1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Are we a year early on the Thunder? The logic: Durant (30 ppg) and Westbrook are just emerging as stars and will only get better. Westbrook should vault into the Rose-CP3-Deron Williams-Nash class of point guards this season. Questions remain on the interior, but if jumping jack Serge Ibaka can double his minutes (18 last year) and Cole Aldrich can provide some defensive help for Collison and Kristic … why can’t this team win 57 games? They’re certainly younger and faster than everyone else in the West.
2. LA Lakers
Why not 1st? Three reasons: 1) Kobe’s 32, D Fish is 36, Gasol is 30, Odom is 30, and Artest is 30 (and may have lost more of a step than the other four); 2) Andrew Bynum’s knees, 3) Three-peating is damn near impossible. This isn’t a slight, and it doesn’t mean we don’t think the Lakers will win the title (playoff predictions are Tuesday). 55 Wins, Western Conference Finals.
3. Dallas Mavericks
This team’s older than the Lakers. All five starters are 30 or older. Still, the top eight players are very solid, and if Tyson Chandler can stay healthy and Roddy Beaubois can get more minutes and more shots, they should be in line to win 50ish games. The Mavericks are saddled with some questionable contracts over the next few years, so this will probably be the last shot at a title (in Dallas) for the Nowitzki-Kidd tandem. We’ll give ‘em 52 wins.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Picked these guys to win the title last year in the preseason – what a mistake. Like the Lakers and Mavericks, they’re getting up there in age. At 34, Tim Duncan ($22 million this year), probably has two years left. What an underrated career that guy has had. Are George Hill and James Anderson the new Parker & Ginobili? Probably not. 49 wins.
5. Portland Trailblazers
If we’re underrating anyone in the West, it’s probably the Blazers. Assuming everyone is healthy – last year, that definitely wasn’t the case; especially among their bigs – Portland could be a sleeper. The Roy-Aldridge tandem is outstanding, and defensively they’re stout (Matthews, Camby, Oden, Batum). Finding a third scorer will be necessary for a postseason run. Andre Miller? 48 wins.
6. Utah Jazz
The Deron Williams and Boozer show is now the Deron and Al Jefferson show. And Jerry Sloan hasn’t killed Jefferson yet, so that’s good. How will the Jazz handle the losses of Boozer, Korver, and Matthews? That’s three of their top 8 players. Think they’ll fall back a bit – 47 wins. Can we interest you in these Deron Williams crossovers? Second best handle in the league behind Derrick Rose. A dip from last year’s 53 wins to 47.
7. LA Clippers
After the Thunder, the Clippers might have the best young talent in the West. Blake Griffin seems poised for a 20-10 ROY kind of season. We’ve been a fan of Eric Gordon’s work since his Indiana days. DeAndre Jordan was promising in bursts last year, which could be why the Clippers are dangling Kaman in hopes of getting Melo (seems very unlikely, though). The key: Baron Davis. He’s 31 coming off two subpar years; have the injuries caught up with him? We like a 17-win improvement from 29 to 46 victories.
8. Denver Nuggets
We’ve got last year’s No. 4 team in the West here because we think they’ll probably deal overrated (SI said it, not us) Carmelo Anthony at some point. Denver’s kept mum on the issue lately, but at some point, Melo will be shipped East, and the rebuilding will begin. Whatever’s left should be able to win 42 games and hold off Houston, Memphis, Golden State and Phoenix.
Where’s Phoenix? Don’t like the frontcourt at all. Warrick, Hedo & Robin Lopez? Yuck.
Where’s Houston? Where’s Yao?