Below we have our first Western Conference Tier Trauma, pre-season edition. As always, the teams are listed by grouping, and within the group in order. We don't believe in true "rankings" around these parts, so we have teams set into four groups: Heavyweights (title contenders), Cruiserweights (very good teams who are still a player or some growth away), Middleweights (borderline playoff teams), and Lightweights (terrible teams).
Tier 1: The Heavyweights
All of last season, we assumed it would be a two-horse race to the finish: Dallas versus Phoenix. But Dallas got upset in the first round, San Antonio beat Phoenix in the second round, and Utah ended up in the Western Conference Finals by default. I still believe Phoenix and Dallas are the most talented teams, but until someone either knocks off San Antonio or they've shown themselves to take a big step backwards, they're still the favorites.
Tier 2: The Cruiserweights
I don't believe that Utah will repeat their performance from last year -- I don't even think they'll win the division -- but I've included them here because it's tough to deny how well they played at the end of last season. They're a candidate for relegation so keep an eye on their first 20 games. Houston and Denver on the other hand wouldn't surprise me to take "the leap" this year. The Rockets stole Steve Francis, hired Rick Adelman, made a nifty little acquisition in Luis Scola, and are looking like a scary team this year. I believe Bonzi Wells will do much better under Adelman than he did under Van Gundy, and with Yao's continued dominance (he was the best center in the NBA last year, and I can't believe this didn't get more pub) Houston could very well join the "big three". Denver will probably win their division, and I don't think the loss of Steve Blake will hurt them that much.
Tier 3: The Middleweights
One of the more interesting groups to watch. Teams like Golden State, the Lakers, the Hornets, and the Blazers could win 45 games and contend for a 6-seed, or they could win 35 and be out of it by late February. You'd be shocked how thin the line is between those two win totals. All of these teams are either extremely thin and carried by a few star players (Lakers, Hornets, Clippers) or young and blossoming teams who will be very strong in future years (Blazers, Grizz). Frankly, I'm not quite sure what to make of the Warriors just yet. I still like their team, but trading away Richardson was a huge mistake that I think will end up costing them big-time. Two other quick notes: I created these rankings after the news that Elton Brand was going to be out at least 6 months, maybe 12, with an achilles tear, so the Clip got knocked severely for that. Also, I'm not quite as high on the Blazers' win total for this coming year as many of you are. I love this team in the future, but I think we've got one more year of non-playoffs before things really start looking sweet. We'll obviously have more on that in the coming weeks.
Tier 4: The Lightweights
Three horrible teams.
That's it for now.