You’ve had your turn in the East. Now, let’s go out West where the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks look to repeat, while Oklahoma City looks to rise to the top and the Battle of Los Angeles is on!
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-14)
The Thunder should be licking their chops that a shortened, compact season favors youthful legs and depth. They should also relish the fact that Dallas’ championship roster took a hit and the possibility the Lakers might be the second best team in Los Angeles. If you haven’t noticed by now, OKC is young and consisted of four blue chips that are 23 or younger — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. After their 2010 campaign ended with a first round loss by the eventual champion Lakers, OKC raced out to win 55 games and lost in the conference finals last season to — you guess it, the champs. This time, it was Dallas. Think about it, if they matured to 55 wins last season, what’s the limit this time? Both Dallas and Los Angeles are beatable and if the team is evolving, what’s stopping them from beating either the Lakers or the Mavs this year? Durant will have a big year and the youth of the Thunder will strike severely.
2. Dallas Mavericks (47-19)
The defending NBA champs won with a roster around Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd that did all the little things. From Tyson Chandler to little J.J. Barea, that combo proved fatal for any team in the path come playoff time.
But Chandler went Broadway. Barea left for Minnesota. DeShawn Stevenson is gone. But in their spots are Vince Carter and Delonte West. And of all players — Lamar Odom, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year — fell into their lap for a trade exception. So as much as they lost, they may have gotten back — well, not entirely. We’ll quickly learn if those moves will work out but there’s no question Dallas lost the little things that won it for them last year. Can West, Carter and Odom bring that same dimension but in a different way? Everyone thought Dallas was out against Portland in round one and the Mavs won the championship. Even against the Heat. Something tells me they’ll be there toward the end but we’ll see come playoff time if those moves do prove costly or not, as when the Mavs really start playing their basketball.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (43-23)
Chris Paul isn’t a Laker and the real original kings of L.A. are in flux. Besides that, the team sent Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom to Dallas for a trade exception and Shannon Brown signed with Phoenix. Further more, which might be the most important part missing from the Lakers — the triangle offense is gone thanks in part to Phil Jackson’s retirement. In his place is former Cavs coach Mike Brown. Nothing to take away from Brown — he’s no Zen Master. With a new offense and a team that’s getting older, the Lakers are going to have to sweat for it. How does a team function after running the triangle for so long? It’s up to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to take the slack off Kobe Bryant, who’s entering his 16th NBA season. The 33-year-old won’t lay down for nobody and the Lakers will compete, but can their soft bench — composed of Steve Blake, Jason Kapono, Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts have a similar chemistry that brought the Lakers two-straight titles a year ago? Jackson and Odom shaves off about 4 or 5 wins in the realm of this season, possibly double that in a full 82.
4. Denver Nuggets (42-24)
Wilson Chandler is stuck in China. J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin are, too. But getting Chandler back is their main concern as the team moves forward with a group that isn’t so bad after all. The Carmelo Anthony trade brought a good amount of depth and resigning Nene and Aaron Afflalo were big moves in keeping Denver a contender. Veteran point guard Andre Miller, and wings Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer will align with Danilo Gallinari and Afflalo for one of the deepest squads in the NBA and that alone should keep them in the mix in the West.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (40-26)
When you’re loaded with youth and beat the Spurs in a seven-game series after your best player (Rudy Gay) goes down in mid-February, chances are your stock will rise. That’s Memphis for you. They beat the Spurs and pushed Oklahoma City to seven games in what was the best series of the 2011 playoffs — and again — all without Rudy Gay.
But thank Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph for picking up the slack. And now that Gay is back and returns to a cast consisted of Mike Conley, Randolph, Gasol, O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen, Memphis could be dangerous because they have size and versatility on the wings. Mayo is in a contract year, Allen provides defense and Gasol might be the better of the brothers. You might want to consider Memphis and Oklahoma City battling for the West at some point in the future. May be this year? It could happen. You will want to avoid this team come playoff time.
6. San Antonio Spurs (39-27)
While the Spurs had such a great regular season in 2011 with a record they haven’t posted in nearly five years, winning 60-plus games got them a first round date with the Grizzlies. But youth prevailed and Memphis marched on. Proving? San Antonio is old. And they lacked size which Memphis discovered. With this schedule, how can Tim Duncan (35) and Manu Ginobili (34) hold up? While Tony Parker is still under 30 and he looked well over the summer, the Spurs will have to rely on Ginobili and Parker to reek the havoc they’re capable of. Is there a fountain of youth in San Antonio? Remember the 1997 season where David Robinson was injured for the season and they got Tim Duncan? May be they should do that and get Jared Sullinger next season.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (38-28)
The Clippers! Wait — the Clippers? Yes, it’s true. The Clippers are being noticed for the first time in years and you can thank David Stern. Or Chris Paul, that might be better. Along side Blake Griffin, CP3 might make you wet your pants with the alleys to Griffin. The Clippers might have a hotter ticket than their in-stadium rival Lakers. It’s not crazy talk. The “other” Los Angeles brought in vets like Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups to fill out the lineup and the resigning of DeAndre Jordan only adds intrigue at center. The problem that lies for the Clips is the lack of depth and coaching. Vinny Del Negro won’t be the guy for long and the depth they gave up for Paul will catch up. They’ll need both of those things to solidify their status, but it’s very possible the Clippers will soon be looking at a championship banner that doesn’t say Lakers. Clippers? Championship? When were those two words been in a sentence together?
Sleeper idea? Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin taking exceptions in March?
8. Portland Trail Blazers (38-28)
Brandon Roy’s knees forced him the Blazers heart and soul and fan favorite to retire and now the Blazers turn to LaMarcus Aldridge to carry the team. But it isn’t like the Blazers have been without Roy before. The same song can be played for Greg Oden. Portland did pickup Jamal Crawford and backup forward Kurt Thomas should provide valuable minutes for a team that will rely on Wesley Matthews’ stellar play on the wing, Gerald Wallace’s frantic pace and Raymond Felton’s abilities at point — which are not as great as Andre Miller’s.
9. Houston Rockets (36-30)
10. Phoenix Suns (32-34)
11. Golden State Warriors (28-38)
12. New Orleans Hornets (23-43)
13. Sacramento Kings (21-45)
13. Minnesota Timberwolves (21-45)
15. Utah Jazz (17-49)
Playoff scenarios – Western Conference First Round
(1) Oklahoma City over (8) Portland
(2) Dallas over (7) L.A. Clippers
(3) L.A. Lakers over (6) San Antonio
(5) Memphis over (4) Denver
Western Conference Semifinals
(1) Oklahoma City over (5) Memphis
(2) Dallas over (3) L.A. Lakers
Western Conference Finals
(1) Oklahoma City over (2) Dallas
Chicago over Oklahoma City