Over the last couple of seasons, the balance of power in the NBA has been shifting little by little from the Western Conference back to the East. This past summer, the pace of that shift accelerated. The arrival of Lebron James and Chris Bosh in Miami makes the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference stronger than that of the West.
However, the shift is not complete, as the Western Conference is still much stronger top to bottom. In my estimation, there are 12 teams out west that have reason for legitimate playoff aspirations. Those teams operate out of Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Utah, Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, and Oakland.
Of those 12, six are virtual locks for the postseason: Lakers, Mavericks, Jazz, Blazers, Spurs, and Thunder.
That leaves six solid teams competing for two playoff spots. Oakland's Golden State Warriors showed enough promise last season, and added enough pieces this past summer to suggest that they just might snag one of those two remaining playoff berths.
Some of the reasons Golden State gets in this year:
The Guards: Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis form one of the most talented, explosive, and underrated backcourts in the NBA. Bleacher Report featured columnist, Hadarii Jones recently argued that the Warriors best offseason move (or non-move) was keeping this backcourt intact.
Last season, Curry and Ellis combined for 43 points, 11.2 assists, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.1 steals per game. Their combined shooting percentages were: 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line. There isn't a more productive PG/SG combo in the league.
As for defense, lack of size and Stephen Curry's lack of NBA experience hurt them over and over last year. Curry has been working on his man to man defense this offseason and should naturally improve with time in the league as well. Plus, they will have a couple more good defenders around them this year if everyone stays healthy.
David Lee: Lee fits in nicely on this team of underrated players. A side by side comparison of David Lee and the highly publicized Amare Stoudemire is very telling:
|Per Game||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Blocks||Steals||Field Goal %|
David Lee is a far more productive player than most people realize and Golden State has been missing this kind of interior player for years. The reliance on scoring almost all their points from the perimeter has plagued the Warriors since Don Nelson took over. With Lee, they can finally have some balance.
Improved Defense and Rebounding: Health was a big issue for Golden State last year. They had several key players out for extended periods of time last year. One such player was Andris Biedrins, who had begun to show some real promise prior to his injury-plagued 2009-2010 campaign.
In the two previous seasons, Biedrins averaged 11.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. His numbers certainly weren't staggering, but his presence inside was important. Without him in the lineup for the majority of last season, opposing slashers were generally unimpeded on their way to the rim against the Warriors.
If Biedrins can stay healthy, he will be a solid anchor for this defense.
Rookie Ekpe Udoh could also be a factor inside this year. He averaged 3.7 blocks per game for Baylor last year. He is very athletic, and will almost certainly alter plenty of shots this year.
Golden State also added a capable wing defender this offseason in Dorell Wright. This could be a breakout season for Wright offensively, but he's mostly been brought in for defensive purposes.
He'll likely get the most difficult assignments on defense. Wright will be asked to guard the likes of Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
Because of his length and athleticism, Wright will be able to at least slow these players down. That is really all you can ask of a defender against the league's top offensive talents.
When it comes to rebounding, Golden State was dead last in the NBA last year. Because of injuries and Don Nelson's love of small ball, we often saw 6'6" Corey Maggette playing power forward for this team. 6'8" Anthony Tolliver started 29 games at center. Such lineups may be fast, but they simply cannot compete on the boards against most NBA frontlines.
David Lee is a rebounding machine and will instantly be a factor on the glass. Plus, if Biedrins and Brandan Wright can stay healthy, they'll help as well.
Depth: Like I mentioned before, this team was devastated by injuries last season. If Golden State's young talent can live up to their potential and stay healthy they could be a very deep team. The current starting lineup features Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, David Lee, and Andris Biedrins.
It looks like each one of those players has a capable backup. Point guard Jeremy Lin turned a lot of heads in the summer league this year. He'll be a fan favorite all year since he grew up in Northern California. Though he's unproven, I believe he'll be an adequate backup for Curry and will excite the crowd with every decent play he makes in Oakland.
Other solid bench players include Louis Amundson, Charlie Bell, Vladimir Radmanovic, Ekpe Udoh, Reggie Williams, and Brandan Wright.
Amundson is an athletic workhorse who will look like David Lee Light when he enters the game. Radmanovic is a proven sharpshooter who will stretch the floor. Udoh and Wright both young, athletic and long.
Finally, there's Reggie Williams. He'll likely be the sixth man for this team and a dangerous weapon off the bunch. An undrafted small forward from the Virginia Military Institute, Williams averaged 15.2 points on 50% shooting in 24 games toward the end of last year. He also shot 36% from three-point range. He will be a major spark off the bench.
New Coach: Ever since Don Nelson became the coach of the Golden State Warriors, the desire for defense has seemed nonexistent.
At times, it looked as though Nelson wasn't coaching at all. Players never got back on defense, loved to run on offense, freely launched three-pointers from all over the floor, and just played with a general carelessness you'd be hard pressed to find from any other team.
They still won a few games, simply because they had some extremely gifted scorers. Players like Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson, and Monta Ellis all put up a lot of points but never experienced much real team success.
The crowning achievement of Nelson's recent stint with this team was the 2007 first round beating they administered to the top seeded Dallas Mavericks. This was a great moment for the Warriors. Sadly, it may be the only great moment over the last few seasons.
Nelson was recently replaced by defensive-minded coach Keith Smart. This team will still be explosive on offense because of the weapons they've assembled. However, now those same players will be asked to apply their gifts at both ends of the court.
Changing the culture and attitude of this team could take a while. Assembling something that even resembles a decent NBA defense in this first season would be a respectable achievement for coach Smart.
New Owner, New Attitude: Owners can have a significant impact on their franchises. Look at the way Mark Cuban resurrected the Mavericks franchise and helped turn them into a perennial 50-win team. Look at the way Jerry Buss has helped his team to be arguably the greatest basketball franchise of all-time.
Golden State's new owner Joe Lacob, looks like he could be the type of passionate owner who can cultivate a winning spirit throughout his organization. His attitude will filter down through management, coaches and players.
Believing you will succeed is critical to success.
The Warriors have a great shot at the playoffs this year. They may be young, and they may play in the always deep Western Conference, but many of the right pieces are now in place.