By Vincent Thomas

There are two things I want to hit before diving into the Western Conference preview…

1.) You can only look at the Nellie-Baron Fiasco one of two ways. Either both dudes are lying and there was indeed some private/secret blowup that forced/prompted Nellie to sit the squad’s best player AND leader for the entire second half of the season’s most important game; or Nellie made one of the single worse and most inexplicably rash, drama-queen coaching decisions in recent memory, stuff that would have your typical coach under white-hot media scrutiny and fan-ire. Star players are not immune to playing trashy ball in big games, it happens. Nellie said B was the worse player on the court. That’s cool. But on what planet would that ever dictate making a firm decision, DURING HALFTIME, to sit that player for the remainder of the game?! If anything, wouldn’t Nellie have expected Baron to snap out of it and rise to the occasion? He’d done that numerous timesduring these past two years of leading that franchise back to relevance. I just think that Nellie is too great and intelligent of a coach and Baron is too much of a warrior (in both senses) to ever let that go down. I’m saying that the rhetoric Nellie is currently spewing is patently absurd and reeks of a downright lie. It couldn’t have gone down like that. On the flip-side, I’m one of those dudes that thinks Nellie swigs Chivas Regal during halftime — and I’m only sorta joking about that. We all know that a little too much whisky can make one a little combative and we also know that B is a hot-head. The stretch run in the Western Conference made everyone into an emotional lunatic. Kobe was picking up Ts on the reg, even the Phoenix Nuns went bonkers for a stretch. With the season in perilous jeopardy and Baron, admittedly, playing less than stellar ball, that halftime locker-room was a Petri dish for a bunch of volatile and combustible personalities. Something went down, because I’ll never believe that Nellie walked up to one of the few clutch performers in the league, took a swig from his flask and said, “Baron, you’re playing horrible, so you’re not going to play for the rest of the half.” Impossible.

2.) Go with me here…What if the West’s regular season, for the first time (maybe ever), overshadows the playoffs? The second half of this season has us all anticipating an epic postseason. But what if that doesn’t happen? In order for the playoff series to be compelling, exciting and entertaining, both squads generally need to be playing well. But, if you ask me, most the Western squads are sputtering, not peaking. What if we see a first round full of match-ups pitting one struggling, gimpy squad against another? There’s a strong possibility that that’s what could happen. There’s also a strong possibility that each of the series could be riveting. I guess what I’m saying is that, every one of these compelling Western squads are Jekyll & Hydish. Check my flip-floppy take on each team/series below…

LOS ANGELES (1) vs. DENVER (8)

Why The Lakers Are Dope:

Kobe believes in his teammates. That’s where all of the Laker talk begins and ends. L.A. is dope in almost every facet of the game and you’ve heard it all before. They’re long, they’re deep, they shoot well, they have post players, they’re well-coached — yada-yada-yada. But the only thing that matters here is that Kobe believes he can win the whole thing with this squad. From that comes a trust and commitment from the game’s best player that gives L.A. a higher ceiling than any squad in the league, because Kobe’s mania is actually channeled through a collective. If Kobe came into the postseason questioning this squad’s heart and talent, then L.A. would be one bad game away from No. 24 goin’ rogue on the whole squad. But if you watch the Lakers (and I’ve watched 60-65 of their games this season), then you can recognize that Kobe is riding on confidence and trust, right now. He had some Old Kobe moments during Gasol’s injury-stretch, but in the past nine games he’s back to playing on that “other level.” This doesn’t bode well for his enemies.

Why The Lakers Are Sobering:
L.A. is Charmin-soft. You’re with me on that, right? Go down each of the Western squads — they all have at lease one Presence. Suns have Shaq. Nuggs have Kenyon and Nene. Hornets have Chandler and West. Utah has Boozer. Spurs have Timmy. The Mavs and Rockets don’t have any big-names, but Damp is a Man, as are dudes like Deke and Scola for Houston. L.A. happens to be my favorite professional franchise — on par with my hometown Buffalo Bills — and it’s been that way since I can remember. My Pops rooted for them with such zeal and against the Cs with such fervor, during my childhood, that I had no choice but to be a serious L.A. fan. I don’t voice my Laker fanship much, because we have enough Laker super-fans on the SLAM squad (I think Holly is all you guys can take). But as much as I love my squad, one thing is super-conspicuous every time I’m watching some squad knife through the lane for a layup or out-muscle the L.A. Big Men for a board: The Lakers are straight massengill. That’s my word. ‘Drew Bynum brought a lot to the table, but, more than anything, he was a presence. He was always swatting at dudes driving down the lane and practically every ball coming off the rim was his. As skilled as Gasol is and as ill as ‘Mar has played recently, that is a soft 5-4 Combo. So, yeah, squads like the Hornets and Suns and Spurs scare me.

