In recent weeks, nine Western Conference teams have been jockeying for eight positions in the incredibly tight NBA playoff race.
Meanwhile only a few in the East, most notably Boston and Detroit, are considered strong possibilities to win the league championship. But the team that emerges from the East will likely have the important home court advantage in the NBA Finals, based on its superior record over the 82-game distance.
Because there were more weak teams in the East, the good teams built up their records, taking advantage of an unbalanced schedule. They played more games against bad teams while the strong Western teams beat each other up.
With the regular season coming to an end, everything will be decided in the playoffs, which begin April 20.
At this writing, the first round matchups hadn’t been determined. But the strengths and weaknesses of competing teams had been determined over the long regular season.
Following will be an evaluation of each team.
The Lakers are of most interest here and they’re a contender for the first time in four years. They failed to qualify for the playoffs once and lost a first round series twice to the Phoenix Suns since Shaquille O’Neal was traded. Only now has Pau Gasol arrived to give the Lakers quality center play, and the Lakers won the Pacific Division.
I’m impressed with the Lakers’ season, with Phil Jackson’s coaching, with Kobe Bryant’s MVP play, and with the development of Vladamir Radmanovic, Sasha Vujocic, Jordan Farmar, and Ronny Turiaf.
Laker fans are excited and should be.
I think a key will be whether Andrew Bynum can play well following a three-month absence due to a knee injury. With him the Lakers could have the dominant center they’ll probably need to survive four tough rounds on the championship trail. However, Bynum’s knee swelled up following recent workouts and he still isn’t able to return.
Keep in mind Gasol is not as dominant defensively as Bynum and never won a playoff series – let alone a championship – in the years he played for Memphis.
It would be ironic if the Lakers play Phoenix again now that the Suns have acquired O’Neal from the Miami Heat. It would be the Lakers’ worst nightmare to be eliminated from the playoffs by O’Neal’s new team.
There was a lot written about Phoenix making a mistake in adding the 35-year-old O’Neal to their swift, fast-striking team. But I think G.M. Steve Kerr, the former Palisades High star player, made a wise move. Although the Suns were entertaining, they were playing a style that has little chance of winning a championship. They’ve modified their style and now have the toughness and defensive mentality that makes playoff success more likely.
When O’Neal arrived he told Suns Coach Mike D’Antoni, “Don’t adjust to me, I’ll adjust to you.”
Actually, they’ve adjusted to each other, meeting halfway. A team with Steve Nash, Amare Stodamire, O’Neal, and Grant Hill must be taken seriously.
The San Antonio Spurs are defending champions, an older team that sometimes stumbles over the long regular season but plays its best in the playoffs. Tim Duncan’s power forward matchups against Stoudamire and Gasol may determine if the Spurs reign over the West again.
New Orleans is an intriguing team not taken seriously early in the season, but a team that held the No. 1 position most of the way. Point guard Chris Paul is Bryant’s most serious challenger for MVP honors, and add David West to the power forward battles that may be decisive.
The second tier of playoff teams is unusually strong and some could upset the favorites.
Utah has the remarkably gifted Deron Williams at point guard and Houston compiled a 22-game winning streak in the regular season, the second longest in league history.
Neither Utah nor Houston figures to get past the first round, but they’ll provide opponents with a rugged opening test.
Now we come to Dallas, which won the most regular season games last season, was upset by Golden State in the first playoff round, then fell to seventh with a series of close losses to other playoff teams in the last month.
Here is the team to watch – the most dangerous low seed within memory. The Mavericks traded for future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd late in the season, gave up a lot, and didn’t immediately show improvement. But Dirk Nowitzki and Kidd are proven stars and if Coach Avery Johnson can fit the other pieces together the Mavericks might beat anyone.
Denver and Golden State were vying for the final Western Conference berth as the regular season entered its final few days.
The Nuggets have plenty of talent but didn’t play good enough defense to finish higher. Again, here’s a dangerous team at the bottom of the pack. Or it could be Golden State, which would give anyone a battle too.
Whoever survives this competition will deserve plenty of praise. But it will then have to play the Eastern champion in the finals. If either Boston or Detroit is the East’s representative it will have a good chance to prevail.
The home court edge is often the difference in a series between two good teams. But if the Western team wins it will have survived the most challenging playoff competition within my memory. And I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years.