Wild, Wild West
Why the NBA's Western Conference is shaping up to be a bloodbath
By Adam Hoff
In the wake of Shaq's cross country move to Miami being coupled with the Pistons holding court as the reigning NBA champs, there has been quite a bit of talk about the Eastern Conference drawing even with the West. I'm here to tell you, there's no chance of that. While the Pistons remain the best team in the league and the Heat join the Pacers as legitimate Finals threats, the imbalance that exists between the two leagues in regard to overall strength has actually grown more pronounced.
The worst thing about having the Western and Leastern Conferences for the past five years is that the NBA Finals were a joke. You can handle some disparity during the regular season as long as the ideal of a worthy championship match-up is intact. And that's what had been missing until Detroit arrived last year to balance things out. And with the Pistons, Pacers, and Heat all capable of putting a Championship level team on the floor, the Finals should remain interesting for the foreseeable future.
However, just because half of the league's elite teams are now coming from the East, this does not mean that the balance of power has shifted or that things have evened out. You are still going to see teams with sub-.500 records representing the East in the playoffs and you are still going to see teams miss the postseason in the West with the knowledge that they probably could have been the 4th seed in the East.
Sure, Shaq went east and Rasheed stayed in Detroit, but when you consider the player movement from this offseason, it favors the West by a wide margin. Look at it like a trade. You've got Shaq, Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Antawn Jamison, Hedo Turkaglu, Antonio McDyess, and Antoine Walker going East in exchange for Kenyon Martin, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Kerry Kittles, Jason Terry, some guy named Tracy McGrady, and the entire New Orleans Hornets team. Which players would you rather have? That's what I thought.
So if the West actually got stronger this offseason and the balance of power shifted even more to the left side, than what does that mean for the playoff race next year in the Western Conference? It means that things are going to get ugly next year and that playoff worthy teams in the West are going to be sitting on the sidelines while sub-.500 teams in the East are battling in the postseason.
With that being said, here's my first look at how the West will shake out next season.
1. San Antonio Spurs. I would have liked to have seen the Spurs bring back the underrated Stephen Jackson, but just getting rid of Turkaglu will be a big plus. Add in the addition of sharpshooter Brent Barry and you've got the best team in the league. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at the three things that derailed the Spurs last year:
- Tim Duncan's fatigue. I'm a KG guy when it comes to anointing the league's best, but there's no way Duncan was at full strength during the playoffs last year. I know this has been covered extensively, but his long postseason, international play (which will take a toll again next year, admittedly), and numerous injuries really plagued his 2003-2004 campaign.
- Lack of outside shooting. Manu Ginobili is a great player but not a great shooter. Parker's range is still inside the three-point line. Turkaglu … well, see #3.
- Turkaglu. The guy was abysmal. Why Poppovich kept playing him is beyond me. Stone hands, horrific defense, atrocious shooting, you name it.
This year, the Spurs have addressed both #2 and #3 and will be crossing their fingers on #1. Add in the leadership that Barry provides and the benefit of Tony Parker's continued maturation process and you are looking at the best team in the West.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves are at the top of many summer lists and for good reason. They have the best player in the game in Kevin Garnett and an outstanding supporting cast. However, they didn't add any pieces this offseason, and in a year with so much upgrading going on, I worry about that a little bit. Plus, I would have liked to have seen them get rid of Wally Z. I think he'll be more trouble than he's worth this year. All in all, we'll just have to wait and see if the stand pat method was the best move for Minnesota.
3. Sacramento Kings. This is a tough one. On paper, they still have an elite team, even with the loss of Vlade Divac to the Lakers. However, things seem to be unraveling in Sac-Town. C-Webb is a broken down version of his old self, yet he's calling people out for not being tough enough. What? Plus, Peja is asking for a trade. It feels like things could go very badly for Sacramento this year. Then again, they still have one of the best cores in the game. Bibby, Christie, Peja, Webber, and Brad Miller form a potent lineup and with a healthy Bobby Jackson coming off the bench, they should be as good as anyone in the West. The question is whether they are tough enough. I thought they should have offered Webber to Cleveland for Boozer – a move that, in hindsight, would have benefited both teams immensely. As it stands, there just seems to be too much baggage for this team to win a title.
