9 min read

Looking ahead – The new Western Conference

Looking ahead – The new Western Conference

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

So the dust is finally starting to settle on the free agency bonanza of 2010 and while many, many faces stayed put because of some absolutely absurd max contract offers (Joe Johnson/Rudy Gay), others went to greener pa$ture$ so we need to reassess the current makeup of the league.

But don’t worry, there’s a really easy way to get a good feel for the common thread of what has taken place since July 1st (yes, it really was only 11 days ago) and that overarching theme is this…

“Bye, bye Western Conference. Hello East!”

You know the old adage that it’s better to be lucky than good? Well it’s really nice if you can be both and, luckily for the Thunder, last year’s almost miraculous run to 50 wins and the playoffs certainly doesn’t seem like it was a once in a lifetime achievement. Realistically, the Thunder should do even better next season.

In fact, you could argue that an 8th place finish would have been a disappointment next year even before every major free agent and top draft pick wound up in the Eastern Conference.

But enough with the summary, let’s look at the cold hard facts of where the Thunder should reasonably be in the Western Conference’s pecking order come tip-off for the 2010-11 season…

#1. Los Angeles Lakers

First things first, the Western Conference goes through L.A. and the Staples Center (for the Lakers, not the Clippers…you know, in case there was any confusion).

The Lakers have already added Steve Blake to bolster their backcourt depth and, trust me, Derek Fisher will resign with the Lakers no matter how many times Pat Riley tries his mind voodoo on him. There’s no chance Kobe is letting the only player he admits to listening to walk away when that second three-peat is oh so close (by the way, how does Kobe admitting that he doesn’t listen to ANY other teammate not named Derek Fisher not get more play across the basketball universe…what’s that? Lebron James did what?! Oh…okay).

And the Lakers still have Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum’s yearly recovery from knee surgery and Phil Jackson’s zen, so the top spot stays with the defending champs.

#2-4. Um, well, let’s have a look…

Here’s a look at who finished #2-4 last year: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets.

Scratch off the Suns immediately from finishing in the Top 4. Yes they still have Nash, but guess what, that’s all they have left from the 2004-2007 Suns now that LeAndro Barbosa was traded to Toronto for Hedo Turkoglu, who is expected to play a good chunk of minutes at PF for the Suns (if you’re scratching your head at this, you’re not alone). Joining Turkoglu as new-look Suns members are Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. Yes, that’s the same Josh Childress who has been playing in Greece that they signed for $30 million and the same Hakim Warrick who will now be playing with his third team, even though I actually really liked the Warrick move before I heard about the Turkoglu at PF idea (horrible, horrible idea).

Oh, and Amundson is probably gone, too.

Not to mention some guy named Amare is a Knick now in the Eastern Conference. Hmmm, I probably should have led with that.

The Mavericks will look almost exactly the same as they did this year except that they’ll be another year older (and wiser, don’t forget about wiser!) and since they struggled against super athletic, fast paced teams last year, I can only expect that to be even more the case this year. Still, in this new look Western Conference the Mavericks could/should definitely be in the Top 4 discussion with Dirk and Co. back for another run. Though don’t overlook the fact that they got bounced by the Spurs in the first round even though they had home court advantage.

The Nuggets are kind of a mixed bag to me right now. There’s been a lot of grumbling around their organization, especially with Melo’s place in Denver still very much up in the air. Hopefully George Karl’s health and recovery from cancer allows him to resume coaching full time; his presence seemed to be the thing that made the Nuggets click. While they didn’t finish the season the way they wanted to in the playoffs, this will be the same team who grabbed the 4th seed so they should be a contender yet again with the same lineup. Though, again, they got bounced in the first round as well despite having home court advantage.

But that leaves one more spot up for grabs for home court advantage. So for right now we’ll just say that it looks something like this in the Top 3:

#1. Lakers
#2. Mavs
#3. Nuggets

I’m not saying that’s what I’d rank them going into next year, I’m just saying that based off of last year’s finish and the current roster, those wouldn’t be huge surprises as favorites next year.

The Fourth Spot

Now then, down to business. Of the teams who made the second round last year (Lakers, Suns, Jazz, Spurs), only the Lakers and Spurs look anything like what they did last season. We’ve already talked about the Suns, but we have GOT to spend a little time on the Jazz.

Let me just say this before I get started; I completely understand Deron Williams’ frustration right now and don’t hold it against him at all because, well, it would have to be frustrating.

The Jazz lost Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver to the Chicago Bulls and now Wesley Matthews, the unheralded surprise standout-guard from last season, just signed an offer sheet with the Blazers (sound familiar?) for 5 years, $34 million. Toss on Mehmet Okur’s status as being uncertain at best for the first few months of the season, and optimistically Williams will only have Kirlenko and Millsap (with Matthews coming back if the Jazz match) from the core group who finished only 3 games ahead of the 6th, 7th, and 8th place teams last year (Blazers, Spurs, Thunder).

In short, Boozer walking was expected but will still be a huge hole and the Jazz will miss Korver a lot more than most people are discussing at this point. If a guy can shoot 53% from 3 PT land and your system is designed around swinging the ball out on kick-outs or pick and roll plays, you’re going to miss him.

