With the NBA season just a few weeks away, the teams in the Western Conference are preparing for what should be a competitive season.

Can Oklahoma City take it to the next level or was last season’s team  just a fluke? How well will Steve Nash’s Suns fare this season without the services of Amare Stoudemire? Will the return of Yao Ming spark the Rockets or is he just damaged goods? What will be the end result of the Carmelo Anthony/Denver Nuggets fiasco? Did the road to the NBA Finals get easier for the defending champs as key players from the conference went East? For months I’ve been carefully weighing storylines like these in my mind.

Now is the time to offer some answers as I assess the teams in the Western Conference.

Northwest Division (Division Winner Oklahoma City Thunder)

  • Denver Nuggets – The Denver Nuggets were the “Cream of the Crop” of the division about a year ago. Since then, Denver has struggled on and off the court, primarily due to the health of head coach George Karl, which resulted in a disastrous ending in last season’s playoffs. To make matters worse, Carmelo Anthony’s future with the organization remains uncertain. All is not lost for Nuggets Nation as coach Karl is back and he will at least have his group ready. Denver has a lot of weapons on offense and defense so opposing teams shouldn’t sleep on this squad.
  • Minnesota Timberwolves – Minnesota is for the most part, the same team from last season with the exception of parting ways with their most valuable player in Al Jefferson. However, they did add Michael Beasley to the mix. Beasley has yet to become the impact player the Heat anticipated when they selected him number two overall in the 2008 NBA draft. Hopefully a change of scenery will spark the former Kansas State Wildcats star. The Timberwolves will be competitive in games but won’t make much of an impact in the standings.
  • Oklahoma City Thunder – In the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Thunder gave Los Angeles all they could handle and that experience can only help this young team. Defending scoring champion Kevin Durant, will be a legitimate league MVP candidate for seasons to come. Add “Duranatula” with Russell Westbrook, who is almost unstoppable off the dribble, Jeff Greene’s 3-point and low post abilities and a deep bench that can play defense with the best of them, and you have a formidable problem for opposing teams in the west. The big test for Oklahoma City is the fact they will be on the radar this season. We’ll see how well the Thunder respond, now that they are the ones being pursued.
  • Portland Trail Blazers – The Portland Trail Blazers have the potential to be the scariest  team in the West. Shooting guard Brandon Roy is the teams’ most complete player. He has a rangeless shot with excellent ball handling skills. Few players are able to defend Roy because of his quickness. With a line-up of Roy, point guard Andre Miller, small forward Nicolas Batum, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge  and a healthy Greg Oden at center, Portland can win a lot of games. Coach Nate McMillan did a tremendous job last season as the team managed to win 50 games despite its many injuries. Portland can win the Northwest division, but considering its health history, I wouldn’t bet money on them.
  • Utah Jazz – The Utah Jazz will have a much different look this year. They parted ways with Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. Luckily for Utah, they are out of the conference as they are all playing for the Chicago Bulls. Utah still has a top five point guard in Deron Williams and a welcomed addition in Al Jefferson from Minnesota. Look for Jefferson, Mehmet Okur and Andrei “AK-47” Kirilenko to collect a lot of rebounds and alter plenty of shots when they defend the paint. The back court of C.J. Miles and Williams is pure fire. I don’t see them as a top five seed come playoff time, but I find it difficult to believe a Jerry Sloan coached team will not make the playoffs.

Pacific Division (Division Winner Los Angeles Lakers)

