Early handicap for the Western Conference

Reuters Pictures/DayLifeYesterday, we took a good, hard look at what the Eastern Conference will look like since we have nothing to do at this point in the summer. August just really sucks for basketball news — unless you are watching the WNBA, like me and other basketball junkies (Go Lynx!). 

ESPN feels the same way and so they went from projecting the Eastern Conference to projecting the Western Conference. And, unlike the East, the West is extremely top heavy rather than crowded in the middle like the East is.

No the West is the land of giants, and some of the most intriguing teams have assembled there.

We should start with the defending Western Conference champion Thunder, but conversation in the West inevitably has to start with the Lakers. With Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joining Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have a foursome that might even rival some of the stacked teams of the 1960s and 70s as far as All-Star talent and experience. There just is rarely this collection of starting talent.

Everyone expects great things from the Lakers this season. And they should. But questions still abound.

Dwight Howard has not played with a true power forward or post presence next to him since Darko Milicic in 2007. He has completely changed as a player since then, but he will have to adjust to playing with Gasol in the post, let alone Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. There is a lot for the Lakers to balance and not much of a bench to balance it with.

Not that the Lakers would need it. These are likely small concerns for a team that is sure to be one of the top seeds in the West and a clear favorite for the Western Conference title.

So what do we make of the Thunder?

They are still the defending Western Conference champions and deserve everyone's respect. The question now is whether Oklahoma City can keep their ascendance going as teams target them more and they deal with the pressure of championship expectations. The problem of more, which everyone assumes will one day consume Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as they fight for clutch shots and alpha dog status, may begin to creep in. The window is open, but it could close quickly thanks to that new harder luxury tax.

AP Photo/DayLifeThe top of the West also should include the Spurs. While San Antonio is not generating the same amount of buzz as Los Angeles and Oklahoma City this summer, the league would do well to remember that San Antonio posted the best regular season record in the NBA the past two years. Sure, the Spurs are another year older, but that has hardly stopped them before.

Those three are the class of the West and you would suspect the West's representative in the Finals. Unlike the East, it is a three-team race.

But the teams in the middle also could provide some intrigue. It is as bunched as the East.

The Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets all have incredible upside, although probably not enough to compete for a championship. But you never know when a team will make the leap.

The Clippers seem to be the IT team with Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom joining Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. This team could potentially be exciting and break into the top three of the West.

The Grizzlies and Nuggets recently have had nice runs of success in getting to the Playoffs but are looking to get to the next step.

So who comes in at the bottom? Like the East, this part of the conference is also incredibly interesting.

AP Photo/DayLifeThe Mavericks are seemingly on their way down. The Jazz seem to be treading water at the bottom. If there are two teams that could fall out of the Playoffs, it is these two. That certainly does not create the same intrigue as in the East and the same kind of wild predictions from overcofnident teams, but there are opportunities for a few teams.

David Lee has already said he feels the Warriors could sneak into the postseason. The Timberwolves are feeling really good about themselves with Kevin Love and a still-rehabbing Ricky Rubio as a core and Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved incoming.

Like it has been for the better part of the last decade, the West is more evenly balanced at the bottom too. The bad teams should have better records than in the East.

Really though, the difference between the East and the West is where the intrigue is. the intrigue in the West is at the very very top in how the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs fit in. The middle seems largely settled.

As the season wears on, that battle will be the league's most interesting.

So fire up that League Pass, and be ready to stay up late.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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