The Eastern Conference is more lopsided than ever, with three primary contenders in the Celtics, Magic, and Heat. The Western Conference, however, is a different story.
Every Western Conference playoff team won at least 50 games last year. The competitive first round series between the first-seeded Lakers and the eighth-seeded Thunder was an example of the West's amazing depth.
This year looks to be more of the same. However, some of the teams have dropped off a bit. It’s difficult to predict the seeding, especially if the race is as tight as it was last year. Let’s see how the West shapes up this year.
No. 8 New Orleans Hornets
I like this bunch. A lot of people don’t think this team is built make the postseason, but I think they can sneak in. They are on of my three surprise teams to watch for this year.
They have a new coach in Monty Williams, who served under Nate McMillan in Portland. They’ve added a couple of new pieces in an attempt to entice Chris Paul to stay. Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Willie Green, and Jason Smith are all newcomers that should make significant contributions.
Washington rookie Quincy Pondexter might get some significant minutes as well. Marcus Thornton will continue to flourish with an outstanding floor general in Chris Paul leading the way.
I just don't know if trading away Darren Collison was the right move. If Paul misses some significant time again, these guys are in trouble. The frontcourt tandem of David West and Emeka Okafor is solid.
Look for Ariza to have a quality year now that he is in a similar situation that he was in with the Lakers. The Rockets were asking him to create and score more than what was his comfort level.
Paul is determined to succeed this year. This bunch sneaks in the playoffs with 46-48 wins.
No. 7 Denver Nuggets
This will be a tough year for the Nuggets.
They’ve had to deal with the constant barrage of Carmelo Anthony trade talks. Who knows if Melo will still be a Nugget past this year’s trade deadline. It sure doesn’t seem like he wants to stick around for long.
They could have made moves to improve their roster, but the only addition they made was Al Harrington. Nothing against Harrington, but he’s basically a Kenyon Martin clone.
Martin has been battling injuries recently and hasn’t been the same player of late. The Nuggets look a little thin in the frontcourt, as Martin is scheduled to be out until December and Anderson will miss a couple of games to start the season.
Nene and Harrington will have to step up this season and perform. This Nuggets team, as currently put together, doesn’t look like they can compete with the best of the West. Add Melo’s status in limbo and it results in a shaky season for this Nuggets team. Hey, at least they still have Chauncey Billups. They’ll stumble into the postseason with 48-50 wins.
No. 6 Utah Jazz
The Bulls practically gutted the Jazz roster. Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and Carlos Boozer have all been transferred to the Windy City.
Not to worry, though. They picked up Timberwolves big man Al Jefferson to fill the void.
The Jazz have a pretty good frontcourt lineup in Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Mehmet Okur. Millsap will have his time to shine at power forward now that Boozer is gone. Okur will be a nice bench piece to provide a spark.
The Jazz stayed busy this offseason. They signed Raja Bell, athletic swingman C.J. Watson from Golden State, and drafted Gordon Hayward.
Jerry Sloan is one of the best coaches in basketball and he is the right man to mesh these new pieces with the mainstays. I’m sure Deron Williams won’t miss a beat with the absence of Boozer by feeding two big bodies in Jefferson and Millsap.
The injuries to Kirilenko and Okur hurt this team in the playoffs last year. The Jazz look strong again this year, and could finished higher in the West. I’ll give them 50-53 wins.
No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers
This squad is full of "ifs". This has been the case since they’ve had Greg Oden. He has been the bud of many injury jokes, and people have been labeling him as a bust. While it’s too early to say that, he needs to start showing that he can play something close to a full season.
He has played a combined 82 games in three seasons. Brandon Roy also had problems staying healthy during the playoffs last year. Joel Przybilla was also hurt, leaving them thin at center until they picked up Marcus Camby in a trade. Now, barring injury, the Blazers are in a position to compete with the Lakers.
The only lingering problem is Rudy Fernandez. He wants out, and the Blazers have been slow in attempts to trade him. Another puzzling move was signing Wesley Matthews to a five-year $32 million deal. Nobody knows exactly how that happened.
All in all, these guys should be pretty darn good IF they can stay healthy. They’ll win 50-54 games.
No. 4 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs are masters of the regular season. They seem to be in the top echelon every year, only to flop in the playoffs. They have a couple of newcomers that could make an impact, but not a big enough one.
The biggest addition to the team was Tyson Chandler. I could see Kidd and Chandler hooking up on a couple of nice lob plays, similar to Chandler’s stint with Chris Paul and the Hornets. They also signed Ian Mahinmi away from the Spurs.
The Mavs have the same core returning. They have their rock in Dirk Nowitzki, an aging yet still capable Jason Kidd, sharpshooting ace in Jason Terry, defensively-minded Shawn Marion, and tough-minded scorer Caron Butler. I’m afraid they are headed for similar results unless Dirk shows us all something we’ve never seen out of him, or if Mark Cuban can land Carmelo Anthony (long shot).
Dirk just hasn’t shown that he can be a featured player on a championship team. I really don’t see that changing this year. They’ll win 52-55 games, but after that, they’ve got some proving to do.
No. 3 San Antonio Spurs
The old guys from the Alamo City never seem to go away. This year, like many years, they are flying under the radar. The difference is that this year they have the potential to dethrone the mighty Lakers. That’s right, I said it.
Tim Duncan is still the core of the team. Tony Parker is playing with a chip on his shoulder in a contract year after missing significant playing time due to injury last season. Manu Ginobili is still Manu. It’s the young core that will propel this team.
An improving DeJaun Blair, who has been working on his all-around game, looks to contribute greatly this year. George Hill finished second in the most improved player voting last season. He will only get better as time goes on and he gets more playing time.
The arrival of Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter will make the most difference. He is also the guy that Ron Artest knows nothing about. He will provide some much needed help on the defensive end in defending pick-and-rolls.
Oklahoma State standout James Anderson looks to be a key contributor as well. I like the Spurs winning 52-56 games this year.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder
I almost put the Spurs in this spot, but in the West, anything can happen. The Thunder have been raved about throughout this offseason as the team to challenge the Lakers out West. I’m not sure they are at that level yet.
Yes, they did scare the champs last year in the opening round. One thing is certain, Kevin Durant is ridiculously talented. Not one person can deny that. His range is unbelievable for a player of his size. The Thunder return with basically the same roster, and for good reason.
Both Durant and Russell Westbrook are better for their time in the FIBA games this summer. Look for Westbrook to have a breakout type of year. I like this young group. I’m looking to see the improvement from James Harden and Jeff Green as well.
They are going to need those two, among others, to step up and support Durant and Westbrook. I like the Thunder this year, but I’m not sold that they can beat the Lakers. They will win 52-56 games this year.
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers
You can pretty much pencil the Lakers as the first seed in the West. That is, unless Kobe Bryant’s body finally collapses and he has to sit out some games.
The same core is returning with the addition of Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Theo Ratliff. Andrew Bynum still can’t get healthy. He’ll sit out until at least November, according to him. What else is there to say? The Lakers are the champs until someone knocks them off.
The West is not as one-sided as people have been pegging it to be though. There are other teams that can defeat them in a seven game series, now let’s see if they can. The Lakers roll into the playoffs with 56-60 wins.
Check out my Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions, as well as other blogs of mine. Thanks for reading.