Roundtable: New sheriffs in the wild West?

Originally Published: May 8, 2008
ESPN.com

Chris PaulChris Graythen/Getty ImagesWith Chris Paul's Hornets eliminating the Mavs and blitzing the Spurs, the West's elite is a-changin'.

1. FACT or FICTION: The 2008 playoffs mark the demise of the Western Conference triumvirate of San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix.

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: FACT.

To win the West, you have long needed some kind of scheme to beat Tim Duncan. (The Suns traded superstar Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal to come up with their Duncan plan.) Duncan -- who has been under the weather, and may yet return with a vengeance -- remains a player you have to be able to handle, which is why San Antonio might be the exception to this rule.

But Dallas and San Antonio are now learning that Tim Duncan isn't the only player in the conference requiring a special roster. You must also now have some kind of Chris Paul plan, and that's where we see that all three of these teams are lacking some young studs.

Add in the hand-check rules that make it tough to impede the progress of the super-quick youngsters, and now more than ever it seems like the Spurs, Mavericks and Suns must be thinking about all the athletes they could have had on their roster, like Rajon Rondo (Suns), Devin Harris (Mavericks) and Stephen Jackson (Spurs).

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: FACT.

As a group, this three-team ruling party is over. Dallas and Phoenix's first-round exits this year showed that. Each had five rotation players in their 30s. And even if there is a bounce-back by the Mavericks or Suns, that wouldn't be these teams, these mini-eras of Avery Johnson and Mike D'Antoni.

(As I lamented in February, the Suns as we knew them died when they traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for Shaquille O'Neal. They scored 100 points twice in five playoff games. Last year they hit the century mark eight times in 11 games).

As for the Spurs, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili core will be together, but surrounding pieces such as Robert Horry and Michael Finley are free agents, so the Spurs could have a slightly different look next year as well. Playoff runs are usually marked by big moments from supporting players (John Paxson with the Bulls, Tyronn Lue with the Lakers, Horry with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs) so the Spurs won't be quite the same either. But they'll still have the most familiar players to them, and will be a factor as long as their top three players are around.

[+] EnlargeTim Duncan, Tony Parker
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesIt's never a good thing to count out Duncan and Parker's Spurs.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Mag: FICTION.

Last I checked, the Spurs hadn't been eliminated from this year's playoffs.

Secondly, with Tiago Splitter and Ian Mahinmi ready to compete for spots on next year's roster and San Antonio's established ability to reload, suggesting that the defending champs are done as a contender is dangerous, if not outright foolish.

Can't speak for Phoenix, but Dallas' ownership is too devoted to winning not to take the necessary measures to stay in contention.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: FACT.

Will anyone have these as the top three teams in the West coming into next season? No. Folks might have one of them ... and that's about it. All three face serious problems maintaining their status among the league's elite.

For starters, both Dallas and Phoenix have put themselves in tight spots cap-wise and don't have much in the way of young assets to include in trades.

Second, age is nipping at the heels of each and dragging them back down toward .500. San Antonio is in the best shape of the three in terms of cap, but probably the worst in terms of age -- every rotation player except Tony Parker is 30 or older, and five of them (Barry, Thomas, Horry, Bowen and Finley) have forgotten what 30 even feels like.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: FICTION.

That's mostly because we have to include San Antonio in the mix.

The Spurs will find ways to fix what ails them in the offseason (getting another scorer and an athletic big man are two priorities), and their young core of Parker and Ginobili isn't going anywhere, nor is Duncan.

With the Suns and Mavs, it's too soon to say the window of opportunity has closed completely, but it's starting to look that way if neither gets it done next season. Both teams didn't help themselves with their big, shortsighted trades this season, and the absence of first-round picks in the years ahead (remember, Phoenix gave away two of 'em, unprotected, to Seattle to get rid of Kurt Thomas' contract) will hamper their rebuilding.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: FICTION.

At least one-third of this triumvirate isn't going anywhere, so I'm seeing more fiction than fact. The Spurs have already proven that they're the masters of reloading and they've positioned themselves to virtually start over around Duncan, Ginobili and Parker after this season. So I refuse to believe that the only West contender with unimpeachable championship cred is going away, even if the Spurs can't salvage this New Orleans series.

I don't expect Dallas or Phoenix to be gone too long, either. The Mavs still have an in-his-prime Dirk Nowitzki to rebuild around if Rick Carlisle can't coax a resurgence from Jason Kidd (and his expiring contract) next season and the Suns will be relaunching around Amare Stoudemire when all their thirtysomethings move on. Talk about his warts if you wish, but Amare is also a 30-and-10 marvel and The Guy Who Beat Microfracture.

Don't see either team headed for the lottery ledge just yet.


2. FACT or FICTION: The 2008 playoffs mark the ascendance of a new West triumvirate of Los Angeles, New Orleans and Utah.

Abbott: FACT.

Utah made the Western Conference finals last year, so it's not like the Jazz just arrived. But certainly, the Lakers and the Hornets are, for the moment, the absolute class of the conference.

I suspect the West will long be a horse race, with eight or nine colts having at least a shot at the roses. These three, however, used to be the little-known long shots fighting to get off the rail somewhere back in the pack. Now they're out there in front where everybody can see them, and very much enjoying throwing up a little mud in the faces of the Suns, Spurs and Mavericks.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Matt SaylesWest contenders will have to deal with Kobe for years to come.

