Here's part two of my NBA preview, covering the Western Conference. Click here for part one on the East.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: So many people hopped on this team’s bandwagon in 2010 when the Thunder gave the eventual champion Lakers everything they could handle in the first round. It’s somewhat perplexing that there isn’t quite as much hype this year on the heels of a trip to the conference finals, where Oklahoma City lost again to the eventual champs. If the Thunder makes a similar improvement in 2012, it will win the title. While the climb gets steeper at this level, there’s little reason not to favor Oklahoma City to at least win the West. The Mavs and Lakers both lost key components, and the Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers are wild cards. The Thunder has stability and youth, and they go 10-deep, assets that the compressed schedule will magnify.
2. Memphis Grizzlies: Their place as the No. 2 team in the West would be a lot more secure if they hadn’t lost Darrell Arthur for the season. Still, injuries will happen to just about every team, and if the worst injury of the season happens to someone who doesn’t start, it’s not damning. The Grizzlies proved last year that they’re capable over overcoming injury, as Rudy Gay, arguably their best player, was absent for their shocking playoff run. They won’t catch anyone by surprise this year, but they don’t have to. The post games of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were not built on subtlety, and as long as Randolph is plugged in, there’s little reason to expect Memphis won’t pick up where it left off last year.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: They’re the team everyone wants to see this year, and as they establish themselves as one of the elite teams in the West, the enthusiasm will only grow. They seem ripe for at least one more deal, as it would seem illogical to keep four point guards who could all conceivably start in this league, especially when Randy Foye is the best pure shooting guard they have. Still, it’s hard not to get excited about how Chris Paul and an improving Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will mesh together. Caron Butler was an expensive signing, but he does seem like the proper fit as a steady veteran at small forward.
4. Dallas Mavericks: Tyson Chandler was the keystone of the team’s defense in last year’s championship season, and his loss hurts. The Mavs shed plenty of critical role players from last year, too, as DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic are all gone. Picking up Lamar Odom for next to nothing will help, but it’s not clear how he and Dirk Nowitzki, both power forwards, will fit together. Vince Carter’s name is bigger than his game at this point, so he will have a minimal impact. The Mavs were a No. 3 seed last year before their playoff run, so it’s hard to see them finishing any higher than fourth considering what they lost.
5. Los Angeles Lakers: This is a team seemingly locked into transition mode. Coach Phil Jackson and his triangle offense are gone. Odom’s sense of betrayal following the scuttled Chris Paul trade seemed to be the catalyst for his exit. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum face constant questioning over their future whereabouts. The erosion of the supporting cast and lack of depth will make it harder on Kobe Bryant, a 15-year vet who would already have been challenged by the compressed schedule. With Shannon Brown gone, there’s no obvious backup to Kobe. New coach Mike Brown has a challenge on his hands if he wants to escape the first round of the playoffs, much less win the championship.
6. San Antonio Spurs: It’s hard to get a read on this team. They won 61 games last year but got knocked off by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, a year after pulling their own first-round upset as a No. 7 seed against the Mavs. However you look at it, the Spurs haven’t been to the conference finals since 2008, and there’s little to suggest they’ll get there this year, either. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are 35 and 34 years old, respectively, and Tony Parker, at 29, doesn’t seem like he’s the same, either. They lost sixth man George Hill in a trade for rookie Kawhi Leonard, a move that would raise eyebrows if it hadn’t been made by well-regarded general manager R.C. Buford. Leonard and second-year man Tiago Splitter will have to make significant impacts in order for the Spurs to remain an elite team.
7. Denver Nuggets: It’s a testament to the rebuilding efforts of Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri that they’re still one of the league’s deepest teams even though three key players from last year are stuck in China. If any team is built for three games in as many nights, it’s this one. There are no stars, barring the distinct possibility that Ty Lawson or Arron Afflalo have breakout seasons, but plenty of rotation-worthy bodies. The arrangement worked well during the second half of last season, and it will be enough to get the team to the playoffs again this year.
8. Portland Trail Blazers: Just as the Nuggets have shown resilience in the wake of the Carmelo trade, the Blazers franchise remains in the playoff hunt despite the retirement of Brandon Roy and continued injury woes of Greg Oden. LaMarcus Aldridge turned into a legitimate star last year, and Wesley Matthews justified his $35 million contract. The additions of Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton will be enough to get them back to the postseason in a tough Western Conference.
9. Phoenix Suns: Nice guys Steve Nash and Grant Hill won’t finish last, but for the second year in a row, they won’t make the playoffs, either. The emergence of Marcin Gortat late last year gives the team some hope, but there’s little to like here beyond the graying brilliance of Steve Nash, age 37 and the pluck of Grant Hill, 39, neither of whom will be well-served by the condensed schedule.
10. Golden State Warriors: The key for the Warriors might be how much new coach Mark Jackson reins in the team’s up-tempo attack. Whether he likes it or not, this team is built for speed, at least until general manager Larry Riley, aided by the legendary Jerry West, starts making it over to fit the coach’s defensive style.
11. Sacramento Kings: Is this the year the young talent starts to mature? Tyreke Evans, the 2010 rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans was hurt last season and took a step back. He and DeMarcus Cousins are a year older and, hopefully, wiser, and they’ll have a full season with Marcus Thornton.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves: Another team stockpiling youngsters, the T’Wolves are hoping new coach Rick Adelman can help a few more players exceed expectations the way Kevin Love and Darko Milicic did last year.
13. Utah Jazz: As the preseason shedding of Mehmet Okur demonstrated, the Jazz are in full rebuilding mode. Look for a lot of experiments, like Paul Millsap at small forward, and heavy minutes for Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward.
14. Houston Rockets: What the Rockets may need most this year is Kevin McHale’s sense of humor. It might be a 66-game season, but it will feel much longer for Houston, even though they return many of the same players who overachieved to a ninth-place finish in the West last year.
15. New Orleans Hornets: There’s little doubt the Hornets extracted a heavy price from the Clippers for Chris Paul. It still won’t be enough to make them competitive this year. They got nothing in return for their second-best player, free agent David West, and much of the scoring burden rests on Eric Gordon’s shoulders.
First Round: Thunder over Blazers; Grizzlies over Nuggets; Clippers over Spurs; Lakers over Mavs
Conference Semis: Thunder over Lakers; Clippers over Grizzlies
Conference Finals: Thunder over Clippers
NBA Finals: Heat over Thunder in 7