I had no clue initially, but the Western Conference is extra beefy this year. It's Jonah Hill post-Superbad, plus thirty pounds for good measure. Last year's young up-and-comers like Memphis and LAC, along with teams like Phoenix that suffered off-season setbacks, are headed for the lottery. Portland, Houston, San Antonio and New Orleans should all be back in the playoff mix, guaranteeing the aforementioned teams a bed in the basement.
Nearly everyone stands to be better than they were last season. To keep you up to date:
-- The Lakeshow remain fresh and ready to contend. They added Matt Barnes and two sleeper rookies in Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. And Ebanks looks too much like Trevor Ariza not to be able to A) Nail catch-and-shoot threes or finish alley-oops, and B) Dribble like a sixth grader missing his left arm.
-- Dallas has its finger on the Rodrigue Beaubois trigger and could routinely blow up opposing defenses should they pull (therefore capping Jason Kidd's career, literally).
-- San Antonio bought back an attitude-adjusted Richard Jefferson, who became so convinced that his Milwaukee antics weren't going to fly under Popp that he took less money to stay with the Spurs (they've also got Tiago Splitter on the way - this is the biggest difference-maker - and Manu and Tony Parker are healthy again).
-- Utah swiped Al Jefferson from Minnesota for essentially nothing and found another token white shooter in Gordon Hayward to keep up the trend (following in the footsteps of Jeff Hornacek, Scott Padgett and Kyle Korver and preceding Kyle Singler, White Goodman or a sudden career rejuvenation by the former Vanilla Villain himself, Adam Morrison). I'm not convinced Jefferson will fit too nicely in Utah's pick and roll offense, but Jerry Sloan could make it work. As usual, I'm hoping that the entire team gets injured and Ronnie Price becomes their go-to weapon.
-- Denver added Al Harrington and stands to improve solely because Ty Lawson should see more minutes. Things will take a tumble only if George Karl has to miss more time. Silver lining? Adrian Dantley has another excuse to expand upon his already Sager-ish suit collection.
-- The Blazers enter the season like a professional basketball team from Portland, Oregon should: hidden in the woods and far from our conscience. If Greg Oden can keep healthy, the Blazers could surprise some people (not unlike: "If Lindsay Lohan could stay out of jail, she could resurrect her movie career, hopefully into an unrated, straight-to-DVD version of 'Mean Girls 2'). Actually, spare me.
-- Phoenix lost Amar'e Stoudemire, but that roster is loaded with a bunch of high-energy, low defense guys that normally get the Suns no further than the Western Conference Finals if shots fall. So... what am I saying? If Robin Lopez morphs into Brook Lopez, there's a chance.
-- Chris Paul will keep New Orleans in the race for a while. A known hothead with refs, he'll shatter the hearing/remaining innocence of as many officials as it takes to squeak out a win.
-- Memphis isn't bad, just not as good as everyone else. They're stuck in a conference that will seemingly forever treat them like they're back in Canada wearing the most hideous turquoise uniforms you'll ever see. I can actually see Bryant Reeves appreciating the old jerseys, only because he could legitimately wear one while hunting for antelope hides in the snowy woods of the North Alaskan wilderness. They'd also be a comfortable choice for the Great Outdoor Games, Reeves' true natural sport.
-- The Clippers? Blake Griffin enters the fold; they add two boom-or-bust rookies in Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe; they've contracted VDN, which is strangely an upgrade over Bald Dunleavy; and Al Thornton is no longer in the mix to play the Al Harrington Role (i.e. your typical points-only swingman with the efficiency of a pre-Henry Ford automaker. When do these players ever wind up on good teams?). Their likely 2010-11 outlook? Maybe 40 wins, or perhaps 30. If it's the former, then they'll have to basically run the table against many of the lousy Eastern Conference teams. Either way, our hopes a potential Crystal-Nicholson playoff matchup will likely be dashed once again.
-- We save Oklahoma City for last, because I think they'll take a Thunderous step forward (...) towards becoming a legitimate Conference Title contender. Kevin Durant's going to get even better, as will Russell Westbrook Eric Maynor and James Harden. Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic will form a nice frontcourt, with rookie Cole Aldrich playing Ostertag off the bench while defensive dynamo Serge Ibaka nurses an injury. And what if Byron Mullens (... Byron Mullens!?!) manages to match his skill set with his work ethic? This could be a deadly roster. And that's just on paper. The way Durant, Westbrook and Green have come together as teammates and friends over three years has contributed to the franchise's quick turnaround more than anything else. Durant didn't hesitate when OKC offered him an extension. He's got great chemistry with the Thunder, something that you'll rarely see with today's star players. Once everyone else picks up on the good vibe, it leads to nothing but added success. I'm telling you, this means more to the Thunder than their overwhelming amount young talent. Many teams have found themselves in similar situations in past years, only to suffer the consequences of immaturity and selfishness. The Thunder appear to have dodged that bullet swiftly.
The Rockets seem pretty high in a stacked conference, but I'm buying into Yao's smooth return and superb, guard-oriented offense that should easily counter the league's best defenses. Again, this team, minus Yao, a good backup center like Brad Miller, a moderately sane Trevor Ariza and an energy-boost off the bench over the second half of the season (Patterson), managed to go over .500 against one of the league's toughest schedules. There will be vast improvement, by default.
Anyway, here are my current rankings, PRE-SCHEDULE RELEASE. Things should change by then. Discuss:
[Edit: Wasn't clear enough here: this refers to standings, not team roster. Obviously, it's based on plenty of guessing, matched with team talent and expected improvement/regression according to the MartinScale. --Tom]
1. LA Lakers
6. Utah Jazz
10. New Orleans
14. Golden State
15. Minnesota -- Highest paid player? (cue Stephen A.)... "DARKO. MILICIC." That in itself is deserving of a KAHHHN!!