Posted by Sekou Smith
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Even with all that’s gone on in Miami in the past two weeks, this is still Kobe Bryant‘s world.
That’s right, Miami.
It’s Kobe’s world.
Kobe’s Lakers remain the team to beat, which was solidified by Phil Jackson‘s return for one final season.
The two-time defending NBA champs return to the scene with basically the same crew that has clawed past their Eastern Conference counterparts in Orlando and Boston, respectively, the past two seasons.
And we’re guessing they won’t fear the Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, if they do end up facing each other in the NBA Finals this season.
We’ve already presented you with HT’s mid-summer look at the Eastern Conference’s top eight teams. Now for a look at the playoff favorites in the West:
1 — Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 57-25
The Skinny: With Jackson back in the fold for one last run and chasing yet another three-peat, the Lakers make handicapping the Western Conference race easy for all of us. There will be no shortage of motivation for this crew to grind its way through the playoffs again and into the championship round. They have no clear-cut foil in their own conference, what with all the challengers either too old or too young to contest their reign as the top dog. Bryant will have the added motivation of cementing his legacy as the best player of his generation and one of the all-time greats alongside Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell — not to mention the prospect of turning back the Heat’s bid for a glory. The Lakers have the added bonus of having perhaps the most complete supporting cast in basketball in Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum, all but Fisher are either knee-deep or entering into the primes of their careers. Steve Blake moves into a reserve role behind Fisher and the Lakers also snagged a couple of draft gems in Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, two athletic rookies that could factor into the rotation at some point this season. It all adds up to another long season for the rest of the West.
2 — Oklahoma City
Last season: 50-32
The Skinny: You think this is too big of a jump for a team was the 8th seed last season, don’t you? Well, too bad. If you’re not ready to drink the Thunder Kool-Aid we’ll handle it for you. As long as Kevin Durant is healthy and Russell Westbrook continues to evolve into one of the league’s elite point guards, the Thunder will be a force. Last season’s breakthrough season was just the appetizer. Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha are quality players at their positions, on both ends of the floor, and Nenad Krstic has Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and rookie Cole Aldrich helping him out down low. James Harden had a solid rookie season and could challenge for a more prominent role this season. But even if he doesn’t push for a starting spot he’s already a huge part of a Thunder second unit that has been upgraded tremendously from where it was this time a year ago. Eric Maynor could start of plenty of teams at point guard and Daequan Cook gives them a distance shooter with fantastic size and solid experience, having played with Wade in Miami the past three seasons. Of course, everything here starts with Durant, who signed a five-year extension this summer. The Thunder will be among the West’s elite for as long as he is in uniform.
3 — Phoenix
Last season: 54-28
The Skinny: For all the changes you will notice in Phoenix (GM Steve Kerr is gone, as is All-Star center Amar’e Stoudemire) the one constant for the Suns remains. Steve Nash, the age-defying wonder that he is, is still at the top of his game. He’ll have a significantly revamped supporting cast around him this season — Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick will all join in on the fun. The best bench in basketball returns as well, led by Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley. Add Childress and Warrick to that mix and you’re talking about a group that could hold its own against any team in the league for extended stretches of games. They won’t have to, of course, not with Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Robin Lopez and Channing Frye all back to reprise their respective roles. Still, the personnel possibilities for coach Alvin Gentry are endless. His vision of a 10-man rotation couldn’t be a better fit than it will be in the Valley of the Sun this season. The one concern this team still has to address is their lack of bulk around the rim, which cost them dearly in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers. But that was a problem even when Stoudemire was around. The Suns will be a nightmare to prepare for in the regular season, mostly because there is no telling what personnel groupings they’ll throw at you. Their issues will come in the playoffs, when the game will inevitably slow down and teams have more time to prepare for them.
4 — Dallas
Last season: 55-27
The Skinny: Eight players on the roster are at least 10 years deep into their NBA careers, giving the Mavericks arguably the most “seasoned” roster in the entire league, that seasoning being a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. From our perspective, that seasoning has to be good for yet another 50-win season. But as much as we like what the Mavericks do, we’re having a hard time seeing this team contend with the Lakers for the top spot in the West. When they traded for Caron Butler last season we were convinced they were the one team that could threaten the Lakers. And then the Spurs came along and destroyed that idea. Dirk Nowtizki, Jason Kidd, Butler, Jason Terry, Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Jose Barea and HT’s main man Roddy “Buckets” Beaubois form as solid a nucleus (on paper) as any franchise could want. Still, there was something missing last season in the playoffs. And that puts some serious pressure on Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who has to find a way to spark this team and shake them out of the playoff funk that has plagued them in recent years. Because they are not getting any younger.
