Youth reigns supreme in Western Conference

Happy one-third of the way through the 2011-12 NBA regular season everybody. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the sporting fan public when I say, if only this sort of schedule could become the norm, instead of the exception. We’re 37 days in, and most teams have already played 22 games, a pace that has teams on average taking part in a contest more often than every other day.

We NBA fans were bestowed a gift on Christmas Day, some even called it a sporting miracle. When you consider the concessions made by the players after the owners ran roughshod over them, no matter what this season looks like, whatever problems many may have with it, I’m simply content we have a season…period.

Now…having said that (a phrase I truly detest, but just used regardless), I recognize this installment of the association’s regular season is certainly deserving of a Phil Jackson asterisk, considering how much different it will look from the standard 82-game version.

That’s why when I made my fearless preseason predictions, they had their foundation cemented on the perils of a truncated season, roster and coaching continuity, while still of course taking into consideration, the most important measure of a teams viability…talent.

I wasn’t alone with my piqued interest of how playing 66 games in 120 days would affect the older, veteran-laden teams like the Lakers, but there was enough dissent when addressing that as a potential factor when crowning this season’s champion that I wondered if my concerns might be squashed and proven foolish.

So far I’m in the right, and whoever said it wasn’t a big deal is in the wrong.

Look at teams with old legs and what do you see? Dallas got out to a horrible start before finally finding some success in the soft part of their schedule, but the Celtics are sub-.500, the Spurs are currently out of the postseason picture, and the Lakers are toiling in the eighth position. What’s up at the top? Youth, youth and more youth.

The Bulls, Heat, Thunder and Nuggets. There’s your top 4, and don’t bother forwarding me some “NBA’s Average Team Age” list because that can be deceiving. The Lakers aren’t the oldest team, but when you consider that four of their five starters are over 30, they’re old, and the same goes for the Celtics and Spurs.

The stars of the league drive a team’s success. When you’re the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Heat with LeBron James, Wade and Bosh, or especially the Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, you’re a ridiculously young squad. Meaning 19 games played by the Thunder so far feel a lot different than the 21 games the Lakers have labored through.

Not to get too arrogant here, but my preseason prognostications are almost exactly in step with where we are at today, in most team’s cases, a third of the way through the regular season.

I proclaimed the Thunder would be way ahead of everyone else thanks to the maturity of Durant every season (he was also my preseason MVP pick), Westbrook gives that team a legit second superstar, Harden is running away with the Sixth Man of the Year award, and the role players fit in perfectly. The team has a top-5 point differential, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single flaw. They will finish the season exactly where they are now, with the No. 1 overall seed in the West – and in the entire NBA – and they’re still my pick to win the Western Conference.

I had the Nuggets and Grizzlies as the next two best teams in the West, again, remember what my criteria was headlining into this season, continuity in players/coaches, young legs and talent. And while Denver might be surprising some with their second best record in the West at this point, I don’t know how more people couldn’t see this coming. When you’re playing a game every day-and-a-half, having two legitimate starting 5’s on your roster is going to be one of the most valuable team characteristics. It far outweighs having a single superstar with some talent around him, and their far-and-away highest scoring average in the league is a testament to that.

The Nuggets play basketball like the Packers or Patriots play football – maybe we’re not the best defense you’ll face all season, but good luck keeping up with us offensively. If their opponent isn’t scoring at least 100 points, they’re simply not winning the game. The Nuggets have six players, nearly seven, scoring in double figures, and that’s not likely to stop anytime soon. Only two players, 24-year-old Ty Lawson and 23-year-old Danilo Gallinari play heavy minutes, keeping everyone else fresh game-in and game-out. They’ll be in the top four come the postseason, and nobody will want to face them on their way to the Finals.

The Grizzlies are much better than their 10-9 record suggests. They have a +1.9 point differential, they’re a very good defensive team, but they took a big hit when they lost their most consistent scorer and rebounder, Zach Randolph, to a knee injury. They will go as his recovery goes. Hover around .500 until his return, and likely for the second consecutive season, be the team that can provide the upset in the first round.

I said the Lakers or Clippers would finish in the top 5. One of those two rosters would finish as the Pacific Division champion and earn that spot, and today, we aren’t any closer to figuring out which one of them it’s going to be.

Starting with the Clippers, they have the same issues today I said they had in the preseason. No depth in the front court. It’s why they’re searching for answers where there might not be any (Kenyon Martin). They’re going to have to hit the trade market and take on some salary they might not want while giving up backcourt talent that will likely cause GM Neil Olshey some sleepless nights. Having Mo Williams, Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul on the roster is a luxury, not a necessity. Add to that Eric Bledsoe was turning into a nice young point guard at the end of the season, you would think he has some value.

The Clippers need a 2-guard and they need a backup power forward, or they are a team that could be upset in the first round by a better, more balanced, veteran team like the Mavericks or Lakers that will play much better in the spaced-out format of the playoffs.

The positives? Chris Paul has been as good as advertised, and Chauncey Billups is invaluable at the end of games and in the locker room. The pair has been brilliant and is paying early dividends.

The Lakers currently sit in the 8-hole, but they’re just a single game from the 3-spot. Rankings be dammed, this is not a team that inspires fans to envision the Larry O’Brien trophy being handed over to one of the Buss children come June. They are in desperate need of help at two positions. Small forward and no surprise, the point guard.

Much like two seasons ago while many analysts were mentioning how well Steve Blake would fit into this team’s offense, they failed to realize a spot-up shooter is the last thing this team needed. Athletes, this Lakers roster is devoid of athletes. I mentioned Shaun Livingston, Ramon Sessions, point guards who can move their feet, penetrate and break down a defense, and one name out there stands ahead of the rest when speaking to a tweak instead of a major overhaul – Devin Harris.

The Jazz point guard is logging a career-low 24 minutes per game, and he’s being paid just less than $9 million dollars per season to do it. With their $8.9 million trade exception, you would think there’s an opportunity to get something for essentially nothing if Utah would be up for the exchange.

Holding out hope that the Magic will trade you Dwight Howard is certainly an understandable position to maintain, and you would hate to relinquish that valuable chip of a free $9 million a team certainly would love to have, so perhaps this could be a lost season as they wait out D-12 and Orlando to make sure they don’t move prematurely.

The Lakers will make the postseason, they’ll be a threat once they get there, and I suspect they’ll either win the Pacific and be slotted into a top 5 position, or they’ll slip back to a 6 or 7 and be a team that’s a much harder out than their seeding suggests.

Portland has been a nice surprise, but the former No.1 team in the West for about two weeks has fallen in line with what its ultimate ranking will be, either a low seed, or out of the playoffs all together.

I projected the Spurs and Jazz would fall on hard times, but after 20 games from each I’m willing to buy into Utah. Paul Milsap is a beast and on that front line with Al Jefferson, they’ll continue to win enough games to be part of the playoffs.

So a third of the way through, here are my adjusted projections for how the teams will be ranked come the end of April.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Denver Nuggets
3. LA Clippers
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. LA Lakers
6. Utah Jazz
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. San Antonio Spurs