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WEDNESDAY WIRE

Western Conference Preview

Once again there is a clear front runner in the race for the Western Conference Championship, the L.A. Lakers. Unlike the Eastern Conference, once we get past the top team there is no clear runner up. Portland, Oklahoma, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio all improved greatly over the summer, one lucky break could propel any of these teams to the top, and one wrong move could send another collapsing out of the playoffs. Yao, Griffin, and Bynum all return from injuries, while Oden continues to writhe in his afflictions. Hold on to your seats, the Western Conference will, once again, prove to be a wild ride.

1. LAKERS: Not that Kobe needed any more help, but the rich continue to get richer. The addition of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake provide the Lakers with some much needed depth, and gives them one of the most formidable defenses in the league. There is no question the entire league will be chasing the Lakers in 2011.

2. DALLAS: The Mavs continue to be one of the most talented teams in the league. The late additions of Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler in 2010 bolstered a relatively weak roster. The offseason acquisition of Tyson Chandler and, former Spur, Ian Mahinmi give the Mavs some real depth in the post. The Mavericks will continue to live up to their M.O., great regular season, early playoff exit.

3. THUNDER: The fairy tale team from OOOOOOklahoma is still rising in the West. They are a determined squad, whose high level of talent will be overridden only by their youth. The most important offseason development has nothing to do with trades or free agent signings, but some of this team’s best talent got to spend the entire summer with NCAA future hall of famer Coach K. As they say, “knowledge is power”, and the lessons learned this summer created more confidence and turned Kevin Durant into a bona fide super star.

4. HOUSTON: Yet another season for a team that has always been 10 years older than they really are. I don’t know what the Rocket’s did to loose their B-ball Mojo, but I’ve never seen a team with such terrible luck with injuries. Yao finally returned, but will play limited minutes in an effort to spare his fragile foot from a possible career ending injury. This will be one of the first times in quite a while that the Rockets are beginning the season with a healthy roster. Houston has great depth and has assembled a quality team, but the absence of a clear floor leader will once again be their downfall when the playoffs begin.

5. SPURS: Sign Tiago Splitter, CHECK! Re-sign Tony Parker, CHECK! Get younger and more athletic, CHECK! The Spurs had another great offseason, and continue to defy all odds and hang around with younger, more elite teams. With that said, some greater questions still remain: Can the Spurs stay healthy? Will Richard Jefferson finally get his shot going? And, can the Spurs new players assimilate quickly and provide a punch to the Spurs’ mediocre offense? If the Spurs fail in any of those areas, they will no longer be competitive in a stacked Western Conference.

6. TRAILBLAZERS: Much like Houston, the Blazers have had little luck staying healthy, at one point last season they had only one player on the roster that could play the post. The Blazers rearranged their chess pieces and acquired Marcus Camby from the Clippers, but lost some real talent in the process. The Blazers, when healthy, have one of the deepest frontcourts in the league, and if they can learn to control the tempo, much like former championship Spurs teams, they will once again be a top-notch team in the West.

7. JAZZ: The best thing that happened to the Utah Jazz this offseason was getting rid of their logo. Unfortunately, that’s where the music ends. The Jazz find themselves in an uncomfortable position near the bottom of the playoff hunt in the West. We could see a big shake up for these mid-level teams. A little luck and a resurgence of Al Jefferson would help this depleted team fight off the onslaught and sneak into the playoffs.

8. NUGGETS: Carmelo Anthony has already packed his bags and checked out of the hotel, but he’s still waiting in the lobby for his ride to show up. The Nuggets will only get worse when the Carmelo trade is finalized. He has stated, several times, that he wants out of the Mile High City, and is looking for greener pastures in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference. Crafty dealing could give the Nuggets nice talent for the future, but their season is all but over.

9. HORNETS: I’m not sold on the quick start, but they have a chance.
10. SUNS: As long as Nash is playing they will win games, still no defense.
11. CLIPPERS: L.A.’s red-headed step child made great leaps this off-season, when their big leaper Blake Griffin returned to the line-up. All L.A. first round match up, anyone? It’s not as unlikely as some may think.
12. KINGS: Their biggest problem is defense. Nice offseason for this young team.
13. GRIZZLIES: The Griz can’t win.
14. WARRIORS: Loads of talent, no discipline.
15. TIMBERWOLVES: Made no improvements this summer, expect more of the same.

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