All season, we've operated under the presumption that the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs would be the likely protagonists in the Western Conference finals. And even though San Antonio has hit its rough patches from time to time, we've given the Spurs the benefit of the doubt based on their history and because they've remained pretty imposing when all three stars were healthy.
Now we have to look at different scenarios. Somebody will play the Lakers in the conference finals in May. (That, or we'll have the lowest-rated conference finals since the Kings and Rockets threw down in 1981.) But it's hard to imagine San Antonio as that team now that Manu Ginobili is out for the season with a stress fracture in his right leg.
Consider these issues: 1. The Spurs are 32-11 when Ginobili plays but only 17-16 when he's out. 2. Tim Duncan's nagging quad problem has limited him to some very un-Duncan-like production of late. (Witness his double-single against the Cavs on Sunday.) 3. The Spurs have lost some key games lately even with Ginobili in the mix. Thus, the Spurs' odds of surviving two playoff rounds in the West to get to the conference finals look increasingly suspect.
The Spurs are down to essentially 1½ stars from their Big Three, and the one chink in the armor of the army of selfless role players who fill the rest of the roster is that they aren't well equipped to step up in rank. As useful as snipers such as Roger Mason and Matt Bonner may be, they won't create many shots by themselves.
So although San Antonio might start the playoffs with the same No. 3 seed it held a year ago when it made the West finals, it's hard to see the Spurs surviving more than one round -- if that -- in a Western Conference where little separates the second-best team from the 8-seed.
And if San Antonio takes a step back, it will clear the way for another team. Barring a major upset, somebody will play L.A. next month for a spot in the NBA Finals. And if that somebody isn't San Antonio, it will be one of the following six teams.
Here's how I size them up:
The Nuggets appear to be the big winners here for multiple reasons.
First, Denver now has a sugarcoated path to 2-seed status in the Western Conference, which would provide home-court advantage in the two rounds it would need to win before the conference finals.
Second, the Nuggets' opposition just got easier: Either they won't face the Spurs in the second round or will face a greatly diminished Spurs squad. Remember, it was San Antonio that bounced Denver in five games in both the 2005 and 2007 playoffs.
Pitfalls still loom, however. A dangerous Utah team lurks as a potential first-round opponent, and the Jazz wouldn't be nearly as affected by the mile-high altitude as Denver's other potential opponents. Meanwhile, the Nuggies' paper-thin frontcourt means a single injury could deep-six their hopes.
But the biggest reason to like Denver is that it has the highest ceiling of the group. The Nuggets have won big despite an off year from Carmelo Anthony, but if he dials it up in the playoffs and gets his wayward stroke on target (he's been more accurate during Denver's seven-game winning streak, shooting 51 percent), this team looks extremely dangerous.
The Rockets have been 13-2 at home since Tracy McGrady checked out for the season, which would bode well for them if they were to secure a top-three seed in the West. That would give them home-court advantage in the first round and allow them to avoid the Lakers until the conference finals.
Two big issues loom for Houston. First, it plays a rough final five games in which it probably needs to win at least three to climb into a top-three slot. Second, even if the Rockets succeed, a dreaded nemesis may await them in the first round: Utah. The Jazz are likely to be seeded sixth or seventh. They present a uniquely awful matchup for the Rockets and have beaten them in the first round in each of the past two years, even with Houston holding home-court advantage.
The Blazers have the strongest Power Ranking of any team in the West that doesn't rhyme with "Quakers" but also might have the worst path to the West finals. The Blazers seem most likely to end up as the fourth or fifth seed, which probably would mean starting on the road against the Rockets, against whom they've fared very poorly the past few years. If they escape Round 1, the Blazers probably would face a second-round showdown with the Lakers.
Despite Portland's playoff inexperience, I really like its odds of making the conference finals if it can get out of the Lakers' side of the bracket. The Blazers are playing as well as anybody heading into the playoffs and are reasonably healthy. It's the difficulty of climbing into the top three (or falling to the bottom three) that's the problem. I've had them pegged for the fourth or fifth spot for a couple of weeks now, and they'd probably have to win in San Antonio and beat the Lakers this week to change that.
My preseason pick to win the West finally beat a good team on the road with this past weekend's victory in New Orleans, but that doesn't change the fact that the Jazz aren't exactly going gangbusters right now. (Losing at home to Minnesota? What's up with that?) In fact, remaining road games against Dallas, San Antonio and the Lakers could end up dropping them to the eighth seed and a first-round date with L.A.
But I retain a healthy respect for them only because Carlos Boozer still appears to be playing his way into shape. If he can regain the dominant form he showed in the 2007 postseason, Utah will have as much talent as any other team. Additionally, there's a decent chance the Jazz will draw Houston in the first round, a team they match up against very well.
5. New Orleans
The Hornets can make some noise if they can get everybody healthy, but there's the rub. Tyson Chandler is still recovering from a severely sprained left ankle, and even if he's back by the playoffs, he might not be at full strength. Without him, the Hornets won't beat anybody because they simply don't have the horses in the frontcourt.
With a healthy Chandler, they might not be in such a bad spot. New Orleans is likely to be in the preferred 2-3-6-7 quadrant of the Western bracket, avoiding the Lakers until the conference finals and perhaps drawing San Antonio in Round 1. The Hornets almost knocked off the Spurs in 2008 even when Ginobili was healthy. And their appallingly bad bench will play far fewer minutes in the playoffs than it has in the regular season, diminishing the team's greatest impediment to winning.
I'm not a big Mavs advocate, but based on their remaining schedule, we have to give them a decent chance of pulling into the No. 6 seed, a first-round pairing against the defanged Spurs and instant relevance in the playoff discussion. Dallas can get there by sweeping a home-and-home with injury-battered New Orleans and beating road-averse Utah at home in its next three games.
If it stays in the eighth spot, Dallas would have to beat L.A. in the first round and another tough team in the next round, while playing both series without home-court advantage, just to make the conference finals. At that point, the Mavs once again would start on the road. But in a 3 versus 6 matchup with their nemeses from San Antonio, Ginobili's injury would make the path much easier.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.