NBA: Who can survive the deep Western Conference?

David Cassilo

The NBA regular season ended last night, and avid basketball fans can now turn their attention to the essence of excitement: the NBA playoffs. The teams in this section actually have a chance to win an NBA title, which is more than one can say for the less-than-spectacular Eastern Conference. You’ve waited long enough (five-and-a-half months, in fact) for the playoffs, so without further ado, here are this year’s Western Conference title contenders.


The Difference Maker: C Marcus Camby

With Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony running the show, the Nuggets need not worry about getting production from their backcourt. However, in order to go far in this year’s postseason, Denver must be able to defend and get production inside. The player who can help with both of those is Camby. Remarkably, Camby, who throughout his career made Grant Hill look healthy, has been able to play a full season and, as a result, is playing the best basketball of his career. If he can slow down the other team’s offense, the Nuggets will be able to score enough to make a run in the postseason.

The Bottom Line: Because of a slow start, Denver will most likely be forced to beat San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix, respectively, to even reach the NBA Finals. Although Denver is playing its best basketball right now and is one of the hottest teams in the league, the Nuggets’ early-season struggles will most likely cost them a chance to advance to the second round.


The Difference Maker: SF Shane Battier

The Rockets were so fond of Battier that they were even willing to part with first-round pick Rudy Gay to bring him to Houston. Although they may regret this move a few years from now, Battier has been everything they have hoped for and is one of the main reasons why people are starting to take Texas’ third team seriously this season. With Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming on the roster to do the scoring, Battier’s job has been to do the little things crucial to a team’s success. If he does them as effectively as he has all season, Battier and the Rockets could make a serious dent in this year’s playoffs.

The Bottom Line: For the past few years we’ve been waiting for the Rockets to reach their potential, and now Houston has finally taken off. Unlike most teams in the West, the Rockets generally win with their defense. It’s likely that they will live to see the second round, but if they are going to reach their first conference finals since 1995, they will need to increase their offensive production to have a chance to hang in games against the best of the West.


The Difference Maker: SF Bruce Bowen

Like a Dane Cook comedy routine, Bowen is dirty and irritating, and no matter how hard you try, he never goes away. Bowen is great at what he does and one would be hard pressed to find anyone in the NBA who is a better defender and less liked because of it. His ability to shut down another team’s top scorer has been crucial to the Spurs’ success during this decade. Although he may not be the cleanest player in the NBA, Bowen gets the job done defensively. If he can do that against Dallas and Phoenix this postseason, the Spurs could return to the finals.

The Bottom Line: Few teams have the experience and talent of the San Antonio Spurs. If all goes as planned and they are matched up with the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs, NBA fans will be treated to one of the best second-round matchups in recent memory. Although they have reliable stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as “Big Shot” Bob Horry, on their roster, the Spurs are likely to fall just short in the Arizona desert.


The Difference Maker: G/F Jerry Stackhouse

One of the greatest strengths of the defending Western Conference champions is the depth they have on their roster. The Mavericks could beat the Boston Celtics without playing a single starter. The most dangerous of all those bench players is former All-Star Jerry Stackhouse. The veteran shooting guard can be as explosive a scorer as any starter on the roster. If Stackhouse can add an extra 20 points to the production of the starters, any defense will find it hard to slow down the Dallas offense.

The Bottom Line: Clearly, the top two teams in the NBA are the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns. The winner of this potential classic Western Conference Final should cruise in the NBA Championship. From top to bottom, Dallas appears to be the best team in the NBA and therefore the obvious choice to repeat as Western Conference champion. The one team that has its number is the Phoenix Suns, who have beaten Dallas in their last two encounters. Plus, what fun is it to pick the unanimous favorite?


The Difference Maker: F/C Boris Diaw

Diaw has been such a bust this season that he even made the last five years of Eddie Murphy’s career look successful. However, all last year’s surprise has to do now is have a postseason to remember for people to forget the dreadful regular season. Diaw has the ability to change a game with his knack for making the big plays offensively and defensively that makes him an asset to have on the floor. With enough talent across their roster, the Suns will not be counting on Diaw to carry the team but instead to just do what he did a year ago.

The Bottom Line: A year after falling in the Western Conference Finals, Steve Nash and the Suns will be back there, hoping to change their fate. Unlike last season, Phoenix will have a healthy, productive Amare Stoudemire on its roster, giving the team one of the best inside players in the league. Having him, as well as a better overall roster, should be enough to flip the result of last year’s Western Conference Finals. With the hard part done, nothing should stop the Phoenix Suns from winning their first NBA title.