DALLAS, PORTLAND WILL CHALLENGE THE LAKERS OUT WEST
Last season, Oklahoma City and Phoenix put real scares into the Lakers but were unable to prevent the defending champions from eventually moving on. Los Angeles was just too much for the West and has been for the past three seasons.
Teams have rebuilt and reloaded, all with the goal of knocking Los Angeles off of their mighty throne. Some team may succeed, but most will fail miserably.
There are far too many variables (injuries, coaching decisions, team chemistry, trades, etc.) to predict exact records and specific playoff seeds for an entire NBA season.
Instead, teams will be placed into broader categories to allow room for the various things which can alter the NBA landscape. This is more reasonable and still allows the intent to remain in place.
Here is how the West shakes out.
The Western Conference champion will likely be one of these three.
Mavericks -- Having an entire season to play together and develop chemistry will do wonders for Dallas. Going into this year's playoffs, they will be more battle-tested and battle-ready. Tyson Chandler gives them a dimension which they have never had. Say good-bye to the traditional, layup-line defense we have come to expect from Dallas.
Lakers -- As if they weren't already good enough, the Lakers went out and added Theo Ratliff and Steve Blake as backups. They know everyone is gunning for them, and they are gunning right back.
Trail Blazers -- Portland is probably a year away, but they are here because they are good enough to give the Lakers a real scare, one more real than Oklahoma City or Phoenix last year, one like the scare they gave Los Angeles in 2000. All of this is dependent on Greg Oden, who unfortunately at this time has no timetable for his return.
These teams will battle for the remaining playoff spots but won't seriously challenge for the conference crown.
Nuggets -- Denver probably won't make it out of the first round again this year. Their biggest problem is that they are extremely undisciplined defensively, especially Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith. They also lack size and matching parts up front.
Warriors -- In a prior article, the exact reason why Golden State lost so many games last year was explained. The problem has been corrected, so you can pretty much take anything which happened last year and throw it out the window. Golden State has built one of the most talented and exciting rosters in the league.
Rockets -- Houston is solid at the three most important positions in basketball: coach, point guard and center. They are so solid that their backup point guard Kyle Lowry and their backup center Brad Miller could start for many teams. The problem is that they are very average at shooting guard, small forward and power forward.
Clippers -- Baron Davis, Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman will give Los Angeles three of the best players on the floor every night against every opponent, even against that other Los Angeles team.* The Clippers also have Randy Foye backing up Baron Davis, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu. Those six players will take Los Angeles a very long way.
Grizzlies -- Memphis has a pretty good team, but the West is tough. They are probably two players away from being a guaranteed playoff team. They shouldn't take a step back but may not move forward much either.
Timberwolves -- 1-12, this is the best team Minnesota has ever had; but that doesn't mean much because players 9-12 rarely make an impact on the game. It does speak to the organization's ability to put a team together. They have all sorts of depth and versatility and could be very dangerous this year.
Hornets -- The biggest weakness of New Orleans is that they don't have a good backup for Chris Paul. Without a good backup, Chris Paul will have to play lights-out for 40+ minutes every night for the team to be competitive; and this wear-and-tear will eventually catch up to and cost him and the team. Willie Green is not a point guard; he is a short shooting guard. There is a tremendous difference between the two.
Thunder -- This is the biggest bandwagon in the NBA right now, and I'm not on it. While other teams got better, Oklahoma City appears to have stayed the same, which means they got worse. Has anyone noticed that they are still starting Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard?
Suns -- One thing a NBA team will never miss is a scorer. Phoenix has players standing in line to take the additional shots Amar'e Stoudemire left behind. And since he didn't play defense or rebound anyway, you would think that the team wouldn't miss him one iota. But a team is a funny thing. Some things just go together, like Shrek and Donkey. This is the hardest team to pick. The safest thing to say is that they almost certainly won't make it back to the conference finals this season.
Spurs -- Tim Duncan needs help. San Antonio couldn't have imagined that they would rely on Antonio McDyess as much as they did in the playoffs last year. Now they will be counting on rookie Tiago Splitter to give them the size they need to help Tim Duncan up front.
Jazz -- The big question for Utah is did they improve enough to compete with or beat Los Angeles in the playoffs? Will Gordon Hayward, Raja Bell and Al Jefferson be able to do what Wesley Matthews and Carlos Boozer couldn't? Love Gordon Hayward but I wouldn't bet on it.
HARRISON BARNES TEAMS
North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Eventually, seven western teams will be in the lottery to draft him.
But there is one which stands above all others in the quest to attain Harrison Barnes and can be declared out of the running for the playoffs before the season even begins.
Kings -- It is sad to see this former conference power sink to such miserable lows. By the end of the season, we'll be calling them the Sacrament Paupers.
Note: teams listed alphabetically by city in each category.
*This method of ranking the best players from competing teams in order comes from Colin Cowherd.
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