Deal or No Deal?: The NBA Edition

By Ivan McDowell
Updated: February 9, 2008

Kobe BryantALABAMA — The NBA’s Western Conference is fighting for pole position like Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and we’re more than two months away from the playoffs.

Currently, there are seven teams in the conference that have an opportunity to win an NBA title. Phoenix, Dallas, L.A. Lakers, Denver, San Antonio, New Orleans and Utah all are legitimate title contenders.

Conversely, the East may only be able to realistically count on two teams, Boston and Detroit, for a shot at dethroning the Spurs. Recent trades by the Lakers and Suns have furthered strengthened the West’s claim as the best the league has to offer.

Los Angeles, in an effort to replace size lost while star-in-the-making big man Andrew Bynum is out their front line, brought in Pau Gasol from Memphis and his 19 points and nine rebounds.

Those numbers should increase playing alongside Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, the Suns, desperately looking to match up with the big boys out west, pulled the trigger for Shaq; giving away do-everything forward Shawn Marion to the hopeless, rebuilding Heat in the process.

Gasol instantly gives L.A. a seven-footer and proven scorer on the interior. While Gasol is not a banger, he does cause considerable mismatches because he cans step away from the basket and stroke the jumper.

Defensively, Pau will use his length to funnel drivers towards Bynum; all the while making entry passes more difficult for the man he’s guarding. Suddenly, the Lakers are a major player again and that certainly makes the league’s best player, Bryant, a happy man.

O’Neal, if healthy and inspired, instantly provides a banger inside that should shut off dribble penetration and keep big bodies from draping all over Amare Stoudemire.

Remember, Shaq is still the most the difficult player to guard in the league. Even at 35 and out of shape. Question is can the ‘Big Aristotle’ get up and down the floor with the high octane Phoenix offense? Well, he probably won’t have to.

Shaquille’s minutes will be limited at first as he rounds into shape and gets acclimated to the Suns’ system. Once he does, O’Neal’s purpose on this team will come to fruition during the playoffs.

Playoff time means pick-n-roll basketball and half court sets. In his prime O’Neal was a terror to deal with as the roll part of the equation and he still can be; especially with Steve Nash distributing the basketball.

Now who’s going to take the charge with “The Diesel” barreling down the lane?

O’Neal is set to make $40 million dollars in the final two years of his current contract, so the Suns and new general manager Steve Kerr are ‘banking’ on “The Daddy” to deliver now.

Combined with Nash and Grant Hill’s ages, Phoenix’s window is closing fast. Trading an All-Star like Marion for the aging O’Neal proves they realize this.

The surprise team in the first half of the season has been the New Orleans Hornets and their dynamic one-two punch of point guard Chris Paul and power forward David West.

Although young, they have the best record versus conference opponents and its best road record. The Suns and Lakers were already good before their new additions. Don’t expect that to change.

The Spurs are the defending champions and have to be respected. Denver has the two best scorers on a single team in Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. Underrated center Marcus Camby anchors the defense and leads the league in blocks.

Utah has the leagues’ best point guard not named Nash or Paul in Deron Williams. Williams averages 19 and nine, while power forward Carlos Boozer is a stat stuffer in the post. Watch out for them.

The Mavericks are one of the most versatile teams in the NBA and are as adept at putting the ball in the basket as anyone. Their defense is improved, but is the team overall? It seems that we’ve been waiting on Dallas to win a championship for a few years now.

Three wildcard teams have emerged out west and all have the ability to beat anyone at anytime. They also have inconsistencies that won’t take them to the next level. Golden State knocked off Dallas last season and they are more than capable of doing the same this year.

They are a matchup nightmare on offense, as they spread the floor and excel in transition. Where they struggle is in the half court and with teams with superior size. All five starters average in double figures, but they live and die with the three.

Houston is interesting in that they have one of the best players in the league in Yao Ming and one of the former-best players in Tracy McGrady. We know what Yao can do, but is T-Mac willing to do what it takes to get this team over the hump?

Portland is so young, but very good. This was supposed to be a learning year for the baby blazers; especially since #1 draft pick Greg Oden hasn’t even suited up yet.

Remarkably, this team just gets it done; led by Brandon Roy and his already mature game. Still, they are the youngest team in the league and in the playoffs experience is at a premium.