After the Los Angeles Lakers captured the NBA championship last spring, it looks to be another competitive year in the gritty Western Conference. Look for L.A., Denver and San Antonio set the pace what’s bound to be a tight race for the playoffs.
1st: Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 1st
Record: 65-17. NBA champions.
After stealing Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies two years ago, the Lakers are back to elite status and they’re only getting better. With Ron Artest in the mix, this will be a monstrous team defensively. As per usual, expect Kobe’s show time performances on the offensive end of things. However, if L.A. wants another title, they can’t allow any of Artest’s off-court antics to be a distraction. Also, center Andrew Bynum needs to cleanse himself of his reputation as being one of the leagues most over-paid players and step up.
2nd: Denver Nuggets
Last season: 2nd
Record: 54-28. Eliminated in conference finals by the L.A. Lakers.
The race for second in the west will once again be close but Denver still has an edge on San Antonio. The young talent on this team has finally found direction under Chauncey Billups, who always finds himself deep in the playoffs. This is a gritty team that can playmake and bully their way into the win column.
3rd: San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 3rd
Record: 54-28. Eliminated in quarter finals by the Dallas Mavericks.
The front office in Milwaukee deserves a slap for trading Richard Jefferson for small change and light impact. Jefferson is exactly what this aging team needs to keep them among the league’s elite. Following the pick-up of Antonio McDyess, there is no doubt this team has the most savvy vets in the league. If the Spurs stay healthy, look out.
4th: Dallas Mavericks
Last season: 6th
Record: 50-32. Eliminated in semi finals by the Denver Nuggets.
After picking up Shawn Marion, the Mavs are ready to run and gun as if Jason Kidd were still in his rookie season. The Mavs will find a utility player in Dirk Nowitzki, who will continue to serve as a solid half-court crutch when the fast break doesn’t work. Dallas will be better this season but not good enough. Look for them to secure home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, then choke — as always.
5th: Portland Trailblazers
Last Season: 4th
Record: 54-28. Eliminated in quarter finals by the Houston Rockets.
The Blazers can play, no doubt about that, but they’re still forming their identity. Andre Miller will be a great addition, but his presence likely won’t make its full impact until the post-season, when it is most needed. Portland will be the inverse of the Mavericks, so expect the Trailblazers to finish a little lower in the standings than they did last year. However, also expect them to gain a berth to the second round of the playoffs.
6th: New Orleans Hornets
Last season: 7th
Record: 49-33. Eliminated in quarter finals by the Denver Nuggets
If Chris Paul wasn’t a Hornet, New Orleans would be last on this list. Nobody in the league makes the players around him better than CP3, who is emerging as the best point guard of his generation. If Emeka Okafur is going to reach his full potential, Paul is the point guard to bring him there. If the Hornets could acquire Stephen Jackson from the Warriors, this team would be dangerous.
7th: Utah Jazz
Last season: 8th
Record: 48-34. Eliminated in first round by the L.A. Lakers.
If not for the power-forward controversy in Utah, the Jazz would find themselves higher in this season’s standings. Chris Paul may be the best point guard in the world right now but Utah’s Deron Williams has something to say about that. When these two go head-to-head, Paul gets chewed up by Williams. If the Jazz’s supporting cast can step up their game, coach Jerry Sloan will demonstrate why he was inducted into the NBA’s hall of fame this year.
8th: Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 14th
Record: 19-63. Did not make playoffs.
This may be a half-crazy prediction but the last playoff spot goes to the Clippers — even though it is likely they will be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the neighbouring Lakers. After giving the Zach Randolph disease to the Grizzlies, the Clips are ready to move on from last year’s catastrophe. Also, Blake Griffin is a beast and Baron Davis is a baller so the Clippers should not be underestimated.
9th: Phoenix Suns
Last season: 9th
Record: 46-36. Did not make playoffs.
If Amar’e Stoudemire can really come back like as he once was, the Suns will again have one of the most exciting offences in the NBA. But this team will need more than inconsistent highlight reel performances to avoid another shortcoming in the tightly knit Western Conference.
10th: Houston Rockets
Last season: 5th
Record: 53-29. Eliminated in semi finals by the L.A. Lakers.
After losing Yao Ming to injury and Ron Artest to free agency, things are on the decline in Houston. Tracy McGrady is talking about a comeback but he would be lucky to get eliminated in the first round — again.
11th: Golden State Warriors
Last season: 10th
Record: 29-53. Did not make playoffs.
The Warriors need to hurry up and trade Stephen Jackson to the Hornets so both teams can improve. With Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Anthony Morrow, the Warriors have plenty of firepower but too much back-court. Jackson clearly isn’t happy and wants a trade — this team badly needs a shake-up.
12th: Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 13th
Record: 23-59. Did not make playoffs.
Kevin Durant is one of the league’s most exciting young players but the Thunder are still rebuilding. Give the Thunder some time and you might see a contender down the road.
13th: Minnesota Timberwolves
Last season: 11th
Record: 24-58. Did not make playoffs.
Al Jefferson is back but the Wolves still can’t cut it. After drafting two point guards in the first round and only keeping one, you can’t help but wonder what this team is thinking.
14th: Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 12th
Record: 23-59. Did not make playoffs.
Memphis has added Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson. Who will complain more about not getting the ball when they start losing?
15th: Sacramento Kings
Last season: 15th
Record: 17-65. Did not make playoffs.
Once again, the Kings will be the peasants of the league.
photo: Keith Allison