Why The Nuggs Are Dope:

I promise to personally retire this term soon, but Denver drips swag. AI, Melo, KMart, JR — these dudes play with moxie. I love that about them. But I hate so much more…

Why The Nuggs Sober Me Up More Than Any Other Squad In The League:

Denver is deep. Denver is profoundly talented. Denver features two of the 10 biggest stars in the league. Denver is mad athletic. Denver is coached by the veteran, pedigreed, high-profile George Karl. Denver should have been a Top 3 seed, regardless of Nene’s injury. But you know what? They don’t have a RZA. Think about what Wu-Tang would have been if their leader was not as adroit as RZA at leading a nine-man squad of uber-talented, charismatic malcontents. Forget that RZA was, perhaps, the illest beatmaker of his time. Forget that he was a studio-master on par with Dre. His single greatest achievement was his ability to take that team of disparate and volatile personalities, easily inclined toward jealousy and rivalry, and point them in the direction of masterpieces. Denver is Wu-Tang in a lot of ways. Except, AI and Melo (two of my favorite players) refuse to be RZA. On some days they both wanna be Meth. Other days the work together on some Rae-n-Ghost steez. But what this squad has always needed was a RZA, someone to set an example and also forcibly lead this talented squad — one that isn’t as meticulously composed as, say, the Spurs or even the Lakers — to a higher ground. What good team would ever score 168 points in regulation? That’s simply not the way typical NBA games progress. That game against the Sonics featured two terrible teams — as in, Seattle Denver — playing some of the worse, most careless ball in the modern era. Nothing about Denver, other than it’s talent and undeniable ability to score, resembles anything remotely close to a good squad. It’s sad, frustrating and uncalled for.

Commish Verdict:

L.A. in no more than 5.

NEW ORLEANS (2) vs. DALLAS (7)

Why The Hornets Are Dope:
This squad makes shots. When Chris and West do their pick-n-roll thing and West pops out for that 17-footer, Chris always finds him and West almost always cans the open jumper. Peja, Pargo and Mo Pete knock down their jumpers. Chandler never botches the alley-oop. That’s what we tend to forget. Take those Suns squads of the past four years; Amare always caught those wild Nash passes and converted around the basket — somehow. Bell and Barbosa always knocked down those open jumpers. Marion always finished. Chris Paul (like Nash and Magic and Kidd before him) is an exceptional talent, but his squad has — how do I say this — accommodated his brilliance. They allow his brilliance to shine because the Hornets make their shots. There are very few fumbled passes. They rarely miss gimmes. It’s a beautiful thing.

Why The Hornets Are Sobering:

Chris has one flaw — and I really do mean “ONE” — he doesn’t have a pull-up jumper from 18-20 feet. Now, granted, that hasn’t cost him much throughout his career, but we all know how the game changes in the postseason, how the contact increases, how the lane clogs, how every shot gets tougher. Chris, up to this point, has used an uncanny, otherworldly, never-seen-before ability to “manufacture space” on the floor by his use of speed-modulation (that’s a new term), his Houdini-handle, his crazy touch on finishes and the defense’s paranoia with his passing. But a pick-n-roll might not get you two late buckets in a close slug-fest. And you might not want Mo Pete taking a game-winner off a kickout. Problem is, Chris can’t face-you-up, do a little shakin’, step-back and knock down a 20-footer like Deron. He can’t lull you to sleep and quick-release a trey like Nash. In fact, the Hornets don’t really have anyone on the squad that has the kind of end-of-the-game repertoire other than…yep, Bonzi. Do you trust him, though?

