The favorite to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy sits comfortably in an Eastern Conference lacking few, if any, real challengers.
But while the Miami Heat begins defense of its title with a series of not-so-intriguing first- and potential second-round playoff match-ups, the Western Conference is riddled with compelling games and storylines.
The West may not have the presumptive favorite, but it does have most of the first round’s real drama.
For the Thunder, the West’s No. 1 seed, their first-round opponent will serve up plenty of intensity if not a real threat to their playoff hopes. The eighth-seeded Houston Rockets are too young, not deep enough and not ready to pose a serious threat to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s plans to get back to the Finals.
But in James Harden, at least, the Thunder will confront a dangerous adversary with motivation to inflict some damage and a reminder of the key piece they’re missing in their quest for a championship. The Thunder may dispose of the Beard and his team quickly, but the series will be filled with a sense of the prodigal son having returned as the enemy and a constant reminder that Oklahoma City sans Harden probably doesn’t have enough firepower if and when they face the Heat in the Finals again.
In the series with perhaps the best shot at an upset, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers will bring competing concerns — and histories each is hoping to overcome. The Lakers’ woes have been on manic display all season: Firing Mike Brown a handful of games into the season, the awful start, the drama, Kobe Bryant’s guarantee of a playoff appearance, the slow slog toward making it so, his season-ending injury last week and, now, a team led by Dwight Howard and his enigmatic, often unreliable brand of leadership.
Yet the Lakers possess in Howard and Pau Gasol two dangerous bigs, just the recipe that helped Memphis beat the Spurs in the playoffs’ opening round two years ago. That was a 1-seed vs. 8-seed match-up. This time around, the Spurs are a 2-seed and banged up and the Lakers, equally banged up, are a 7-seed that started the season with expectations of a championship. The Spurs remain the big-time favorites, but they’ve drawn an opponent with more riding on this series than your typical No. 7 seed.
Unlike the Spurs-Lakers series, the Warriors-Nuggets series is unlikely to produce a winner capable of a real run to the NBA Finals. But this series could be as fun to watch as any in the NBA’s first round.
The Nuggets are a fast-paced, high-octane team trying to disprove the notion that teams built around depth rather than star power, and points in transition rather than half-court offense, can excel in the playoffs. They are, quite frankly, thrilling to watch if not easy to gauge as a postseason group.
The Warriors, while a 6-seed few expect to be serious contenders out West, will have the two best players on the floor in David Lee and Steph Curry. Curry, in particular, should be a sight to see. He set the single-season record for three-pointers this year, and he’s become a player capable of putting his team on his shoulders with a barrage of beautiful plays and big nights.
Then there’s Memphis-Clippers, a series with a growing history and a lot on the line. The Grizzlies are looking to prove trading Rudy Gay away under new ownership and management wasn’t a death knell to their playoff hopes. The Clippers are looking to prove — to upcoming free agent Chris Paul as much as anyone — that Lob City can be a true championship contender.
The background to all of this is last year’s seven-game slugfest, when the Grizzlies had home-court advantage and it took the Clippers all the way to Game 7 to advance. Now, minus Gay, Memphis is a team that will rely on a grinding defense, and the Clippers will look to Paul and Blake Griffin to outrun and burst through that defense.
These are two very different styles for teams with a lot on the line.
There may not be many true contenders to Miami’s dominance among the Western Conference, but each team will provide some thrilling moments over the next two weeks.