The NBA West’s Christmas Four

The NBA tips off Christmas Day, and the Notebook will start easing into the 66-game schedule by taking a look at four top teams from West all of whom will be in action Sunday…

Dallas: The Mavericks may have won the NBA title last June, but according to forward Shawn Marion they aren’t getting any respect, and it’s hard to deny that Marion is right, if we define “respect” by considering the Mavs the team to beat in the West and in the league overall. By that standard, I guess the Notebook is on the lack of respect bandwagon. I was glad to see Dirk Nowitzki win a title, but without Tyson Chandler, there’s a big hole in the middle and they don’t look to be as deep in the backcourt. The addition of Lamar Odom to help Nowitzki up front doesn’t make up for the loss of Chandler defensively. The X-factor is bringing in Vince Carter and Delonte West to provide backcourt depth. If those two come through, Dallas can win a lot of games and be a playoff threat. If not, sliding back to the middle of the playoff pack is likely.

LA Lakers: To hear the media talk, one would think the Lakers are already dead and buried. Depth is a big concern. After their efforts to trade for Chris Paul were vetoed by the Commissioner, the Lakers have only Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to rely on consistently. Those three will give them a steadiness that will keep them on the radar, but survival over the compressed schedule means they need bigger contributions from Ron Artest (now re-named Metta World Peace) and Derek Fisher needs to squeeze another year out of his aging legs. Los Angeles is the West Coast version of the rival Celtics—they can’t be discounted in the spring, but it’s going to take a lot of pacing to get them there ready to play. Because of that they aren’t the favorite, but I don’t think their cause is quite as hopeless as its seemed in recent media reports.

Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant’s team time has come and with a team both deep and young, they’re well-suited to excel in the regular season and get the #1 seed in the West. Durant is supported by Kendrick Perkins, a fantastic acquisition in the middle last February and Serge Ibaka. Both give the Thunder toughness down low. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are a solid backcourt. After losing in the conference finals to Dallas last year and dropping a tough six-game series to the Lakers in 2010, Okie City is now playoff-tough enough to complete the journey through the West.

LA Clippers: Adding Chris Paul has made the Clippers the rage of the preseason in spite of a 32-50 record last year and a franchise history that’s the most woeful in professional sports. I think the hype is justified. It’s not just Paul and Blake Griffin, although that’s a heckuva place to begin the discussion. Los Angeles has a solid scorer at small forward in Caron Butler, and with DeAndre Jordan and Reggie Evans they have players who grab their rebounds and don’t demand the ball. Getting this group to come together defensively is the challenge ahead, but the talent is there to do that and to be peaking come playoff time.

I’ve given away that I like Oklahoma City to win the conference, although to lose to Chicago in the NBA Finals. Other contenders in this conference include perennial power San Antonio, last year’s playoff surprise from Memphis and Denver. As the early season progresses, the Notebook will check in on these teams as well.