by user Wttt02005
The Golden Age of the Western Conference began two seasons ago. During the 2003-2004 season, the Kings, Timberwolves, Lakers, and Spurs competed for the first seed in the West. Each team had already accumulated fifty wins, so seeding came down to the last five games. Kevin Garnett and his Timberwolves ultimately prevailed with a record of 58-24. The Lakers (56-26) captured the second seed and Pacific Division title with a thrilling double overtime victory over the Trailblazers. The Spurs (57-25) followed with the third seed while the Kings (55-27) slipped to fourth seed, losing to the pre- Nash Phoenix Suns the same night Kobe’s two buzzer-beating three pointers electrified the Portland crowd. Because the top four teams were separated by one game and one loss, the West truly showed its dominance over the East.
A season later, the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Kings were unable to continue the winning trend. The Lakers dynasty ended following a loss to the Pistons and was Shaq-less, the Timberwolves had a tumultuous lottery-bound season, and the Kings floundered, resulting in Webber leaving for the 76ers.
The 2005-2006 season has been about rebuilding as newcomers, the Suns and Mavericks, have emerged to compete against the Spurs. With twenty games remaining and all three teams with forty wins apiece, who will claim that first seed.
Despite initial predictions, the Phoenix Suns are once again leading the Pacific with a 42-18 record. Last year’s MVP, Steve Nash has only increased the pace this season, averaging more points (19.4) and nearly identical assists (10.8, down from 11.5) this season compared to last. Surprisingly, Nash has been able to increase his playmaking skills even with the addition of Boris Diaw from the Atlanta-Phoenix trade. Diaw has the second highest assists on the team, averaging 6.0 a game. A key component of the team, he is the third reason why the Suns have not faltered without Stoudemire, following Nash’s and Marion’s improved play. This past week, the Suns beat the Mavericks convincingly. Diaw’s defense and triple double showed that the Suns can compete against the Mavericks should the two teams meet in the playoffs. The Spurs are another case; unfortunately, Nash’s ankle sprain kept him out of yesterday’s game, resulting in a Spurs blowout victory and my inability to determine who the better team is. Because the Spurs do not appear to be slowing down, expect the Suns to retain the second seed. As I stated in a previous article, the second seed is a favorable playoff position for them.
One can comment about the Hornets, but I believe this is truly the most improved team of the year. The promotion of Avery Johnson to head coach has helped the Mavericks tremendously. Johnson has instilled a defensive mentality (he was once a former Spurs player after all) that Don Nelson did not seem to have. Nelson was very much into the run-and-gun offensive style during his Boston Celtics days. Unfortunately, one cannot live in the past as the Mavericks did the past few seasons, playing lackluster defense with a potent offense. While still retaining the furious offense, the Mavericks have shifted towards defensive-minded players in Dampier, Diop, and Griffin instead of players like Walker, Van Exel, and Finley from past seasons. This strategy has resulted in the Mavericks and Spurs being tied with 48-13 records. However, there are still major discrepancies between the two ball clubs. Last week, the Spurs defeated the Mavericks with a 98-89 win. The Spurs are still the team to beat. Whether or not the Mavericks reach the first seed depends on the schedule for the last few games. I can definitely see these two clubs battle until the last game of the season.
San Antonio Spurs
Because of Duncan’s foot injury, the Spurs began to lose to teams they would normally blowout every night. The two losses prior to the All-Star break only added to the fans’ concern for a Spurs letdown. However, the Spurs’, winners of eight of their last ten games, have definitely shown those losses to be flukes. The Spurs are on pace for an incredible second half run which could catapult their record to sixty wins. Unlike other seasons, it is not just Duncan’s low post dominance. Tony Parker’s offensive improvement has not gone unnoticed. He became an all-star this year. Ginobili’s clutch play is an invaluable asset to this team. Though no longer putting up the all-star numbers from a year ago, his unorthodox play continues to boggle the minds of the NBA elite. Robert Horry and Nazr Mohammed lead the assortment of unselfish hardworking Spurs players. Finally, Van Exel and Finley have stepped down from their previous roles. These two were very offensive-minded players who now have restricted their shooting to play San Antonio Spurs team basketball.
This season is the beginning of yet another Golden Age for the Western Conference. The Suns will definitely be much better next year with a healthy Stoudemire. The Spurs may be the next dynasty with players under contract until 2009. Finally, there is definitely space for newcomers like the Kings and the Lakers. The Kings may experience a revival under Artest should he decide to stay in the former capital of California while the Lakers may be able to contend in their projected three years under Phil Jackson.
Tue 03/14/06, 6:31 pm EST