Why The Mavs Are Dope:

That snarlin’, swaggerin’, muggin’ Dirk is back. That was a scary, transcendent dude when we last saw him constantly during the ’05-’06 and ’06-’07 seasons (minus the Mav-collapses verse Miami and GState). He was a confident, practically unguardable sucker. He took and made big shots. He grabbed timely boards and he played sorta ornery. Then he met Jax last May, got his skirt lifted, went to The Land Down Under and grew a beard, returned and played well, but not great. That was until Kidd rolled through to imbue him with some new life. Now Dirk is back and that means that the Mavs can do anything…really.

Why The Mavs Are Sobering:

Have you seen Kidd trying to defend quick guards? He literally plays 10-feet off them. The dudes he guards could casually shoot set-shots if they wanted. Often the Mavs switch and put Kidd on the bigger guard, but then Terry gets toasted, too. Well, the West is full of extremely talented small-guards. Kidd could end up being Dallas’ savior if Dirk continues to regain his old luster, but he could likewise be the reason for the Mavs downfall, too. We’ll see…

Commish Verdict:

Mavs in 7. Yep.

SAN ANTONIO (3) vs. PHOENIX (6)

Why The Spurs Are Dope:
 

Doesn’t it strike you as stupid that the Spurs are not universally accepted as a dynasty? Who invented this “they’ve never won back-to-back titles” shizz? So you mean to tell me that a squad that won chips in ’03, ’05 and ’07, while being one of the leagues three or four best teams in ’04 and ’06 — that’s not a dynasty? Aight, whatevs. Here’s what I know: this Spurs squad is the closest thing we have to that 80s Lakers Dynasty and the 90s Bulls Run, because every year, no matter what is ailing the Spurs or how they play down the stretch, San Antonio is a favorite and — more often than not — they deliver. It’s been that way for the past five years! We are witnessing one of the quintessential, time-capsule runs by an organization. Unless the Lakers win back-to-back titles this year and next, this decade goes down as The Spurs Decade. And you know what? As iffy as they appear right now, smart money could easily be on them to repeat. Cherish this squad while you can…

Why The Spurs Are Sobering:

With all that was said in the previous paragraph, danger lurks. The Spurs remind me of Rome. Remember, there was no hostile take over the way the other World Powers like Greece and Egypt toppled. Rome’s dominance sort of fizzled until it was no more. Rome didn’t necessarily fall, it faded. I think that’s where we are with the Spurs at this point. I’ve said before that Duncan is in his ’05 Shaq mode. He’s still one of the best in the league. He can still dominate at times. But he’s lost a bit. He’s not as mobile. He can be locked up by the right defender and he’s even more susceptible to freaks like Amare. He’s not “money” when it comes to converting down low with contact. He’s slipping. And so are the Spurs. They’re ancient, propped up by the brilliance of Manu and Timmy the Sage, plus Panties Parker is a load on offense as a scorer. But the rest of their lineup is weathered. This is a New West. New Powers are taking shape — Utah, L.A., New Orleans — meanwhile the Spurs are struggling to keep pace, fuggedabout staying ahead. This might be the year when they get bounced early and ugly, signaling the inevitable end.       

     

Why The Suns Are Dope:
Remember my “Death To Small Ball” piece? In it, I slammed Phoenix for having a sham of a squad during the Nash era. A squad with a 6-9 center and 6-7 power forward. A team that couldn’t win playing the masculine brand of ball we see in May and June. I praised the Shaq trade. And this is why. Look at the squad. It’s a squad built for a championship, even if it ain’t running ultra-smooth at this juncture. Forget the players names and where they’re at in their careers and what you expect of them and/or any other biases and just look at the composition of the Suns rotation. They have an elite, big-game point guard; a tough-defending two guard that knocks down open treys; a Swiss Army knife, veteran swing-man; a frightening load-of-a-center; and the biggest freak this side of LeBron at the 4-spot. They come of the bench with, perhaps, the energizer in the league; a soft, albeit skilled, Frenchman; and a big, capable spot-duty Shrek. That’s a real squad, to me. With Shaq finally set to begin (probably) his last career-defining postseason, Nash and Hill frantically sprinting for that window closing shut and Amare operating in rarefied air, this squad is scary…Conference Finals scary.       
     

