nelson will have some offense constructed where a traditional point guard is far from necessary, but will they match last year's success?
The newly acquired Williams has shown flashes of greatness during his college days and first two years in NJ, but can't seem to string them together for a significant span of time. He's always been high on potential, but usually acts like he's high on something else.
Chris Mullen is hoping that Coach Nelson can use his magic wand on Williams and finally get him playing a high level for good. At this point, I'd say it's about 50/50. The chances of the Warriors reaching last season's win total? Probably not that favorable, unless Williams and Ellis both take big steps.
Houston Rockets - Who else? Ron Artest.
This man is pretty much the definition of a sports X factor. The chances of Ron Artest playing in the All-Star game are about as good as Artest strangling a 17-year-old Best Buy employee when he finds a copy of his '05 rap release "My World" in the discount bin. If I was a Houston fan, that would scare me. We know it scares the shit out of Yao Ming.
There are a few things working in Houston's favor—mainly Artest's relationship with Adelman and the fact that despite his constant shenanigans, he's always been loved by his teammates. What would worry me the most is that Houston already has one crazy person on it's team, in Rafer Alston, and too many crazies in one locker room is bound to be trouble.
I bet Adelman has a re-occurring nightmare where Artest is fleeing the police in a suped-up Navigator with Alston riding shotgun, who is hanging out the passenger side window and giving the double bird to the cops. Adelman's definitely getting an ulcer this year.
I think it's pretty straightforward. If Artest does his thing, then they are a contender for the throne. If Artest disappoints, then I don't see them making it out of the first round, once again.
Denver Nuggets- The Birdman
I wonder if some of Chris Anderson's old partying buddies from his first stint in Denver will come calling now that the Birdman has flown back into town. I think the Chris Anderson reality show is overdue. Besides that, I kind of find this Nuggets team boring and I think they've pretty much peaked. It could be a long year in Denver.
Phoenix Suns - Father Time
It's no secret that this current Suns core has a very limited life span left. Whenever Father Time tip toes up behind the platoon of Phoenix's aging stars (Nash, O'Neal, Hill, Bell), I'm predicting a pretty steep decline. If they catch a couple of bad breaks with injuries this season, they might miss the postseason all together. Even if everyone stays healthy, there is a growing sentiment that Phoenix's time may have already come and gone.
More importantly, does anyone else think Father Time would look a lot like Hubie Brown?
Runner-Up for X-Factor: Terry Porter as head coach
2nd Runner Up: Just how fat Boris Diaw will be when he shows up for training camp. That's always a fun tradition.
LA Clippers - Ricky Davis
You know, for someone who can obviously score at a pro level (six straight seasons of over 13 PPG; career high of 20.6 in 02-03) and does other things well for his position (rebounds and assists usually around 4 per game), Ricky Davis gets passed around the NBA like a skin mag in a muffler shop lunchroom. He's played for the Hornets, the Heat twice, the Cavs, Celts, T-Wolves and now the Clippers.
Things that make you go hmmm...
The Clippers marquee signing was Baron Davis, and he helped take Stephen Jackson to another level, who was also considered a renegade of sorts not too long ago, so I wouldn't be surprised if ol' Ricardo has a good year. The Clippers will probably need some serious overachievement to break back into the playoffs, and tricky Ricky is no exception. He might just be the key.
Portland Trail Blazers - Oden's knee
All signs coming out of Portland about Oden's knee have been positive, and there's enough talent surrounding him that if Oden takes a year to shake off the rust and get his confidence back, the Blazers could still be pretty good. But if Oden can contribute some high level rebounding and shot blocking, then I think they'll find the 6-8 range in the West. If Oden has an average year or misses significant time, they might spend another year learning some lessons before they break that playoff drought.
Part Two is coming in a day or two, where I'll drop x-factors for Utah, San Antonio, LAL, New Orleans and Dallas.