Predictions are lame, for a number of reasons. Especially in basketball where how players integrate their abilities together is very important. Remember how huge we all thought Brent Barry would be for the Spurs last year?
What I've done is organize the conference into three tiers of teams: Contenders, A Player Away, and Wannabes. Without further ado ... BlazerBlog's official Western Conference Predictions.
(note: these predictions are not reflective of playoff seed -- but rather regular season final record.)
Tier 1: Contenders
1. San Antonio Spurs
Starting lineup: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bown, Tim Duncan, Nazr Mohammed
Real bold prediction, huh? Add me to the 100% of other "experts" who think San Antonio will repeat. Somehow they have become stronger while the other elite teams in the conference have become slightly weaker. They've got depth added with Michael Finley coming off the bench that they didn't have last year; now Manu can start and they don't lose anything. Unreal.
2. Phoenix Suns
Starting lineup: Steve Nash, Raja Bell, James Jones, Kurt Thomas
Phoenix will likely not win as many regular season games as they did last year, but they're a tougher team. I still don't see them getting past San Antonio (save for an injury to Tim Duncan) but they'll be a very strong club. There's a chance they could drop down to the 3rd or 4th seed but I would still expect them to make the Western Conference Finals.
3. Houston Rockets
Starting lineup: Rafer Alston, David Wesley, Tracy McGrady, Stromile Swift, Yao Ming
It's hard to pick a team who has Rafer Alston as their starting point guard to be the #3, but I truly believe that the Rockets can put it together this season. They won't be the #3 seed anyways because they're in the same division as San Antonio, but look for the Rockets to take big step forward this year. Stromile Swift will be a huge addition for them and I expect him to start at the 4 more than Juwon Howard.
4. Denver Nuggets
Starting lineup: Andre Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby
Hard team to try and predict ... I debated heavily between Houston and Dalls and which would end up with the league's third best record. Rumor has it that Carmelo Anthony has been working his tail off all summer long and is focused & ready to take the leap. They have a huge hole at the 2-guard and great depth on the frontcourt with Nene as a backup. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby are very nice players, but are they really strong enough to push Denver in the NBA's elite?
Tier 2: A Player Away
5. Dallas Mavericks
Starting lineup: Jason Terry, Doug Christie, Josh Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Eric Dampier
Dallas has lost some of the firepower that they've been known for over the past couple of seasons, but they're also tougher, a better rebounding team (as last year's numbers demonstrated) and play better defense. You know that Terry, Howard, and Dirk will fill up the bucket with points (and don't be surprised to see Marquis Daniels get plenty of starts this season as well) -- the big keys for this team will be Doug Christie and Eric Dampier. Which version of these two players will Dallas get -- the spectacular 03-04 versions or the injured, mediocre 04-05 versions?
6. Sacramento Kings
Starting lineup: Mike Bibby, Bonzi Wells, Peja Stojakovic, Kenny Thomas, Brad Miller
Another tough team to try and predict. They've certainly got talent in Bibby, Wells, Peja, and Brad Miller (few teams have a four-some as offensively potent), but there are too many questions to project them into the top four. Which Peja will show up? How much of a clubhouse cancer will Bonzi become? Can Brad Miller stay healthy through a full season
7. Golden State Warriors
Starting lineup: Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Adonal Foyle
Call me biased because I live in San Francisco, but this one very talented Warriors team that I fully expect to make the playoffs next season. They went 14-4 down the stretch after acquiring Baron Davis, and granted while the games were meaningless, they've got several components to build around: athleticisim, shooting, and depth. Jason Richardson is one of the league's top-10 offensive players, and if he can cut down on his three point attempts should get some recognition for that this season. Their biggest question revolves around the center position -- don't be surprised to see Golden State play quite a bit of small ball when they can based on matchups, utlizing Murphy at center and adding Mickael Pietrus to the starting lineup.
8. Seattle SuperSonics
Starting lineup: Luke Ridnour, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Nick Collison, Vitaly Potapenko
A very similar team to the Warriors: a blossoming squqd with a great young point guard, fantastic wing players (in Lewis and Allen), and a question at the center position. Nick Collison's second full season of experience should help him tremendously this year, and they've still got depth with Ronald Murray, Reggie Evans and Danny Fortson coming off the bench. They'll drop off a little bit from last year but will still make the playoffs.
Tier 3: Wannabe's
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Starting lineup: Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman
I truly thought last year would be a great season for The Clip. They've got a few solid wing players, a very good power forward, some depth, and a quality coach. But then they proved to us one thing that will never go away: they're the Clippers.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Starting lineup: Damon Stoudamire, Eddie Jones, Mike Miller, Pau Gasol, Lorenzen Wright
The fact that they'll fall off from last season isn't necessarily a bad thing. They did lose talent, but I'm not sure that the team as previously composed was doing a whole lot anyway. In unloading Bonzi Wells, Jason Williams, and James Posey, Jerry West got rid of a few bad contracts and players whom they didn't want around anyway. They can build around Gasol and Miller, and made a nice draft pick in Hakim Warrick. Plus, Pau Gasol has a beard.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
Starting lineup: Marko Jaric, Trent Hassell, Wally Szczerbiak, Kevin Garnett, Michael Olowokandi
I just don't see it with this team. Kevin Garnett is still one of the top 3 players in the NBA (and he's bulked up for this season), but there are big weaknesses all over the court for the Wolves. Jaric is a very shakey point guard, Hassell provides very little scoring, Szczerbiak is terrible on defense and a one-dimensional player, and Olowokandi is basically size and that's it. I think Minnesota's window has completely slammed shut and they'll be rebuilding for a while.
12. Portland TrailBlazers
Starting lineup: Sebastian Telfair, Chaz Smith, Darius Miles, Zach Randolph, Joel Pryzbilla
Ah, my beloved Blazers. I truly believe that this team will be very good ... starting in about 2007. It will be a very interesting year watching Telfair and Outlaw develop, seeing what we've got in Webster, Khryapa, and Monia, and monitoring the production of Pryzbilla, Miles, and Randolph. They'll have some fantastic nights and some brutal nights, and you and I will be there for all of it. I honestly expect about 35 wins out of this team.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
Starting lineup: Aaron McKie, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm
If you need a goal for this season, look no further: finishing in front of the Lakers. Granted that won't be too tough this season but hey, we take the small victories right?
14. Utah Jazz
Starting lineup: Deron Williams, Gordon Giricek, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur
At least they have AK-47 back. Unfortunately that's about all they've got. Boozer is a nice player, but everyone else on this team really should be coming off the bench.
15. New Orleans / Oklahoma City Hornets
Starting lineup: Chris Paul, JR Smith, Desmond Mason, PJ Brown, Chris Anderson
They took a crappy team from last season and made it even worse, trading away Baron Davis and Jamaal Magloire. Anderson will now start at center, and although they did need a SF badly, they're still a terrible team who will be giving the Hawks and Raptors a real run for that #1 pick.
Whew ... there it is! I'll do a mid-season and end-of-season analysis to see how close (or far) I got. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts as well -- email me here and I'll post the better reader thoughts/predictions.