By Clint Longenecker
After last week’s Eastern Conference preview, we continue this week with a preview of the Western Conference.
The West has been the NBA’s premier conference since the second retirement of Michael Jordan in 1998. Since then, eight of the 11 NBA champs have resided in the West. This trend persisted last season as the Los Angeles Lakers captured their 15th championship, and a record 10th with Head Coach Phil Jackson. This season, can Phil make it 11 or will another squad emerge to represent the West in the Finals?
Northwest supplies fresh talent
The Northwest Division featured three playoff teams last year and two teams that are on the upswing with young talent.
The Denver Nuggets won the division last year, securing the two seed, on their way to the Western Conferences finals. George Karl’s squad was a surprise after not making the playoffs the previous season.
The season changed after a trade for veteran Showiness Billiups, who capably ran a very potent Nugget offense. Carmelo Anthony is a certified star, capable of being one of the league leaders in scoring. Denver was able to get healthy and productive seasons from their frontcourt with Nene Hilario, Kenyon Martin and Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
If the frontcourt is able to maintain their high levels of performance the Nuggets could find themselves again among the league’s elite.
Last year was the season that Portland fans had been waiting for as the Trailblazers were able to capitalize on their emerging young talent and secure a playoff berth.
After years of drafting well and accumulating assets, Head Coach Nate McMillan led his unit to a 54-win season. Brandon Roy emerged as the go to guy, averaging 23 points per contest in his third season.
Andre Miller inked a three-year pact to further bolster the talent base highlighted by LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez. Portland could very well continue their growth and challenge the elite in the West.
The Utah Jazz secured the eighth playoff seed and were rewarded with a first round matchup against the Lakers, who dismantled them in five games.
This is a talented team, especially offensively. Deron Williams is the leader and should provide around 20 points and ten assists a game, especially with last year’s nagging ankle injury healed.
The Jazz boast a bevy of frontcourt scoring options with Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Paul Millsap. Utah’s shortcomings are a dearth of perimeter scorers and three point shooting.
Can a 23-win campaign be considered a successful year? It was for the Oklahoma City Thunder as the league’s youngest team came on strong in the second half and showed promise for the future.
The Thunder have an outstanding young nucleus with Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook, and Jeff Green. The team added another asset by drafting James Harden. The Thunder could be a year away from contention, but this is definitely a team to watch.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were another young squad that failed to produce the desired results, but who have a talented core.
Al Jefferson solidified himself as a true go-to low post threat for years to come and rookie Kevin Love showed that he is an impact player. They drafted Johnny Flynn and international phenom Ricky Rubio, who elected to stay overseas for two more years.
Pacific division ahead of the pack
The Pacific Division featured the world champs, but no one else secured a playoff spot. The race should be tighter this season as bounce-back campaigns from the Warriors, Suns and Clippers are all very likely scenarios.
The Los Angeles Lakers lost Trevor Ariza to free agency, but brought in knucklehead Ron Artest, a true wild card.
All of the key elements of the team return this season. Kobe Bryant should once again be among the leading scorers. Their only weakness is point guard depth with an aging Derek Fisher steadily declining.
They sport the best frontcourt in the league with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The road to this year’s NBA Finals is certainly paved to run through Los Angeles.
For the first year in Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns reign, the team failed to make the postseason. Gone is Shaquille O’Neal, and the days of running at the league’s fastest pace have returned after the midseason coaching change to Alvin Gentry.
Amare Stoudemire is a wild card, coming back from retina surgery that ended his season. If the Suns are able to successfully recapture their seven seconds or less running philosophy they could be back in the playoff action.
The Golden State Warriors stumbled to a 29-win campaign, being decimated by injuries. Don Nelson employs a fast paced attack that nets high scoring totals using an undersized unit. If the Warriors are able to stay healthier this year, they will improve, being led by Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette.
Last year’s Sacramento players were Kings in title only, losing more games than any other squad. The road back to contention will be a long one with a supreme lack of talent. The good news: rookie Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin will make an exciting scoring combo.
Big changes in the Southwest
The Southwest Division was the best in all of basketball — boasting four playoff teams — and the race should be just as contentious this year.
The San Antonio Spurs were bounced from the first round for the second time ever under Tim Duncan’s tenure. This aging team acquired scoring threats in Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess to gear up for one last playoff run.
If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili remain healthy, they are primed for a big run that could result in a championship, with Tony Parker playing a vital role.
The Houston Rockets are a team in transition, as star player Yao Ming is done for the year with a foot injury, and the Rockets made no attempt to sign Ron Artest.
Fellow star Tracy McGrady will be back midseason from a knee injury, but until then newcomer Trevor Ariza, Louis Scola, Aaron Brooks and a scrappy bunch will try to keep the team afloat. Daryl Morey is as good as they get at acquiring undervalued talent, so be wary of writing off the team just yet.
After having one of the worst years of the Mark Cuban era, but still making the playoffs, the aging Dallas Mavericks decided to gear up for another run by acquiring Shawn Marion. Dirk Nowitzki remains a potent scoring threat, but the elder Jason Kidd might be on his last legs.
They do have as good a starting five as any but their depth remains suspect outside of Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry. This veteran squad looks to once again be a playoff team, but will struggle to challenge the West’s elite.
Those Hornets of New Orleans have the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul. Tyson Chandler was jettisoned for Emeka Okafor, which should upgrade a struggling offense.
A bounce-back year is needed from Peja Stojakovic, as the perimeter scoring is lacking. Thanks to Paul’s tremendous performance, this team should once again be a playoff contender, and with a chance to make some noise if the Wings can provide anything to Paul and the frontcourt.
The Memphis Grizzlies registered 24 wins last year, a far cry from a playoff spot. Solid rookie campaigns were contributed by OJ Mayo and Mark Gasol. Hasheem Thabeet was drafted to compliment youngsters Mike Conley and Rudy Gay. Even though Allen Iverson was added, this team has very little chance of contention of this year.
The world champion Lakers will have a target on their back and Portland, San Antonio, Denver and New Orleans will all try their best to upset the reigning champs. Outside of Memphis, Sacramento and Minnesota, every team has a realistic shot of being within shouting distance of a playoff spot.
This should make for a great season of NBA basketball so be sure not to miss out on the action.