The NBA Western Conference is getting better, even if Dallas and Phoenix aren't.
For the last few years, all you needed to know about the NBA West was that the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns were the best teams and that a slew of other good teams were stuck behind them trying very hard to move up.
Then last year Change! came to the NBA's premiere conference. Within days of one another Dallas and Phoenix made utterly inexplicable trades that changed the hierarchy of the division. The Suns acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal and the Mavericks re-acquisition of Jason Kidd would have—if this were say, 2002—put them well ahead of the Spurs. But in 2008, Kidd and Shaq are at the end of their distinguished careers rather than at their peaks. Rather than raise their level, the trades knocked the Mavs and Suns back to the pack and opened the door for new teams to take a seat among the elite.
San Antonio didn't do anything and that too is a problem. The Spurs have won three titles in the last six seasons with a nucleus of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Here's the rub, Duncan is 32; Ginobili is 31, and many of the role players like swingman Bruce Bowen and center Kurt Thomas are in their late 30s. Only Parker, 26, is still improving; most members of the Spurs roster are in the decline phase of their careers (if you were to graph the careers of most professional athletes, the result would resemble a parabola). San Antonio will be good (Duncan, Parker and three ballers from your neighborhood YMCA would be a good team), but they won't be among the elite this season, especially since Ginobili will miss the first 30 games healing from an ankle injury suffered in the Olympics.
The 2008-'09 season will bring a new set of teams to the top of the NBA Western Conference. The Lakers got a head start and arrived last year. Their midseason trade for Pau Gasol was one of the savviest moves by Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak. The Lakers were a terror (until the NBA Finals at least) after the trade, and this year's group figures to be even better. The Lakers top four players, Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum are better than any other team's one through four, and the rest of the roster is stacked.
The New Orleans Hornets also served notice last season that they belong in the discussion of potential champions by winning the Southwest Division, the league's toughest grouping. They were led by Chris Paul, who had an MVP caliber season at 23, an age at which he's likely to get better, a lot better, and most of the other key Hornets are still in their prime.
The Houston Rockets were the hip pick to win the Western Conference last season, and the choice looked on target until Yao Ming suffered a stress fracture of his foot and missed the final two months of the regular season. Ming's healthy, and the Rockets have added another key player, stellar forward Ron Artest. The volatile Artest has worn out his welcome with every coach except one, Rick Adelman of the Rockets. In 2005 and '06, Artest had productive seasons under Adelman in Sacramento. Despite Yao's absence, the Rockets won 55 games last season; they are poised to win several more this season.
After one of the fastest turnarounds in NBA history, the Portland Trail Blazers figure to move into the championship contender tier this season. The team improved from 21 wins three seasons ago to 32 in '06-'07, then 41 last season. With the additions of rookie Jerryd Bayless, Spanish Olympic team sensation Rudy Fernandez and center Greg Oden, the Trail Blazers figure to make another big step forward. Oden, a force in the paint at Ohio State University, figures to tighten a mediocre defense; Fernandez and Bayless will add fire to an offense that lagged at times last season.
Since they have gone deep into the playoffs each of the last two seasons, it may not seem like the Utah Jazz are an emerging team, but look at the ages of their stars. Forward Carlos Boozer is 26, forward Andrei Kirilenko is 26, guard Deron Williams is 23. Only one key player, reserve forward Matt Harpring is older than 28. The Jazz are very much on the rise, and they won 54 games last season with a point differential that suggests that they can win 60 this season.
The Lakers, Hornets, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Jazz should all win somewhere between 53 and 60 games this season. San Antonio figures to win about 50; Phoenix and Dallas may fall to 45 wins or so, and if a key player is injured for more than a couple of weeks, those squads could fall out of the playoff picture quickly.
Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State have credentials to take advantage of any misstep among the top teams. The Clippers have a solid starting lineup but little in the way of a bench, a big factor in the NBA since reserves typically play 30-35 percent of the minutes. After five straight first round exits, Denver may be leaning toward trying a rapid rebuilding rather than another brief visit to the postseason. Golden State will miss guard Monta Ellis, who is out until January, but will be formidable after his return.
The rest of the Western Conference is full of teams that are starting to move in the right direction. The Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves have rosters full of talented young players. The Oklahoma City Thunder have a future all star in Kevin Durant to build around. The Sacramento Kings would have made the playoffs last season if they were in the Eastern Conference, but that's how tough life is on the left side of the NBA. It doesn't look like it will get any easier soon.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.