There has been a lot of talk about the superstars of the NBA joining forces in an attempt to win a championship in a way that has never been seen before in the league. It started over the summer with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami, before continuing this season with Carmelo Anthony joining the Knicks.
There were other lesser stars who joined ascending teams, such as Carlos Boozer joining the Bulls. But have these moves created a sort of parity at the top of the standings? While this has left the bottom feeders of the league in terrible shape, it sets up an intriguing postseason which will likely be more unpredictable than ever.
Even with so many top players heading to the Eastern Conference, the West still has more than its fair share of elite talent. The obvious team to start with is the defending-champion L.A. Lakers. Led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, they remain the favorites despite their sluggish regular season. If Andrew Bynum is healthy then one would have to think they could turn it on again for the playoffs.
But one has to wonder if all the consecutive years of deep runs has left this team with any gas in the tank.
Another key factor is the quality of the other top teams in the West. The Thunder gave them problems last year and have added the size they were missing, while the Spurs are finally healthy enough to pose them a real threat. Despite such opposition, the Lakers will be the champions until someone knocks them off.
Another perennial contender, the San Antonio Spurs, seems poised to make a deep run. Their stars are playing less minutes and resting while the role players find themselves on the court for valuable minutes. Greg Popovich has changed the forte of the team as they have played more uptempo basketball, but expect a healthy dose of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as the games begin to bog down.
Two big items to watch for are how well the Spurs unheralded young players perform in the playoffs and how the team matches up with younger, more athletic teams. A Conference Finals match up between San Antonio and Los Angeles would likely be a fantastic series to watch, but there is a decent chance that neither even gets that far.
The Dallas Mavericks have been on the cusp of a championship-caliber team for many seasons, yet they cannot seem to get over the hump. Dirk Nowitzki is by far the best shooting big man in the league and his game is unlike anyone else's in the NBA. They finally have a decent big man in Tyson Chandler and enough talent to beat any team on a given day.
Still, this season feels like all of the others in recent memory in that they will win a lot of games in the regular season before ultimately falling short of their goal. Losing Caron Butler for the season was a huge blow which further dented their chances. Despite their lofty record it would be hard to rank them ahead of the Spurs, Lakers or even the Thunder when it comes to playoff expectations this year.
Oklahoma City made noise just before the trade deadline in dealing Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins. Perkins gives the team something they have sorely lacked: an intimidating big man to patrol the paint. While he is never going to be a big-time scorer, putting the ball in the basket is not the Thunder's problem.
Led by the best pure scorer in the league, Kevin Durant, and the impressive Russell Westbrook, it would appear this is the season for a changing of the guard in the Western Conference.
They are not, however, the first up-and-coming team to believe they were ready to make the leap. Having loads of talent while playing well in the regular season is one thing, while learning how to win in the playoffs is something entirely different. While the Thunder certainly have the players to make it all the way to the championship, they still need to prove they belong with the big boys.
After the Top Four there are two other intriguing teams who could pull an upset or two once the postseason starts. Portland is a team which has overcome numerous injuries to players they were counting heavily on to help them this season. LaMarcus Aldridge has proven he is a player capable of carrying the team during stretches.
With the return of Brandon Roy and the addition of Gerald Wallace, the Trail Blazers would be more than a handful for a few teams at the top. The Blazers are a smart basketball team with enough skill to take advantage when their opposition plays poorly. Ultimately, their injuries will catch up to them and they will fall to a more talented and experienced team.
The other potential surprise team is the Denver Nuggets. While their uptempo style would appear to be better suited for the regular season, they could give certain teams fits. Having two above-average point guards on the roster means the ball will be in good hands for most of the time, and they will be very tough if the streaky J.R. Smith gets hot at the right time.
In the end, stars win in the NBA, and until the Nuggets are able to replace Carmelo they will remain a middle-of-the-road team capable of springing a few surprises before being knocked out.
In the end, there are likely three teams with a very good chance to emerge from the Western Conference, and another three which could potentially ruin the seasons of those at the top. It sets up for an exciting few weeks of playoff basketball without even taking into consideration the other half of the bracket.
Out of all the years in recent memory, this one seems to be as hard to predict as any in a long time.