While the Eastern Conference has seen a major shift of power with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining the Miami Heat and the Carlos Boozer joining the Chicago Bulls, the Western Conference looks largely the same near the top. The biggest changes in the West have largely been defections: Amare Stoudemire leaving Phoenix to join the Knicks, Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver leaving Utah to join the Bulls, even aging big man Juwan Howard leaving the Blazers to join the Heat.
For my Eastern Conference predictions, click here.
Here’s how the West looks to shape out:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Near the end of last season, it seemed as if Kobe Bryant was finally slowing down and the Lakers would be vulnerable in the playoffs. Although the Lakers didn’t exactly dominate on their way to their second straight championship, they looked much better in the playoffs than they did at the end of the season. Until we see them in the regular season, there’s no reason to doubt that the defending champs will once again be at the top of the pack in the Western Conference.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks are the anti-Celtics. Instead of coasting through the regular season and turning up the intensity in the playoffs, every year the Mavericks storm their way to a top seed in the West only to collapse early in the playoffs. With Dirk Nowitzki and company looking largely the same as they did at the end of last season, there’s no reason to think that the 2010-2011 season won’t be the same old story for the Mavs.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
With LeBron James having to split ball possession with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant is the frontrunner for the next three to five MVP awards. He’s that good, and the Thunder look to be a lot more like the team that held tight with the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs than the team that started the season with a 13-14 record. It’s looking likely that the Western Conference Finals will be a rematch of the Lakers-Thunder playoff series, except this time the Thunder will be more experienced and ready to try and make their first NBA Finals appearance since they were the Seattle SuperSonics.
4. Portland Trailblazers
No longer the underachieving “Jailblazers,” Portland has quietly transformed itself into a virtual playoff lock, and that’s even if Greg Oden isn’t able to play a single game. If he can overcome his constant injury problems and become even a mid-range inside force for the Blazers, there’s a good chance that Portland will be in the mix when discussing the better teams in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a large gap between the top of the conference (Lakers/Mavericks/Thunder) and the rest.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have had recent stints on the disabled list, and Tim Duncan will be 35 years old by the team the 2010-2011 NBA season ends. There’s no denying that the Spurs are still a supremely talented team, and Tim Duncan, despite having lost a step or two the last couple of years, is still a premier inside scoring threat. Unfortunately, the Spurs are looking slower and more fragile with each passing season, and although they should be able to easily work their way into the playoffs, I’m not sure that they are still a threat to win an NBA Championship.
6. Denver Nuggets
Denver is at a crossroads. At times looking dominant, at times struggling just to win games, the Nuggets season ended early as they were ousted in the first round by the Utah Jazz. Now, coach George Karl will be back on the bench following his treatment for cancer, but there’s no guarantee that Carmelo Anthony will still be with the team by the time the season begins (or ends). Without Anthony, the Nuggets will struggle to even make the playoffs. With Anthony, however, the Nuggets still don’t look like an elite team, and hanging onto Anthony may end up hurting Denver in the long run. Their place at the sixth spot here is based on the Nuggets having Anthony for the full season. If they trade Carmelo, they could finish as low as tenth or eleventh.
7. Houston Rockets
The biggest question for the Rockets is: Will Yao Ming be able to play this season? The second biggest question: If Yao is able to play, will he still be the dominant force he used to be? A serious foot injury can be severely limiting for a basketball player, so there’s no telling how Yao will be able to cope with playing after his injury. If he’s the same Yao we saw two or three years ago, the Rockets should be in a good position to make it back to the playoffs. Otherwise, the Rockets will probably join the dogfight at the bottom of the Western Conference for the last playoff spot.
8. Phoenix Suns
This spot just as easily could have gone to the Utah Jazz or the New Orleans Hornets. With the Suns losing Amare Stoudemire and the Jazz losing Carlos Boozer, all three teams look fairly similar on the surface. All three teams are led by extremely talented point guards (Steve Nash for Phoenix, Chris Paul for New Orleans, and Deron Williams for Utah), all three have questions about their inside presence, and all three teams will have to decide whether they want to keep doing things the same way they have over the past couple of years or trade away some of their star players and start over. The only reason I have the Suns here and not the Hornets or Jazz is because of Steve Nash’s ability and experience.
9. New Orleans Hornets
10. Utah Jazz
11. Memphis Grizzlies
12. Los Angeles Clippers
13. Golden State Warriors
14. Sacramento Kings
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
All stats and standings from espn.com