5 — Utah
Last season: 53-29
The Skinny: We didn’t need any assistance in praising the move to steal Al Jefferson from Minnesota. But the Prime Minister provided these words of wisdom this morning in regards to Kevin O’Connor‘s season-saving theft: “Deal for Jefferson … genius. From the Mississippi roots to the style of game, he’s more of the Karl Malone type than Carlos Boozer ever was. And I like the prospects of the Jazz with him manning the middle. I know he’s not a superb defender, but at least he blocks a shot or two a game, and that’s what we need down there.” Well said. And anything that keeps both Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams happy, which this move no doubt must have, is a good thing for the Jazz. Moving Raja Bell in and allowing Wesley Matthews to go to Portland was a little more perplexing — Bell’s a veteran but has had injury issues while Matthews would have stayed at a much higher price than the Jazz were interested in paying. Losing Kyle Korver to the Chicago Jazz (where Boozer and Ronnie Brewer have also joined up) wasn’t ideal, but at least he’s not playing with a competitor in the West. That also creates a nice space for rookie Gordon Hayward to fit in. If Paul Millsap is ready for a starting role and Andrei Kirilenko is ready to resume his defensive-minded ways, the Jazz should be fine.
6 — San Antonio
Last season: 50-32
The Skinny: How big a difference can one rookie make? Spurs fans have to be wondering with their most notable summer move of significance being the addition of Tiago Splitter. “I know everyone loves John Wall, [DeMarcus] Cousins and Blake Griffin,” one scout said, “but Splitter is the real deal. The same way Luis Scola came over and was an immediate force in the league, Splitter will have the same kind of impact for the Spurs.” Tim Duncan certainly hopes so. A Hall of Famer in the twilight of his legendary career, Duncan needs the sort of boost he once provided for David Robinson. In an effort to calm down the expectations, the Spurs are trying to stay on top of the rhetoric being tossed around regarding Splitter. And truth be told, the Spurs still have plenty of firepower in Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill and DeJuan Blair and HT fave Matt Bonner. Richard Jefferson remains a factor (until we hear otherwise) and youngsters like Garrett Temple, James Anderson and Curtis Jerrells might also factor into the mix for Gregg Popovich‘s team. That said, a huge season from Splitter could be the difference between the 6th or 7th seed and the Spurs being among the West’s elite.
7 — Denver
Last season: 53-29
The Skinny: Someone had to tumble with the Thunder moving up and the Suns, Jazz and Mavs all holding their ground. And that someone is the Nuggets, who have made headlines for everything but their on-court performance in the past few months. Carmelo Anthony‘s name continues to make the rounds in trade rumors involving several teams. Kenyon Martin‘s injury status (he won’t be ready for the start of training camp) and George Karl‘s recovery from cancer treatments continue to cast shadows over some very real concerns for a team that a year ago this time was considered the No. 1 contender to the Lakers’ throne. Those days are gone. The Nuggets are still a dangerous team, anytime you have the explosive scoring group of Anthony, Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and newcomer Al Harrington on the same roster there is a chance for fireworks on any given night. The Nuggets have a solid supporting cast in place. Their injury issues, however, will undoubtedly define their season early. Both Martin and Chris Andersen need time — hence the Nuggets summer pursuit of Jermaine O’Neal (Celtics) and Udonis Haslem (Heat) along with Harrington. The sooner Martin, specifically, returns to form, the better the Nuggets will be.
8 — Portland/Houston
Last season: 50-32/42-40
The Skinny: This is not some cop-out for the 8th spot. We are really torn between the Trail Blazers, who proved last season that they could be a playoff team in the face of severe adversity caused by injuries, and the Rockets, who were scrappy but could not reach a playoff level in the face of similar adversity. Yao Ming is far more crucial to the Rockets’ cause at this stage of his career than Greg Oden (and to a lesser extent Joel Pryzbilla) is to the Trail Blazers’ cause at this stage of his fledgling career. Without all the injury drama we could see both of these teams surpassing some of the teams ranked ahead of them here — a healthy Yao is good for another 10-15 wins on his own, isn’t he? The Blazers did have their best player last season. All-Star shooting guard Brandon Roy is still one of the league’s most difficult matchups, provided his knee is sound. And there is a solid and veteran supporting cast around him, whether Oden and Pryzbilla are ready to play at a high level or not. The Rockets have an improving mix of youngsters and several solid veterans on the roster that will allow Rick Adelman more flexibility this season compared to what he had to work with last season. The addition of Brad Miller gives the Rockets a skilled big with experience playing in Adelman’s system. And we’re expecting an immediate impact from high-energy rookie Patrick Patterson. Again, we won’t be surprised if both of these teams are sitting in the top eight by season’s end.