  • Golden State Warriors – Warriors’ guards Stephen Curry and Monte Ellis are premier shooters. By acquiring power forward David Lee from the Knicks, they have a nice inside/outside attack. But head coach Don Nelson’s run-and-gun style of offense can only get a team but so far. For that reason alone, the city of Oakland will see its team miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
  • Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers have a very nice squad with guards Baron Davis/Eric Gordon, forwards Ryan Gomes/Blake Griffin and center Chris Kamen. This team should be better this season. If they can stop beating themselves and stay focused, they might be an eighth seed. Blake Griffin’s durability will be key!
  • Los Angeles Lakers – Participants in the last three NBA Finals, winning two of those, makes the Lakers clear-cut favorites to win it all again. LA ‘s core group of Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and some player by the name of Kobe Bryant are all signed to long-term contracts. Did I mentioned that head coach Phil Jackson has returned to get ring number 12? Steve Blake, a proven point guard, will counted on to lead the Lakers second unit. Matt Barnes’ feisty defensive behavior and Theo Ratliff’s shot blocking ability are also key to the success of LA’s bench. The fact that  Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire and other key players are now in the East, one can only believe that the path to the finals has gotten a bit easier for the Lakers. Plus with all the Miami Heat talk, the defending champions will come out with a chip on their shoulders.
  • Phoenix Suns – Although Amare Stoudemire will be missed, the Suns have to feel real good about acquiring  Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress. Talk about two-for-one deal! Steve Nash and company will look to challenge LA again this season. Defense has always been the Sun’s Achilles heel and the organization has yet to  find a remedy for it.
  • Sacramento Kings – The Kings are in the same bag as the Minnesota Timberwolves in that they will compete but are a long way from making any noise in the West. Sacramento made a smart choice by picking DeMarcus Cousins fifth overall in the 2010 NBA draft. Cousin will eventually be a starter and  join Carl Landry in the front court and point guard Tyreke Evans will have his good moments with both players but these Kings are in rebuild mode. Look for “Sac Town” and the Timberwolves to fight for last place in the conference.

Southwest Division (Division Winner Dallas Mavericks)

  • Dallas Mavericks – Dallas is a team built for the regular season and that’s why they tend to falter during playoff time. The Mavs have a lot of veteran weapons in Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd (who finally found a consistent perimeter shot), Shawn “The Matrix” Marion, Caron “Tough Juice” Butler, Jason Terry (coming off the bench) and the new addition of Tyson Chandler. Chandler will definitely give the Mavs a better look defensively. The key for Dallas is consistency in the playoffs which is a major issue for this team.
  • Houston Rockets – The Rockets are a good team with some good players but they lack that one player that can put them over the top. Yeah, Yao Ming is back and he could be that player to get them there, but how realistic is that? Ming’s durability is in question every year and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t get hurt again this season. Look for Houston to have a disappointing season by missing the playoffs.
  • Memphis Grizzlies – The Memphis Grizzlies are a young team with potential in the starting lineup. Mike Conley (point guard), O.J. Mayo (shooting guard), Rudy Gay (small forward), Zach Randolph (power forward), and Marc Gasol (center), can run with any team in the NBA. The problem with this team is depth or lack of it. Their bench doesn’t really measure up with the top teams and that alone will keep them from making the playoffs.
  • New Orleans Hornets – This team has the potential to creep into the playoffs as an eighth seed. No, I’m not going crazy and I know that there’s been talks of Chris Paul wanting out of the N.O. However, the Hornets have made some decent moves to sway the All-Star point guard to stay with adding Trevor Ariza, Willie Green, Marco Belinelli, and Jason Smith. They have power forward David West and if center Emeka Okafor can still healthy, the Hornets will have a formidable front court. Second year guard Marcus Thornton will continue to get better and Peja Stojakovic still has a lot left in the tank. Watch out, the Hornets just might be the sleeper in the west.
  • San Antonio Spurs – San Antonio will always be in the hunt for a championship. It starts with head coach Gregg Popovich. Face it, Popovich is a winner. You don’t win 50 or more games for ten straight years by being lucky. In fact, since he took head coach duties in 1997, the Spurs won less than 50 games twice. How solid is that? Pop has the old group of players brainwashed with the notion that age is just a number and it works every season. Seriously, this team just won’t go away. Tim Duncan remains the focal point of the team and this season, he’s as fit as ever. Tony Parker has something to prove coming back from a series of injuries last season. Manu “GINOBLIIIII”, in my Charles Barkley voice, will definitely do his thing. Young bench players like point guard George Hill, power forwards DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner will be important for San Antonio’s success. Look for the team from the Alamo City to fight Dallas for the number one spot in the division.

By Keith Madyun

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