The West’s Best: Then and Now

Hindsight is twenty-twenty they say, but looking back on the preseason predictions it is clear now that the midseasonreviewNBA’s best prognosticators had a few things wrong in their crystal ball image of the 2010-2011 Western Conference.
Halfway through the regular season, some trends are starting to emerge that are in stark contrast to the best predictions. Coming into the season, Marc Stein’s ESPN Power Rankings had the venerable Los Angeles Lakers atop the Western Conference and, indeed, the NBA.  The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Utah Jazz all made the list before the San Antonio Spurs were mentioned at number eight. 

After an impressive seven game performance in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Thunder had turned a loss to the eventual world champion Lakers into high expectations for the 2010-2011 season. As one of the youngest teams in the league, and boasting what has turned out to be the NBA’s best scoring duo, there was little doubt that the Thunder would wreak havoc in the Northwest Division.  While the Thunder have certainly not disappointed, they have also not lived up to the expectations.

Stein’s current version of the NBA Power Rankings has the Thunder in the spot that he had reserved for the Spurs in the preseason, number eight.  They are currently atop their division, tied with the Jazz at 27-13, they are third and a full seven and a half games behind the Spurs in the West.  Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant remain a force to be reckoned with and average a combined 50 points per game so far this season.  Where the Thunder have struggled is in getting production from their role players and in team defense, giving up 102 points per game.  

The Mavericks were promised to be the leaders in the Southwest Division.  With an uneventful off-season that was punctuated with the resigning of franchise player Dirk Nowitzki and the release of the lumbering Erick Dampier for Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks came into 2010 expecting to avenge their playoff loss to the Spurs and compete with the Lakers for best in the West.  

Although things haven’t quite panned out statistically the way Mark Cuban had hoped, the Mavericks may remain the Spurs biggest competition for Western Conference supremacy.  Early in the season, they were healthy, and the Mavericks laid claim to matching the Spurs’ 12 game winning streak.  Since then, they have lost their star in Dirk Nowitzki and have come crashing back to Earth, losing four in a row by double digit margins including Dirk’s first game back in the lineup.  Though their performance without Nowitzki has exposed Dallas to criticism of a lack of depth and being a one-man show, their performance with him is scary and has led to a defeat of the Spurs in San Antonio early in the year.  The time without Nowitzki has taken its toll however, and the Mavericks have fallen eight games back of the Spurs in the Southwest Division, landing them in fifth place in the Western Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers were considered by most, if not all, to be the favorite in the West.  Vegas lists only the Heat with better odds of winning the NBA Championship.  Marc Stein summed up his predictions for the Lakers thusly:

The West, even with its usual array of 50-win teams, is starting to feel kinda ’80s-like. Which is to say that the Lakers are a Muresan-sized favorite to go back to the Finals no matter how slowly they start because of health issues. 

It wasn’t the Lakers start that was slow; it has been the rest of their season.  In a twist of irony for Spurs fans who are painfully accustomed to the stigma of age, Lakers’ Kobe Bryant has for the first time in his career faced questions relating to his age and his ability to perform at the level that Lakers fans expect. The Lakers have posted a couple of lengthy losing streaks of late, and are beginning to look awfully one-dimensional, struggling with teams like the Los Angeles Clippers most recently and leaving spectators confused and wondering what is next for the World Champs.  With the likes of Kobe and Phil Jackson at the helm, the Lakers will undoubtedly remain a force in the West and, along with the Mavericks, the Spurs most serious competition for a trip to the NBA Finals.  Jackson, like Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, is not seeking early season success or a seventy win season.  The Lakers will be ready to play come playoff time, make no mistake about it.  

Predictions are hard and often wrong.  The Spurs not only top the Western Conference but the NBA.  And it’s not even close, statistically.  Though half of the season is in the record books, there is a lot of basketball to play.  The top teams in the West at the beginning of the season remain essentially unchanged, but the order is drastically different.  

How drastic will the difference be after the next half of the season?