Welcome to the second installment of the unenviable job of predicting the outcome of a surprising and thrilling 07-08 NBA season.
After the Eastern Conference preview and a high profile trade between the Grizzlies and Lakers, a little tweaking and fine tuning was neccessary before this article could be released.
It does not take a high-paid writer or analyst to come up with the observation that the class of the NBA resides west of the Mississippi. Over the past five seasons the West has been able to boasted 26 teams recording fifty-win seasons, while in the same time period the East has had just ten. This season 10 of the 15 teams out West hold records above the .500 mark, signifying that there will be many deserving teams getting an early start to the offseason.
Once the playoffs begin, the West has the potential to be a wide open crapshoot with the hottest team come April and May having the best shot of taking it all. Without further hesitation, we reveal final positions for the Western Conference.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (Currently 10-36, Projected 16-66)
Beginning with their offseason woes -which could be attributed to GM Kevin McHale letting loose a bit of Celtic Pride- the 2007-2008 campaign has been a disaster for the Wolves.
On paper, Minnesota has the talent in place to compete, and in the East might be a playoff contender.
However in the Western Conferece, the young squad is over matched from the minute they step on the floor each night. Injuries to Randy Foye and the inconsistencies in Sebastian Telfair's game have doomed Minnesota at the point guard position. Also, the Wolves lack steady performances from any player outside Al Jefferson; thus, the picture is clear for the Wolves standing in the West.
In Jefferson, the Wolves have a bonafide superstar in the making, paired with young talent such as Foye, Rashad McCants and Corey Brewer, the Wolves have the nucleus in place to build in the near future. With Theo Ratliff's contract expiring, it will be interesting to see McHale's offseason plan with the cap flexibility.
14. Seattle Supersonics (Currently 11-35, Projected 22-60)
The Kevin Durant Era in the Northwest has offered few surprises early in the year.
After parting ways with sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Durant has shot early and often, leading the Sonics and all rookies with 19.6 points per game, albeit on 40% shooting and a dismal 28% from long range.
As he has grown this season, Durant has exhibited more presence on the court and is developing the skill to control an NBA game while creating off the dribble. Down the stretch, Durant should be able to squeeze a few wins out for the Sonics along the tough road that includes a seven game road trip to open the month of March and 25 games remaining against conference opponents.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (Currently 13-33, Projected 22-60)
Much like my assessment of Milwaukee in the East, I feel the same way about Memphis out West. Top to bottom this roster has players who can make an impact each and every night.
Without the departed Pau Gasol, the Grizz will struggle down the stretch against the opposition. However, after also shipping Stromile Swift to the Nets and unloading Gasol's contract for the expiring deal of Kwame Brown, the Grizzlies have put themselves in excellent position financially to build around young talent in Rudy Gay, Mike Miller, Mike Conley and Darko Milicic.
As for this season I had Memphis penciled in at 26 wins but knocked them down a peg or two after trading their seven foot star for little talent in return.
12. Los Angeles Clippers (Currently 14-29, Projected 24-58)
After years of wondering, I am finally to the point where I have to give up on the Clips.
Year in and year out I force myself to see through the franchise's consistent failures, looking at the talent on paper and seeing no reason the Clippers can't contend in the West. After a playoff appearance last year on the back of former top pick Elton Brand, the Clippers appeared ready to be a force in the 2007-2008 season.
After a devastating Achilles injury to Brand in the offseason, and another knee injury for the promising Shaun Livingston, the Clippers have regressed back to their old losing ways, relegated again to the Los Angeles B team in the face of the surging Lakers. Despite the emergence of Chris Kaman this season, injuries to him along with Corey Maggette as well as inconsistencies across the board have the Clippers bound for another lottery pick in 2008.
11. Sacramento Kings (Currently 21-24, Projected 35-47)
Another team that suffered an injury to a team leader before the opening tip of the campaign, Mike Bibby's recent return has sparked the Kings.
Although Bibby has performed below his average since his return, Sacramento has posted a 6-3 record with Bibby in the lineup. Ron Artest has shed his Pacer image and has developed into one of the most underrated players in the league.
Bright spots across the board are present in Sacramento, from Brad Miller's resurgence to the solid play of Beno Udrih, John Salmons and Francisco Garcia. However, the Kings are buried in the depths of the West and with 27 games remaining against their conference adversaries -including 9 of 10 on the road surrounding the All-Star break.
10. Portland TrailBlazers (Currently 27-19, Projected 44-38)
The NBA's feel good story of the year.
After the loss of #1 overall pick Greg Oden, the Blazers were quickly written off to begin the season. However, after wins over powerhouses Detroit, Dallas and New Orleans in November, accompanied by a 13-game winning streak stretching nearly the length of December, Portland quickly established themselves as a team to reckon with out West.
After removing Portland's stretch of 17 wins in 18 games, the Blazers are just 10-18. While an exciting young core of players headed by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge might give Blazers fans a reason to cheer for years to come, they seem to be a couple years removed yet.
9. Houston Rockets (Currently 26-20, Projected 45-37)
The Rockets missing the playoffs this season would be the West's equivalent of Miami's disappointing season in the East. They have been inconsistent, to put it mildly.
After a strong start by Tracy McGrady, the Rockets tapered off and into the logjam in the middle of the West.
Throughout McGrady's recent injury, Yao Ming has emerged in a big way, averaging 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds over the past month. Outside of Yao, the Rockets have shown sporadic play on the front lines with Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes, as well as in the backcourt, with Luther Head and Rafer Alston.
Currently holding down the 10th position in the West, the hill may be just a little to steep for the Rockets to ascend this season.
