While the Celtics, Heat and Magic prepare for a fierce yearlong battle for supremacy in the NBA's Eastern Conference, the other side of the Association may be in for a more lopsided regular-season race. It's been three straight No. 1 playoff seeds and three straight NBA Finals appearances for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Phil Jackson's dynasty shows no signs of slowing. It's up to the rest of the conference to slow them down. Who will challenge the Lakers in the West?
For the most part, it's been the rest of the conference's old guard challenging the Lakers for alpha dog status on the left coast. The past three seasons have seen three of the conference's biggest stars — Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash — each challenge Kobe and each come up short. The Lakers vanquished the Spurs in five games in 2008, the Nuggets in six in '09, and the Suns in six games this spring.
It's hard to expect anyone from the over-30 crowd in the West to challenge Kobe next spring. Duncan, Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are all still going strong, but when he's in do-or-die mode, Kobe's stronger. He's got the fortitude to outlast any of the wily old veterans the West has to offer.
So if the Lakers are going to run into a challenge this spring, it's going to have to come from the youth movement.
Specifically, that means two teams: the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the biggest rising star in the world in Kevin Durant, and the Portland Trail Blazers, who have assembled a stockpile of young talent just dying to have a breakout season.
There's not much you can say about Durant that hasn't already been said. He's still only 21 years old (turning 22 next week), and he already has a Worlds MVP award, an NBA scoring title and a first-team All-NBA selection.
But the talent around Durant sets the Thunder apart. Russell Westbrook is one of the most underrated young guards in the game, quietly growing in Durant's shadow as a big-time shooter and playmaker. He's the barrel of energy that makes the Thunder go. And around him are a collection of role players — Thabo Sefolosha, Nenad Krstic, Serge Ibaka — who play airtight defense and share the ball beautifully well. The Thunder play fundamental team basketball, and they're lead by a dominating scorer that can carry them on his back when needed. They've got the tools to go far.
Last year, the Thunder were knocked out in six games by the Lakers in round one. But you can't expect them to buckle under the pressure again next spring. Put them in a playoff series tied 2-2, and a Thunder team with another year of experience under their belts will rise to the occasion.
As for the Blazers, they've had the potential to vault into the West's top tier for a few years now. But it hasn't yet come together, and a few things need to happen before it does.
The Blazers are hoping Brandon Roy makes the leap and becomes a legit top-10 player in the NBA. They're hoping Greg Oden stays healthy and justifies all the hype that made him a No. 1 draft pick three years ago. They're hoping their older role players like Andre Miller, Marcus Camby and Joel Przybilla still have plenty left in the tank.
All reasonable hopes. And if they all come true, the Blazers can win 55 or even 60 games this season. When you have as much talent as Nate McMillan has at his disposal, there's very little that's out of reach.
The Blazers, like the Thunder, are knocking on the door of Western Conference elite status. The Lakers are on notice.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 23: How many games will the Celtics win this season?
Sept. 25: Who wins it all?
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