Even a year ago, the argument would have seemed ridiculous, preposterous, insane. Someone in the Western Conference better than Kobe Bryant?
C'mon, man. Get a reality check.
Not anymore, not after Kevin Durant's summer. The kid -- yes, he's still that -- was absolutely phenomenal, clutch and big-time in leading a U.S. team of B-listers to the World Championship. He was, in a word, unstoppable.
And this was after a quite impressive third year in the Association.
So, yes, Bryant has the five NBA title rings and all the experience in the world. But, no, he's not the best player in the Western Conference.
Of course, he doesn't need to be this season. The Lakers return everybody from their back-to-back title teams and are the overwhelming favorite, at least in the majority's eyes, to represent the West in the Finals.
But let's not forget that Durant's Thunder were a missed box-out away from taking L.A. to a Game 7 in round one last April. And the Thunder, undoubtedly, will only be better considering their youth.
The West, quite simply, might be a little more interesting than people are forecasting. In other words, it shouldn't be completely ignored while 123 percent of league pundits are watching the Heat.
(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)
(3) Dallas Mavericks, 55-27: Yes, they're ancient. And, yes, some injuries could make this season catastrophic and convince Mark Cuban it's time to blow up the core. But as they stand now, the Mavericks will be damn good. Caron Butler and Braendan Haywood will be more comfortable within the system after a summer, and Jason Terry remains one of the league's most underrated players.
(5) San Antonio Spurs, 52-30: Speaking of old, how 'bout them Spurs? Again, the question is health. Can Tim Duncan stay fresh? Can Manu Ginobili avoid the injury bug? If they stay injury-free, then the fortunes of this team -- as in, can they make a final push for a title? -- will ride on whether Richard Jefferson really is in shape and how well DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter help out the Big Fundamental down low.
(9) Houston Rockets, 46-36: So Yao is back. But for how long? That's the issue surrounding this team and the difference between a borderline playoff team and a squad that could win a couple playoff series. The health of Yao's foot. I'm banking on him playing enough games to get them into the playoffs, but he won't be completely healthy. It should be noted that there is a lot of Yao-less talent here, such as Aaron Brooks.
(10) New Orleans Hornets, 42-40: If Chris Paul is healthy, it's hard to pick this team to do that poorly. So, yes, they'll be thinking playoffs for most of the season. The addition of Trevor Ariza will help, as he's a solid buddy in transition for CP3 and is a decent defender. But Emeka Okafor and David West aren't exactly dominant or scary big men, and the defense will struggle.
(11) Memphis Grizzlies, 40-42: Can they stop anybody? That's the question the Grizzlies will need to affirmatively answer if they're going to take that next step to the playoffs. For now, I'd say, 'Nope!' When Your main cogs are O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, defense isn't the biggest priority. Scoring a lot of points and earning big contracts -- now, that's a goal to have!
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder, 56-26: It's impossible, really, to overrate Kevin Durant right now. He's the consummate teammate. He's shown that he can take over games when needed. He has a diversified game. He plays solid defense. What else is there? Well, of course a division title ... and then conference title, etc., with an MVP thrown in. This team will only get better. As always, the potential downfall could be injuries.
(4) Utah Jazz, 54-28: So nobody's talking about Utah. What's new? Jerry Sloan somehow, someway, still hasn't won a COY. Don't we say that every year? Bottom line -- with Sloan and Deron Williams running the show, the Jazz will be good. Just how good will depend on how well Al Jefferson replaces Carlos Boozer. I love the move because as solid as Boozer was, Jefferson has more upside. That'll be needed come playoff time.
(T-6) Portland Trail Blazers, 50-32: I'm sorry, but it's hard to get excited about a team that's always hurt. I would never buy tickets before the season for a Blazers game because I could end up watching Jerryd Bayless, Nicholas Batum and Dante Cunningham (no offense). Even if this team is healthy, I don't sense a good enough chemistry to contend for the division or go far in the postseason. Not this year, anyway.
(8) Denver Nuggets, 49-33: This team is almost identical to last year's first-place squad, adds 17.7-ppg Al Harrington and returns head coach George Karl from cancer. But they'll lose more games, mostly because of the distractions surround Carmelo Anthony (and possibly a mid-season trade). And Harrington will be a horrible fit on a team with plenty of guys who love to shoot.
(15) Minnesota Timberwolves, 16-66: There's no reason to think the T-Wolves can't be as bad as they were a year ago (15-67). Their roster remains a discombobulated mess that poor Kurt Rambis has to try to figure out. There are at least three mediocre point guards, malcontent Michael Beasley, and hugely overpaid scrub Darko Milicic. The only decent team guy is Kevin Love until Jonny Flynn learns how to run an offense better.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers, 58-24: They're going to take a page out of the Celtics' playbook, go figure, and decrease Kobe's minutes. Smart move. Of course, they'll try to mostly do this in lopsided games. You won't see him sitting in close games. He'd choke Phil Jackson before letting that happen. Even with a resting Bryant -- and maybe others -- this team remains loaded and will reclaim the top seed come April.
(T-6) Phoenix Suns, 50-32: They're small and they're thin, but no team will be as fun to watch as these Suns. I'm anticipating a bounce-back season from Hedo Turkoglu who, like many before him, will be re-energized by the amazing Steve Nash. I also expect Robin Lopez to help Phoenix fans forget about Amar'e Stoudemire and increase his rebounding numbers twofold. Oh, and Josh Childress is back from Greece.
(12) Los Angeles Clippers, 39-43: Can we please stop the playoff rumblings? Yes, Blake Griffin is going to be good once he takes the court and, presumably, stays healthy. He and Chris Kaman will form a pretty dominant frontcourt. But Baron Davis hasn't been inspired for a couple seasons now, and not even Griffin will get him back to his '07 Warriors form. Eric Gordon could blossom at the 2 spot.
(13) Sacramento Kings, 30-52: It will be interesting to see if this team can develop a cohesiveness that breeds winning, because the talent is there. The frontcourt is loaded with DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson, Samuel Dalembert, etc., but roles need to be established. Who will play what minutes. In the backcourt, there's the question of whether Tyreke Evans should run the point or play off the ball. Answers?
(14) Golden State Warriors, 28-54: I'll say this for the Warriors -- I've never enjoyed watching such a bad team more. I remember catching the fourth quarter of a game last season that I got hooked on instead of the U.S. men's hockey team's Olympic game. That's how fun Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and company can be. With Don Nelson gone, things might be toned down a notch under Keith Smart, meaning defense will be played. That's a good thing for the team, if not for TV viewers like myself.
Playoff predictions still to come...