Predicting the 8 NBA Playoff Teams Coming out of the West in 2012
The one thing that is changing in the West is the way teams are trending.
Teams like Portland and Oklahoma City seem to be getting better and becoming threats for big things. They have a young corps still meshing together and have room for improvements.
The Mavericks and Lakers could make some moves to bring in new blood, but if not they shouldn't show any signs of a downwards trend.
Let's look at how the West could play out come playoff time in 2012.
Eighth Seed: Houston Rockets
With the Ming dynasty over in Houston, it could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Although Yao was a free agent, there was a major possibility the Rockets would pursue a new contract with the 7'6" center from China.
Fortunately, the Rockets are left with a team that can compete for a playoff spot now.
Surprisingly, Houston was one of the top offenses in the NBA last year, being a top three team in points and leading the league in assists.
Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola did a superb job in helping anchor the Rockets to being a competitive team, but they ultimately fell one spot short of the playoffs.
Defensively they lacked intensity, eventually trading away Shane Battier, Houston's best defender. A physical inside presence was missed, but odds are they will spend some money acquiring a defensive big man to fill the void.
Houston also has a ton of potential with the younger players on the bench.
Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris could provide the Rockets with some productive minutes in 2012 and maybe even bud into stars in the future.
Look for the offensive Rockets to steal a playoff spot for the first time since '08-'09.
Seventh Seed: Los Angeles Clippers
The name on the back of this jersey will lead the Los Angeles Clippers to great things.
With Blake Griffin winning a Rookie of the Year Award in 2011, his delayed debut has shown true promise.
Griffin was fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game at 12.1 and also contributed 22.5 points a game.
Not only is that impressive, but his physical play and highlight reel dunks will give fans something to look forward to every game.
Eric Gordon was on his way to having a career year averaging 22.3 points a game before nagging injuries took away a significant chunk of his season.
The Clippers will have to have a huge turnaround season after finishing 32-50 last year, but hopefully a whole season from Gordon will give them a boost.
Griffin and Gordon will be a high scoring duo for years to come, and with a good supporting cast this team can have a lot of promise.
Re-signing restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan should be a top priority. He's one of the more athletic big men in the game and brings a major defensive presence, averaging 1.8 blocks a game in only 25 minutes a game in 2010.
Just to think, this team was so close to drafting Kyrie Irving. Ouch, better hope Mo Williams pays off.
Sixth Seed: San Antonio Spurs
This is a huge drop-off considering they were the top seed in the West last year, but how much left do they have?
The Spurs stayed healthy last year, but this is a team filled with stars suffering from nagging injuries.
Tim Duncan had his worst career year in 2011, failing to average a double-double for the first time. He watched his minutes dwindle and showed major signs of decline.
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were productive for San Antonio last year, but were not enough to give the lifeless Spurs a trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Richard Jefferson never truly found his place in San Antonio and eventually watch his role for the team slip. The bright spot for Jefferson is he has significantly improved his three-point shot since being with the Spurs.
Maybe a few moves could revitalize the veteran Spurs, but even with what they have now should never be counted out.
Never consider this team an underdog; it can still compete with any team in the NBA.
Fifth Seed: Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis had an impressive playoff run in 2011, knocking off the top-seeded Spurs and taking OKC to a entertaining seven-game series.
Now that the Grizzlies are on the map, they will jump to a fifth seed in the 2012 playoffs.
Zach Randolph finally received the attention he deserved as one of the NBA's most dangerous big men after destroying the Spurs. Randolph had another double-double season for the Grizzlies, averaging 20 and 12.
With Rudy Gay being healthy next year, he will provide the athletic swing man the Grizzlies needed in the playoffs. Gay has the true potential to make multiple All-Star appearances and could be the franchise player for Memphis.
Marc Gasol didn't have the best year statistically but showed signs of progressing as an overall player. Although he is a restricted free agent, there is a chance many teams will overpay to acquire the best big man in the free agent class. At the same time, Memphis could match an offer to remain contenders in the West.
Speaking of moves, it is highly possible the Grizzlies could dish the potential of O.J. Mayo to a team willing to cough up the talent necessary. Many suitors like the Bulls have the pieces that could benefit both teams.
Now only if we could get rid of this pesky lockout we could make some moves.
Anyway you put it, Memphis is one of the teams with an improving trend and could shock some more people in 2012.
Fourth Seed: Portland Trail Blazers
This may be a bold choice, but a healthy Blazers team can upset any team in the NBA.
Injuries have plagued the original two centerpieces in Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, but with limited minutes these guys can really be effective for Portland.
In the Trail Blazers' two playoff victories, Roy put in 40 points to upset the Dallas Mavericks. For comparison, Roy had 16 combined points in Portland's four losses.
Roy's star days are over, but he can be one of the better role players in the league if utilized right.