4. Los Angeles Lakers. You can check out my "L.A. Story" column for a detailed analysis, but the short of it is that the Lakers are still one of the best teams in the West as long as Kobe is acquitted this summer. If he's not, then they are the Miami Heat of last year. Bryant is one of the best players in the game and will be eager to win on his own. Lamar Odom had a breakout year last season and is one of the most versatile players in the world. As long as he stays away from the bong, he should be an All-Star next year. Throw in Vlade, Brian Grant, Slava Medvedenko, Kareem Rush, Luke Walton, Chris Mihm, and Marcus Banks (not Chucky Atkins though, they'll probably waive him) and you have a much deeper, quicker team than last year's Lakers. The one thing missing is low post scoring, which Shaq obviously provided in abundance for the better part of the past decade. All of this leads me to one final piece of their roster puzzle: Caron Butler. No, he doesn't provide low post scoring, but he might be able to bring in a guy who can. After a tremendous rookie season in which he drew comparisons to Paul Pierce and Jamal Mashburn, Butler suffered through a tough season in '03-'04. He was hurt most of the year and put up feeble numbers. However, as he showed in the playoffs last year, he is an explosive and underrated talent and is capable of being an impact player on both ends of the floor. Yet the Lakers have him slated to – get this – compete with Luke Walton for time off the bench. Huh? If you are going to give Butler the 8th man spot on the roster, why not deal him? Caron to Portland for Shareef Abdur-Rahim makes a whole lot of sense. It would shore up LA's one glaring weakness - post scoring - and cement them in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
5. Denver Nuggets. I love what Denver did this summer. Re-signing Marcus Camby and acquiring Kenyon Martin has given them the best frontline in the West. I thought they should have made a run at Quinton Richardson (who would be perfect on that team), but K-Mart was the big score. They needed his low post scoring, locker room presence, and his toughness. He will serve as the protector and intimidator for both Carmelo and Camby and will prevent teams from doubling Anthony in the block. I think Denver will use Nikka Tskidisvili and go after an upgrade at the 2 (over incumbent Vashon Lenard), and if they do, they will be very tough next year. Even if they don't, they could roll out a crunch time lineup of Andre Miller, Melo at shooting guard, Nene, K-Mart, and Camby. Not bad at all.
6. Houston Rockets. They would be higher if they'd just gone ahead and acquired a point guard this summer (no, Charlie Ward doesn't count). Derek Fisher has a ton of experience and was available, Philly was begging for someone to take Eric Snow off their hands, Brent Barry was on the market, and the list goes on. I personally thought Barry would have been a terrific fit next to McGrady, giving Houston a huge backcourt that can shoot and pass with the best of them. When Barry's price tag went up, Snow was the next best option. A Jeff Van Gundy point guard if ever there was one, he would have been a terrific stabilizing force for the Rockets. Instead, Houston goes into August with Tyron Lue and Ward fighting for the starting point guard job. Yuck. Insert virtually anybody else in that spot and this team rises. After all, a lineup featuring T-Mac, Jimmy Jackson, Juwan Howard, and Yao Ming will be one of the best in the league. If they can add a true point guard and get improved play from the bench, they will be a tough out come April.
7. Dallas Mavericks. They will be down, but still dangerous. The Terry trade was a huge boost as JT gives them a scoring combo guard that can run the point until Devin Harris is ready. Plus they have Dirk Nowitski and two rising stars in Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard. If Michael Finley can hang in there for another solid season, they will score a ton of points again. The problem, however, continues to be defense. They just can't stop anybody. With Irk (get it? No D) getting 40 minutes at the 4 and guys like Eduardo Najera trying to play center, it's just going to be an uphill battle. This is why it is so mystifying that Dallas didn't pull the trigger on a deal for Shaq. Pair O'Neal with Finley, Daniels, Harris, and Howard and you are looking at the 2005 NBA Champs. Oh well.
8. Utah Jazz. Nobody had a better summer than the Jazz. They built a terrific, young frontline by adding Kris Humphries, Mehmet Okur, and Boozer to a lineup that already featured my new favorite player Andrei Kirilenko. They also re-signed Carlos Arroyo to man the point and Gordon Giricek to play the 2, are bringing back the injured Matt Harpring, and drafted potential star Kirk Snyder. It was the NBA's version of extreme makeover. The only problem is that they are still in the West and will still be fighting for the playoffs. I think they'll make it, but just check out the teams I'm leaving out of the mix and tell me that Utah is a lock.
9. Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, I think the Grizz are on the outside looking in. They overpaid for Brian "The Custodian" Cardinal, haven't yet made a move to bring in Eric Dampier or Eddy Curry, and are basically the same team they were last year. And in the West, that's not going to get it done. Think of a parked car on the freeway; it may not actually be going backwards, but it feels that way when cars are flying by at 75 mph. I believe that Memphis overachieved last year when they landed the fifth seed in the West and with so many improved teams in the conference, they would have to pull off a miracle to achieve a repeat performance.
