It’s a post-lockout season, and the Western Conference is wide open. Pick a team to make the Finals, and you’ll probably be wrong. Â Let’s assess the parity.
The Clear Contenders. Maybe.
The Oklahoma City Thunder
Widely considered the top team in the conference before the season began, the Thunder (singular team names are the worst) appears simultaneously deserving of that expectation and yet eminently beatable. With the Westbrook and Durant tension and metaphors briefly dissipating (likely to return in the playoffs) after the former signed a five-year max contract with the team, the basketball capabilities of the Thunder have rounded into focus. The results are mixed. At 17-4, the Thunder hold a grip on the conference’s best record, but at times look lost and vulnerable. This is the conference’s most talented and best team, but not by a significant margin.
Strengths: James Harden earns free throws like it’s his job (it sort of is!), Nick Collison is the James Harden of drawing charges, and having two of the top 20 players in the NBA is always nice.
Weaknesses:Â Cole Aldrich still hasn’t become the star that three to four Kansas’ fans expected, and the team has suffered greatly from trading away facial hair enthusiast Byron Mullens. Also, Kendrick Perkins probably isn’t a starting caliber center anymore.
The Denver Nuggets
I’m not a believer in the supposed magic of the Denver Nuggets. I’m cynical for two reasons:
A) There are teams with similarly talented rosters in the Western Conference that could be difficult matchups for a team constructed with no clear go-to player.
B) I don’t really have any good reasons.Â
The Nuggets have as good of a chance to make a run in the Western Conference as any, but I worry about relying on strong play from Al Harrington and Rudy Fernandez for extended periods of time. Other than that, I’m just shifting in the wind and grasping for contrarian straws.
Strengths: Deep roster, Andre Miller’s “I am the oldest man alive!” game, and Nene’s proclivity for efficient play.
Weaknesses: Kenneth Faried’s lack of playing time, and Danilo Gallinari’s hairstyle.
The Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are the only team in the Western Conference that includes Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and an acceptable supporting cast. I think that’s good enough reason to have them here. Add in recent impressive wins against the Nuggets and Thunder (on a back-to-back, no less) and the signing of Kenyon Martin, and the expectations for this team change. I feel comfortable saying this is the best team in Los Angeles unless a drastic Lakers’ trade happens, and Mitch Kupchak wins again.
Strengths: Hype, having the best point guard in the league, and irritating Lakers’ fans.
Weaknesses: Nicknames, shooting guard, and team owner.
Undecided, But Lurking
The Dallas Mavericks
The reigning NBA champions were quickly written off after a horrendous start, and have slowly been creeping towards contender status on the strength of their depth ever since. Despite Dirk’s struggles, the Mavericks’ have succeeded and played acceptably against good teams, displaying the importance of a deep bench and great ball movement during a lockout season. Lamar Odom still hasn’t found his way, but last night’s loss to the Pacers was encouraging for an important reason: Dirk looked like his virtuoso scoring self again, providing 3o points on 17 shots. If Dirk returns close to 2011 form, this is a top-tier team.
Strengths: Bench depth, the wisdom of old age, Jason Terry’s ability to fly, and Brandan Wright’s dunking ability.
Weaknesses:Â Â Point guard stability and consistent scoring power.
The San Antonio Spurs
If the season ended today, the Spurs would hold the 4th seed despite being bereft of their best player, Manu Ginobli, for most of the season. That counts for something. The Spurs don’t dominate teams frequently, but they’ve acquitted themselves quite well, trading blows with the rest of the Southwest Conference (including the Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Rockets) admirably. I don’t know that this team is capable of making a deep run in the postseason, but it’s impossible to count out any competent team in the crowded Western Conference.
Strengths: Pretty much the same as the Mavericks, but with a slightly different location and an even older aging star (Tim Duncan).
Weaknesses: Backcourt depth, small forward, and guarding Derek Fisher.
You Get Your Own Sub-Group, Because You’re The Lakers.
The Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have a terrible bench, no competent point guard, and a new systemÂ to learn. They also have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers’ flaws are enormous, but those three players keep them within the realm of contention. It’ll take a historic postseason from Kobe (in shot attempts, at least), a record in isolation plays, countless confusing facial expressions from Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum finally finding consistency for the Lakers to beat the best teams of the West in seven-game series, but hey, more unexpected things have happened.
The Portland Trail Blazers:Â I’m not sure the Blazers aren’t better than the Lakers (they probably are), but they’ve played so badly lately that it’s impossible to put them higher than this. Wes Matthews and Ray Felton have under-under-underwhelmed, Jamal Crawford is playing like a slightly worse version of Jamal Crawford, and LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace have been forced to carry the team for long stretches.
The Houston Rockets: If I had to pick an upset team in the first-round, it would be the Rockets. The team’s nine-man rotation is competent, Kyle Lowry regularly reaches near triple-double levels of production, and Kevin Martin still scores as well as nearly any player in the league. Daryl Morey is always looking to make a trade that leaves the other team in the dust, and propels the Rockets one step closer to competing. He has the assets to do it again (*cough* Luis Scola *cough*).
The Memphis Grizzlies: I feel the same way about the Grizzlies as I do the Rockets, only with slightly less confidence.
The Utah Jazz: How far can Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson carry the Jazz? Probably not to the playoffs.
The Minnesota Timberwolves: I don’t think we’ll see the Timberwolves nab the seventh or eighth seed this season, but 2013 beckons.
The Golden State Warriors: Added to the list on account of talent, discounted on account of realism.