The Next Power Teams – West
For much of the last decade, the Western Conference has been ruled the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
The Lakers have been to the NA Finals seven times since the year 2000 with five titles in that stretch. The Spurs won all four of their appearances dating back to 1999. The Mavericks are the current champs after avenging their 2006 NBA Finals loss to the Miami HEAT.
That’s 13 years and just three power teams representing the West each and every postseason.
Times change. Tim Duncan is heading into the last year of his contract and Manu Ginobili has said he’s got two years left in him. The Lakers, who were swept out of the postseason by the Mavs, looked old and slow. Will Coach Phil Jackson’s retirement weigh heavy on the team or can replacement Mike Brown carry on where Phil left off? Dirk Nowitzki had a brilliant run to his first title in June but he’s 33. Jason Kidd is 38. A repeat isn’t out of the question but the Mavs only have so much left in the tank.
So who’s on deck to be the next perennial playoff team or even potential dynasty?
Oklahoma City Thunder – This is no surprise. The Thunder are no sleeper team. After their breakthrough 50-win season in 2009/10, they
followed their solid first-round exit to the Lakers with 55-win season and a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
They have a legitimate superstar in Kevin Durant who is one of the most dangerous scorers in the league. Teammate Russell Westbrook is a monster athlete at the point. Durant draws so much attention and Westbrook penetrates so quickly to the basket, they’re a potent, potent duo.
That’s not to say they’re perfect. Westbrook tends to call his own number too often in big situations. Durant can be taken out of games, albeit with multiple defenders tracking his every move. The Thunder need to find ways to better balance the Durant/Westbrook attack but this is a good problem.
Additionally the Thunder have four key defensive-minded big men in Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.
Perkins is the muscle to pound against the top centers (and low-post power forwards) in the league. Ibaka is more versatile as a shot blocker, rebounder, defender and occasional scorer. Serge can switch onto perimeter players and cause problems with his length and mobility. Collison is a hard-core, lunch-pail guy who is one of the more dogged post defenders in the game. Mohammed is a solid veteran who has just one year left on his current deal with the club.
None of the bigs are prolific scorers. The Thunder rely on Durant/Westbrook to get it done and then ask their big men to do the dirty work.
Naturally OK City needs a third scorer and that’s gradually become James Harden who (to date) has functioned as the team’s sixth man. When Harden’s game was on last postseason, it was very difficult to beat the Thunder. James is also a steady defender – as is Thabo Sefolosha.
As far as contracts, Durant, Perkins, Collins and Sefolosha are locked in long term. Westbrook becomes a restricted free agent after the coming season (if the season comes given the unresolved lockout). Ibaka and Harden have two more years each.
It may be difficult for the Thunder to pay everyone if the league goes to a hard cap but the odds may be likely that a “harder” cap would allow for OK City to stay together long-term.
The Thunder aren’t going away. They’re young, talented and improving and that’s a problem for everyone else in the West.
Portland Trail Blazers – The Blazers aren’t as safe a bet as the Thunder. The issue(s) are the knees of Brandon Roy who went from the team’s franchise player to a reserve throughout the playoffs.
Roy, when healthy, is the second best shooting guard in the conference behind Kobe Bryant. Paired with LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the game’s top power forwards, and the Blazers have the inside out game to build around.
Add in three versatile, hard-playing swingmen in Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews and the Blazers have a rock-solid core. Wallace, acquired midseason from the Charlotte Bobcats, can score or just raise havoc as a defender. Batum is underrated as one of the better perimeter stoppers in the league. He’s also a capable spot-up shooter. Matthews is similar but can be relied upon more as a scorer.
Raymond Felton needs to prove that he fits in lieu of Andre Miller (who was traded to the Denver Nuggets after the season) but he’s a player. On paper, he fits.
Other question marks outside of Roy’s health would be knees of Greg Oden who may re-sign as a restricted free agent and the age of Marcus Camby (going into his final year). If Oden can become an everyday player, which is possible but has yet to happen because of injury, suddenly the Blazers have the tough, defensive center they need to pair with Aldridge. Camby may have years on him but he’s a smart, experienced big.
Coach Nate McMillan always seems to get the most out of whatever depleted roster he has to work with. That’s been the problem the last few years, the Blazers have been hit hard by multiple injuries.
If they can get it healthy, they’re suddenly one of the best teams in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers – Through the years, the Clippers have had a difficult time putting it all together for any extended multi-year playoff run. Of course they never had a player like Blake Griffin.
Blake missed his initial year with a knee injury but with his sophomore rookie season, he became a sensation.
The team faced injuries early, which led to a 1-13 start. Despite the hole they never really had a chance to climb out of, LA played .500 ball throughout most of the year despite the Baron Davis trade (for Mo Williams) and a wrist injury to Eric Gordon. Gordon, before he had to sit later in the year, began to break through as the team’s closer. With Portland’s Roy struggling with knee injuries, Eric might have been the West’s second-best shooting guard.
DeAndre Jordan, a restricted free agent, made huge strides as a defender and athletic finisher (albeit almost exclusively at the basket) when Chris Kaman missed most of the year with a foot/ankle injury.
While the Clippers have a number of solid pieces with Eric Bledsoe, Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Gomes, Kaman and Williams, they’re still one piece short (ideally at the three).
The team has Kaman to offer as bait but even if they don’t find a suitor, the Clippers own the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012 draft pick unprotected. That could turn into a player like Harrison Barnes or another among the top of the class. The Clippers are open to moving the pick if they can get a superstar in return . . . should someone like Chris Paul end up on the trade block. The team also projects to have sizable cap room once the lockout is resolved.
It still all needs to come together for L.A., so while it’s no lock they become a dominant team in the West, there’s no question Griffin has already emerged as one of the best players in the league.
Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizzlies went from a lottery team to a playoff force in quick time. The key is keeping Marc Gasol who is currently a restricted free agent.
The pairing of Zach Randolph and Gasol are among the most meaty and skilled front-court duos in the league. Randolph is a capable crunch-time scorer. Gasol can defend and had gradually improved as an offensive player.
Rudy Gay’s season was cut short with a shoulder injury but he’s one of the better young threes. Mike Conley, Sam Young and Darrell Arthur have all shown tremendous signs as players. Tony Allen is a bulldog defender who can get red-hot offensively on occasion. Bringing in Shane Battier to pair with Allen (in Gay’s absence) made the Grizzlies a very tough team to score against on the perimeter. Battier is a free agent. Memphis should try and retain despite his advanced age relative to the team’s younger core.
With Gay healthy and the team bonded with last year’s playoff experience, the Grizzlies may be a force for years to come.
Honorable Mention: The Denver Nuggets had an impressive run after the Carmelo Anthony trade but they may have been playing over their heads. Keeping free agent Nene would be a step towards maintaining that high level.
Don’t bury the Lakers, Spurs or Mavericks just yet. They still have some of the top players in the league and the championship pedigree to rely on.
To stay on top, they’ll need to find ways to improve because the Thunder, Blazers, Clippers and Grizzlies are coming . . .