NBA Western Conference preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and more, is more than an up-and-comer. And the Clippers, thanks to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, might have a winner.

December 22, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • All-Star forward Kevin Durant and the Thunder have youth and athletcism to rely on during the compressed NBA season.
All-Star forward Kevin Durant and the Thunder have youth and athletcism… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The West is an L.A. story again, only not the kind you might expect.

There's one team poised for a Hollywood ending and another on the verge of capturing the hearts of NBA fans in Southern California.

Neither team is the Lakers.

Oklahoma City is no longer up and coming. It's here.

The Thunder remains young, yes, but last season's run to the Western finals was only the prelude to bigger things. You don't need to add any pieces when you have the dynamic Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook backed by a more mobile Kendrick Perkins and a still-menacing Serge Ibaka.

Meanwhile, a strange and unfamiliar feeling has washed over one team in the Hallway Rivalry … Clippers envy!

The Clippers have Chris Paul, the Lakers don't, and there's nothing Mitch Kupchak or anyone outside Commissioner David Stern's office can do about it.

Add a reinvigorated Chauncey Billups and a healthy Caron Butler alongside Blake Griffin, and Clipper Darrell might finally have a winner.

The Lakers still have their two 7-footers, along with plenty of issues. There's a roster worse than the one that bowed out by a sweep in the Western semifinals last season, an aging superstar and a center who will create a gargantuan hole in the lineup while serving a five-game suspension to start the season.

If the Lakers did anyone a favor, it was their new archenemy. They strengthened the defending champion Dallas Mavericks while weakening themselves by trading an unhappy Lamar Odom to their conference rival in the wake of a nixed Paul trade.

Think Odom will feel he has something to prove when the Mavericks play the Lakers at Staples Center on Jan. 16 and April 15?

Though Memphis could take another step forward in stature, the other usual playoff suspects — San Antonio, Denver, Portland — appear ready to recede further into the background, whether because of age (San Antonio), injuries (Portland) or having nearly half their roster stuck in China (Denver).

You can't make this stuff up. Even in Hollywood.

Ben Bolch picks the West (in predicted order of finish)


Oklahoma City

2010-11 finish: 55-27, No. 4 in West.

Coming: Reggie Jackson.

Going: No one of note.

The Thunder was spared from the mad free-agent scramble, returning every key player from last season. Durant and Westbrook should help a young roster come of age, with a potential No. 1 seed in the West preceding a deep playoff run. James Harden is poised to continue his development into an upper-echelon guard, and a slimmed-down Perkins no longer has to slog up the court.


2010-11 finish: 57-25, No. 3.

Coming: Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Brandan Wright.

Going: Tyson Chandler, Jose Barea, Caron Butler, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez.

Chandler and Barea each represent huge losses from the defending NBA champions, but Odom should be an inspired addition — particularly in the four games against the Lakers — and Carter clings to the vestiges of greatness. Oh yeah, and there's still that Nowitzki guy. The biggest question might be how long it takes owner Mark Cuban to zing Khloe Kardashian.


2010-11 finish: 57-25, No. 2.

Coming: Coach Mike Brown, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono.

Going: Coach Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown.

If it seems the only direction the Lakers can go without their longtime coach and top reserves is down, the fall shouldn't be a long one. The Lakers still have a core that would make almost every other NBA team envious and a coach who has been to the Finals. The health of aging superstar Kobe Bryant and fragile big man Andrew Bynum will be assessed on a knee-to-know basis, with any significant setbacks curtailing title aspirations.


2010-11 finish: 32-50, No. 13.

Coming: Chris Paul, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups.

Going: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu, Craig Smith.

Clipper Nation has expanded its borders with the big-ticket acquisition of Paul, the dynamic point guard who wants to lead the woebegone franchise on a deep playoff run alongside Griffin. If everything goes as planned, Los Angeles could go from Lakertown to Lob City. If everything falls apart, the Clippers Curse will remain intact. But for the first time in years, there is enough talent to make the playoffs — and stick around for a while.


2010-11 finish: 46-36, No. 8.

Coming: Jeremy Pargo.

Going: Shane Battier.

The good times are rolling in Memphis, where the Grizzlies continue to bask in the afterglow of their magical run to the Western Conference semifinals. The re-signing of center Marc Gasol means the Grizzlies have their core of Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley locked up in long-term deals. Even once-disgruntled O.J. Mayo appears to have embraced his role as a sixth man.

San Antonio

2010-11 finish: 61-21, No. 1.

Coming: T.J. Ford, Kawhi Leonard.

Going: George Hill.

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