2011-2012 NBA Preview: Western Conference

Better late then never, I guess. Right? I will make sure not to let little things like Christmas and my wedding get in the way of making a blog post five people will read ever again!

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Projected Rotation

C - Kendrick Perkins
PF - Serge Ibaka
SF - Kevin Durant
SG - Thabo Sefolosha
PG - Russell Westbrook

SG James Harden
PF, C Nick Collison
PG Eric Maynor
C Nazr Mohammed
SG, SF Daequan Cook

The Thunder have gone from a tough first round exit to a tough Western Conference Finals exit. Everything is set up for them to make a run to the Finals. The West lacks a true second great team, and the Thunder are young, athletic and deep. That is a recipe for success during this condensed season. They still have to play the games of course, but Oklahoma City has to be the favorites to represent the West in the NBA Finals.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

Projected Rotation

C - Marcus Camby
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge
SF - Gerald Wallace
SG - Wesley Matthews
PG - Raymond Felton

PG, SG Jamal Crawford
SG, SF Nicolas Batum
PF, C Kurt Thomas
PF, C Craig Smith
PG, SG Nolan Smith

There are a ton of teams that will battle for this second spot. Basically every team I have ranked #2 through 8 in the West has a great chance to get that second seed. It is that wide open. The Trail Blazers were absolutely ravaged with injuries last year and still won 48 games. They have done a good job of adding depth to a very veteran team, and are coached well. The Blazers will be led by big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who enjoyed his finest season year and was a big All Star snub. Gerald Wallace was a great acquisition, and Portland fans fell in love with him immediately. There are quite a few good role players surrounding those two guys. The biggest question will be do they have a guy who can take over when the playoffs start? Unfortunately for them, it should have been Brandon Roy, but his knees betrayed him and forced him into early retirement.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

Projected Rotation

C - Marc Gasol
PF - Zach Randolph
SF - Rudy Gay
SG - Tony Allen
PG - Mike Conley

PG, SG OJ Mayo
SF, PF Sam Young
PG Jeremy Pargo
SF, PF Dante Cunningham
SG, SF Xavier Henry

I want to rank the Grizzlies #2 this year but I need to see a little more from them. They possibly have the best front court in the NBA, as the trio of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay cause matchup problems galore all over the place. I worry about the back court, even though Mike Conley really came on during the second half of the season. Tony Allen, OJ Mayo and Sam Young are the role players for this team, but the front court depth is massively thin. The loss of Darrell Arthur, who was a great third big man, will hurt. The Grizzlies play in a very tough division, but they are my pick right now to play the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

Projected Rotation

C - Andrew Bynum
PF - Pau Gasol
SF - Devin Ebanks
SG - Kobe Bryant
PG - Derek Fisher

PF, C Josh McRoberts
SG, SF Metta World Peace
PF, C Troy Murphy
SF, PF Matt Barnes
PG Steve Blake

The Lakers are worse then last year. Perhaps a lot worse. Gone is Phil Jackson and the triangle offense. In place is Mike Brown and his 23 seconds or more plodding game plan. Also gone is Lamar Odom, thanks to a failed trade for Chris Paul. Odom was so distraught that he was almost traded he went home and watched 16 Candles and ate a whole gallon of ice cream with rainbow sprinkles on it. The Lakers had to end up giving him away, to the Western Conference champs of all teams. And a few days later Derrick Caracter suffered a season ending injury. This team still has Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, so they will be a threat. But they just have gaping holes at small forward and point guard, and pretty much no bench to speak of. If (when) Bynum goes down this team will be in a world of trouble. Kobe has a chip on his shoulder like always, this time thanks to his divorce and the failed Paul trade, that he should muster up enough to carry this team to the playoffs again, as probably a top four seed. But I just don't think they have the depth and the proper point guard to lead this type of offense to get past the young guns like the Thunder and Grizzlies. Unless some GM tries to give the Lakers a superstar for free again.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

Projected Rotation

C - DeAndre Jordan
PF - Blake Griffin
SF - Caron Butler
SG - Chauncey Billups
PG - Chris Paul

PG Mo Williams
PG, SG Randy Foye
PF, C Reggie Evans
PG, SG Eric Bledsoe
SF, PF Ryan Gomes

Are the Clippers now the best team in Los Angeles? Perhaps. The Clippers now have two of the biggest stars in the NBA. Probably their two most popular players....ever? As good as Chris Paul has been, I think he is a bit underrated. He carried some truly terrible talent to the playoffs the last couple years. He should feel re energized now that he gets to throw lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all day long. Speaking of Griffin, he was spectacular in his rookie year. He looks like he is trying to throw a baseball through a brick wall every time he dunks. That duo might possibly be the best inside outside combination in the NBA. The surrounding pieces are good as well. Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups are two veterans who will fit right in. Billups especially should definitely have a chip on his shoulder with how he was thrown to the side by the Knicks, and I think he will flourish at shooting guard. The team has great back court depth as well with Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe. Two thing worry me about the Clippers. A complete lack of front court depth, and Vinny Del Negro, who has not shown that he can be a competent head coach. With Blake Griffin wowing the NBA world, the Clippers still only won 32 games last year. The pieces are here to make a deep playoff run if the team can gel quickly enough and Del Negro can show anything as a head coach.