Do you think the Trail Blazers regret passing up on Kevin Durant in 2007? Either way, they have a big decision to make in bringing back top pick Oden.
Besides looking like a 50-year-old LeBron James, Oden can still provide a force inside for Portland. He has shown ability to be great in the NBA, now only if he can stay healthy...
This leads us to LaMarcus Aldridge, the most underrated player in the NBA.
Aldridge had another All-Star-caliber year in 2011, leading the injured Blazers into the post season. He dominated inside, averaging 21.8 points a game and shooting 50 percent from the floor.
While showing leadership ability, Aldridge has made Portland his team.
Aldridge is primed to have another big year next season and should be a lock for an All-Star position.
Wesley Matthews filled Roy's shoes with great promise and could take over the starting shooting guard position.
Portland also got a steal in trading for Raymond Felton. Not only did the Blazers get younger, but they received a much needed upgrade at the point guard position.
If Felton's time in New York proved anything, he could be a cornerstone to Portland's success.
Third Seed: Dallas Mavericks
In 2011, Dallas made a point that teamwork is the most important ingredient to a winning formula .
After years of disappointing early playoff exits, Dallas claimed the throne as NBA champions.
However, Dallas is in danger of losing a big portion of its team to free agency. Names like J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson could pursue better opportunities, but the Mavericks still have a deep team to work with.
Dirk Nowitzki recently solidified his status as one of the greatest, most unique power forwards in NBA history.
Age wasn't a factor for Nowitzki last year, as he had his best showing since his MVP season in 2007. He continues to work on his jumper and had an NBA Finals performance that will always be remembered.
Jason Kidd has also decided to pass up on retirement and help Dallas defend its championship. He is a true floor general that is vital to the Mavericks' offensive attack. Although slowing down physically, he still hustles and knows how to play a team-based defense.
The pivotal Jason Terry also had a monster finals appearance, hitting clutch shots to sink the Heat.
Dallas looked like the true meaning of a team last year, and if it carries over could have at least one more great run in it.
Second Seed: Los Angeles Lakers
If Kobe Bryant helps the Lakers win a championship in 2012, it will be his first ever without Phil Jackson on the bench.
However, the shouldn't slow down this talented Lakers team.
When he has a chip on his shoulder, Bryant is the most dangerous player in the NBA. The Black Mamba nickname is there for a reason—he is still deadly.
Maybe the most important aspect to the Laker's success would be consistency from the role players.
Pau Gasol had games where he basically disappeared, and Andrew Bynum still hasn't had a full season since '06-'07.
Lamar Odom rightfully won the sixth man award in 2011, and at times seemed to the best second option behind Bryant. Odom played big minutes for the Lakers and nearly averaged a double-double off the bench.
New head coach Mike Brown has the ability to be a great fit for LA, but a lot of that depends on how Kobe and company warm up to him.
Brown preaches defense and helped Cleveland to a few top seeds in the Eastern Conference. However, he also made some questionable decisions come playoff time.
The Lakers could really use a better point guard than Derek Fisher. I understand he has been key in LA's success, but he is a weak defender and doesn't really bring much to the table.
The Lakers should avoid big trade rumors involving Gasol or Odom and just focus on next season.
After Los Angeles was swept by the Dallas Mavericks, it is sure to come back looking for vengeance and another title run.
Also, if anyone is wondering, Luke Walton is still on the Lakers.
First Seed: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder didn't take baby steps in improving over the years, they took giant steps in becoming a perennial contender.
After drafting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in back-to-back years, they have formed a duo that will be deadly for years to come.
While they showed some chemistry issues in the Western Conference Finals, that's to be expected from young players finding their spots on the team.
Durant won his second consecutive scoring title in 2011 and has improved in his team leadership skills as well.
His statistics have actually declined over the last few years, but that should just prove that the Thunder are becoming a well-balanced, complete team.
Westbrook has put his name in talks of best point guard in the NBA. While not being a traditional pass first point guard, Westbrook still averaged 8.2 assists while scoring 21.9.
Westbrook is capable of having his own team built around him, but instead should embrace playing with Durant.
With the NBA gaining more stars every year, odds are you will see many teams with stacked rosters, the Thunder could fall in that category.
James Harden also showed a ton of potential last year. In his second year in the league, Harden's role and workload increased for the young Thunder.
He brings good defensive intensity and an improving offensive game off the bench but could find himself in a starting role in 2012.
Serge Ibaka has also improved, becoming one of the best shot blockers in the NBA. He shows great leaping ability and is a defensive threat to any team.
This is a team with no glaring weaknesses, and if the Thunder remember to play great defense like during 2010 they can be the complete package.
If Oklahoma City's trend continues, it's only a matter of time before it is playing for a NBA title.
In my opinion, the time is now.