Power Rankings (In order of Projected Finish)
1. Phoenix 37-16. Wednesday night Shaq will debut for the Suns against the Lake Show. Finally we will get a glimpse of what the most talented team in the west will be like when the greatest center of the last 15 years is added to the mix. Shaq obviously is not the same player, but he still knows how to play with other good players, and if he can provide a defensive presence and get 10 boards a game, Phoenix is championship material.
2. Dallas 35-18. Jason Kidd is finally a Maverick, thank god that drama is over. This team is going to become much more explosive and will probably play at a faster tempo, but its going to be hard to match up with the teams with big frontcourts when the only big guys on the whole roster are Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass and soft ass Dirk Nowitzki. Kidd is going to help them in the regular season and will push them to the division title, but the Mavs may still need to add a big body to match up in the playoffs.
3. Utah 34-19. No team has been hotter over the last month than the Jazz. While Kyle Korver is nowhere near the player that the other teams in the west have added, he has fit in perfectly with the Jazz system by providing an outside shooting presence who can play off of Boozer's inside game and Deron Williams penetration. With so many question marks surrounding the other teams in the west, the Jazz might be as close to a sure thing as there is. Look for them to keep up their run of good play and win the Northwest Division.
4. San Antonio 34-17. The Spurs have looked about as ordinary as a 34-17 team can, but it would be stupid to ignore them in the playoffs. Tim Duncan is still one of the best big men in the league, Manu Ginobili is a cold-blooded assassin, and if Tony Parker is healthy he can control the tempo which becomes so important in the playoffs. This is the time of the season where the Spurs always start their push and you can never count a team with championship experience.
5. New Orleans 36-15. One of the most exciting teams in the league has made huge strides this season. Thanks to Chris Paul playing like an MVP, the Hornets have raced to the best record in the west. The problem is, many of the players on this team have never played in games with as much pressure as they will over the next few months. While a drop from 1 to 5 may not look good, this team will still be a factor in the playoffs regardless of who they face thanks to the brilliance of CP3.
6. Los Angeles Lakers 35-17. No team improved themselves by giving up as little as the Lakers did. Pau Gasol provides Kobe with his best low post option since Shaq left and when healthy the Lake Show may be the prohibitive favorites to emerge from the west. Unfortunately, Andrew Bynum is having trouble recovering from his knee injury and now Kobe has a torn ligament in his hand which will have a big effect on his game. As tough as the west is the Lakers cannot make a deep push without all their pieces healthy, which does not appear likely for the rest of this year.
7. Golden State 32-20. Simply because of the way this team plays, the Warriors will continue to win games and make the playoffs. There is no guard combo in the league better than Baron Davis and Monta Ellis. They control tempo so well that every game they play turns into a track meet, in which Golden State can beat anyone.
8. Denver 32-20. Young Swole is choosing Denver over Houston for two reasons. First, it appears they have more to offer in the Andre Miller sweepstakes than Houston does, and if the Nugs get a pass first point guard to go with their finishers they will be extremely dangerous. Second of all, Denver plays in a much easier division than the Rockets. They will be playing games against the Sonics and T'Wolves, while the Rockets have to battle the Mavs, Spurs and Hornets. As close as the west is this year, this difference in opponents could be the edge the Nugs need.
9. Houston 32-20. The second hottest team in the league is on pace to win over 50 games, and yet may come in 4th in their division. It finally appears that Yao and T-Mac have figured out how to play with each other. Unfortunately, its pretty much a given that one of them will miss extended games down the stretch with injury. But if those two can stay healthy, or if the Rockets add a reliable third contributor to compliment the big two, they could sneak into the playoffs.
10. Portland 28-24. The Blazers have tailed off as of late, as many predicted they would do. If they manage to win 45 games this year, this season will still be a great success. Portland can look forward to having maybe the best inside/out duo in the NBA since Kobe and Shaq were in LA next year when Greg Oden joins Brandon Roy, but they will have to do without a playoff appearance this year.
11. Sacramento 23-28. It appears that the firesale has begun in Sac-Town. Odds are Ron Artest will be moved before the trading deadline, possibly to Denver or Phoenix. After that happens this will become Kevin Martin's team which will make the Kings much less volatile but also not as good.
12. LA Clippers 17-33. Its hard to believe the Clip Joint was in the 2nd round of the playoffs a mere 2 seasons ago. Now they are back to where we expect them to be, but Swole still feels there is talent on this team. If Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston can come back healthy next year, the Clippers could make a playoff push even in the rough and tumble west.
13. Minnesota 10-41. Don't look now but Al Jefferson may be turning into the best power forward in the whole NBA. Its sad he has such a garbage group of teammates around him, but if Kevin McHale can draft well this spring (thats a big if), the T'Wolves may be contending again in the near future.
14. Seattle 13-38. Fuck Clay Bennett, thats all Young Swole has to say about the Sonics.
15. Memphis 14-38. At this point I think its pretty safe to say that Uno the Beagle could run a team better than Chris Wallace. Young Swole would like to know what he sees in Kwame Brown that the rest of the world doesnt and adding Javaris Crittenton when he drafted Mike Conley 5th overall was a stroke of genius. At this pace, I'd expect the Memphis Tigers to beat the Grizzlies in a few years.
3 Players to watch in the 2nd half
1. Kobe Bryant. The best player in the NBA west of Cleveland is going to have to play the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his pinky. Nobody doubts his competitive nature, but this injury could seriously affect his shooting, and if Andrew Bynum doesn't come back as quick as scheduled its going to be hard for him to carry the offensive load with this injury.
2. Shaquille O'Neal. The biggest X factor, literally and metaphorically, in the whole league. If he stays on the court and controls the paint, Phoenix could finally make the finals. If he wears expensive suits more often than his jersey, the Suns could be out in the first round.
3. Andre Miller. Young Swole is well aware that he is in the Eastern Conference, yet odds are he is going to be moved, and two of his biggest suitors appear to be the Nuggets and Rockets. Denver is offering Kleiza, JR Smith and Nene, the Rockets are dangling Rafer Alson, Bonzi Wells and Shane Battier. If Miller ends up on one of these squads, they instantly become a title contender and make the west even that much tougher.
Swole's Second Half Prediction
The western conference could go in about 20 different directions in the next two months, and every single direction will be exciting. Young Swole thinks when it all shakes out, the Suns will defeat the Jazz in the conference finals and finally make the NBA Finals. Shaq's intelligence on the court is vastly underrated, and his presence alone will make Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire that much more dangerous. The Jazz have been playing the best basketball in the NBA lately, and Deron Williams keeps maturing into one of the best players in the entire league. They have the talent and the experience to get through the gauntlet and make the WC Finals. The Suns will win in 6 though and match up with Detroit in the finals.