It’s easy to see why the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers are the prohibited favorites in the Western Conference. Sipping from the Thunder and Lakers sweet and convincing Kool-Aid makes sense given the All-Star and Hall of Fame to-be names on their rosters.
But putting premature foregone conclusions aside, I offer libations of a different flavor. There are a handful of teams that play amongst those titans who have a chance to contend. If their stars are so inclined to align, the Western Conference may not be the open and shut case many think it will be.
Here are the five best Western Conference contenders outside of the Thunder and Lakers.
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5. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The Mavericks slipped badly last season and were ultimately swept out of the 2012 Playoffs by the Thunder. Then they whiffed on all of the big name free agents this summer after partially sacrificing their season for a chance at making a big offseason splash. Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard all passed on playing in Big D, leaving the Mavericks looking lottery-bound with an aging and untalented roster.
Then with rapid fire action they reloaded, adding Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, and O.J. Mayo within two weeks time. All are above-average players with points to prove, and should easily take to Rick Carlisle’s philosophy.
Contention will depend on Kaman and Mayo. Kaman, a well-known outdoorsman, has trouble staying healthy enough to play the game he is paid to play indoors. The former All-Star has averaged 20 missed games per season over his 9-year career. He must play 70-plus games to give Dallas a chance. He’s their best offensive center in years.
Mayo could be a star, and has Most Improved Player potential by simple virtue of more consistent playing time. He fell out of favor in Memphis after a successful rookie season, and was regulated to a sixth man role under Lionel Hollins. How he responds to this fresh start while playing with a former MVP in Dirk Nowitzki should go a long way in determining the fate of the Mavs this season.
4. DENVER NUGGETS
If you’re looking for a team that seems to overachieve despite not having a legitimate superstar (or All-Star for that matter), then look no further than Denver. Over the last two seasons, they have been one of the surprise teams in the West since being forced to trade Carmelo Anthony. Last season, they pushed the Lakers to seven thrilling games in the Western Conference’s opening round before finally succumbing to Kobe and the Lake Show.
The Nuggets were already one of the fastest teams in the league, darting down the court with Tron-like speed, and they got even faster with this summer’s addition of Andre Iguodala. Many applauded Denver for the acquisition of Iggy, and when you factor in that it only essentially cost them Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington as part of the Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum deal, it does seem like a major coup. He will bring them a lockdown defender that can guard three positions, and another ballhandler outside of the emerging Ty Lawson and the veteran Andre Miller.
In addition to Iguodala, Denver re-upped with JaVale McGee over the summer (four years, $44 million) and hope the brilliance he showed in the playoffs was not just the work of a player in search of a new lucrative deal. His length patrolling the lane defensively should really help the Nuggets improve on defense, especially with Iguodala controlling the perimeter and Kenneth Faried cleaning up the boards.
The old moniker of “defense wins championships” is not lost on their coach, George Karl. The hope is that with an improved defense to compliment the league’s highest-scoring team last season (104 points a game) the Nuggets will be able to do more than scare Western Conference opponents in the playoffs. The thought of Lawson to Iguodala or Iguodala to McGee alley-oops is quite frightening if you are the opposition.