The NBA Western Conference’s best teams: With the NBA season less than 2 months away, which teams will find themselves with the highest seeds in the Western Conference? Could the Houston Rockets or New Orleans Hornets return to the playoffs?
I divide the Western Conference into 3 categories. You have the Los Angeles Lakers, you have the 4 biggest competitors to the Lakers Western conference crown, and there are the three Western Conference teams who are the most vulnerable to new challengers coming out of the West. Only 5 wins separated the 2 seed from the 8 seed last year, so there could be much shifting of seeds in response to transactions made.
1 Los Angeles Lakers (Win Potential: 60-65 wins)
The back-to-back defending champions are looking for one more title run in 2010-2011, and there’s no reason they can’t be regular season champions after making a few adjustments to their roster this off-season. Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff give the Lakers more quality defenders while Steve Blake gives the Lakers a good three point specialist off the bench.
The biggest issue with the Lakers is motivation. This seemed apparent in the playoffs. Some games, they looked unstoppable. Other games… the Boston Celtics water boys were outperforming them. The Lakers essentially had the same team in 2008-2009 and won 65 games, yet they won 57 in 2009-2010. With the Miami Heat’s new triumvirate and Phil Jackson’s last stand, I expect the Lakers to be hungrier.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder (Win Potential: 55-60 wins)
Championship teams have superstars, and the Thunder have one in Kevin Durant. Averaging over 30 points per game in his second season, Durant led the Thunder from 23 wins to 50 in 2009-2010.
The Thunder have one of the league’s youngest teams. Along with Durant, Russell Westbrook is one of the league’s best up-and-coming point guards. Cole Aldrich should give the Thunder a defensive presence on the bench who can help them against the Lakers. If James Harden, their 2009 first round pick, can become a significant contributor in his second season, the Thunder will definitely be the conference’s second best… at least.
3 Portland Trailblazers (Win Potential: 52-57 wins)
The Trailblazers are similar to the Thunder except they don’t have the Kevin Durant type of superstar. Regardless, Brandon Roy is one of the NBA’s best players. Roy is surrounded by an abundance of young talent. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, and newly acquired Wesley Matthews are players who can produce 15-20 point games on any given night
The Trailblazers could use an improvement at point guard. They have a slew of young talent, but Andre Miller’s specialty is more scoring then improving the players around him. If they could pry Chris Paul from the Hornets, this team is my pick for Western Conference champions. That won’t happen, however.
Portland could get a big boost if Greg Oden can stay healthy for longer than 3 minutes (out comes 3 Minute Warning with the assault on Oden). That’s a huge if, however. This team has potential aplenty, and a move for a quality point guard makes this team a championship contender.
4 Phoenix Suns (Win Potential: 52-57 wins)
After the Suns released Amar’e Stoudemire, I wrote off the Suns as being a has-been in the Western Conference. I didn’t seem them being able to fill the void of losing Amar’e. After seeing the trades and acquisitions they’ve made this off-season, I believe they’ll not only be fine, but this is amongst the best team they’ve fielded.
Steve Nash is still the NBA’s best floor general when it comes to improving a supporting cast. Despite losing Amar’e, they’ll replace him with Hedo Turkoglu, who should make them more dangerous on the perimeter. Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick are the type of players that Nash is known for making look better. Lopez-Turkoglu-Hill-Richardson-Nash with Childress, Warrick, Dudley, Dragic, and Frye is a roster that goes ten deep.
The Suns success relies heavily on Steve Nash and the health and progression of Robin Lopez. Don’t expect the Suns to miss much from Amar’e outside trade talks. If these two players remain healthy, then the Suns have more offensive depth and weapons. Now, if they could just learn to play defense…
5 Denver Nuggets (Win Potential: 50-55 wins)
Courtesy of one of the NBA’s most historically bad trades, the Nuggets have been a valiant championship contender in the Western Conference since adding Chauncey Billups while the Detroit Pistons have went from consistent championship contender to an Eastern Conference doormat.
The Nuggets have one of the NBA’s best players in Carmelo Anthony, they have a good point guard in Chauncey Billups, and they’re coached by George Karl. There biggest questions will be Carmelo’s concentration amidst all the contract speculation and the health of Karl and interior players such as Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Anderson. Don’t forget that they win an average of 33.5 home games the past two seasons. If they continue the home dominance, then winning enough road games to make the playoffs shouldn’t be difficult.
6 Dallas Mavericks (Win Potential: 47-52 wins)
When Tyson Chandler, 28 in October, is your team’s second youngest player who receives significant playing time, you have an old roster. The Mavericks have a VERY old roster. Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tim Thomas, and Dirk Nowtizki are all on the wrong side of 30. Jason Kidd also turns 38 this season.
They won 55 games in 2009-2010 after having the league’s best road record, 27-14. They’re not achieving the same road success in 2010-2011. This team blew an opportunity for a championship run last season after an embarrassing first round exit. That’ll probably be the best chance they have until they inject some youth into that roster.
If any teams find themselves out of it from the 2009-2010 playoffs, it’ll be Dallas or Utah.
7 San Antonio Spurs (Win Potential: 47-52 wins)
The San Antonio Spurs are another team who needs to become younger. For the first time in the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs looked old. They made the second round of the playoffs before getting outrun by the younger and fresher legs of the Suns. Duncan is on the downward slope of his career and their players have had numerous injury problems.
The Spurs won’t become a Western Conference powerhouse again, but I’m confident that they’ll do what’s needed to make the playoffs and be competitive as a low seed. They have enough for one more low-seeded playoff run, at least until Tony Parker leaves…
8A Utah Jazz (Win Potential: 45-50 wins)
The Utah Jazz won 53 games in 2009-2010, but they’ve lost a good core of the roster that’s propelled them throughout the years. Carlos Boozer has been replaced by Al Jefferson, Wesley Matthews left for Portland, and Kyle Korver went to the Chicago Bulls. They’ll be relying on Gordon Heyward to not be another Adam Morrison.
Utah should still be a playoff team. Deron Williams is one of the league’s premiere point guards and they have one of the league’s most advantageous home court facilities. Since you can almost certainly book them for 30 home court victories, I’d say their roster with Deron Williams is talented enough to win 15-20 road games. Deron still has a better supporting cast than New Orleans Chris Paul, who won 37 in 2009-2010, and Paul was oft injured.
However, anything below 50 wins isn’t a guaranteed playoff spot in the West…
8B Houston Rockets (Win Potential: 45-50 wins)
The Houston Rockets have a good team that’s been over .500 the past two seasons. In 2008-2009, they almost eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs before winning their first of two titles. Since then, they’ve lost Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming has had a nagging foot injury.
Yao Ming should return to the Rockets this season, but his durability is a major concern. The Rockets don’t have a top-tier point guard that the other Western conference playoff teams do. Without Ming, they also don’t have a top-tier player. If Ming is healthy, they’re legitimate competitors for a final playoff seed. Without him, I’d expect them to compete with New Orleans and potentially Sacramento for 9th.
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NBA Standings from 2009-2010.