It was a Saturday afternoon, I was lying in bed sick with the flu, staring up at a ceiling fan blade still spinning four and a half minutes after it had been turned off, and I was considering the nature of the article you're reading now.
Western Conference Preview.
I pondered the premise and feelings rose up.
I was flipping through the mental Rolodex of conference preview articles I'd previously written, trying to find the thread that connected the ones which ended up being most relevant. I think I even wrote an article once about how much I dislike "power ranking style" previews. The thought playing on the front end of my brain that Saturday, like it is as I write this, is that while I've been called on to write a conference preview many times, and done so successfully, I don't really like the nature of them.
They always tend to be stale, inclusive to the point of being irrelevant, and trending just a tad overly optimistic. There has to be a way to make it not suck, I thought to myself before continuing to abuse my bottle of DayQuil. There has to be a way to bridge the gap between the voice inside our head that muses on reality free of pretense, and its inhibited and filtered counterpart that bends to what people thought and said yesterday.
What matters in a conference preview?
No. What matters in in a conference?
What matters? The team that ultimately wins the conference. That's not always clear, however. What could be considered clear? Well, definitely who's not winning the conference (yes, I'm looking at you Sacramento).
OK, OK, OK - I think I've got it.
Teams that matter.
Teams that might matter.
Teams that don't matter.
OK, here goes nothing:
Teams That Matter
Los Angeles Lakers
They're the best team in the world and they got better in the offseason. Matt Barnes was a huge addition: defense, perimeter shooting, and energy. They also added stability to their backcourt with the addition of Steve Blake. These two would have been a solid additions to any squad, but that they chose to bring their talents to L.A. speaks to the current state of the league, that now more than ever title defenders and contenders are monopolizing talent.
Their front court personnel (Gasol, Bynum, Artest, and Odom) are still the best in the league, and in a seven game series I don't see anyone being able to outscore/rebound this group, which will almost always score a playoff victory. As has been true of most title defenders, the regular season won't be as important for them as it was in previous seasons, and keeping the nucleus healthy for playoff time is more paramount than anything.
That being said, I think they will have a stellar regular season. I think Kobe Bryant's subtle improvements each offseason are made more apparent the better his crew gets, and I think he wins MVP this year, with L.A. finishing first in the conference.
Kevin Durant isn't just the most unappreciated basketball superstar in the league, he's like the most underrated human specimen on the planet. If you don't class him as a league impacting player who can single handedly shift the landscape of the Association, you aren't giving him enough credit. It's precisely because of his immense talents that the Thunder have the best chance of de-throning the Lakers.
Why, specifically? Because as of right now Kevin Durant is on the top three list of "people who can check Kobe Bryant" one-on-one and most of you still think he can't play D. In addition to the massive bucket of points KD hauls around with him, his length makes him a great match up on Kobe in key situations down the stretch and that could be the difference in a close playoff series.
Everything else about the Thunder is a given; they're a damn good team that will make a playoff run. The reason why they're the only other team on the "matters" list is because of how well they match up with the Lakers. They still have front court issues to overcome, but even with that hindrance they're still the best chance to take down L.A.
Team That Might Matter
(in no particular order)
I'm not particularly keen on the Mavs this season as a title contender, but if anyone fits the description of a "team that might matter" it's them. I'm not putting them down as a major threat to the Lakers in the west, but if they prove me wrong I don't expect my jaw to hit the ground or anything. Not a Tyson Chandler fan, personally, but he's a shot blocker and a finisher inside, and offensively at least, his production will increase playing with Kidd.
Dirk is still a superstar and Caron Butler will have his first full season with the team, so if they can get the chemistry, and offensive pecking order, and consistent defense worked out they have pieces in place to cobble together a run.
Here's my take on the Western Conference, and why the Jazz might matter: this whole dance is schemed on beating the Lakers. How do you beat the Lakers? 1) Find a way to contend with the best front court in basketball, 2) survive Kobe Bryant, and 3) don't get out coached every game.
