We all know and have frequently discussed the teams ahead of us in the Western Conference playoff pecking order. The Old Guard consists of the Lakers, Spurs, Hornets, Suns, Mavericks, Rockets, Jazz, and Nuggets. Those are the teams that have mature-to-aging stars and have been in the playoffs for in recent years.
The consensus seems to be that most of the teams in the Old Guard are in decline, due either to age Spurs, Suns, Nuggets), trades (Mavericks, Suns, Nuggets), or lingering injury problems (Spurs, Rockets, Nuggets). The Lakers, Jazz, and Hornets look like the Top Three in the West this season, with the Rockets and Spurs being wild cards. The Blazers are expected to join this group, possibly as early as this season, but by next season at the latest. We expect to dominate the West for several years after that.
I want to talk in this fanpost about the teams that will become part of a New Guard: teams that are in the lottery right now but will follow the Blazers, Lakers, Hornets, and Jazz into the Western Conference playoffs after the Old Guard totters into the sunset. For the sake of this discussion, let's assume we're talking about the 2010-2015 time frame. Let's also assume no one team is bitten so severely by the injury bug that it significantly weakens them.
The Kings, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder, T-Wolves, and Grizzlies are lottery teams. It's possible that at least one of the Old Guard teams will be able to reload and remain a playoff team during the 2010-2015 time frame, so we should consider them as well.
Finally, it's impossible to predict what the rosters of the West teams will look like next season, let alone two to seven years out, so we'll have to go with the current rosters and project as best we can.
Here's who I think will be the members of the New Guard in the West in 2010-2015:
Blazers -- We will be the best team in the league. Y'all know why.
Lakers -- Top coaches, top market, top player, finals experience, stars at three and maybe four positions, and depth. Kobe will be 32 in 2010 and 37 in 2015, but he'll likely still have more game during those years than 90% of the rest of the players in the league. We're looking at the makings of a great Blazers-Lakers rivalry.
Hornets -- No matter who mans the SF and SG positions for them, Paul, West, and Chandler are the core of the team and will be in their prime. They'll have a lot of playoff experience and we'll have to deal with them every year.
Jazz -- The biggest question mark for them is Boozer. Will he even be on the team after this season? I think management will find a way to make it happen, but even if they don't, they have a habit of making the playoffs and I expect that trend to continue.
Rockets -- Their top players will all top 30 by the start of the 2010 season, but not by much. They'll be a playoff team, but age is going to hit this team harder and earlier than most. They'd better win it all this year, because I see them returning to being a consistent first-round out after this year.
As I look over the rest of the West teams, I find myself reaching a shocking conclusion: the New Guard will consist of the above teams... and that's it. The rest of the Old Guard teams will be dropping by ten games each season. By 2010 they'll be too old and too capped-out to reload. Even the mighty Spurs will fall as Duncan and Ginobili reach middle-age. The Suns and Mavericks have mortgaged their futures (Shawn Marion and Devin Harris) for a chance to win this year with Shaq and Kidd. The Nuggets are already beginning to disassemble and aren't likely to find a star willing to replace AI.
The current lottery teams can all be summed-up thusly: mismanagment (T-Wolves and Grizzlies) or too many holes/too few stars/too young (everyone else). Three teams from this group or from the Old Guard relics will manage to make it into the playoffs each season simply because eight always get in, but they won't deserve to be there.
In fact, I wonder if we are about to see a transfer of power from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.