Monday, August 9, 2010 Updated: August 16, 10:02 AM ET
2010-11 Western Conference standings
By Royce Webb ESPN.com
Will Kobe and the Lakers rule the Western Conference for a fourth straight season? Survey says ...
Once again, the West is best, according to our ESPN panel of 93 basketball experts, which expects the Western Conference to win about 53 percent of its games this season. (That's 633 wins versus only 597 for Eastern Conference teams.)
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And once again, sitting triumphantly on the throne are the Los Angeles Lakers, the two-time defending NBA champs, going for the second three-peat of the Kobe Bryant-Phil Jackson era -- and a four-peat in the West. Worth noting: If the Lakers see the Heat in the NBA Finals, as many expect, the series will not start in L.A., according to our panel's crystal ball.
Where the West gets especially interesting is east (and north) of L.A., where teams such as Oklahoma City, Dallas, Denver, Portland, Utah, San Antonio and Houston are expected to battle it out for the right to be considered the Lakers' truest threat, while the Suns might be the odd men out.
So here we go with the West as we see it:
The heavyweight champs have given us a True Hollywood Story of classic characters: the loner hero, the European intellectual, the wise old cap'n, the Queensbridge kid, the loopy lefty, the young star on the make, the eccentric owner and his family, and the Zen Master. Oh yeah, they're pretty good at basketball, too.
Is this the same team that stood 1-16 just 20 months ago? Yes, and it's the same team that put a serious scare in the champs in Round 1. In what could be a wild Western scramble for second, our panel gives the Thunder 0.21 wins more than the Mavs, meaning a potential West finals bid for the Durant-Westbrook-Green team.
We foresee an amazing 11th-straight 50-win season for the Mavericks, again on the shoulders of Dirk, J-Kidd and crew. And with the arrival of Tyson Chandler and the emergence of Roddy Beaubois (once he returns from a broken foot), Dallas will have some fresh blood. The Mavs may not have a ring, but they do have our respect.
The Nuggets hope coach George Karl can return after another bout with cancer, and Karl hopes the Nuggets can return to top contender status in the West. To do so, Carmelo & Co. need to curb their worst tendencies (namely: selfish play, emotional outbursts) and get back to the kind of teamwork preached by Karl.
Portland appears to be a postseason perennial despite front-office turmoil and myriad injuries. And now, with the West in transition (below the Lakers), this season looks like an open invitation for Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden to take the Blazers past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.
Tim Duncan was in college the last time the Spurs finished under .600, but that's what our panel forecasts for this fading power. What could reverse the subtle slide from 63 to 58 to 56 to 54 to 50 wins? A healthy season from Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, plus a splash by Tiago Splitter, the Brazilian banger imported from Europe.
Utah took some steps back with the departures of Carlos Boozer, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver, and a step forward with the acquisition of Al Jefferson. How Jerry Sloan fits it all together -- and how the Jazz use the expiring contract of Andrei Kirilenko -- will tell us whether Deron Williams' crew is more contender or pretender.
How is Yao? That's the first question for Houston, which has built a strong supporting cast without knowing whether its 7-foot-6 superstar can return from foot surgery to carry the team. But if the big fella can go, the Rockets have the pieces in place, with the experienced Rick Adelman and savvy Daryl Morey for guidance.
Phoenix rose spectacularly from the lottery to the West finals, and now it's back to the lottery for Steve Nash and the Suns, according to our panel. That's despite a 44-win forecast and despite our prediction that Suns expatriate Amare Stoudemire and his Knicks (with just 37 wins) will make the playoffs in the East. No, life ain't fair.
Chris Paul might renew his trade wishes after seeing our stinging Summer Forecast for the Hornets, which has them stuck at 38 wins, far from the playoffs. Of course, what CP3 and New Orleans need is a healthy CP3, after a knee injury cost him almost half of last season. In any case, his future is a looming issue.
On Feb. 2, Memphis was 26-21, tied with OKC for eighth. But it was ultimately another lottery season for the Grizzlies, while the Thunder are the new darlings of the West. We remain lukewarm on the young Grizz, though another season of near-perfect health could clear the way for them to surprise us once again.
Our panel is taking the déjà vu of L.A.'s other team: Last season we expected rookie Blake Griffin to carry the Clips to about a .400 winning percentage, and this season we expect rookie Blake Griffin to carry the Clips to about a .400 winning percentage. Let's hope his repaired knee and new coach Vinny Del Negro are up to the task.
Reigning rookie of the year Tyreke Evans has gained a reputation as a hell-bent driver who's hard to slow down, and not just on the highway. This season, expect another sizable move for the Kings after last season's eight-game improvement, especially if Evans can form a reliable partnership with rookie DeMarcus Cousins.
Warriors fans got their wish when Chris Cohan agreed to sell the team after 15 long years. Now comes the hard part for Golden State: Taking the raw materials on hand and making the team competitive in a tough conference. With Don Nelson's future and the roster in flux, our panel sees incremental steps, not a giant leap forward.
The good news: Our committee of 93 says the Wolves will win 33 percent more games. The bad news: We think the Wolves will be the NBA's worst team. Even worse: Despite a roster with intriguing young talent, Wolves GM David Kahn has us utterly confused regarding how he plans to take Minnesota north in the standings.
* -- Teams tied in win totals ordered by decimal rankings from our experts' predictions.