6. San Antonio Spurs

Projected Rotation

C - DeJuan Blair
PF - Tim Duncan
SF - Richard Jefferson
SG - Gary Neal
PG - Tony Parker

SG Manu Ginobili
PG TJ Ford
SF, PF Kawhi Leonard
PF, C Matt Bonner
PF, C Tiago Splitter

I think the Spurs have one more run in them, and could very well wind up with the #2 seed. Everyone seems to forget that this team won 61 games last season. Yeah, they were ran off the court during their first round series against the Grizzlies, but they shouldn't fall completely off the map. Tim Duncan has a couple more productive years left in him, and the back court duo of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is very solid. Not to mention Greg Popovich hasn't forgotten how to coach a bit. The rotation has a nice mix of veterans like TJ Ford, Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner and youngsters like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair. The Spurs are deep and talented enough to make one more run at a title, but I don't think they will quite make it.

7. Dallas Mavericks

Projected Rotation

C - Brendan Haywood
PF - Dirk Nowitzki
SF - Shawn Marion
SG - Vince Carter
PG - Jason Kidd

PG, SG Jason Terry
SF, PF Lamar Odom
PG, SG Delonte West
PG, SG Roddy Beaubois
PF, C Brandan Wright

The Mavericks were on fire during the playoffs last year and rode that wave all the way to an extremely impressive NBA Title. I can't see them making a return trip. Although I think the Knicks overspent for Tyson Chandler, you can't understate how important his loss will be. Brendan Haywood is pretty terrible and no one else on the roster is a real center. The defense will suffer heavily. Back court reserves JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson were lost as well. This team has plenty of depth with Vince Carter, Lamar Odom, Roddy Beaubois and Delonte West, but I think age could catch up with these guys in a hurry. I would be very surprised if they can flourish during this mad dash NBA season and would not be surprised at all if they missed the playoffs all together.

8.  Denver Nuggets

Projected Rotation

C - Timofey Mozgov
PF - Nene
SF - Danilo Gallinari
SG - Arron Afflalo
PG - Ty Lawson

PG Andre Miller
PF, C Al Harrington
PG, SG Rudy Fernandez
PF, C Chris Andersen
PF Kenneth Faried
SG, SF Jordan Hamilton

The Nuggets should be perfectly built for this condensed season. They are young, deep and used to running up and down the court all game long. They overpaid for both Nene and Arron Afflalo, but bringing back those two starters ensures that they will be in the playoff hunt. Neither player is the face of the Nuggets though. That belongs to Ty Lawson, the electric young guard who has become the best player on the team. He is a much better scorer then I thought he would be coming out of North Carolina, and I wouldn't be surprised if he and Danilo Gallinari both reach the 20 ppg plateau. Unless Gallinari develops at a rapid pace, this team will struggle come playoff time without a guy who can take over the game. But don't be surprised if George Karl has these guys fighting for the second seed.

9. Golden St. Warriors

Projected Rotation

C - Andris Biedrins
PF - David Lee
SF - Dorell Wright
SG - Monta Ellis
PG - Stephen Curry

PF, C Kwame Brown
PF, C Ekpe Udoh
SG, SF Klay Thompson
SG, SF Brandon Rush
PG Ishmael Smith
SG, SF Dominic McGuire

Mark Jackson is now the man who will try to turn around the down trodden Warriors. This team has the offensive talent to make a playoff push. Monta Ellis, David Lee, Stephen Curry and Dorrell Wright can all give you 20 points on any given night. The key to the Warriors will be, as always, if they can play any defense whatsoever. The back court will most likely be abused on a daily basis once again. The team at least attempted to shore up some front court defense by signing Kwame Brown to an outrageous 7 million dollars for one year. If Ekpe Udoh can continue to develop those two guys will at least be able to protect the rim. And maybe, just maybe, Andris Biedrins can stop his baffling decline in play. Golden St. has the young legs to keep up pace during the shortened season, and that could help them grab that wide open eighth seed.

10. Utah Jazz

Projected Rotation

C - Al Jefferson
PF - Paul Millsap
SF - Gordon Hayward
SG - CJ Miles
PG - Devin Harris

PF, C Derrick Favors
SG Raja Bell
SG, SF Josh Howard
PF, C Enes Kanter
PG Jamaal Tinsley

The Jazz wanted to avoid a Carmelo Anthony/Chris Paul situation so they quickly jumped on the Nets offer and received a kings ransom for Deron Williams. Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and Enes Kanter will all play key roles for the young, deep Jazz. I love what they have done, adding so much young talent and moving on from the Williams and Jerry Sloan years. The team will likely struggle this year defensively, but they have a very solid future with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Kanter, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. Not to mention they could possibly have two more lottery picks this year.

