Sizing up the West

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PtR regular Big50 recently wrote a nice FanPost about the Southwest division, that got me brainstorming about the bigger picture in the West. The professional media types have made their picks already, so now it's time for a random semi-casual observer's take. Here's a lame attempt at ranking the teams of the Western Conference. (I'm not even going to try ranking the Eastern Conference, due to lack of interest.)

How They Measure Up

We begin with a trifecta of teams at the top of the conference. Any of these 3 teams might win the West, depending on how things shake out. And no, this isn't an objective opinion - but if you wanted that, you wouldn't be on a Spurs blog. And please don't be offended by the first team listed - it's a show of respect, not love. After those three teams, the dropoff is not quite as steep as some are making it out to be, but the others are kidding themselves if they think a championship is on the horizon. Also, there may be more Western teams at .500 or better by the end of the season than ever before. There could even be eleven of them.

The Best


1A - Los Angeles Lakers

How terrible of me - we hate them, and hate giving them credit. But that doesn't make the credit any less due. Much has been made of the Lakers' newest acquistion and his potential for disrupting the chemistry of the Lakers. Quite frankly, there are only a few coaches alive who could possibly keep Crazy Pills in check. He now plays for one of them. And answer this question honestly: Who's the better player right now - Ron Artest or Trevor Ariza? Other than Ariza, the entire core of the 2009 NBA Champs is intact. I hate to say it, but they haven't lost much of anything, folks. This is going to be one hell of a mountain to climb. I can only think of two teams that have the potential to take down a healthy Lakers team in a playoff series, and those picks may just be homerism on my part. This is the team to beat, until we know more about how the other contenders have improved.


1B - San Antonio Spurs

You didn't really think the Spurs wouldn't be one of those two teams, did you? With the offseason that Pop, RC, and the rest of the front office staff has pulled out of their hats (and Peter Holt has agreed to bankroll), this team has the potential to do great things. Richard Jefferson was a nice addition, Antonio McDyess was a very good fit for the frontcourt, and Theo Ratliff is a good backup who can hopefully teach the younger guys a few tricks. Everyone in the "first" unit is a known quantity, but what remains to be seen is how good the bench is. The bench [and injuries] will be the largest determining factor in how far this team goes in the upcoming campaign. Hill, Blair, Mahinmi, and Bonner(yes, that Bonner) will all have to be consistently solid in their roles for this team to start snowballing towards the championship. Our chances are better than they have been the last 2 seasons, but there are still a lot of questions that keep me from putting our guys in the top slot. Let's hope those questions are answered by the time April comes around... and it wouldn't be so horrible if they were still being answered in June, either.


1C - Portland Trailblazers

Yes, I really put them here. The reality is that this team could finish anywhere from 1st to 6th if they remain healthy, but I would bet on them improving from their finish last season, just as they have the last 3 years. Signing Andre Miller wasn't exactly an earth-shaking move in the offseason of "supercontenders", but Portland just improved their matchup with the Lakers, even though they already were the Lakers' toughest opponent from a matchup standpoint. They gain an experienced, skilled floor leader who can help them with their biggest problem: winning on the road. Miller also usually gives Tony Parker fits, so that lessens our biggest advantage over these guys, too. There was a lot of buzz at the Team USA minicamp about the return of Greg Oden's speed, agility, and (worst of all for us) confidence. This is not good news for the other teams in the West - if Oden starts playing like a deserving #1 pick, this team is going to be damn near impossible to beat. Do not sleep on this team. That said, it's a pretty frail bunch up there in the northwest - injuries could derail this team easily, just like they could for us.

The Rest


4 - Dallas Mavericks

This team is an enigma to me. On paper, they have the potential to compete with the 3 teams at the top of this list. The biggest question in my mind is how they find playing time for all 3 of the talented wings on this roster: Shawn Marion, Josh Howard, and Jason Terry are going to have to come to some kind of equilibrium. The good news for Spurs fans is that there are less minutes available for JJ Barea, and Dirk, Marion, Kidd, and Terry aren't getting any younger. The bad news is that the Mavs' lineup is more flexible than ever, giving them tons of lineup options to torture us with. Still, Marion's defensive stats are a bit misleading (selfishness), and Drew Gooden doesn't exactly shore up the interior D. This team is likely going to score a lot of points - but how many will they give up?


5 - Denver Nuggets

Yes, they finished #2 in the conference last year. However, not only have they not kept up with the roster moves made by other teams in the West, they let arguably their best bench player leave for Europe without so much as making him a formal offer. Oh, and the knucklehead brigade, led by Kenyon Martin and JR Smith, still play for them. I thought about dropping them further, but couldn't think of one other team to put here. Chauncey, Melo, and Nene deserve better than the supporting cast they're stuck with. There is something to be said for stability, with all the moves being made this summer, but if Denver wasn't good enough in 2009, they're not going to be good enough in 2010 after losing Kleiza.


6 - New Orleans Hornets

Like it or not, the Okafor trade was an improvement... barely. But then they went out and dumped Rasual Butler's salary for a second-round draft pick in 2016, ruining my starting lineup projection for the Spurs' first regular-season game. Peja should also be back for the Hornets, which is pretty irrelevant at this stage of his career. Chris Paul will still be a thorn in our sides, but there isn't much reason other than that to be concerned about this team. They're not going to sneak up on anyone like they did in '08, and if the rumors about the players hating Byron Scott are true (they were true in New Jersey, btw) this team is going to be dismantled much more quickly in the future.


