Think your team is making the playoffs in the West this season?
If you don’t live in L.A., you sure about that?
If your team is the Dallas Mavericks or Utah Jazz, you shouldn’t be so sure.
The Western Conference has six teams that are postseason certainties and four teams that are locks for the lottery. That leaves five teams vying for two spots.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are in. Each of those teams has a depth of talent that is too big to fail.
The Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets are out. The Blazers and Kings are too young, while the Hornets and Rockets aren’t even trying to compete – at least this season.
That means the Mavericks and Jazz – playoff incumbents from last season, neither of whom won a postseason game – will be trying to hold off a trio of upstarts in the Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.
Five teams, two slots.
Who gets them? Here’s the breakdown.
DALLAS MAVERICKS: The Mavericks may be the greatest unknown quantity in the West. They conceivably could land anywhere from as high as fourth to as low as 10th. If Dirk Nowitzki decides to come to camp in shape to reclaim his status as a top-10 player and one-year rentals Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison play for the team and not their next contract, Dallas could challenge for the Southwest Division title.
But Dallas also has no depth at center behind Kaman, who has missed 152 games over the last five years. The point may wind up in the hands of the erratic Delonte West given that Collison lost his starting job in Indiana last season and the perennially not ready Roddy Beaubois might be the softest player in the NBA. And five of their rotation players are 30 or older, including four starters.
Last season, the Mavs walked the tightrope of remaining competitive while planning their future. They will be taking a similar stroll this season.
VERDICT: In, but not with any bravado.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: The Warriors missed the playoffs by 13 games in a 66-game season. That seems like too much of a leap for a team whose culture – and if you think this isn’t a factor, you’re kidding yourself – includes one postseason appearance since 1994. But before you write them off, consider that the Warriors were on the fringe of the race at 18-21 before losing 18 of their last 23 games, a nosedive driven by the injured Stephen Curry and the trade of Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, who already was done for the season.
This campaign has a lot invested in the health of Curry and Bogut, which are no sure things. Jarrett Jack is a nice insurance policy for Curry, but the safety net for Bogut – who has missed 130 games over the last four years – is not as secure. The Warriors also need Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes to be serious candidates for Most Improved Player and Rookie of the Year, respectively – which they probably will.
Golden State arguably has a playoff-worthy 10-man rotation. But no team has greater health questions among its top two players. Can Curry and Bogut both play 75 games? That’s how simple it is for the Warriors.
VERDICT: Out. Too many ifs, not enough gifts.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: The Timberwolves were 21-19 in early March when rookie sensation Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL, triggering a total collapse that not even the broad shoulders of MVP candidate Kevin Love could bear. Rubio is not expected back until January, so it is on the frontcourt of Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic to keep the Wolves in the hunt. They might be up to it.
GM David Kahn’s offseason overhaul made a believer of Love, who likes that the “bad blood” – likely Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic – are out of the locker room. But there are issues in the backcourt, where J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour have to man the point until Rubio’s return and huge question marks Brandon Roy and rookie Alexey Shved will split the 2-spot. And Derrick Williams has to play like the second pick, not the 22nd pick.
VERDICT: In. Love is the best player among these five bubble teams, and he has enough around him this time.
PHOENIX SUNS: As part of a makeover that came up short of top prize Eric Gordon, the Suns are counting on a lot of good, young players – Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Markieff Morris – with very little collective taste of the postseason to get better. They also need one of their veterans to step forward as a leader. You have to wonder who that will be. Luis Scola? Jermaine O’Neal?
The trade of Steve Nash was more than a move toward the future. It left the Suns without a true star, which is not exactly a tried-and-true formula for making the playoffs (although Philadelphia and Denver bucked the trend recently). As a .500 team last season, Phoenix missed the playoffs. It’s hard to say they’ve gotten better, although they are moving in the right direction.
VERDICT: Out. Unless they move to Phoenix City, Ala. and play in the East.
UTAH JAZZ: By now, you’ve probably figured out that we don’t have the Jazz making the playoffs. That may seem absurd, given their postseason appearance last season and the trio of established players they added this summer. But they seem somewhat vulnerable at a couple of positions.
Is Marvin Williams really the answer at small forward, or is he just going to be in Gordon Hayward’s way? Can Randy Foye put up his customary numbers for a winner? Is Mo Williams that much of an upgrade over Devin Harris at point guard, or will he be watching defensive-minded Earl Watson in crunch time? And although everyone loves Utah’s collection of bigs, there are only four of them. If one of them gets hurt – or if the final year of Al Jefferson’s contract becomes a trade chip – the Jazz are woefully shallow in the frontcourt.
VERDICT: Out. The Jazz do play two of their last three games against the Wolves, though, which should be very interesting.
COMING SOON: The East’s playoff picture
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Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.