The pecking order
Ranking all the West's contenders after two big deals
Posted: Thursday February 7, 2008 3:47PM; Updated: Thursday February 7, 2008 4:04PM
So, Shaquille O'Neal, you're back in the West now? Bet you're just thrilled you get to face your old Lakers team and a certain You Know Who four times a year. And that doesn't count any potential playoff series against them (somewhere David Stern is drooling).
At any rate, Shaq, not much has changed out West since you left. It's still loaded with great frontcourt players -- Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer and David West, to name just a few. In other words, you had better bring your "A" game, big fella.
So what are your chances of getting that fifth ring? Well, it depends in part on you -- and whether you can stay healthy and find a way to blend into the Suns' high-octane offense. It also will come down in large part to matchups. (Think Dallas drawing Golden State in the first round last year.)
Anyway, Shaq, to help you get a read on your new old conference, we've put together a little crib sheet of how the race looks on paper to us. Keep in mind, the race is extremely close (through Wednesday, the top 10 teams were separated by 5 ½ games) and just about any team could wind up coming out of the pack. This is just how we view each team's chances to reach the NBA Finals. Feel free to pack it in your suitcase with your South Beach duds and size-22 sneakers:
1. San Antonio Spurs
Don't be fooled by their lackluster (at least for them) 31-16 record. They do this every season. The defending champs know how to pace themselves. They still own the West's best trio in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They still have the game's best big man in Duncan, a proven coach in Gregg Popovich, a stout defense (albeit one that has not played up to championship standards so far this season) and the ability to play both up-tempo and in the half court. The biggest questions for them are whether Ginobili and Parker -- who have battled ailments all season -- can stay healthy, and whether aging role players Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley and Robert Horry have enough left in the tank for one more run.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The addition of Gasol has vaulted them into this position. The 7-foot Spaniard gives L.A. an All-Star-caliber threesome (along with Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom) to match the Spurs' and Suns'. Gasol's ability to play in the post and draw double teams will be huge, and he will take pressure off young Andrew Bynum in the middle. When the game slows down in the playoffs, the Lakers will be able to put a tall lineup on the floor with the 7-footers Bynum and Gasol, the 6-10 Odom, the 6-6 Bryant and the 6-2 Derek Fisher. But, most of all, the Lakers have Kobe. He's going to be so hyped to carry them to the Finals after the past few years. Along with coach Phil Jackson, it's enough to get the Lakers back to the top.
3. Dallas Mavericks
It's easy to dismiss these guys after last year's playoff debacle against the Warriors (and their collapse against the Heat in the 2006 Finals). It's also true that they already have lost as many games (15) as they did all last season. But, like the Spurs, they could be pacing themselves. Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry give them a formidable trio, and Devin Harris reminds some of San Antonio's Parker with his ability to get in the lane off the dribble. The key for the Mavs will be whether they can get the post play they need in the playoffs. Nowitzki was not able to deliver against Golden State a year ago. The reigning MVP will need to provide more of that dimension, or coach Avery Johnson will have to come up with some other plan (like maybe acquiring Jason Kidd and playing a more up-tempo style) if the Mavs are going to go all the way.
4. Phoenix Suns
Regardless of what you think about the Shaq trade -- and the wisdom of breaking up a team that was already close -- the Suns still have to be considered serious contenders. In fact, one betting Web site now has them at 2-to-1 (up from 5-2) to win the NBA crown. It's just that Phoenix is now much more of a wild card. It could go up. It could go down. The Suns are going to miss Shawn Marion at both ends. But if Shaq stays in uniform and finds a way to shore up their half-court defense against the likes of Duncan, Nowitzki, Boozer and Yao Ming, they might actually be more equipped for a postseason run. However, if Shaq can't be more than just a big body, or if he is in a suit on the bench come playoff time, Phoenix is toast.