(Side note on Memphis and GM Jerry West. I sure hope that their determination to keep Stromile Swift means that they'll actually play him next year. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing Stromeezee go for 22 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocks in a spot start and then get 14 minutes the next night. Now the poor guy is a restricted free agent that could get $8 mil a year and 40 minutes a night from about a dozen teams, but nobody will sign him because West is threatening to match any offer. It's a travesty. Either trade him for Curry or PLAY HIM!)
10. Phoenix Suns. Yes, the Suns are improved. No, I don't think they are a Western Conference playoff team (although just to clarify once again, they would clearly be the 4th best team in the East, ahead of New York, New Jersey, and Milwaukee). Nash is a true point guard that can run an offense, but he doesn't play any kind of defense and he's pretty beat-up at age 30. Amare Stoudemire is a beast but needs to put his injury-plagued 2003-2004 season behind him. Then there are about a dozen swingmen. I really don't understand the logic of signing Quinton Richardson when you already have Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Casey Jacobson on the roster. Why not go after a big guy? Had they stayed away from Q and saved that $40 million, they'd be calling a press conference right now and handing Eric Dampier his new Suns jersey. The only thing I can think of is that they are planning a trade. My advise would be to move Johnson – a player that showed after Marbury left that he can be a stud if he gets every play run for him – for a solid center. If they do that, then we can talk about the playoffs.
11. Portland Blazers. They aren't awful and they haven't necessarily gotten worse over the summer, but again, too many teams are getting better. Plus, despite claims from the front office that a new, community-friendly regime is in place, it's still a circus in Portland. Zach Randolph is pretty much the only remaining Blazer with legal troubles, yet they are building around him and trading everyone else off for parts. If I told you I was going to build a team around a power forward that doesn't block shots, doesn't hustle, has some weight problems, and boasts a criminal record, what team would you guess I was? That's right! The Blazers. I felt very strongly about the fact that Portland should have dealt Randolph and Stoudemire (and his expiring contract) to Houston for the disen"Franchise"d Steve Francis last year. They could have run out a lineup of Francis, Derek Anderson, Darius Miles, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and Theo Ratliff. Now it's too late.
Add to that the fact that they wasted their #13 draft pick on Sebastian Telfair (with Kirk "I'm going to be the star 2-guard you so desperately need" Snyder still on the board!) and traded for one of the ultimate NBA lunatics in Nick Van Exel and you are looking at a disaster of a summer. And now Miles and Abdur-Rahim both want out of Portland because they are getting jerked around. What a mess. Sheed may be gone but this organization still looks more like a Real World series and less like an NBA team.
12. Los Angeles Clippers. I've heard all the talk about how the Kobe Sweepstakes legitimized the "Other LA Team" and that they have enough pieces in place to make a run for the playoffs. I don't believe any of it. Elton Brand is outstanding. Corey Maggette is a poor man's Paul Pierce. But that's about it. They gave away youngster Melvin Ely to clear cap space they never used. They opted not to match Q's qualifying offer of basically the mid-level exception and instead traded for Kerry Kittles. Umm … okay. I know they are trying to maintain cap flexibility, but I believe that is just an elaborate ploy that Donald "Cheapskate" Sterling is using to keep the fans at bay while he parcels out less money in salaries. They could have re-signed Q and signed Jamal Crawford to be their point guard of the future. Instead, they got even worse. It sure sucks to be the Clippers.
13. New Orleans Hornets. Good news, Clippers fans: the Hornets might be even more dysfunctional than the Clips and they are coming to take your place in the standings. New Orleans basically has an often-injured Baron Davis, an always-injured Jamal Mashburn and a series of average to below-average players surrounding them. And now they have an average to below-average coach in Byron Scott. And they have no new talent aside from rookie J.R. Smith. And they are moving from the Eastern Conference to the West. Should be a fun year in N'Awlings.
14. Seattle Sonics. I like Seattle and I know this is going to upset my good friend Nick, but I can't see anything better in the cards for the Sonics. They drafted a high school kid that won't be ready to contribute for at least two years, they have a disgruntled star in Ray Allen, they have no power forwards (let alone decent centers), and they let one of their most valuable and well-liked players in Brent Barry walk out the door and onto the best team in the conference. Good summer.
15. Golden State Warriors. What, you expected someone else? Anytime you sign Derek Fisher and Adonyle Foyle for a combined $90 million, you've had a bad summer. Plus, they are going to lose Eric Dampier and they've already said goodbye to The Custodian. Oh yeah, and they fired one of the best young coaches in the game and replaced him with a college coach. Wow. Last place, here we come.
So there you have it! Save this and look at it 10 months from now and you'll be amazed how wrong I was. Which is always fun.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.