Sneak peek at Western contenders
Last-stand mentality, aging Kobe Bryant will fuel L.A.'s drive for third straight title
Mavs have to decide if they need more time to jell or a chemistry-changing deal
Thunder's rise likely to be tested by how they deal with bad luck all teams face
Here's an early look at the top of the Western Conference, focusing on teams that can win 50 games or more next season. This list does not include the Phoenix Suns, who won 54 games last season and reached the Western Conference finals. My view is that adding Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress will not be enough to make up for the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire. (Click here for an overview of the East contenders.)
Los Angeles Lakers (57 wins last season). The defending champs should be favored to repeat despite the sea change in Miami. Should Miami and L.A. meet in June, Kobe Bryant -- the league's best postseason player -- and two-time champ Pau Gasol can expect to win their postseason matchups against Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, respectively, and Ron Artest can neutralize some of LeBron James' strengths. That leaves center Andrew Bynum (if healthy, a yet unrealized if) to make the same kind of difference he made in the early games of the Finals against Boston, when he joined with Gasol to become a maniacal shot-blocker and efficient scorer.
Derek Fisher remains a better clutch shooter than anyone coming off the bench in Miami, and the Lakers are counting on Steve Blake to be more reliable than Jordan Farmar was last year. But they're going to need a resurgence from Sasha Vujacic and/or Luke Walton, because their bench around Lamar Odom is thin. A midseason pickup could make a big difference to their second unit.
As hungry as the Heat's three stars will be to prove themselves with a championship, they may not be as ambitious as the Lakers. There promises to be a last-stand mentality to this team between the challenge raised by Miami and the likelihood that coach Phil Jackson will retire next summer. Bryant will be extremely greedy about making the most of his remaining title opportunities, especially if the worst predictions come true and a lockout does away with the entire 2011-12 season. Bryant will be 34 with excessive mileage in 2012-13, when the three Miamians will be enjoying their peak years. This is not meant to write off Bryant prematurely, but rather to point out how much the perspective has changed for him and his Lakers -- they've changed from a high-scoring bunch of softies to become a tougher team of defenders who learned to beat the Celtics at their own game. Altogether, they've shown more stubbornness and fight than any member of the Heat apart from Wade and Udonis Haslem.
Dallas Mavericks (55 wins last season). They have an active blend of size -- in Dirk Nowitzki and centers Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler, who will be playing for a new contract -- to match up with the Lakers, and they'll be hoping that explosive second-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois endows Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Caron Butler with bursts of energy and inspiration. They are loaded with talent yet have been short on big playmakers while losing in the opening round three of the last four years.
The issue is whether to make another midseason trade or wait and see if the pieces come together. Clearly the Mavs have not played to the sum of their parts. Is that because they don't fit, or because Butler and Marion need more time on the court with their teammates? That will present a difficult decision for management as Chandler's expiring contract and the wealth of talent will create options for yet another blockbuster trade over the opening months of the season.
San Antonio Spurs. (50 wins last season). This may be the farewell year in San Antonio for Tony Parker, who will be a free agent next summer. They'll hope that Tiago Splitter will bring the same level of energy and production up front that George Hill brought last season to the backcourt, and they'll also be counting on Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess to feel more comfortable in their second years in the Gregg Popovich system. Unless they self-destruct again with injuries, the Spurs figure to win more games this year than last year.
Oklahoma City Thunder (50 wins last season). Everyone from Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook to Jeff Green to coach Scott Brooks will be hoping to show continued improvement following their breakout showing of last season. They have at least 12 players worthy of the rotation and most of them have yet to peak around Durant, who is still trying to articulate his potential. The one thing this group hasn't faced is bad luck, and someday it will come because no team is exempt. In the meantime, the Thunder look like they should be contending for home-court advantage in the opening round.
Houston Rockets (42 wins last season). This is a tough one to gauge, but they have reason to believe that a full year of rest will combine with reconstructive foot surgery to do for Yao Ming what it did for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who became durable following a similar procedure in 2001. If that is the case, Yao should blend agreeably with Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks. The Rockets are deep and balanced so long as Yao is healthy. With him, they win 50 or more games; without him, they miss the playoffs again.
Portland Trail Blazers (50 wins last season). This is another second-tier contender in search of healthy bounce-back years -- in this case from guard Brandon Roy, center Greg Oden and small forward Nicolas Batum. The Blazers are young and deep but lacking in big-game stars around Roy, and new GM Rich Cho may have to unload some of that depth in order to acquire one or two stars. Portland is at the stage where another 50-win season won't satisfy anyone; the Blazers will be seeking a deep playoff run that launches them toward an eventual championship. But they may have to upset their current balance along the way, while facing a difficult decision on what to do with Oden.
Utah Jazz (53 wins last season). Carlos Boozer was replaced by Al Jefferson, a younger scorer in the low post. They'll be seeking more production from Andrei Kirilenko and newly signed Raja Bell -- who have combined to miss 130 games over the past two years -- and counting on rookie forward Gordon Hayward to become a reliable scorer on the wing. Put all of that around Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap, and they should have a chance to win 50 for the fourth time in five years.
Denver Nuggets (53 wins last season). Kenyon Martin will be 33 with a history of knee problems, Chauncey Billups will be 34 and Chris Andersen is 32. But Carmelo Anthony is approaching his peak, and Al Harrington arrives to provide scoring for George Karl's return to the bench. They should have at least one more strong year in them.