Last week in this space we talked about the NBA’s Eastern Conference. This week our attention turns to the West.
Last season the Western Conference was stacked, as a number of teams battled for the best record. Then, at the end of the season, the Lakers woke up and proceeded to destroy the opposition on their way to a second straight title.
This season the Lakers look like big favorites once again, but the Mavericks have a ton of talent and both the Spurs and Blazers are reloaded for another run. The entire conference looks like it can contend for the playoffs, with the possible exceptions of the Grizzlies, who are in Memphis this year, Nuggets, who will be without Antonio McDyess for the first half of the season, and, of course, the Warriors.
The Lakers have staked claim to the Pacific Division, and there’s no reason to think that their dominance will end this season. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant may be the two best players in the league. Shaq is certainly the most dominant.
It remains to be seen what effect the new rules will play on Shaq’s game, but there is no doubt, he is the best big man in the game today. If teams decide to use zones to sag on Shaq, then Kobe, along with newly-acquired Lindsay Hunter and Mitch Richmond, will be able to score at will from the outside.
Defensively, Shaq will be able to command the post even more than he has in the past, since he no longer has to worry about illegal defenses. If they can stay healthy, the Lakers will likely be repeating as NBA Champs in June.
On paper, the Blazers don’t look as tough as they did this time last year. But addition by subtraction may be just what the team needed. Arvydas Sabonis is gone, opening up more room for Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp in the pivot. Steve Smith has moved on, replaced by the athletic Derek Anderson.
The biggest change in Portland is on the bench where Maurice Cheeks takes over the team in his first head- coaching job. If Cheeks can get through to the enigmatic Rasheed Wallace and convince him that he’s more useful to the team on the floor than garnering technical fouls, the Blazers could be very good.
Before last season ended, there was a lot of speculation surrounding where Kings’ forward Chris Webber would be playing this season. All that talk was wasted, as Webber decided to return to Sacramento. The forward will miss some time early to injury, but when he returns the Kings will be tough.
Sacramento has been very talented for the last few seasons, but with Jason Williams at the point they’ve been wild. The Kings dealt Williams to the Grizzlies for steady, Mike Bibby, and that move should improve them. The Kings still have a slew of outstanding foreign players led by Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, along with plenty of depth off the bench. They figure to challenge the Lakers and Blazers at the top of the division.
The rest of the Pacific Division is full of young, incomplete squads. The Clippers have a ton of talent after adding Elton Brand, but they still have a hole at center and are very, very young. They certainly could be a playoff contender, but an injury to Lamar Odom could send the Clips back to the lottery.
The Sonics were unable to deal either Gary Payton or Vin Baker over the off-season. In fact, the only movement of note was the signing of center Calvin Booth, while letting Patrick Ewing go back East. The Sonics have enough to stay close to the tail-end of the playoff hunt, but lack of chemistry and quality size will mean an early exit.
The Suns made a huge move dealing Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury, but may not have gotten better. The success of Penny Hardaway’s return will impact the Suns ability to make the post-season.
In the Midwest, the Mavericks have become the fashionable pick, and for good reason. Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Steve Nash form an outstanding core of talent, and the acquisitions of Danny Manning and Tim Hardaway will help come playoff time.
Across the state in San Antonio, the Spurs still have reason to think they’re a contender, despite their embarrassing effort against the Lakers in last year’s playoffs. Tim Duncan is among the top handful of players in the league and David Robinson is still an athletic force inside. But the Spurs exchanged Derek Anderson for Steve Smith, and that deal probably won’t help them too much. Still, the Spurs will play great defense and win a lot of regular season games.
For the last few seasons, many have been predicting the Utah Jazz’ demise, but it still hasn’t come. With the re-signing of John Stockton for two more years and the continued excellence of Karl Malone, the Jazz will be solid again this season. They don’t have much depth, so it is critically important that Stockton, Malone and Donyell Marshall all stay healthy if the Jazz are to stay with Dallas and San Antonio.
The two other Midwest Division teams in the playoff hunt should be the Rockets and the Timberwolves. Both teams have one fantastic player and a group of role players around him.
The Rockets’ Steve Francis is outstanding, and Cuttino Mobley joins him to form a fine backcourt, but they will be without Maurice Taylor for some time and were unable to sign center Marc Jackson away from Golden State to fill the middle.
On draft day the Rockets dealt three first round picks to the Nets for forward Eddie Griffin. Griffin has shown outstanding range with his shot in preseason, and could make a big impact on the Rockets.
The Timberwolves are Kevin Garnett. At just 25, Garnett is still getting better, and could have his best year yet this season. Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak are Garnett’s top running mates, although Minnesota re-signed the infamous Joe Smith and drafted Loren Woods in the second round. Both players will get a chance in the frontcourt with Garnett, as the Timberwolves looks to last in the playoffs for more than one round.