2011-2012 NBA Western Conference Preview
Los Angeles grabbed the headlines out West this preseason, with the Clippers beating out their Staples Center rivals to win the services of All-Star point guard Chris Paul. While both L.A. teams should secure postseason berths, look for the younger, largely unchanged teams - notably Oklahoma City and Memphis - to have the energy and chemistry needed to endure the tightly packed, lockout-shortened schedule.
The L.A. Lakers have the talent to top the Pacific for the fifth straight season, although aging stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will miss Lamar Odom's averages of 14.4 points 8.7 rebounds. They'll face stiffer divisional competition this year, most notably from the revamped L.A. Clippers. New arrivals Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups will join Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin among the many finishing options for Paul's passes. Golden State has youth on its side with four 16-plus ppg scorers who are under 28, but the Warriors need a tougher defensive presence in the paint. Phoenix got younger by shedding veteran contracts, but the Suns lack a reliable scoring threat for Steve Nash to dish to. Sacramento added frontcourt depth to its promising young roster, but the Kings likely will need this season to develop chemistry.
Oklahoma City continued its ascent last season, with Russell Westbrook pouring in 21.9 ppg to ease the burden on superstar Kevin Durant. Although the Thunder lacks depth, the pieces are in place for a Finals run. Portland will move past Brandon Roy's retirement and Greg Oden's perpetually injured state with LaMarcus Aldridge's leadership and a stable of talented Blazers swingmen. The toughest team to peg is Denver, where coach George Karl runs a fast-paced Nuggets offense that lacks star power but is deep and effective - as evidenced by their 18-7 finish last season after trading Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Utah is talented and young, but the Jazz were shell-shocked by coach Jerry Sloan's resignation last season and still need time to jell. Minnesota will improve on the broad shoulders of Kevin Love, but the Timberwolves will need a Rookie of the Year season from Spanish import Ricky Rubio just to climb out of last place.
Defending champion Dallas stayed active this offseason, adding veteran depth with Lamar Odom and Vince Carter. The Mavericks should win the division, but they may not have the legs to make another Finals appearance. Moving up the ranks is Memphis, whose chemistry and endurance will prove advantageous for a schedule that includes 17 back-to-back game pairings for the Grizzlies. San Antonio continues to age, but the Spurs should find themselves in the playoffs for the 15th straight season barring a rash of injuries. Houston is struggling to reinvent itself in the Rockets' post-Yao Ming era; Kevin Martin quietly netted 23.5 ppg for them last year. New Orleans' fire-sale resulted in the departure of its top two scorers; the Hornets will rebuild around Eric Gordon and a stockpile of future draft picks.