Thursday , Jan , 22 , 2009 C.Y. Ellis

Nine teams, eight spots; who’s out in the West?

Nine teams, eight spots; who's out in the West?I laugh at the idea that the Eastern Conference has surpassed the West, scoff at the notion that there is a big talent disparity in this league and humor myself when I hear people say the NBA should cut teams to make the Association more competitive (yes, people are actually saying that).
Want proof all that is as untrue as Pat Riley saying a potential Shawn Marion trade is not imminent? Then look at the nine teams fighting it out for eight spots in the West playoffs.

Any one of them would easily be a top-five team in the East.

But, as it stands in this harsh reality that is life in the NBA’s Western Conference, one of them will be sitting at home in May while teams like the Bucks, Nets and Heat play on.

 Let’s take a look at who that could be.

First, we’ll get the easy ones out of the way.

Los Angeles Lakers
: The Lakers have the best player, the best coach and the best bench. Yeah, they’ll get in. Recently, they’ve come down to Earth a little bit, losing two out of three before a big win against the Cavaliers, but Jordan Farmar being out has a lot to do with that. One problem with them is whether or not they can maintain any consistency on defense, as they’re giving up 99.2 points per game – 14th most in the NBA. I partly blame that on sheer boredom.

San Antonio Spurs
: As I wrote a while back, the Spurs will be there in the end, and they’ll give the Lakers the most competition. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are back – healthy – Tim Duncan is still, well, Tim Duncan, and the Spurs have an infusion of young talent with Roger Mason Jr., George Hill and Matt Bonner.

OK, now it gets tough.

New Orleans Hornets: Coming off a great year and after acquiring James Posey, I expected the Hornets to get off to a more dominant start than they did. But make no mistake, they’ve proven – once again – that they’re a legitimate team in this league. Chris Paul is the best point guard, by far, and the Hornets have an array of 3-point shooters to open up the lane for Paul and create one-on-one matchups in the paint for David West and Tyson Chandler.

Houston Rockets
: It’s amazing how the integration of a new head coach two years ago and the addition of Ron Artest this offseason doesn’t change things much in Houston. Just like it’s been pretty much since Tracy McGrady came over from Orlando, the Rockets are a great team on paper that can’t show it on the court – and, once again, injuries are playing a big factor in that. This team has the potential to be great, but it needs time to gel. Problem is they can’t do that with McGrady – who hasn’t been close to being 100 percent all year – and Artest on the shelf.

Phoenix Suns: I dissed this team a while back, but I’m one of the few who actually liked the Jason Richardson acquisition because the Suns now have a guy who could create his own shot from the perimeter. This team reminds me a lot of the Heat when they won a championship in 2006 – they’re extremely inconsistent. One night, you think they’ve figured it out and everything clicks – like it did in a win against the Mavericks on Jan. 9 – and other nights they look like a team that has no idea how to win – like their blowout loss to the Celtics on Monday.

Utah Jazz: Deron Williams missed a chunk at the beginning of the season, and now, Carlos Boozer isn’t expected back until mid-February. The Jazz are one of my favorite teams in the league because they play great defense, are efficient offensively and can flat-out shoot. But having your star player miss significant time can cause you to lose a lot of ground in a conference like this and, with a .581 winning percentage that’s good enough for just seventh in the West, the Jazz are beginning to feel that.

Denver Nuggets: Chauncey Billups gives this team stability on both ends of the floor, and they still have plenty of firepower with J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony – who should be back later this month, if not early February – and Linas Kleiza. The problem with them is the problem with most teams: Can they be consistent on defense – or, for that matter, good at all? We’ll see.

Portland Trailblazers: I like this team. I like their athleticism, I like their length – they’re the biggest team not named the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA – I like the way they play defense and I love watching them go to work offensively. Greg Oden seems like he’s beginning to find himself, too. But boy are they young.

Dallas Mavericks: This is a team in a flux, and the addition of Jason Kidd sure doesn’t look like it was a good idea – Kidd looks like a point guard on his way out, and Devin Harris looks like a point guard ready to bust out. Jerry Stackhouse not being a factor for this team has really hurt, too. Also, they’ve been incredibly inconsistent – losing to the Bucks, Kings and Grizzlies this month alone. And they’ve used 14 different lineups already this year. Not a good recipe for success.

Prediction: I think it’s obvious who I think may be out of it when the regular season ends. The Mavericks are a team in disarray and, barring a trade – like maybe Stackhouse and Howard for Marion – they’ll be out of it come postseason time, and Mark Cuban is going to have to blow this whole thing up.