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2011 NBA Play-Off Previews: 2011 Western Conference NBA Play-Off Contenders

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The road to the NBA Finals has always been a matter of health and this year is no exception.  Well, health.  As such, I think it’s a little silly to predict the whole of the finals tournament before those injuries happen.  Instead, let’s take a look at who the real contenders are.  In the West, upsets are even more likely than the East and a lot would seem to ride on Andrew Bynum’s health.

Part 2 is the Western Conference.   Click here for the Eastern Conference

San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are in an odd position heading into the play-offs.  They’re the best record in the West and the second best record in the league, but a lot of people have them pegged as among the first favorites to fall.  The Spurs have vast play-off experience, but they’re also getting old and banged up.  You worry about nagging injuries flaring up, point in case being a report that Manu Ginobili is doubtful for game 1 of the first round with a sprained elbow.

The Spurs are an interesting team, in that they have a rapidly tightening window of opportunity.  Tim Duncan has 2-3 more years in him, and Coach Popovich has been pretty good at resting him during the season.  Tim Duncan is about to turn 35.  Ginobili will turn 34 over the summer and he’s certainly prone to injuries.  Playing hurt doesn’t last forever.  Richard Jefferson will turn 31 over the summer.  People forget how young Tony Parker started, he’s turning 29 soon.  Antonio McDyess will turn 37 before next season starts.  For that matter, soon to be 22 year old DeJuan Blair, a wonderful 2nd round pick-up, has bad knees that could be major problems.

The Spurs stay healthy, they’re quite capable of a title.  Duncan gets hurt or Ginobili stays hurt, it’s going to take a lot of guile to advance.

Surprisingly, 1st round draw Memphis was 2-2 against the Spurs.

Los Angeles Lakers

If the Spurs aren’t the favorite in the West, then it must be the Lakers.  As with the Spurs, injuries are the big concern.  The difference is when you talk Lakers injuries you’re talking about whether center Andrew Bynum is playing or not as the primary concern.  When Bynum is in the middle, the Lakers have much better defense and are very, very hard to beat.  Really, when you look at the Lakers and Celtics over the last few years, a lot of it has come down to the health status of Bynum and Perkins.  This year, Bynum has hyperextended his knee just prior to the play-offs and his availability isn’t quite clear.  You’ve also got Matt Barnes nursing a sore knee and Steve Blake out with the Chicken Pox of all things.

It’s hard to say the Lakers have any glaring weaknesses, but SF Ron Artest appears to be sliding a bit and his offense is not what it used to be.  Derek Fisher isn’t getting any faster.  Both are only moderate concerns compared to the health of Bynum.  He’s healthy, the Lakers are the favorite to win the title.  He’s not, they’re still in it, but it will be more of a fight.

The Lakers are nearing a transition point.  Kobe will be 33 before the start of next season.  While you don’t see many signs of his slowing down, he’s logged a lot of minutes and that has to start showing at some point.  Perhaps not next season, and perhaps he ages gracefully like Ray Allen.  Allen averages a lower point total, but picks his spots for eruptions.  Pau will turn 31 over the summer, so he’s got a few years left in him at a high level.  Odom’s also 31 and seems fine.  Artest will wrap up soon.  Derek Fisher is on borrowed time as it is.  At 23, Bynum’s health is the real key to how long the Lakers dynasty can extend.  He needs to pick up as the others slow down with age.  Right now, we don’t know if he’s the future or a Yao Ming-esque bag of reoccurring injuries.

Either way, the Lakers swept the Hornet in the regular season, so they might buy a little more healing time for Bynum with a quick kill.

Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs are another strange bird.  No two ways about it, this team lives and dies by Dirk Nowitzki.  He’s their primary and secondary scorer.  He’s got a better than normal center (for the Mavs) in Tyson Chandler/Brendan Haywood rotation, but they’re not scorers.  Jason Kidd is aging fast.  If they can go deep enough into the play-offs, there’s a possibility SF Caron Butler could return.  There are two bottom lines with the Mavericks: 1) they’re only going to get as far as Nowitzki  can carry them on their back, which is pretty far in the regular season; 2)Bad things seem to happen to the Mavs in the play-offs.  Is it mental or bad luck?  I don’t know.  All I know is that Portland went 2-2 against the Mavs and if I were a Mavs fan, history would make me nervous.

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