Sunday, August 17, 2008

SportingNews: Everybody's a contender in the Western Conference

Everybody's a contender in the Western Conference
Sean Deveney

It's summer, and that means lazing on the beach, twilight softball games and small children in too-big hats eating half-melted ice cream. Dewy lemonade and convertibles. Flip flops and shades. You get the idea. Summer is no time for negative thoughts.

In this serene frame of mind, let's consider one of the weighty issues of today's NBA: geography. For whatever reason, the bulk of the league's best players now work to the left of the Mississippi River, which makes the Western Conference a minefield almost impossible to navigate.

Eight teams in the West won 50 or more games last season, and the Warriors set a record for most wins (48) by a team that did not qualify for the postseason. Your team might win 50 games, like last season's Nuggets, Rockets, Suns and Mavericks, and get run out of the playoffs in the first round -- and then have to spend the offseason parting ways with a coach (Dallas and Phoenix), selling off a top defensive player (Denver) or taking a risk on Ron Artest, the loosest cannon in sports (Houston).

But remember, this is summer. And that means positive vibes and talk of winning. Thus, when free-agent guard Brent Barry agrees to terms with the Rockets, he says, "Obviously, the Houston Rockets are not far off from competing for a championship." Or when point guard Baron Davis signs with the Clippers, he says, "the possibilities are endless to be able to win a championship." And the arrival of swingman James Posey in New Orleans prompts coach Byron Scott to declare, "It obviously puts us a step closer to our ultimate goal, which is winning a championship."

Positivity is contagious, no matter how hopeless the West landscape appears. So, with everyone's inner realist groaning just a little, let's paint a rosy picture of the conference and a path to The Finals for, say, 11 of the 15 teams, which should be enough to keep those positive vibes flowing.

Los Angeles Lakers. The path back to The Finals is clear: The return of young center Andrew Bynum will make them championship favorites.

San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio won titles in 2003, '05 and '07. The Spurs have a remarkable opportunity to become the first team to win four straight nonconsecutive championships in odd-numbered years.

New Orleans Hornets. They could not beat the Spurs last season, but their seven-game beauty of a series provided valuable experience. Chris Paul and David West will improve, and they've added a pocketful of Posey. They're ready for the next step.

Utah Jazz. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are coming into their prime years, Ronnie Brewer gives them (finally) a legit shooting guard, and Andrei Kirilenko is back from the brink. A playoff breakthrough might be next.

Phoenix Suns. New coach Terry Porter will slow it down, get these guys to play playoff-level D and have them ready for late April. Then, he'll keep his fingers crossed for a Shaq revival.

Dallas Mavericks. New coach Rick Carlisle will slow it down, get these guys to play playoff-level D and have them ready for late April. Then, he'll keep his fingers crossed for a Jason Kidd revival.

Houston Rockets. They need to let Artest do his thing on the floor, then take anything off the floor with a grain of salt. Or a shaker of salt. He could be the tough dude this team desperately needs.

Denver Nuggets. Kenyon Martin showed flashes of his old self down the stretch last season. If Nene can do the same, they won't miss Marcus Camby at all.

Portland Trail Blazers. Too young? Probably. But the championship-level talent is there, so there's always a chance it could come together quickly.

Golden State Warriors. The focus is on the future, but Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette can make this team an offensive force in the present.

Los Angeles Clippers. What the heck. It's summer, when even the Clippers can be contenders.

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