The king is dead. Time to pick over the remains of the king.
Last time I sorted out the future of the Western Conference, it was Feb. 18, and Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Kidd and Chris Webber had all arrived with new West teams. (Oops: Forgot to add Pau Gasol as a newly-acquired guy, too. He’s doing all right.)
Since then… O’Neal and Kidd couldn’t help Phoenix and Dallas get out of the first round (which helped push Mike D’Antoni and Avery Johnson out the door), Webber couldn’t get through 11 games for the Warriors and the Lakers won and won.
And the defending champion Spurs just lost to LA in the Western Conference finals.
Now, the Spurs have been written off before, only to rise back up for another title run time and again.
I don’t think they have it in them this time. I think it’s over–four titles, lots of Tim Duncan greatness, always respect Gregg Popovich… But I think the Spurs are done for now and for a long time.
So this is as good a time as any to… Re-rank the Western Conference for the future:
2. Portland Trail Blazers.
-Feb. 18 rank: 1. (Net loss -1.)
-Why it changed: They could be the New Spurs… and still not be good enough to knock off the Lakers for two or three years.
-Assets: Greg Oden 20, Brandon Roy 23, LaMarcus Aldridge 22, Martell Webster 21, Travis Outlaw 23, and they have the 13th pick in the June 26 draft.
-Possible problems: You don’t know about Oden’s knee and they’ve got to get a quality point guard.
-Potential solutions: Management has already put together a ton of talent and has the will to wheel and deal for more.
-New crystal ball: Some great playoff battles with Kobe are coming up. But who guards him?
As you can probably guess, Kawakami ranks the Lakers as the No. 1 team of the future. It's hard to argue considering Kobe is still the best player in the NBA and Gasol is a perfect fit for the Triangle. Time will be the true test though.
Kawakami has the Blazers pegged pretty well, though I don't think the concern about guarding Kobe is all that valid. You have to figure KB24 slows down a bit right as the Blazers really get things going, but even if that's not the case, you can't worry about Kobe. Kobe gets his. Nobody has an answer for Kobe when he's on. You try to slow him down as much as possible while making sure everyone else is locked down.
You hope that in two years, Greg Oden is better than Andrew Bynum, LaMarcus Aldridge is better than Pau Gasol, whoever is playing the point is at least as good as Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw improve enough to be in the same conversation as Lamar Odom, and Brandon Roy becomes an offensive and defensive force adequate enough to partially offset Kobe's play.
Does that get you four wins in a best of seven series against the Lake Show? It's hard to say, but I think the Blazers will have the best chance of any other team in the league.