The State of the Western Conference

A quick, premature and informal break down, starting with the defending champions.

Los Angeles Lakers - So you just won an NBA championship. What's the next logical move? Screw around with your championship roster by acquiring the one player that gave your team fits in the playoffs. The big question mark will be what will Ron Artest do to the fragile locker room psyche of the Lakers? A team many believe just plain don't like each other. Can Phil Jackson and assistant coach Kobe Bryant keep reins on such a character? Regardless, this championship team just got a little more championshippy and remains the team to beat in the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs - The Spurs are a great team with All-Star talent. Don't expect a full dynasty collapse just yet. While reeling from injuries, an off-season of respite may just bring this dark horse back to hoisting a trophy come June. With Manu healthy, Duncan getting help from McDyess and Tony Parker probably not having to drop 35 points a night the Spurs are a much more balanced squad. A huge steal from the draft in DeJuan Blair doesn't hurt either. Expect this old dog to still have a few tricks.

Phoenix Suns - The Suns are an interesting case. By all accounts they should have a great team, but something just seems to be missing that keeps them from being a big contender. It could be their coaching. It could be the looming and realistic possibilities their star players will jump ship. It's probably the defense. They can put up as many points as they can give up. They're more than capable of battling for play-off position but the chemistry is all wrong and until they get a legitimate defensive piece expect more mediocrity in the Sun.

Denver Nuggets - The Denver Nuggets did exactly what they needed to in the off season - not much. The Nuggets deserved everything they earned over the season and remain strong. They got the one-and-done monkey off their back, competed at a championship level and showed great maturity. George Karl is one of the best coaches out there but his players are prone to something between tantrums and pouting. You'll see them in the playoffs but another shot at the Conference Championship is long.

Utah Jazz - It's hard to predict where the Jazz will end up. They're obviously solid. Well coached, play both ends of the court, have a true team leader in Williams. The front office is the big weakness for the Jazz. Uncertainty can shake morale and undermine on-the-floor performance. If they make the play-offs, no surprise. If they have a Suns-esque season, no surprise. If they lose a few players due to a budget crunch, no surprise. The Jazz should end up like the state they play in, bland.

Dallas Mavericks - You can't talk about the Mavs this season without talking about Shawn Marion. A regrettably brilliant move from Cuban and his staff. It's tough to say one player can change a whole team but Marion should bring it. The Mavs of 08/09 were good but seemed frustrated. Perhaps with coach Jim Carrey (Ok, EVERYONE has made that joke) or perhaps with one another. Marion should anchor the team a bit and bring a defensive presence to the perimeter and around the boards. Also, I have to mention J.J. Barea. Perhaps he had a fluke season because it seemed Cuban made him in a lab and no one was able to scout him. It should be interesting and entertaining to see what he can do this year.

Houston Rockets - One word comes to mind when you look ahead for the Rockets: Ouch. Their best season in years is capped off by losing both centers and a key small forward. Unless T-Mac can turn back the hands of time and there are some big acquisitions for the Rockets, they'll be rebuilding for a while. Brooks and Scola showed flashes of brilliance in the post-season. Shane Battier is still one of the best defenders in the league. Trevor Ariza should help with scoring at the three. But all these elements still shouldn't be enough to overcome such a blow to your team. It'll be lucky, and nice, to see them win 41.

Memphis Grizzlies - The fact that has the Grizzlies with eight players on their roster and have Jaric listed at the ambiguous "GF" position doesn't instill much confidence. Memphis has made itself out to be NBA kryptonite. Players would rather go to the D-League or the YMCA than Memphis. They have some good players, sure. Conley is good. Mayo is good. Randolph is good. But they're Memphis good. What to predict from the Grizz for the coming season? Empty seats.

Los Angeles Clippers - By all accounts the Clippers should be much improved this year. Does Blake Griffin make them an instant play-off contender? No. Does the supporting cast? Yes. The Clippers, if they stay healthy, have an outstanding roster on paper. They have a tremendous coach in Dunleavy. This may be a team that goes from laughing stock to scary good the fastest in NBA history. Even though he's a rookie, Griffin is a basketball freak created by the Gods. Any team who underestimates the Clips in the coming season should be served humble pie.

Golden State Warriors - The Warriors go into every game with a 50/50 chance of winning. Not a lot will change in the coming season. Expect them to jack up shot after shot while Nelly drifts in and out of an eyes-open nap through his patented hands-off coaching style. Could they make the play-offs? Sure they could. They have the players to be a really good team. They just never seem overly concerned with winning. I'd like to say their draft acquisitions will help, but expect more video-game basketball.

Sacramento Kings - Another underwhelming team in the Western Conference. The front office made some moves for the Kings, getting Nocioni and Rodriguez. Will those pieces be franchise-changers? Probably not. The Kings still lack an inside presence. Hawes is a big boy and a decent player, but with all the weight on his shoulders to be a true big man things don't look so great. If you're looking for improved three-point shooting, mission accomplished and congratulations. If you're looking to contend in an incredibly difficult conference, good luck!

New Orleans Hornets - The Hornets are an intriguing piece in the conference. They're very zen in the way that they could beat any team, but any team can beat them. The Hornets seem to believe they're better than they actually are. That can win you some games but it can also lose you some games. Too much is being put on Chris Paul. There needs to be a shooting guard to accompany him or else I fear this team becomes two-dimensional and squanders world class talent on the roster. They're fast, they're somewhat balanced and they play adequate defense. But I'm afraid they continue on the low-tier of the play-offs and get beat by much more complete teams.

Oklahoma City Thunder - When previewing a season it's always going to be tempting to say the Thunder could make the play-offs. You look at the roster and see the potential. Then you look at the age bracket. Two pieces are missing from the Thunder: a true center and a veteran leader. While the future looks bright for the Thunder, the less patient fans may want to focus on the Sooners for a few years. I'm sure the front office is clamoring to find the right pieces for the team and a marquee name to fill empty seats. But the conundrum is that the Thunder need to start winning to get those pieces, and to start winning immediately they need those pieces. The easiest team to compare them to would be the:

Portland Trailblazers - The Blazers have a lot to be excited about for the coming season, even after an unusually quiet off season from general manager Kevin Pritchard, who fans have come to expect fireworks from every year. The Blazers reached and exceeded goals set before the 08/09 season. Team leaders Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge continued a steady, albeit quiet, climb to becoming premiere players for their positions. Joel Przybilla had probably his best season in the league, showing harrowing toughness and establishing his role as enforcer. Even the rookies got in on the act. Rudy Fernandez has already become a fan favorite with several electrifying plays, a spot on 3 point shot and fiery demeanor. Defensive specialist Nicolas Batum surprised everyone this side of J.J. Barea, holding ground against the best players in the league and sparking a bit of a rivalry against Los Angeles Laker Pau Gasol. However, Greg Oden continued to worry fans and draw media attention with injuries and spotty play. Fans shouldn't be overly concerned though. Oden played about two thirds of a season and was more or less rehabbing the whole time and the microscope is shifting away from the big man, which many believed was the cause of some of his questionable play on the court. As far as 09/10 goes, the Blazers, in theory, should only get better. The concerns are going center around the play of now back-up point guard Jerryd Bayless, who will be thrown into the role after limited play last season and remains to show a consistent skill set at the position. Also, after such a great season can the Blazers continue to climb uphill or will this be a (some might say overdue) one-step-back year? But if they do continue to excel, then the play in the post-season has to be assessed after a disappointing first round to the Houston Rockets. However, for their youth and experience the Blazers are still way ahead of the curve and could end up number two only to the Lakers.

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