Why The Suns Are Sobering:
Remember my “Death To Small Ball” piece? Yep, that same joint where I slammed Phoenix for having a sham of a squad during the Nash era? Well, like any good (or bad) columnist, part of that was straight button-pushing. To be quite honest, although I like this version of the Suns much better as a “true” contender, one thing happened: they lost their identity. The Suns actually had a mystique. That same mystique changed the league and, for those that know, will leave an indelible mark on the NBA after Nash hangs it up and the remnants of this team scatters and vanishes. Teams used to kind of be in awe of Phoenix, not scared or intimidated, but awed. “They’ll run us off the floor” kinda stuff. The Suns play more pedestrian brand of ball, now. They’re not boring by any stretch, they can still run with the best of them and better than most, but some of that thrill is gone and I think this calms their opponents.

Commish Verdict:

Suns in 7.

UTAH (4) vs. HOUSTON (5)

Why The Jazz Are Dope:

Utah is one highly skilled squad. They don’t trot out too many duds. Booz, Deron, Okur, Harping, AK, Korver, Brewer…all these dudes play ball. If you give them the pill, you don’t have to cover your eyes. They remind me of Detroit in that way — a squad full of ball-players. Most teams can’t say that. Most teams routinely have someone on the floor that, within the context of the NBA, is basically a stiff. Whereas, Utah keeps five dudes on the court that, if you saw them shooting around before a pickup game, you’d ask to run with your squad. That’s why this team made the Conference Finals last year, that’s why they’re a threat to do it again.

Why The Jazz Are Sobering:

Boozer is a leader. He is Utah’s leader. He’s tough, smart, responsible, reliable and exacting. I love that about him. He’s my favorite young big man in the game. Amare is better, Dwight is more dominant, yada-yada-yada — Booz is my kinda guy, though. Here’s the problem, when you throw it down to Booz at the end of games, he won’t necessarily kill you if you double-team him. He averages as many TOs as assists (and not many assists). And he’s also not the kind of dude that is a guaranteed bucket when you need it. That’s really all that the playoffs are about. At the end of a close, bloody-battle, which team has the player or players that routinely come through in the clutch. It’s simple in that way. Usually that player is the leader of the squad. Well Booz is Utah’s leader, but when is the last time you saw him dominate the last 5 minutes of a the fourth quarter in a big-game? This brings us to Deron. I guess you’d call him the Jazz’ “Big Game” player. And that’s cool. I’ve seen him kill a few squads down the stretch of big games. He’s not to be toyed with. But the West, again, is full of Transcendent Dudes when the game is on the line (Kobe, Nash, Manu, AI, the New Old Dirk) — Killers, Murderers, Punks, Gangstas, Jerks, Hitmen, Greats. Utah doesn’t have anyone like that. The Big Boys are about to start ballin’ now and I’m wondering if Utah truly belongs. It ain’t 2007 anymore…

Why The Rockets Are Dope:

They’re a tough bunch or blue-collar cats. You seen Scola’s face? He’s been in alley-fights on the reg, I’m sure of this. Bobby Jackson is the type of cat to hit dudes over the head with Belvedere bottles in VIP. Deke’s from Africa, he’s hard. Landry, Mike Harris and Chuck Hayes teeter on the edge of the NBA-NBDL line. The future is real for them, as in real uncertain. Shane Battier shouldn’t even be playing basketball, he should be running Obama’s campaign. But he thought, “Hey, I’m 6-7, I’m kinda athletic, if I put my nerd-mind to it, I can make a ton of money doing this.” He plays with the same strict, bookworm zeal that he did his homework. Teams like this may not have a high ceiling, but they win games, many of which they shouldn’t.

Why The Rockets Are Sobering:

I think there’s a hex on McGrady’s career. He goes to Orlando with Hill, hoping to win some Eastern Conference titles and Hill is injured for McGrady’s whole stay in that soulless city. They get up 3-1 on Detroit and still go home. He goes to Houston, teams with, arguably, the best center in the league…they were the new Shaq & Kobe. Except, Yao ain’t Shaq and dude ain’t No. 24. It’s just dissapointment and unfulfilled potential around every corner. What I’m saying is not new. The stakes for McGrady are well known. But what’s different about this season? I can’t really tell you. Houston is the least talented, least experienced squad of these eight teams and their star is the only one burdened by history. It ain’t looking good.

Commish Verdict:

Rockets in 7 — but only because I’m rooting for Mac.