For years now, the Western Conference of the NBA has been brutal. If you didn’t have at least a 50-win team, you couldn’t even dream about making the playoffs. This season may signal the end of that dominance top to bottom.
Right now, the top five teams in the West seem fairly certain, although I am still skeptical of the Hornets, and will be until they beat someone in the postseason.
San Antonio is set for the top spot in the West and, barring injury, looks for all the world to be the odds-on favorite for another NBA Finals run.
Oklahoma City is still young and just feeling their way around real contention. They’ll be in the mid-50s in wins and be happy to be a tough out in the second round, this year, at least.
The Hornets continue to surprise and play much better than expected, although they have first-round knockout written all over them.
That leaves Dallas and the Lakers, two teams that, when healthy, are legit title contenders. They also happen to be two teams frequently mentioned in the ever-present Carmelo Anthony rumors. While I don’t think Melo will ever suit up for either, it does go to show that even the best teams in the league aren’t standing pat.
The six-seven-eight spots out West are where things start to get really interesting. With the news of simultaneous spats with star point guard Deron Williams and Utah GM Kevin O’Connor, Jerry Sloan’s impending resignation will reverberate around the league.
The Jazz are in the midst of a free fall, losing 10 of their last 14 games, and are plummeting down the standings. Subtract the steady hand of Sloan and all bets are off as to whether this is a ship that can or will be righted.
Everyone on the planet knows about the Denver Nuggets and their situation with superstar Anthony. Odds are that he will be traded before the deadline, somewhere and for something not even close to his value to the team—and others, such as Chauncey Billups, could be joining him out of town.
The Nuggets may be holding a playoff spot right now, but they could be a very, very different team in a few weeks.
And then there’s the plight of the Portland Trail Blazers. Once thought as the rising power in the NBA, injuries have simply killed this franchise. Somehow, coach Nate McMillan still has them over .500, but with healthy bodies dropping like flies once again in Portland, can that luck hold out?
All three of these teams have been mentioned as potentially active traders at the deadline, so it is impossible to know exactly what these rosters will look like.
Will the recent cold spell and Sloan’s defection lead to a major overhaul in Utah? Will Denver start the fire-sale and bag the season? And is anyone on Portland untouchable in the right deal?
If I’m the Memphis Grizzlies, I am thrilled right now. Sitting two games over .500 and slightly behind Portland, Memphis is in prime position to not only get into the playoffs, but could get as high as a five- or six-seed, depending on whether New Orleans has the goods to keep it up.
Plus, they have O.J. Mayo as a trade chip, that is, if anyone wants him at this point, and if they can get anything of value for him.
Phoenix and Houston, two other teams on the outside looking in, may only be one hot streak away from getting back into the playoff picture themselves.
The Rockets, in particular, are expected to be active at the deadline, and may find themselves to be the polar opposite of the three fading Western Conference clubs. If the Suns hold on to Nash, they have a shot.
Remember, last season Phoenix didn’t get rolling until after the All-Star Break and they pushed that run all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Any way around it, the West has possibly become irrevocably transformed from a 10-deep conference to a big-four with a cast of pretenders.
And considering that the Spurs are a Ginobili injury (something that has an odd way of happening virtually every spring) away from dropping out of legit championship status, the Lakers have struggled mightily against top teams, Dallas will forever be doubted until they actually win a title and Oklahoma City is still too thin and inexperienced to run the table, how the mighty have fallen in the West, indeed.