7 - Utah Jazz

Disclaimer: This depends entirely on what they get back when they finally ship Boozer out. Everyone knows by now that the Jazz are in a pretty nasty financial situation, and they're going to shed Carlos Boozer at some point before the trade deadline. Still, if they're able to get anything approaching a similar level of talent, they will still have a very good team. D-Will, AK47, and Millsap aren't going anywhere, and Okur is likely to still be there at the end of the season. This team has enough firepower, and a tendency to actually win the games they're supposed to. But, if they don't make it, one of the other winning teams in the West will make it.


8 - Golden State Warriors

There, I said it. Stampler made this argument a few weeks back when there was a poll about who is going to be the "new" playoff team in the West this upcoming season, and the more I've thought about it, the more sense it makes. I'm not on board with Randolph as the franchise's saviour, but there's a ton of talent on this team, and they battled through more injuries than the Spurs and Jazz did last year. Expect the Dubs to be back with a vengeance - which puts them... in the final playoff position. Of the teams that might be battling for that last spot, this one has [by far] the most firepower. They won't play a lick of defense, but they sure will be exciting.


9 - Phoenix Suns

My, what a familiar position the Suns are in. They'll still be good with Steve Nash and Amar'eye running around causing fits for other teams. Grant Hill and J-Rich will shoot lesser teams into submission when they double the dynamic duo, and... that's about it. Oh wait, did I forget to mention Channing Frye? That's because he's a player that aspires to be mediocre. So even if he reaches that mediocre status, the Suns are still going to be on the outside looking in. Might as well tank for a draft pick.


10 - Houston Rockets

Speaking of teams that might as well tank for a draft pick, none of last year's playoff teams could use a high draft pick like the Rockets. Through no fault of their own, they are without both of their best players for most of, if not the entire season. Don't get me wrong - the Rockets could finish higher, but the idea of them making the playoffs seems pretty ludicrous. Trevor Ariza is a nice building block for the future, and we all know the benefits of having a certain Argentine PF who plays an extremely smart brand of basketball. This should still be a defensively solid squad, and they're scrappy as hell, which I admire. I think they finish just above .500, and they have the potential to play the spoiler for teams with real playoff hopes, like the next one on the list.


11 - Oklahoma City Thunder

It's no secret that myself, Lauri, and some others here are high on this team, especially a certain UT product. However, it would take a miracle (or lopsided trade) for this team to make the playoffs. To my eyes, this team is more reminiscent of the 2007-08 Blazers than any other young, developing team in recent memory. If you'll remember, those Blazers made some noise with a long winning streak in the middle of the season, but quickly trailed off when they no longer surprised their opponents, and finished right at .500. Kevin Durant and James Harden are going to be hell on the wings, flanked by the promising Russell Westbrook and DJ White (yes, I think he's going to get the nod over Nick Collison). If BJ Mullens or Serge Ibaka pan out, this team may be more dangerous than you might assume at first glance. But, there still aren't enough playoff spots to allow them to make it.


12 - Los Angeles Clippers

A lot of people are high on the Clippers after they landed the #1 draft pick and used it to nab Blake Griffin. Those people might also point to the development of Eric Gordon and the return of Baron Davis as making this team a force to be reckoned with. There is a lot of talent on this team, and it wouldn't be too difficult to stretch your imagination enough to see a team with this kind of roster in the playoffs. But then you'd have to remember that they are still the Clippers, Sterling is still the owner, and Dunleavy is still the coach. Sorry, Clips fans (if they exist), but this team isn't going anywhere. I can see this team finishing with the best record of all the sub-.500 teams in the West.


13 - Memphis Grizzlies

So, they got Thabeet. Great, but who cares? Mike Conley is poised to have a breakout year, and new draftess DeMarre Carroll and Sam Young should be good contributors to this team. And of course, we all know about Rudy Gay and noted Spur-killer OJ Mayo. They have the biggest frontcourt in the league, with Thabeet, Haddadi and M. Gasol and Steven Hunter (try not to laugh). So with all this going for them, why are they so far down the list? Zach Randolph. Z-Bo was a horrible acquisition for a team with a promising young core, both from a basketball and character standpoint. Selfishness begets selfishness, and this team won't spoil anyone's dinner party unless they put Randolph on IR and keep him far, far away.


14 - Minnesota Timberwolves

Does this team have promise? Yes. Is promise enough to be better than next-to-last? Not in the Western Conference. It doesn't matter whether they convince Rubio to come and play for them next year, this team is dead in the water right from the start. No matter how well Big Al Jefferson plays, Minnesota doesn't have the firepower or defensive tenacity to keep up with the other teams in the West. Ryan Hollins and Johnny Flynn will probably be decent enough contributors to this team, but they need at least one more player as good as Jefferson to keep pace in the West.


15 - Sacramento Kings

Well, somebody has to finish last. This team has a few good parts, but they don't fit together very well. Kevin Martin is the best player on this team... again. That in itself is not a good sign, but the dropoff in talent after that is pretty steep. Noc doesn't fit this team, and is pretty redundant with Green and Martin in the lineup anyway. They drafted DeJuan Blair 0.5 in Jon Brockman - decent player, but the NBA is going to be much more difficult for the undersized Brockman than the Pac10. They also drafted Omri Casspi, likely due to the fact that the Spurs and Blazers had been eyeing him for years - this, of course, means that any chance Casspi had of being a quality NBA player is now dashed. And Tyreke Evans - WTF kind of top draft pick is that? Color me disappointed.

Conclusion

The Western Conference isn't getting any easier. In fact, it may be more difficult than ever. Besides the teams that are truly contenders, there's a lot of nightmare matchup problems out there, and nearly every team in the West can cause at least one of those for the others. By no means is the pecking order that was listed above assured, since a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. This fan's biggest hope is that the Western Conference championship is not decided by injuries (with apologies to Rockets fans), but by the players on the court. Is that too much to ask?

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