 11. Houston Rockets

Projected Rotation

C - Samuel Dalembert
PF - Luis Scola
SF - Chase Budinger
SG - Kevin Martin
PG - Kyle Lowry

PF, C Patrick Patterson
PG Goran Dragic
SG Courtney Lee
PF, C Jordan Hill
SG, SF Terrence Williams
SF, PF Marcus Morris
PG Jonny Flynn

The Rockets always seem to play better then the talent level indicates. They are a very deep team without any star power, but Rick Adelman always got the best out of his squad. Can Kevin McHale do the same? In a very tough division? I don't think the Rockets will sniff the playoffs but they are good enough to hang around the .500 mark.

12. Phoenix Suns

Projected Rotation

C - Marcin Gortat
PF - Channing Frye
SF - Grant Hill
SG - Jared Dudley
PG - Steve Nash

PG, SG Shannon Brown
SG, SF Josh Childress
C Robin Lopez
PG Sebastian Telfair
SF, PF Hakim Warrick
PF, C Markieff Morris

I don't know what to think of the Suns. I hate their roster so much. They have a collection of extremely overpaid role players. But Steve Nash carried this sorry sack of players to 40 wins last year and could very well finish around .500 this year. First, there is some good. Marcin Gortat was a nice mid season pickup. In fact, Otis Smith got molested in a trade once again. He averaged 13 points and 9 rebounds per game once he arrived in Phoenix and was a massive upgrade over Robin Lopez. And of course we cannot forget about Steve Nash. Somehow he keeps playing at a very high level despite nearing his late thirties. Last year he led the league in assists for the fifth time, and his percentages across the board were fantastic. He is a great fit for the Suns offense, and he should be a solid starter in this league for another few years. Hopefully for him, it will be on a title contender after this season. This team has some solid role players, but no one else you would really want to build around. Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Grant Hill round out the starting five. All three are pretty good players, but none is all that great. On paper, the Suns look like a clear last place team. If you take out Nash you could have a 2011 Indianapolis Colts without Peyton Manning situation. But with him, this team will win more games then you would expect.

13. New Orleans Hornets

Projected Rotation

C - Emeka Okafor
PF - Carl Landry
SF - Trevor Ariza
SG - Eric Gordon
PG - Jarrett Jack

C Chris Kaman
SF, PF Al-Farouq Aminu
PG, SG Greivis Vasquez
SG Marco Belinelli
PF, C Gustavo Ayon

The Hornets received a great haul for Chris Paul. They can now move on and build around Eric Gordon and...well, that is pretty much it for now. The rest of this team is composed of average overpaid veterans. It would be a blessing for the Hornets to lose a bunch of games and come out of this draft with two top ten picks. That would really accelerate the rebuilding process that the Hornets have really needed to undertake. The best course of action would be to try to deal Chris Kaman, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack and Emeka Okafor for even more young pieces and build around Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu.

14. Sacramento Kings

Projected Rotation

C - DeMarcus Cousins
PF - Chuck Hayes
SF - John Salmons
SG - Marcus Thornton
PG - Tyreke Evans

PF, C JJ Hickson
PG, SG Jimmer Fredette
PF, C Jason Thompson
SG, SF Francisco Garcia
PG, SG Isaiah Thomas
SF Donte Greene

There is a lot to like about this young Kings squad. They have a boatload of offensive talent. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins will be a handful once they learn how to play more disciplined offense. The addition of Chuck Hayes gives this team some real toughness. He was one of the most underrated players in the league last year. He held down the middle for the Houston Rockets as a 6'6 big man. Few teams have the luxury of big men the caliber of JJ Hickson and Jason Thompson coming off the bench behind them. John Salmons was never a real fit in Milwaukee. He got his career on track his first go around with the Kings and should bring some solid veteran leadership. Sacramento also got a steal when they traded for Marcus Thornton last season. He is a legit 20 points per game scorer. Rookies Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas can both score some major points. I like the team to score some points, but I think they are still too young and too weak defensively to make a playoff push this year.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves

Projected Rotation

C - Darko Milicic
PF - Kevin Love
SF - Michael Beasley
SG - Wesley Johnson
PG - Ricky Rubio

SF, PF Derrick Williams
PG Luke Ridnour
PG Jose Juan Barea
PF Anthony Randolph
C Nikola Pekovic
SG Wayne Ellington

I would not be at all surprised if the Timberwolves fight for a final playoff spot, but I think they are a couple years and a few pieces away. They have some talent. Kevin Love is a double double machine, Michael Beasley is a 20 point per game scorer and Derrick Williams is a nice rookie. But I think this team is just too young and two weak defensively to make any real noise in the standings, even though with Rick Adelmen there this team will be a lot more exciting to watch.

Jonathan Carrano

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