Adande: FACT.

These three teams now have the ideal blend: youth and winning experience. Success breeds success in the NBA, and these teams all possess the knowledge that they can win playoff series -- along with the capability of sustaining it.

Kobe Bryant is the oldest of the Laker group that will be the core for the next few years, and he turns 30 this summer. New Orleans' Chris Paul just turned 23, and the Hornets' oldest key player, Peja Stojakovic, is 31. In Peja's case, shooters can maintain that skill long into their careers -- think Reggie Miller and Dell Curry.

And did you know that Utah's Carlo Boozer is only 26? You think he's older, because like all Duke players you've seen him for so long. Pick-and-roll partner Deron Williams is 22.

Bucher: FICTION.

The pieces are there for all three to be contenders, but so are the flaws that could leave them just good enough to make the playoffs and not much more: Peja's tricky back, the Jazz's shaky defense, the shelf life of Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum's knee.

Besides, with the massive free-agent class of 2010, the landscape of the NBA could see a major overhaul.

Hollinger: FACT.

These were the three best teams in the West this year, and all three teams have every reason to believe they'll be better next year.

In the Lakers' case, they could be unbelievably good. Between getting Andrew Bynum back, having another year of Kobe and Pau in their primes, and surrounding them with all the other quality young talent (Farmar, Ariza, Turiaf, et al), the sky's the limit. If everything breaks right, next year's Lakers could be one of the best teams ever.

New Orleans has a great young nucleus with Paul, West and Chandler. The Hornets just need to keep them healthy and find some quality role players, especially in the frontcourt, and they'll stay near the top.

Utah is kind of between L.A. and New Orleans. The Jazz have young stars in Williams and Boozer and more depth than the Hornets, but not quite the ridiculous upside that the Lakers possess.

Sheridan: FACT.

However, I don't believe this triumvirate represents the only three teams that'll be atop the West for the next one or two seasons. I include the Spurs in that group, too, regardless of whether they lose to the Hornets.

All three of the teams mentioned -- the Lakers, Jazz and Hornets -- are built to last contract- and cap-wise (unless Kobe does another 180 on us and wants to leave again next summer when he can opt out) -- so they're not going away. But I see the West remaining very strong 1 through 8 or 9 for the next couple of years, so nothing will come easy to any of them.

Stein: FICTION.

The future for all three teams -- L.A. especially, of course -- is obviously gotta-wear-shades bright. But there's so much heat in this conference now that you can't restrict it to a three-team elite any more. Why box yourself in?

Can't dispute that the Lakers are inching back to their best, New Orleans has more pieces around Chris Paul than anyone imagined and Utah has an awesome core twosome in Boozer and D-Will. But every coach I've thrown this at seems to think that the next several seasons are going to be as insanely competitive out West as this irregular season was. I suspect that injuries and matchups will matter more than ever before in forthcoming postseasons.


3. Which team (or teams) has the best chance to join the West elite?

Abbott: Golden State presumably will be adding a piece soon, which could combine with the maturation of Monta Ellis and Brandan Wright to make the Warriors as scary as ever. Denver is always a threat to figure it out. And at some point within the next three years, the reign of Greg Oden and the Blazers will begin.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Roy
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesBrandon Roy's Blazers might have the brightest future in the West.

Adande: The Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers have the best chances to reach the top of the Western Conference in the coming years. Portland adds Greg Oden to a young group that had a taste of success this season, and Tracy McGrady has to get past the first round at some point, right? He should be able to do it with Yao Ming next year. But with both of their injury problems, the Rockets' window won't last long.

Bucher: Portland is the popular choice, but the fact is that a healthy Houston, coached by Rick Adelman, had more than a few teams nervous coming into this season.

The beauty of the NBA right now is that there are a host of teams that have championship-winning potential. Every offseason, much like this one, could come down to avoiding bad matchups and exploiting good ones.

Hollinger: The team with the best chance to join the West's elite is Portland. When you add Greg Oden and possibly Rudy Fernandez to a club that won 41 games and already had more young talent than any other team in the league, it should add up to at least a 50-win team. Of course, 50 wins might put them in the lottery out West these days, but the point is that the Blazers are obviously a team on the rise and represent the best threat to challenge the L.A.-Utah-Nawlins trio in the next couple of years.

The club we tend to forget about is Houston. The Rockets won 55 games without Yao Ming for the second half of the season and have quietly built up a decent stable of young players. Their window with McGrady isn't a big one given his health, but over the next two years or so, it's easy to see them hanging with the West's cream.

Sheridan: The team is Houston, and I can explain it in two words: Yao Ming. Yes, we're all down on the Rockets again because Tracy McGrady went out in the first round again, but this was built to be a two-superstar team, and they'll be a force next season if both of those guys stay healthy all year.

Stein: Portland is pretty much everyone's choice for good reason. The Blazers not only have Oden coming back to a team that went .500 without him as the leading candidate for next season's Rookie of the Year trophy but also a slew of young, movable assets that should set Portland as a frontrunner to land any established big name who comes available on the trade market for the foreseeable future.