The Western Conference of the NBA will once again be superior to the East in the 2011-12 season, but like we saw last year, the balance is shifting. The top two teams in the East are certainly as good as the best in the West. The depth of talent and quality, however, still leans heavily towards the Pacific coast.
This conference, in fact, is so deep as to be nearly impossible to predict. There's really only three teams we can absolutely rule out of the playoffs, the New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. And the Kings have enough talent to potentially surprise a lot of teams; they certainly won't be an easy opponent on any night.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are everyone's favorite pick to win the West and for good reason. They bring back their entire team and should be even better with a slimmed down, healthy Kendrick Perkins. They have youth, continuity, and depth which are the ingredients for a good regular season this year. The only reason they won't have a better record than the Heat or Thunder is the imbalanced schedule that has them facing better competition.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers have already shown in the preseason that they will be a fun rivalry to watch. We predict the Clippers Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin trio will edge out Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Tucked in between the two L.A. teams is the defending World Champion Dallas Mavericks who Shawn Marion rightly points out isn't getting enough respect. He didn't point out that they replaced Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea with Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Vince Carter. The Mavs will still be a very good regular season team, though, and should finish in the top half of the West.
After those top four teams things get dicey. The San Antonio Spurs are older but we expect Tiago Splitter to have a break out season. The Memphis Grizzlies seemed ready to continue their progress but the loss of Darrell Arthur will hurt but they seem willing to move O.J. Mayo for a big at some point.
Then we have the Phoenix Suns in the seventh spot in what we readily admit is a homer pick. After that comes the Portland Trail Blazers who have enough talent with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews but they don't have the super star any more and depth is an issue (although Jamal Crawford will certainly help off the bench).
The next three teams are a complete mystery. We have the Minnesota Timberwolves surprising a lot of people and using all that talent to go further than many expect. Then the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets could easily be lottery teams in the West but mid-range playoff teams in the East. They could also be mid-range playoff teams in the West. Who knows.
We are fairly confident that the bottom three teams in the West will be the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Hornets. But only the Hornets will be in the same category as the worst teams in the East.
Here's how it lays out:
- Oklahoma City Thunder 48-18
- Los Angeles Clippers 42-24
- Dallas Mavericks 40-26
- Los Angeles Lakers 40-26
- Memphis Grizzlies 39-27
- San Antonio Spurs 37-29
- Phoenix Suns 37-29
- Portland Trail Blazers 36-36
- Minnesota Timberwolves 35-31
- Utah Jazz 32-34
- Denver Nuggets 32-35
- Houston Rockets 30-36
- Sacramento Kings 27-39
- Golden State Warriors 23-43
- New Orleans Hornets 15-51