NBA’s Western Conference hard to figure

MINNEAPOLIS – In June, a fake Twitter account pretending to be a credible NBA beat writer tweeted that a deal sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers was done. The Internet exploded for a quick second before everyone took a closer look and realized they’d been royally duped. It was a lesson in caution and a weird example of the efficacy (or inefficacy, depending on how you look at it) of Twitter.

Howard went to Los Angeles, of course, but not for more than a month, and the tweet was the kind of pure fabrication that anyone watching the spectacle in Orlando was all too pleased to digest. That’s why on Saturday night, when the real writer who had been parodied in June, Adrian Wojnarowski, tweeted that James Harden had been traded to Houston, I did a double take. This had to be another fake trade. It had to. The Western Conference power structure couldn’t change now, so close to the season starting. Things don’t happen that fast.

But in Sam Presti’s world, apparently they do, and with the trade, the Oklahoma City GM gave a proverbial middle finger not only to conventional wisdom about how such situations are handled, but also to the agreed-upon NBA hierarchy going into the season.

Harden to Houston will have a ripple effect at both ends of the Western Conference playoff spectrum. It pushes the Thunder from legitimate title contenders closer to fringe and Houston from irrelevant to maybe, possibly, could-be on the brink of the postseason competition. It makes us worry a little less about the Lakers’ weak bench and gives the Spurs confidence that hey, we can beat these Thunder this time around.

The Western Conference this season is quite the puzzle, with a clearly defined clump of playoff locks at the top and this vague mass of teams in the “fighting for a seven or eight seed” range. At the top, it’s the Lakers, Nuggets, Thunder (yes, still) and Spurs. If any of those teams don’t make the playoffs, it’ll be due to a major injury or something of the like. Then there are the Clippers and Grizzlies, teams that are hardly elite but still seem like good bets to secure spots in the postseason. After that, it’s the Rockets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Warriors and Mavericks all fighting for those last two seeds, and then the Suns, Kings, Blazers and Hornets with only outside chances of doing anything past April.

The top of the top

These four teams will be very good, but each has its issues. The Lakers have an amazing starting lineup, but they’re older and more vulnerable to injury. They also have a weak bench. (Name five of their reserves and what each brings to the table. Really. I dare you.)

The Thunder will be without a main component of its past attack in Harden, and there’s no way Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin can fully compensate for what they’re losing. Serge Ibaka will have to prove he’s worth every penny of the $49 million extension he inked this summer, and even then, the Thunder are not the team they were last week.

No one’s happier about that than the Spurs, who may finally have shaken the “they’re old, they’re finished” label. Unless, of course, this is the year that they really are old and finished. But regardless of the ages of Manu Ginobili (35), Tony Parker (30) and Tim Duncan (36), the Spurs have plenty of young talent and a coach who basically refuses to lose. They’ll be fine.

And then there’s Denver, a team without a star. But if that’s the Nuggets’ biggest problem, then they’ll be fine. They’re deep, deceptively deep, with Anthony Randolph maybe the weakest link in the argument that there’s a solid backup at every position. They’re almost out of place among this Western Conference elite, without the glitter of Los Angeles, the cult following of Oklahoma City or the history of San Antonio, but George Karl and company are for real.

The bottom of the top

The Clippers didn’t get any better this offseason, and the franchise is the picture of dysfunctional, but with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, they’re still a playoff team. That said, any notion of the basketball battle for Los Angeles that was born last season should be gone. Staples Center belongs to the Lakers, and even if the Clippers are still their ugly stepchild, at least they’re an ugly stepchild with a good shot of making the playoffs.

The Grizzlies, too, might not be much improved from last year, but there’s no reason to think they can’t coast through the season to a solid playoff seed or even sneak in among the top tier if Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay all play to their potential.

These teams will be fun to watch, and after last year’s first-round playoff matchup – a series that Memphis should have won but the Clippers snatched away – the Grizzlies should be out to prove that they’re closer to the elite than the middle of the pack. And with the Clippers, that inferiority complex can’t hurt.

The murky middle

This is where it gets interesting – or just plain impossible to predict. With two playoff spots remaining (assuming none of the aforementioned teams implodes), the Jazz seem a good lock for one. And then come the questions:

Will the Timberwolves’ injuries prevent them from a seven or eight seed that once seemed like a pretty good option? How deep is Rick Adelman’s squad, really? (My guesses: No. Deeper than I once expected.)

With Dirk Nowitzki out to begin the season and an already-weak roster, do the Mavericks just tank and hope for a good lottery pick? (No idea.)

Is James Harden enough for the Rockets? Can they use him and Jeremy Lin as bait to land another star in time for it to make a difference? (Probably not. Maybe.)

Have the Warriors actually rebuilt and gotten healthy to the point that they might be on the fringe? Can Andrew Bogut be the high-level player they need? (Unlikely. Unlikely.)

There’s all that and more, and plenty of time for one of these teams to see a torn ACL, a beneficial trade, anything that pushes them up and out of the scrum or down into the basement. Where it might be confusing for now, this cluster is an opportunity, especially for teams like the Timberwolves and Warriors, for whom a chance to simply make the playoffs for the first time in years would be well worth it, even if it likely means a trip to Los Angeles or Oklahoma City to have their proverbial brains bashed out on the hardwood.

The bottom

Maybe one of these teams will surprise. Portland shouldn’t be terrible. New Orleans has a lot of upside, but it looks like it’ll need another year to jell to the point that it’s ready to enter the playoff picture. Phoenix is rebuilding, and a lot hinges on whether the Timberwolves’ castoffs can get their games in gear. Sacramento is a mess, though maybe a better mess than last season. There might not be a 17-win team in the West, a la the Timberwolves of two years ago, but there have to be losers, and these are the best bets.

Let the show begin, and a show it will be. The Timberwolves won’t get their first taste of the Western Conference elite until Denver comes to the Target Center on Dec. 12. That means no Thunder until Dec. 20, no Lakers until Feb. 1. It’s an interesting quirk of scheduling, especially because the Timberwolves, Thunder and Nuggets are all in the same division, but it can only help. Maybe by the time these big games come around, the Timberwolves will have a better picture of where they lie within the murk.

But really, that’s wishful thinking, and this season should at least have a suspense that’s been absent from Minnesota for years.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.