Is it cheating that I’m finally coming out with this now and the season’s already nearly a week old? Well, I’m gonna do it anyway. I checked in with a look at the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and here’s my forecast of the NBA’s Western Conference:
1. LA Lakers (59-23): Until beaten, Kobe is king, and that stands as notice for both the Western Conference and the Miami Heat. Two two-time defending champs are back and loaded as usual, sporting pretty much the same lineup that bulled through the playoffs and held off the Celtics in last season’s Finals.
2. Dallas (55-27): Another year, another well-rounded lineup around Dirk Nowitzki. This time around, the Mavs get a full season from Caron Butler, who came over from Washington last February and averaged 15.1 points over the final 27 games. With Jason Kidd running the show and still looking fresh at age 37, Dallas should push the Lakers for the top spot in the Conference and might be their biggest competition come postseason time.
3. Utah (54-28): The Jazz lost Carlos Boozer to the Bulls via free agency, but reloaded by scooping up Al Jefferson in a deal with Minnesota. Jefferson, who struggled at times while coming back from a torn ACL last season, will start the season alongside Paul Millsap, with fellow big man Mehmet Okur sidelined indefinitely while recovering from an achilles injury. With or without Okur, Utah has plenty of firepower, especially with Deron Williams continuing to push Chris Paul as the league’s top point guard.
4. Oklahoma City (53-29): This Kevin Durant kid can play, or so I’ve heard. At 21, Durant led the league in scoring last year at 30.2 per game and carried the Thunder to 50 wins — up from 23 in 2008-09. With Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden still on the rise, expect OKC to continue to push its way to the top of the West, and if able to keep its roster in tact, represent the conference in the Finals at least a couple times over the next five years. The Thunder won’t, however, be able to sneak up on teams the way they did last season, so don’t expect the West powers to fold all that easily.
5. San Antonio (52-30): Yep, it’s the same old Spurs. Expect Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to carry San Antonio to another 50-win season and for them to be right in the mix come playoff time. Coming off a nice rookie season and a great preseason, look for DeJuan Blair to step up alongside Duncan and have more of an impact in 2010-11. Richard Jefferson, who struggled to fit in after coming over from Milwaukee last summer, is back after re-signing and is prepped to make more of a difference in his second season with the Spurs.
6. Portland (49-33): The Blazers are as talented as any team in the West, but can they make it through the season without each one of their players’ limbs falling off? Though it doesn’t help that half of its roster still seems to be recovering from serious injuries suffered last season (well, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, at least), Portland gets a boost by starting the year with a healthy Brandon Roy, who seemed to take a step backward last season while only suiting up in 65 games. If healthy, the Blazers will hang with the big boys, but given the way things have gone the past few seasons, they’ll need a lot of luck for that to happen.
7. New Orleans (47-35): With Chris Paul in the lineup, the Hornets could very well be one of the league’s strongest teams. Still, coming off a 37-win year and with CP3’s future up in the air (he’s got two years left on his deal, but has been non-commital about re-signing), they’ll need to go out and turn some serious heads this season to be mentioned amongst the best of the West. New Orleans better hope Paul stays put, because it dealt Darren Collison, who was remarkable while filling in last season, in a four-team deal that netted Trevor Ariza from Houston in August. Ariza brings athleticism and should be a better fit with the Hornets than the Rockets, for whom he struggled after signing a big deal last summer.
8. Denver (46-36): All this Carmelo Anthony-to-anyone-other-than-the-Nuggets talk bodes very badly for Denver fans. Kind of reminds me of the Vince Carter saga of 2004 in Toronto, though Anthony is a far better player at this point in time than VC was then. A deal with New Jersey fell through last month, but if the Nuggets struggle out of the gate, don’t be surprised to see a deal done, perhaps sooner rather than at the deadline. Too bad, because I considered this team the Lakers’ top challenger as recently as last season.
9. Phoenix (45-37): Last November I had the Suns outside the playoff picture, and Steve Nash carried them to a 54-win season and within three games of the Lakers for the top spot in the conference. I’ll give them more credit coming into this year, but with Amar’e Stoudemire in Knickland, it’ll be much, much tougher for Kid Canada & co. to hang tight this time around. A pair of athletic forwards were added in Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick, but it won’t do nearly enough to fill the gap left in the middle.
10. Houston (42-40): So, Yao Ming won’t play more than 24 minutes any night and can only play one game of a back-to-back? Couldn’t they have just amputated his leg and had him play more? If Yao gets stronger as the season progresses, the Rockets may have a shot at a back-end playoff seed, though its not something that should be counted on. On the bright side, Yao’s injury allowed Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola to flourish last season, and they’ll be set to contribute around him when he’s actually on the floor.
11. Memphis (37-45): The Grizzlies looked doomed for another 20-win season in 2009-10, but Zach Randolph somehow turned in an all-star year and didn’t destroy the development of Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The result was a surprising 40-42 record, which would’ve been even stronger if not for a late-season swoon. It’ll be difficult for Memphis to make more big strides this season with the competition in the West, though its proved itself to no longer be a doormat.
12. Golden State (35-47): Once again, they’ll score tons of points and give up even more. Stephen Curry was great as a rookie in an offense geared to his game, but his 17.5 points and 5.9 assists per game only amounted to a 26-56 record. Monta Ellis, who averaged 25.3 points, has proven he can score with anyone in the league, but also hasn’t proven to be the type of player that wins games. In an attempt to beef up, the Warriors dealt for all-star David Lee from the Knicks, who can score and rebound but doesn’t contribute much on the defensive end, which is what Golden State needs if it wants to be relevant in the Western Conference.
13. LA Clippers (33-49): Blake Griffin is back after missing his rookie season and adds some size up front alongside Chris Kaman, but it shouldn’t be enough for the Clippers to be taken seriously. After all, Baron Davis is still in the mix with about 20 years left on his horrible contract. Wake me up once that one runs out.
14. Sacramento (21-61): The Kings have a great young core in 2009-10 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and fifth overall pick DeMarcus Cousins, but not nearly enough outside that to be anything close to a playoff contender. Cousins, who cracks Sacramento’s starting five from the get-go, should be right in there with former Kentucky teammate John Wall and the Clippers’ Griffin in the top rookie discussion once the year’s said and done.
15. Minnesota (17-65): Kevin Love can play, but that’s about all there is to look forward to in Minnesota this season (assuming they let him start this time). Delinquent Michael Beasley, who Miami seemingly set out to banish as far away as possible from its new dynasty, is in and hoping to spend less time making an idiot of himself and more living up to the promise that led to him being chosen second overall in 2009. Wesley Johnson, who was grabbed fourth overall out of Syracuse, should get a chance to make an impact as a rookie.