Why the Jazz? Mehmet Okur, Al Jefferson, Andrei Kirilenko, and Paul Milsap are not a better front court than Gasol, Bynum, Artest, and Odom - but they're closer than anyone else in the conference. The addition of Raja Bell brings the clear number one defender role (the "shut down corner" to borrow a football term) to at least survive Kobe. Jerry Sloan, the sage embodiment of wisdom that he is, is maybe the only Jedi Master left (not named coach Pop) who can still cross lightsabers with the Zen Master.
I know some people have the Jazz slated for a first round exit, but they're my sleeper in the conference. They're not necessarily a contender, but another ideal example of a team that could be if they can just put their marbles together.
If Greg Oden could find a way to stay healthy enough to maybe gain some momentum for his career and stop being a bust, the Trailblazers could have a shot at really being the young dangerous team everyone wants them to be. The good news: even if he doesn't Brandon Roy is a star, and that front court, even minus Oden, still isn't that bad. Camby and Aldridge are an imposing front court tandem, and even Pryzbilla (if healthy) is serviceable on the defensive end.
It will require a tremendous amount of focus throughout the season to snag a higher end seed for the playoffs, but if they get on a roll at the right time, they're staffed to potentially upset someone to get into the Conference Finals and then who knows what might go down.
San Antonio Spurs
I think the identity of the team is fluctuating, and I think it has to stabilize itself considerably before the playoffs if the Spurs want to make another run. There's a lot of room for a potential talent explosion (James Anderson, Tiago Splitter, Blair, Hill), but all of that "potential" could also swing the other way under pressure. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili can take you so far, but given the inevitable trend of their collective health, we now know that this trio is not going to haul the team to a title by themselves - significant and consistent contributions from a core group of three or four other players will have to be in the mix.
What changes the outlook is the idea of this team in the playoffs, healthy. If it happens, they're instantly a title contender in my mind. Tim Duncan, healthy and in the playoffs is still the most dominant interior presence in the conference and that means a great deal, especially considering the Lakers and their front court. If the young talent on this team can aggressively grow and push this team forward, the veteran core will have a chance to stay healthy and come through in the post season.
Team That Don't Matter
(in no particular order)
I don't care how many points they score. Yeah, I like 'Melo, too, but they're a jump shooting team and don't play D. That makes them incapable of a title run.
They lost Amare and when given the opportunity to shift the makeup of their squad, they added more shooters. They are not built for championship basketball in the current NBA, and management just doesn't get it. Yes they're a good team, but they don't matter because they're not built to beat the teams that do. Period.
They don't have nearly enough firepower offensively to do much of anything, and bringing in Kevin Martin to jack up thirty shots a game in a futile effort to try and drag your otherwise offensively busted ass team isn't going to accomplish much other than give K-Mart an All-Star appearance, a tired shooting shoulder, and an otherwise sour disposition as he looks around for some help.
New Orleans Hornets
Something bad happened to the Hornets, and I'm not even sure what it was. Most of their core seems more intent on jumping ship than buckling down and rekindling what they had going a couple of seasons ago. Somebody get Dr. House in here to diagnose what the hell happened to these guys.
Golden State Warriors
Lots of young talent here, lots of athleticism, lots of good shooting... too bad it's all two or three seasons away from being cohesive and developed enough to matter. I have hopes for this team down the road; keeping Curry, Ellis, Biedrins, and Lee together long enough may be a challenge, but if possible this crew could be something three years from now.
I like Rudy Gay. Do I like him enough to give him $82 million? Nope. There's good young talent here, for certain, but some core additions are necessary and Lord almighty I hope the money doesn't ruin the closest thing to a go-to guy the Grizzlies have.
Los Angeles Clippers
Baron, you're my boy, and I wish you had left in you what you once did. I think the age and injuries have caught up to you, and this squad isn't ready yet anyway. Best of luck, B-Dizzle.