Now, here are my early picks for contenders, pretenders, and overachievers for the Western Conference.
Although the Mavericks started the season slow and, as Dirk Nowitzki would put it, looked “old, slow, and out of shape,” defending champs cannot be counted out because they know exactly what it takes to win a title. With the addition of Vince Carter, Lamar Odom, and Delonte West, they have versatile players with significant playoff experience. Finally, the defending champions are playing with a chip on their shoulders because the media have already dropped them as title favorites and placed the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Chicago Bulls as the frontrunners.
1. They need to replace toughness, defensive intensity, and penetration that they lost in the offseason.
2. They may not be able to rely on Brendan Haywood as the defensive anchor that Tyson Chandler was.
Oklahoma City Thunder:
The Thunders are the Bulls of the Western Conference, with youth and depth at every position. Their trade deadline acquisition Kendrick Perkins came to training camp 30 pounds lighter, so he will be able to run up and down the court. Furthermore, James Harden blossomed into a prolific scorer and a willing passer during the playoffs. And Russell Westbrook is one of the best scoring guards in the league despite his early struggles. But, the Thunder are title favorites because of two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. Through the first five games of the season, Durant averaged over 30 points and he has looked unstoppable on the offensive end after adding Nowitzki’s signature one-legged jumper to his repertoire.
1. Westbrook and Durant need to establish touches during close games.
2. Perkins must stay healthy and establish an offensive post presence.
Los Angeles Lakers:
The Lakers won two out of the last three championships in the NBA and have arguably the best duo in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. New head coach Mike Brown will tighten up the Lakers’ defensive schemes like he did in Cleveland. Also, this might finally be the year that Andrew Bynum is fully healthy and will be a dominant force down low along with Gasol. Bryant claims that his surgically repaired knee is “95 percent better,” which should help him in his quest for the ring that would tie him with Michael Jordan for most Championships and cement his legacy among the all-time greats.
1. Kobe’s finger and wrist have to hold up.
2. The Lakers must replace Lamar Odom’s production.
Los Angeles Clippers:
After obtaining Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, and Chris Paul, the Clippers have arguably the most exciting offense in the league when everything is clicking. “Lob City” could destroy most teams inside, with Chris Paul feeding either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan lobs and with Billups and Butler lighting up the scoreboard from long-range. Nevertheless, the Clippers are pretenders because they resigned Jordan to a 4-year $43 million contract. Jordan is an athletic specimen, but his contract is more about potential rather than natural talent. It is far too much money for someone who has career averages of five points and five boards. Also, this new Clipper team can light it up on the offensive end, but defensively they leave much to be desired. Specifically, defense for the Clippers consist of weak side blocks, chase down blocks, and steals. The Clippers need to establish a defensive philosophy that emphasizes crashing the glass.
San Antonio Spurs:
Head Coach Greg Popovich has always had his teams well disciplined and knows how to get the most out of them. Last year, the Spurs seemed to have found a fountain of youth in its “Big Three,” sporting a new high-octane offense scoring well into the 100’s. And they were still able to provide very good rest for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. However, they were exposed in their first round playoff series to the younger and more athletic Grizzlies team. This season, the Spurs are pretenders because they’re simply on borrowed time. Duncan is no longer a focal point on offense, which has hindered their once potent in-and-out game play. Now their points are more perimeter-based, a fact that puts them in jeopardy if shots don’t fall.
Portland Trail Blazers:
The Trail Blazers are as underrated and underappreciated as their coach, Nate McMillan, and their superstar forwards, Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge. They lost perennial All-Star Brandon Roy to retirement in a sad fashion, but added Jamal Crawford, who is more than capable in matching Roy’s firepower off the bench. Raymond Felton is an above-average floor general who has a dynamic running mate in Wesley Matthews. The Blazers are a team that quietly win games and go unnoticed, so they will definitely be at the top half in the West. And, with the imminent return of Greg Oden, they will be a scary underrated team.
The Grizzlies were the 2007 “We Believe” Warriors of last year’s playoffs, knocking out the first-seeded Spurs. More impressive was the fact that they did this without leading scorer and face of the franchise Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies have a front court that could rival any other with three potential All-Stars in Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. They also have an elite defensive stopper in Tony Allen and the always-improving Mike Conley. Once they assimilate Gay back into their offense, this team is sure to make noise again in the playoffs this year.
Predicted Western Conference Standings:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. San Antonia Spurs
3. Los Angeles Lakers
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Portland Trail Blazers
6. Memphis Grizzlies
7. Los Angeles Clippers
8. Golden State Warriors/Houston Rockets