So while I like Gordon Hayward as much as the next guy, I fear the Jazz are in for a rough stretch even with a Top 2-3 PG in the league leading the charge.

The Real Contenders for #4

With the Jazz out, that really just leaves four teams in my mind who can legitimately be discussed as contenders for that last spot to have home court advantage in the playoffs: the Blazers, Spurs, Rockets (yes, the Rockets) and the Thunder.

Let me deal with the bad guys first and finish up strong with the good guys.

The Rockets will be a much, much improved team from last year’s squad the nano-second Yao Ming is healthy enough to return. But guess what, the Rockets finished in 9th place last year, 8 games back from the Thunder, Blazers and Spurs. On top of that, they have a lot of good pieces in play from Aaron Brooks to Kevin Martin to Luis Scola (if he resigns) to Trevor Ariza to Shane Battier and even last year rookies Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill (still a work in progress) who will have had some time to gel and build as a unit.

Oh, and I love the addition of Patrick Patterson.

I mean we’re talking about a team who started Chuck Hayes, all 6’6 of himself, at center in the NBA and won 42 games. Yao Ming easily gives them 8 more victories whenever he can come back. So if Yao is at least back and healthy for half the season, the Rockets will compete.

Though that’s certainly a giant 7’6, 310 lb if, isn’t it?

The Spurs are a lot like the Mavs since they’re also a year older but they got to the second round after being banged up a lot of the year and with Richard Jefferson opting out (surely he’s coming back to the Spurs for a longer deal, I mean, SUUUUUUUURELY) the Spurs do have some cap space to make a solid upgrade if it works out that way. But I think it will be the addition of Tiago Splitter that could bump the Spurs up into Top 4 consideration as another big man would allow Duncan the opportunity to take less punishment and continue performing at his metronome-like statistical level.

Plus they still have Ginobli and Parker, who when healthy are a nightmare for anyone on any given night. Dejuan Blair should continue to develop (knees still looking fine, world) and George Hill looks primed to be the next “where did this guy come from?” Spurs star.

Never write off the Spurs. Just ask Dallas.

So that brings us to the Blazers. No team last year endured more injuries from the bench to the front office than the Blazers—and yet they still finished as the 6th seed, won 50 games, and gave the Suns a better fight in the first round than the Spurs did in the second round.

They resigned Camby early on and I think that was a great move. They still have Brandon Roy, Andre Miller and the productive, if not a little overpaid, Lamarcus Aldridge. They still have solid depth, a rising stud in Nicolas Batum and the enduring Nate McMillan. But after that it’s a heap of question marks and, to be blunt, garbage from the front office that made me sick to my stomach on draft night.

The status and viability of Greg Oden is as up in the air as it’s ever been, which is unfortunate as he really looked like he was becoming the #1 pick everyone thought he could be before the injury. Pryzbilla’s status is also unclear and do any of us really know what’s going to happen with Rudy Fernandez?

They did get Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams, two players I was very high on in the draft, but when I think of their draft all I think about is the most unprofessional and low class thing I never expected to see out of the Blazers’ ownership/front office in the termination and subsequent, “But, um, we still need you to finish the draft” debacle of Kevin Pritchard’s worst day ever.

But throw that away and, if they’re even semi-healthy, the Blazers will absolutely be a lock for a Top 4 fight.

Lastly, a part of me really wanted to add the Grizzlies and Clippers to the conversation, but since they are the Grizzlies and Clippers (who I really do think will be better next year), I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Good Guys

The Thunder shocked the NBA world last year with their awe-inducing turnaround and then their gritty, a successful block-out away from taking the Lakers to seven games performance in the playoffs. They have the youngest scoring champion in league history and second place in the MVP voting All Star on their roster in Kevin Durant and blah blah blah, etc, etc, you all know who the Thunder have at this point.

In short, they’re stacked with talent across the board. They’re a team no one wants to play because they defend the stuffing out of you and always bring it. Plus, they’re something of an athletic mismatch nightmare.

But Westbrook, Green, Ibaka, Harden, and Maynor are the individuals that Thunder fans should hope to see continued development from in a very real/impact worthy way next season. Ibaka and Harden especially, as they are perhaps the biggest X-Factors to the Thunder’s chance to grab home court advantage since they were only 3 games away from it last year and both players are capable of doing so much more in their sophomore seasons.

Also, if Thabo can hit an open three (more of an if, than a hope at this point in his career) or if the acquisition of Aldrich can prove to be the presence in the paint that the Thunder so desperately need, then there’s absolutely no reason the Thunder should not challenge every other team outside of the Lakers for even the #2 seed in the Western Conference.

I’m not kidding, there was not a lot of separation last year from #2-7 and, if anything, it’s only gotten closer.

The Thunder would need to have that string of good luck again (no injuries) and they’d have to continue playing some of the best defense in the league, but with this new shift of power from the West to the East, the Thunder find themselves in a spot that we only thought would come around once last year after the injury bug hit so many contending teams: The Thunder have a legitimate chance to win home court advantage and make a deep run in the playoffs despite being one of the youngest teams in the league.

But as should be abundantly clear at this point, after the Lakers, it’s anybody’s ball game. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

October can’t get here fast enough!