There’s no mystery about which team will rule the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t just the best team in the conference; they are the best team by seven to 10 games. Barring a catastrophic injury to Kobe Bryant or a significant Ron Artest meltdown, the reigning NBA champions will return to the finals next June to defend their title.
The case for the Lakers is simple: They won 65 games and a title last season and all their key players are still in their prime. The new addition, Artest, in the short term (and as long as keeps his cool), is an upgrade from Trevor Ariza, who left to take Artest’s place with the Houston Rockets. The Lakers won’t be playing for the No. 1 seed in the conference; rather, like last season, they will be vying for best regular season record which grants home court advantage in the finals. In the 25 seasons since the NBA switched to a 2-3-2 alignment of home games in the finals, the team with home court advantage, home floor in games six and seven, has won 19 times. So Lakers fans will be watching the scoreboard to see how the Eastern Conference powers Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics are doing; it will provide more drama than winning their own conference.
The second tier in the Western Conference is where things get interesting. The San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers should wage an 82-game battle for the No. 2 seed in the conference. San Antonio is trying to squeeze one more title run from a nucleus that has won three championships this decade. The problem is simple; center Tim Duncan and swingman Manu Ginobili are aging and have been slowed by injuries.
The team smartly added some scoring production in center Antonio McDyess, and forward Richard Jefferson in the off-season, but without a return to good health by Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs are just another 55-win team. The Denver Nuggets caught fire late last season, winning 14 of their last 17, and they hung tough with the Lakers until the second half of Game 5 of the conference finals. To repeat that feat, however, the Nuggets will need a run of good health from their injury-prone forward Kenyon Martin and center Nene.
The team with the best chance of giving the Lakers a run in the Western Conference is the Portland Trail Blazers. They have a young, powerful nucleus of players; it’s hard not to see the finals—or even a title—in their future. Last season, the team won 54 games and led the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions). Once they improve on defense, and once center Greg Oden gets his NBA sea legs, they will take over the conference. But Oden is only 21 years old and has started only 39 games; it’s the office equivalent of still finding his way to the men’s room. Because centers take longer to adjust to the pro game than players at any other position, it’s still a year or two too early for the Blazers to be thinking about victory parades.
The teams one level down— the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Hornets—are the best collection of also-rans in sports today. They made a lot of moves, but 50 wins and a first-round-playoff upset is their ceiling. After that, there is one remaining playoff spot, and two small quick teams, the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets should make a run for it. The dregs of the conference split into two groups. There are teams moving forward like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Clippers, and then there are organizations that are spinning their wheels—the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors. For the first group, a breakout success could mean contending for the final playoff spot. For the other, there is always next year to start thinking about.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.