I hate to use a Wild Wild West cliché, but it’s true. There are no clear favorites. No West coast version of the Heat. Talk to 3 different people, and you’ll get 5 different winners of the conference. The Lakers got older and took away their margin for error in Lamar Odom. The Mavs lost their defensive core with the departures of Tyson Chandler and their best perimeter defender DeShawn Stevenson, in addition to their spark off the bench (J. J. Barea). Oklahoma City has the same core, but the questions at point guard are becoming louder and louder. Indeed, this might be the best opportunity for a team that usually falls in the “also ran” category to sneak in and steal the Western Conference’s bid to the Championship game.
Lakers: For a team with a top tier shooting guard, power forward, and center, this team gets very little love. Yes, they are older. Yes, they have a new coaching staff. Yes, they lost their trump card in Lamar Odom (the player that made up for the inconsistency of play at either the Center or Power Forward position). But they are also the most seasoned winners in the conference. And they have one of the best players in history on their roster.
Moving forward, Mike Brown to implement his fantastic defense to pair with the fantastic offensive weapons they possess. If he can improve the already quality defense of the Lakers (John Hollinger had them rated as the 6th rated defense in the league last year) then the Lakers can get Kobe the ring to tie the King.
Oklahoma City: I don’t usually like to talk about locker room chemistry of a team as the main problem confronting its success. I’m not in anyone’s locker room, and I don’t know any of the team personally, so really all I have to base this off of is conjecture. So let’s just focus on on-court chemistry; the Thunder look like a body without a head at times. Westbrook didn’t start playing the point guard position in earnest until his sophomore (and last) season at UCLA. On more than one occasion over the past year and change Westbrook has looked more like a shooting guard initiating the offense instead of the All-star point guard he is. Westbrook has hesitated (or refused) to defer to the All-World, walking assist that is Kevin Durant. Many have called to move him to shooting guard, but to do so takes away from his advantage on the court. There isn’t much call for a 6’3” shooting guard with a shaky jumper. Even his athleticism would be muted having to face 6’5” 220-pound guys on a nightly basis. The rumors to trade him seem mainly driven by outsiders pondering on “what might be” for a team that has championship aspirations.
This team, as constructed can win the championship. They need an aggressive PG that can score. Take that away and you are left with one superstar, a very good player in James Harden, and an otherwise underwhelming frontcourt (Serge Ibaka hasn’t looked as effective as the high-energy, insanely athletic power forward that he was in last year’s postseason). Westbrook will be asked to take the temperature of his team, a characteristic present in all elite point guards. When they need a basket, he will need to show that aggressive attacking style that has come to define the young player. When they need him to run the offense (feed Durant or Harden in the right spots) he will have to show the restraint that has eluded him early in his career.
Dallas: The Champion. They’ve lost a lot. And honestly I think that ownership is looking forward to next year to reload with Deron Williams AND Dwight Howard (they will only have a few players under contract after this season). In the meantime, they’re essentially a new team with all the faces changing places. I don’t really see them competing for a chance to defend their crown seriously (although I must admit the idea of Lamar Odom and Nowitzki playing together is pretty intriguing) but it would’ve been disrespectful not to include them in this post.
Their moves in free agency next year will be exciting to watch.
Memphis: The health of my pick to win the Western Conference took a serious injury when Zach Randolph went down with a torn MCL (an injury that takes 6-8 weeks to heal). I love this team simply because it’s a small-market team full of talent and guile. They have best frontcourt in the League with Rudy Gay, Randolph, and Marc Gasol. While they will miss Battier coming off the bench, Mayo (and perhaps eventually Jeremy Pargo doing his Nate Robinson impression) should still give the team depth. Point guard Mike Conley has steadily improved every year he has been in the league. Closest to being a complete team that the West has.
Or at least they were.
Zach Randolph’s injury makes this a difficult time for the Grizz. The addition of Mareese Speights was a clever move by their General Manager Chris Wallace (they only gave up a 2nd rounder and disappointing player Xavier Henry to cover for the loss of Randolph). Gay is back after missing their surprising 2011 playoff run, which is obviously an addition but will mean an adjustment to the lineups and the players subsequent roles. The development of OJ Mayo will determine how far this team will go. It’s time for the most ballyhooed high school player this side of LeBron James to show why players the caliber of Kobe Bryant were wowed by his talent when he was still a teenager. To date, he hasn’t been an utter disappointment (he has shown a real willingness to play defense, and his athleticism was “as advertised”), but he has fallen short of the high promise that cloaked his game early in his maturation. If he can finally take his game to the next level (perhaps the trade rumors will serve as a catalyst) and Randolph is able to be effective come playoff time, this team will win the west.
Spurs: Everything is relative. Either you think this team is filled with veterans that have been blessed to have 16 less games and the same nucleus that has a proven track record of success, or you think this old team has a condensed schedule with less time to rest through a sprint of a season that has needed a facelift for years but whose friends were too nice to say anything. All of that is semantics, what is real is that Manu Ginobili broke his shooting hand and will miss two months. Even if they do make the playoffs, they’ll have to play big minutes and will be a low seed doomed to face a younger, more talented team. Their window has more than likely closed.
Blazers: I’m going to be honest, I didn’t see this coming. Quietly, this team (led by new General Manager Chad Buchanan) has been put together nicely. They possess the best forward combination in Gerald Wallace and Lamarcus Aldridge, sealed the hole left by Brandon Roy with Jamal Crawford, and got more athletic and offensively more dangerous at the point guard with Raymond Felton instead of Andre Miller. Notice that among all those names, I didn’t call anyone who had been to a Conference Finals, much less an NBA Finals.
There is still the iffy position of Center that must be handled, but honestly not many teams have a center that they can consistently count on both sides of the court (Orlando, Lakers, and Denver complete the list). The team is lacking in experienced NBA winners and that can be a real concerned; but the team tucked away in the Northwest corner of the country is the best kept secret in the League.
Author: Brenden Whitted. Follow Brenden on Twitter: @WBHUalum