8. Golden State Warriors (Currently 29-19, Projected 48-34)
As word began to spread of Don Nelson's exciting offense beginning to thrive in the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors have developed a following by enthusiasts seeking fast paced high tempo basketball.
The Warriors can create matchup disasters for any team on any night led by star point guard Baron Davis and anchored by the likes of Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Al Harrington and the massively underrated Stephen "Captain Jack" Jackson. The addition of seasoned veteran Chris Webber adds another intangible to the Golden State equation.
Currently standing as the West's 8 seed after an 0-6 start, seven straight against the Eastern Conference will be a chance for the Warriors to put a solid cushion between themselves and other playoff contenders heading into the final month of the regular season.
7. Denver Nuggets (Currently 27-18, Projected 48-34)
Allen Iverson's 27 points per contest accentuate Carmelo Anthony's 25.5 quite nicely, making I-3 and Melo a 1-2 scoring attack that no team in the league can counter with.
Add in the weak-side shot blocking of Marcus Camby (3.9 per) and the Mountain Region has a big three that could rival anyone in the league. A season ending injury to Chucky Atkins removed a vital role player from the equation, while Nene's tumor removal left a hole in the frontcourt. Linas Kleiza has been an impact player coming off the bench with the ability to score against the NBA's best, as evidenced by his 41 point outburst on January 17th against division rival Utah.
As with most teams in the conference, Denver could be a low seed to create headaches for any powerhouse in the West
6. Utah Jazz (Currently 29-18, Projected 49-33)
After a rocky start, Jerry Sloan has the Jazz playing the style of basketball that earned the team a berth in the Western Conference Finals last season.
Utah leads the league in field goal percentage and, after winning 13 of their last 15, the Jazz find themselves atop the highly contested Northwest Division.
In spite of shaky numbers from Mehmet Okur, and Carlos Boozer's steady decline since the beginning of the season, the Jazz have continued to get by. Deron Williams' continued improvement running the offense along with a bounce back season from Andrei Kirilenko and the December trade for 3 point specialist Kyle Korver have the Jazz looking for a division title followed by a repeat performance of last years' playoff run, if not more.
5. Los Angeles Lakers (Currently 29-15, Projected 55-27)
Jack Nicholson surely has the widest smile in Tinseltown this weekend.
After GM Mitch Kupchak's move for Pau Gasol, the Lakers have gone from a tough out in the 2008 playoffs to a legitimate Finals contender. Since the injury to Andrew Bynum, perennial MVP candidate Kobe Bryant has upped his game to a new level, averaging 34 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in Bynum's absence.
With a relatively tough schedule down the stretch, including their current nine-game road trip, the Lakers may have trouble climbing in the standings, but should use the time to develop their core of Bryant, Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom. This team could go deep into the playoffs.
4. San Antonio Spurs (Currently 29-16, Projected 56-26)
In the middle of their annual rodeo road trip, the Spurs are preparing to add former NBA Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire to the fold as they prime for another title run.
Tim Duncan continues to let his numbers do the talking, as he has led the Spurs to a quiet yet successful season. Although sidelined with bone spurs, Tony Parker figures to return to run the Spurs soon, with Sixth Man of the Year favorite Manu Ginobili, as the Spurs go for the repeat.
With the next seven games being played against the Eastern Conference, the Spurs could use the road trip as a chance to gain ground on fellow Southwest Division powerhouses New Orleans and Dallas and prepare for a run at home court in the conference.
3. New Orleans Hornets (Currently 32-14, Projected 59-23)
New Orleans rise to dominance this year has come as quite the shocker to most NBA fans.
If you look a little deeper, however, the Hornets front office has put together a roster of players that each fit into their role on the court.
With David West's breakout season and Tyson Chandler continuing to warrant his selection as the Bulls former #2 overall pick, New Orleans has a great tandem in the front court. Peja Stojakavic's outside shooting and MVP candidate Chris Paul's emergence as one of the best point guards in the league have the Hornets sniffing a division title and a deep playoff run.
Coming off an eight game winning streak and with 17 of 37 against the Eastern Conference, New Orleans has the potential to run away with homecourt in the West. However, youth and road trips such as the 6 game swing towards the end of the season may prove to be too much for the Hornets to hold ground ahead of San Antonio and Dallas.
2. Dallas Mavericks (Currently 31-14, Projected 60-22)
With trade talks with the Nets for Jason Kidd beginning to fizzle, it will be interesting to see if the Mavs turn up the heat after the All-Star break especially since the Lakers may have shifted the balance in the West.
In order to land Kidd, the Mavericks will likely have to part ways with former first round pick and Mark Cuban favorite Devin Harris. In his fourth season, Harris has shown flashes of brilliance with extended minutes in the Mavs backcourt. With Jason Terry providing energy off the bench, Josh Howard's continued improvement, and reigning MVP Dirk Nowitzki having upped his game in the past month, the Mavs are within striking distance of the West's top spot.
Look for the Mavs to rebound from last year's playoff disappointment. They have shown serious signs of maturity this year and will be able to deal with the pressure in the 2008 playoffs.
1. Phoenix Suns (Currently 33-14, Projected 61-21)
Down in the desert, Mike D'Antoni has his Suns team atop the Western Conference again, as Steve Nash continues to dominate.
Stoudemire and Nash are up to their same old habits. Questions have arisen about the Suns' ability to win big games, as they hold a dismal 14-12 record against their counterparts in the West.
As teams continue to scratch and battle for position in the West, look for D'Antoni to continue to push his team down the stretch as the Suns finish atop the Western Conference once again.