by John Huffstetler
The Western Conference is certainly deeper once again than the Eastern Conference this season with all but 2 teams (New Orleans and Sacramento) having at least an outside chance to make the playoffs. To complicate the issue further, multiple perennial playoff teams have faced adversity early in the season. San Antonio must deal with the loss of Manu Ginobili once again to injury and try to survive with an aging starting nucleus. Dallas continues to struggle with trying to find chemistry between their starting core and their new acquisitions. Several upstart teams like Minnesota and Golden State might compete for a playoff appearance for the first time in several years as well. One things is for sure, whatever happens this year out West will be tremendously entertaining. Here's our way too early playoff projections for 2012.
1 Oklahoma City- The roster continuity and star power make them an obvious choice to be a high seed in the West and a potential title contender. The Thunder currently carry a Western Conference leading 13-3, including an impressive 6-2 road record. The only downside for the Thunder is that their division is the most difficult in the NBA, with two other definitive playoff teams in Denver and Portland, and two young, dangerous squads in Minnesota and Utah.
8 Golden State- I like Golden State here over San Antonio, Utah, and Minnesota because of their back-court depth and terrific 3 pt. shooting. The additions of Klay Thompson, Nate Robinson and Brandon Rush contribute to these strengths and have allowed the Warriors to survive the Steph Curry injury just 4 games below .500. The schedule to start the year was incredibly difficult playing playoff teams from last year in 9 of their first 10 games. Once Steph Curry returns from his injury and the schedule eases slightly, the Warriors will make a strong playoff push.
4 Dallas Mavericks- Despite their early season problems, the Mavs playoff chances and opportunity for a higher seed improve because of their weak division. Someone from the Southwest division must be at least a 4 seed out West, and with both Memphis and San Antonio suffering severe injury setbacks to star players, Dallas is my choice to emerge as the winner. I still believe that the Mavs will have about the 6th best record in the conference, but their division win puts them as the 4 seed. I have San Antonio missing the playoffs and Memphis sneaking in at the 7 because of their respective injuries (Ginobili and Zach Randolph). The Ginobili injury is especially critical because of its severity, and although I like their young pieces, I think they'll fall just short of the division and the playoffs.
5 LA Lakers- The Lakers are a safe assumption to make the playoffs once again with their core of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum. I doubt that the Lakers will play their stars too many minutes or with questionable health in any games. They also need some time to gel with new coach Mike Brwon, since Phil Jackson's tenure in LA was so long and prolific, so a mid-range seed seems likely.
3 Denver Nuggets- This is the perfect season for the Nuggets to earn a high seed in the playoffs because of their outstanding depth. They can withstand several injuries during the season and still manage to earn victories. Their PG tandem of Lawson and Miller might be the best in the game and they don't have any noticeable weakness. Their passing, rebounding, defense, shooting are all relatively strong.
6 Portland- The 2-5 road record to start the year is somewhat alarming, but I still think Portland is a lock to make the playoffs this year. They have the best frontcourt depth in the league by far with Wallace, Batum, Aldridge, Camby, Thomas, and Smith and that alone will keep them in ballgames all season long. The biggest question remains the two guards spots and how Matthews, Crawford, and Felton can handle basically all of the backcourt minutes, and what the team will do if one of these players misses significant time.
2 LA Clippers- The Clippers are definitely for real and nothing short of major injuries will keep them from securing a top 4 seed in the playoffs. The post trio of Griffin, Jordan, and Evans is imposing, and the backcourt depth provides the opportunity for interesting game-to-game lineup adjustments. Chris Paul finally has a supporting cast to showcase his talent as a top 3 player in the league (behind James and Wade).
7 Memphis- The Grizzlies are a legitimate squad and if not for the Zach Randolph injury, they would be my favorite to win the Southwest division. The backcourt depth is definitely there making OJ Mayo an interesting piece to offer in trades. If they could get a 3 pt shooter (only 3.2 3-pointers made per game) and/or a big in exchange for Mayo, their chances for success in the playoffs would improve dramatically. Even without a move, Memphis will be a tough out once Randolph gets healthy.
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