Unlike the East, picking the winner of the West is a daunting task. There is much less variance between the top 7 teams in the West than the East. If given a thousand chances, I can see #7 Dallas winning the West at least 10 times. I don’t think #7 Philadelphia could win the East once if you gave them a million chances.
That being said the Lakers seem to be the clear favorite. The move to add Gasol reminds me a little bit of Detroit acquiring Rasheed Wallace in 2004. Both teams grabbed a big man midseason to accentuate their style of play. For the Pistons it was a tough suffocating defense, and for the Lakers it’s a diverse offense. In 2004 NBA analysts didn’t realize how much Rasheed helped galvanize their defense until after the playoffs. Most people didn’t expect Detroit to get past Indiana, much less take the Lakers in 5. It’s possible that Los Angeles is much better than the season stats show them to be. And if this is true, the Lakers would be head and shoulders above the rest of the West. The Lakers not only enjoy the #1 seed, but the best expected win% (.726).
That being said, the road won’t be easy for Los Angeles. Even though they have the West’s best chance, the Lakers will face some stiff competition to get to the Finals. They’ll meet either Utah or Houston in round 2. Not only were these teams within 3 games of taking the West, but each comes with their own brand of scary. Houston has been strong defensively since losing Yao Ming, and finished the season with the league’s second best defense (103.0 pts/100). On the other hand Utah has the league’s second best offense (115.4 pts/100). So no matter which team they face the Lakers will have their hands full.
In the other part of the bracket, any of the 4 teams involved in the middle seeds could advance to the Conference Finals. Personally I’d like to see the Hornets emerge, because it makes a nice story on so many levels. I liked Tyson Chandler ever since his days in Chicago. (I always thought he was the better of their center pair – and can’t tell you how many times I was laughed off RealGM’s Knicks board for stating it publicly. Probably a part of the reason I started this blog… but I digress.) I think a Hornets/Suns second round would be ideal. There’s a nice group of contrasts in that matchup: Paul vs. Nash, young vs. old, upstart vs. established.
If I had to chose any one team, I would take the Lakers. If I had to take the top 2 seeds (Lakers & Hornets) vs. the field I’d take the field. Such is life in the NBA’s West.