It took a while, but after an offseason that was defined by a labor dispute, David Sterns’ vetos, and one blockbuster trade, the NBA season is finally here. The Western Conference saw a changing of the guard take place last season, as perennial powers such as the Lakers and the Spurs faded away while the upstart Mavericks and Thunder rose into prominence. Furthermore, the transition of superstars like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Deron Williams has further altered the balance of power over the past year. Ironically, the LA teams may rank as both the biggest winners and losers, with the Clippers skyrocketing up all early season projections, while the Lakers seem to drop further with every news cycle. So, without further adieu, we present to you our 2012 NBA Western Conference preview :
What do the Denver Nuggets get for trading away one of the best players in the NBA for a bunch of used parts? Several years in NBA purgatory, otherwise known as the 6th to 10th seed in your conference – good enough to make a run at the playoffs every year, but never good enough to ascend to a championship level (for more on the subject, please see the Wikipedia entry for the Atlanta Hawks) To top it all off, the Nuggets signed Nene, a guy who has only played a full 82-game season once during his nine year career, to a 5 year, $67M contract – guaranteeing future entries into the land of mediocrity for years to come. Still, the Nuggets have enough to squeeze into the playoffs yet again.
7. Portland Trailblazers
Brandon Roy retires, Greg Oden is once again injured, and the star-crossed Blazers are left to wonder what if? Well, actually not wonder – to see their alternate destiny, they need to look no further than Oklahoma City. Even with all of their misfortune however, the maneuvering of Blazers GM of Seasons Past has left behind a somewhat respectable squad. A very good frontcourt of Aldridge, Camby, and Gerald Wallace has been paired with a respectable backcourt of Raymond Felton and Wesley Matthews. The signing of Jamal Crawford rounds out a solid bench.
6. San Antonio Spurs
You mean they’re not dead yet? They’re old, and yes, they’re boring. But the trio of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker still remains intact. That fact, coupled with a solid veteran in Richard Jefferson and up-and-comer in DeJuan Blair should be enough for Pop’s crew to squeak out another playoff berth. The shortened season, while presenting challenges in schedule density, should also benefit a Spurs team that often seems to start fast, and fade during the longer 82-game season. Enjoy it while it lasts Spurs fans - in all likelihood, this will be this team’s last hurrah.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies sport an underrated frontcourt of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, that may be the best in the Western Conference . Their backcourt remains a weakness, featuring the highly erratic Mike Conley and offensively challenged Tony Allen/Sam Young. Give credit where credit is due though: Grizzlies management has turned a Pau Gasol lump of coal into a credible Western Conference playoff team. Downside for the Grizzlies? They will be stuck in the 4 to 6 seed range until they further upgrade their backcourt and either Gay or Gasol takes a next step into superstardom.
Ok – I have to admit. I’m jumping on the Lob City bandwagon. Besides the best nickname of the NBA season, this team can play. For perhaps the first time in Clipper history, Donald Sterling has put together a team that consists of a credible mix of legit superstars, young athletic talent, and savvy veteran experience. All of this should propel the Clippers into the top half of the Western Conference. Clipper fan – your roadmap to future success: get into the 2nd round of the playoffs this year, bounce out Vinny Del Negro in the offseason and get a real coach, let Blake Griffin’s offensive game get a little more refined, let the defense continue to improve, upgrade the bench slightly, and voila: you have a title contender for the 2012-13 NBA season.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
If this post had those fantasy big board rankings with up and down arrows that signal player momentum, the Lake Show would be plummeting like a rock. I could begin to catalogue the Lakers’ troubles this year, from: (1) Gasol looking disengaged, (2) Kobe having a torn ligament in his wrist, (3) Artest being plain fat and out of shape, (4) their three primary offseason acquisitions all being defensive liabilities, (5) Bynum will miss the first 5 games, and of course, (6) Mike Brown being the head coach – but am afraid I would exceed my word limit on this post. The only thing that is keeping the Lakers this high is that they still have one of the top 3 players on Earth, and the Bynum/Gasol combination is still one of the top PF-C duos in the league. However, it is all but impossible to see how this team as presently constructed seriously challenges for another NBA championship. Paging Dwight Howard…
2. Dallas Mavericks
Don’t underestimate the loss of Tyson Chandler. The Mavericks still have enough talent to look good in the regular season, but between the loss of their defensive soul and the fact that they really caught lightning in a bottle in 2010, it doesn’t appear like this team has enough firepower to bring Cuban back-to-back championships. Additionally, adding another year to the already long careers of Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t help either. Nonetheless, it will be a nice season with a likely Western Conference finals exit – but don’t worry Mavs nation, you’ll always have that 2010 championship DVD to fall back on.
It’s a rite of passage in the NBA. The young and upcoming team endures a few tough playoff losses before climbing to the top of the mountain. The 80s Pistons went through it. The 90s Bulls went through it. And even the Kobe-Shaq Lakers had to run through a few tough seasons. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, the last few seasons have been a learning experience which should have adequately prepared them for a deep playoff run in 2012. The packed shortened schedule should also favor young legs that can quickly recover from a series of back-to-backs that every team will encounter this year. A more mature Westbrook-Durant combination coupled with an anorexic Kendrick Perkins should vault this team to the top of the Western Conference for many years to come.