The West is the best. That’s what drunken pseudo-poet Jim Morrison once told us, and while it’s advisable not to take his advice too often (dropping psychedelics in the desert is really only useful for producing a half-decent episode of Entourage) the Lizard King was right about this one. The Western Conference race is going to be crazier than Ron Artest.
It’s not just that the quality of hoops is better once you cross the Mississippi. Consider that there are eight teams in the West that could win 50 games if everything breaks right, and just as many that could implode spectacularly. (OK, Utah won’t). After that… things get kind of grim. But the entertainment value both on and off the floor gives us yet another reason to stay up late and watch Charles, Kenny and Ernie on TNT.
That’s the reason the West gets so much more attention. Look at the players: Kobe, Dirk, Baron, A.I., Shaq—hours of fun right there. Then there’s the coaches: Phil Jackson, George Karl...for all we know, even Gregg Popovich could have been a CIA spymaster. Even the owners are nuts. What does the East have by comparison? The Wizards?
For all that, the Eastern Conference (spoiler alert!) still has the best team, but from November through April, the West is indeed the best.
1. Los Angeles Lakers: There are a lot of smart people who think the Lakers are the overwhelming favorites to win it all this year, thanks to the return of young center Andrew Bynum. Of course there were a lot of smart people who thought LA would beat the Celtics, too.
Bynum’s return solves one obvious problem (rebounding) but opens another: With Pau Gasol moving back to his natural four-spot either Lamar Odom or Vlad Radmanovic is going to have to come off the bench. Odom has been somewhat resistant to the move, one might say, and while he hasn’t gone down the Chris Morris road yet (writing ‘Trade me’ on his sneakers, for example) there’s still time for him to be a ginormous pain.
The other issue for Phil Jackson to figure out, if he ever moves off that Ergonomic chair, is whether he’s comfortable turning over the point guard reigns to young Jordan Farmar. Derek Fisher isn’t getting any younger.
The temptation is to assume Kobe Bryant will solve everything, but Kobe has his own issues to deal with (nagging injuries, short offseason, weird contract offers from Europe). It was only a year ago, after all, that he was feuding with general manager Mitch Kupchak and demanding a trade.
This will be a defining year for the Lakers. They are the favorites, and for good reason, but if all goes wrong, watch out. The ensuing drama will make Grey’s Anatomy look like an after-school special.
2. Utah Jazz: Once upon a time the Jazz were this boring little outfit that pick and rolled you to death, won 55 games or so and lost in the semifinals. Last year the Jazz were a boring little outfit that pick-and-rolled you to death, won 54 games and lost in the semifinals. So, nothing’s changed, except for those hideous uniforms they used to wear and maybe the length of Mark Eaton’s beard.
The Jazz did almost nothing to their roster, but the real fun will come after the season when Carlos Boozer has the power to opt out of his contract. Boozer is telling the press not to worry about it, but he said the same thing to Cleveland and opted out anyway, so no one really believes him.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Jazz are damn good. They will pick and roll you to death and win 55 games.
3. Houston Rockets: Meet the trendiest pick in the NBA and save me a seat on the bandwagon. Darryl Morey, Wyc Grousbeck’s once upon a time right-hand man, has taken the biggest risk this offseason and his name is Ron Artest.
First the good stuff: Artest is a beast. He is as physically strong as anyone at his position in the NBA, and he is in a contract year. That can’t be emphasized enough. On the other hand, he’s insanely insane, so pairing him with the taciturn Tracy McGrady and the stoic Yao Ming is bound to be awesome. Will it work? Who knows? But Rick Adelman—somewhat amazingly—has coached weirder teams.
Get your popcorn ready when Artest squares off with Paul Pierce, by the way.
4. New Orleans Hornets—Chris Paul, Chris Paul, Chris Paul. That’s all you ever hear about when you hear about the Hornets, but the fact is that New Orleans has one of the best 4-5 tandems in the NBA in David West and Tyson Chandler.
Chandler is the most underrated player in the league. He’s so good defensively that he can cover up for Peja Stojakovic.
If they played in the East, say in the Southeast Division, the Hornets would be printing home playoff tickets today. Instead, they play in the toughest division in basketball, meaning they can finish anywhere from the second to eighth seed.
5. San Antonio Spurs: If my life depended on picking one team to win a game, I’d go with the Spurs. But the question for this aging collection of graybeards (and have you seen Pop’s beard? One word: Garcia-ian) remains whether they can still win 16 times in the spring.
