Preseason playoff picture: Western Conference

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.

mavs small logoDALLAS 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.

warriors small logoGOLDEN 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.

wolves small logoMINNESOTA 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.

suns small logoPHOENIX 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.

jazz small logoUTAH 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

(RELATED: Offseason report cards, team by team)

(RELATED: Offseason moves and analysis, team-by-team)

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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  1. flampoo says

    “while the Hornets and Rockets aren’t even trying to compete”
    Is this a joke? Try telling that to those teams.

    • Chris Bernucca says

      Don’t have to. They know it. And so does anyone who follows the league. Both teams are stockpiling youth. That’s not competing. That’s rebuilding.

  2. Rejuvenated Roddy says

    I agree that there is definitely a certain level of uncertainty, but I do know one thing: everyone is excited down here and the players are definitely putting time in the gym. We have a lot of new players, but Kaman, Brand, D.Jones are vets who are looking to win at this point in their careers. Mayo/Collison are entering a winning culture here in Dallas and there are enough vets here to keep them in check should they not fall in line with team ball. They will both be put in positions to succeed under Carlisle, starter minutes, and a system they have an opportunity to flourish in. Why would Dirk show up out of shape? Last season was an anomaly: a) He just came off winning the championship (long post-season and all-out celebration mode), b) no one knew if we were going to have a 2011-2012 NBA season or not, and c) crazy packed schedule. You saw how he played down the stretch once he was back in shape. Naturally a younger guy (e.g. Love) won’t need as much prep time to get his legs under him. With the pieces the Mavs added, opposing defenses won’t be able to focus on Dirk as the only source of offense,. That, along with him definitely coming back in shape, means Dirk is prime to have a rebound season. As Dan alluded to, most teams would much rather have the ball in Dirk’s hands when it matters. 12 straight playoff appearances speak for itself. Even if we were swept out last year (to the WC Champs mind you), 3 of the 4 games came down to the final stretch and could have gone either way. You can talk about Roddy being soft all you want, but the Mavs are stacked at guard and he isn’t exactly option A here. Don’t forget he’s been boxing to address that issue! :)

    • Chris Bernucca says

      Don’t get me wrong – I like what they did, given that Plan A didn’t pan out. There’s just a lot of pieces to incorporate, and many of those pieces have question marks.

  3. BillM says

    So, would the Lakers frontcourt be woefully shallow if Pau or Dwight gets injured? I mean, I wouldn’t be shocked if Jazz miss the playoffs (would be surprised tho) but they have three legit starting bigs and a fairly solid 4th big?

    ONLY four of them? Who the heck has five?

    Marvin won’t be in Hayward’s way, he’ll be in Alec Burks way as Hayward will start at SG if Marv starts at SF.

    Mo & Devin are a net push; Dev gets to the line much more often but Mo is a much better 3pt shooter. Other than that, meh. Dev prolly a bit better overall in a vacuum but Mo prolly a bit better fit with Jazz. watson doesn’t belong near the court.

    • Chris Bernucca says

      The Lakers would be in less trouble because of who their bigs are and a guy named Kobe playing the 2. But if they had to play without Dwight or Pau, there would certainly be an impact.

      Virtually every team has five bigs. The Celts have SEVEN. Does the fifth big play a lot? No. Would he play if someone got hurt? Yes.

      I might be wrong about the Jazz and I hope for your sake I am. I have no dog in this fight. Just my opinion. Thanks for reading.

  4. Max says

    Jazz doubters are going to learn: This is the best team the Jazz have had since making the Western Conference Finals with Okur, Booz, and DWill.

    Growth from within will push the Jazz into the playoffs. Roster upgrades will determine whether they’re homecourt or not. Everyone is on notice. Doubt if you want. The Jazz will be in the mix come playoff time.

  5. Eric says

    Chris, first of all, OJ Mayo and Darren Collison are both expected to start on the Mavs and are both 24! Also, Elton Brand played more than half his minutes at center last year and played them well if you were watching! I believe that Darren Collison was in the wrong system in Indiana and will be a much better player for the Mavericks. The Mavs are better, in my opinion, at every position:
    Kaman/Brand/Wright/James WAY better than Haywood/Mahimni/Wright
    Dirk/Brand Better than Dirk/Odom
    Marion/Vince Carter/Crowder better than Marion/Carter playing too many minutes/nobody
    Mayo/Roddy beaubois/Dahntay jones better than Carter Playing way too many minutes/Terry
    Collison/West/Beaubois/Cunningham better than Kidd (at 40)/West/Beaubois coming off injured foot with no training camp.

  6. says

    Agree with the end result but think you should switch Portland and Phoenix for teams with a chance. Portland still has quite a bit of talent and some guy named Aldridge. Phoenix is definitely in rebuilding mode.

    Also, tough to say that Kevin Love is better than Dirk. The numbers may say so but I would still rather have Dirk when it counts…

    • Chris Bernucca says

      LA better than anyone on PHX, but worried about Portland starting rookies at very important positions. Love Dirk and his resume is better but Love was waaaay better last season and probably getting better. Thanks for reading

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