Manu Ginobli is out for a few months with an ankle injury, which is troubling. Even more worrisome is how old San Antonio looked during the conference finals against the Lakers. The Spurs have done everything right this decade, but they held on to the ghost of Robert Horry one season too long and strangely gave Luis Scola to their in-state rival, Houston.
All good things come to an end, and for ABC execs the end of the Spurs can’t come fast enough, but methinks San Antonio has (at least) one great run left in them. Their season starts in April though.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: Welcome to the great unknown. What if you took a team with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, some spiffy Euros and then dropped in the best big man prospect to come down the pike since Tim Duncan? It seems like eons ago when the Jail Blazers were the laughingstock of the league, but they’ve pulled this off in the last three years making them the envy of every team not in Boston or L.A (Clippers obviously excluded).
Assuming his knee is sound—and that he really isn’t 78 years old—Greg Oden is the future of the league. I’m tempted to put them higher, but I believe in evolution (yes, I am an elitist) and the natural order of things suggests the Blazers will finish in the middle of the pack.
7. Dallas Mavericks: OK, this is just plain curious. The Mavs spent last season hoping Avery Johnson would somehow disappear. Apparently, the little general’s grating habit of asking them to play defense was tiring. So, Avery’s gone and Mark Cuban replaces him with Rick Carlisle, who has the reputation for alienating everyone around him.
This has Hindenburg written all over it, but it’s unwise to underestimate Cuban. At any rate, any team that has Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Josh Howard is a lead-pipe lock to win 50 games, no matter who’s writing down sets on the greaseboard.
8. Phoenix Suns: This just feels so wrong. Seven Seconds or Less wasn’t just an offensive system for some of us, it was a mantra. A call to arms. Cast off your oppression and just let it flow, baby. Bob Dylan said that. Or maybe it was Joe Biden. Whatever.
But now, the great Steve Nash has to slow it down to establish a low-post game or something. Maybe fast-break till you puke doesn’t work in the playoffs. Maybe The Man was right after all. But it was fun once. It really was.
9. Denver Nuggets: I love Allen Iverson. He is my favorite player of all time (Larry and Terry Duerod included), but this will end badly.
10. Golden State Warriors: Speaking of fun, weren’t the Warriors fun? They had spunk. They had fire. They were like the working man’s version of Phoenix. Now they have Kelenna Azubuike.
Now Azubuike is a fine player and I mean him no ill, but the Warriors, friends, are no longer fun.
11. Los Angeles Clippers: Bill Simmons takes a lot of grief on the Internet, which seems unfair since he basically invented the genre you are reading now, but his elegy for the Elgin Baylor era was really first-rate. I’d throw an emoticon on here so you knew I wasn’t kidding but I hate those damn things.
Simmons’ favorite West Coast team added Baron Davis, which should be good for a few wins, but lost Elton Brand, which should effectively negate all the Baronial goodness.
On the plus side, the Clips do have the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer at center and that’s never a bad thing.
12. Sacramento: OK, moving on.
13. Oklaho, no, nope. I just can’t do it. I can not bring myself to call this team the Thunder or whatever stupid focus-group tested name they came up with. They will always be the Sonics to me. I’m curious about Kevin Durant in Year II, but that’s the extent of my interest.
It’s not the players fault, and P.J. Carlesimo once spoke at the basketball camp I attended in the sixth grade and seemed like a nice enough fellow, but a plague of locusts on you, OKC.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves: Celtics fans hate defending the Kevin Garnett trade. What part of Al 20-and-10 Jefferson don’t you morons understand—is how the argument goes, but C’s fans should relax. KG is here, Kevin Love is there and I am in the uncomfortable position of suggesting that Kevin McHale made a wise move. Which brings us to…
15. Memphis Grizzlies—I obviously don’t buy the O.J. Mayo hype, but even if I did, what gives with the rest of the roster? The Grizz have the unproven point guard position locked up, and the not quite as good Gasol brother cornered (is that like trading Greg Maddux to clear room for Mike?). Beyond that, there’s nothing here that even Hubie Brown himself could fix.
Those are the regular-season picks. For the playoffs, I’m feeling LA and San Antonio and Houston and Utah in the semifinals with the Spurs knocking off the Jazz in the lowest-rated conference finals ever. If I’m wrong I’ll subject myself to listening to "The Soft Parade" while wandering aimlessly through the Mojave.
Monday: The Eastern Conference.
Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for WEEI.com.