Can Anyone In the West Challenge?

Kurt —  January 14, 2010

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Watching the Lakers play the best of their non-Gasol games last night, the question going through my head became: Can any of the teams in the West really challenge the Lakers? Can any of them keep the Lakers out of the Finals? (Of course, we are assuming a relatively healthy Lakers team in the playoffs, serious injuries change the equation for any team.)

Right now, I don’t think so. Denver and San Antonio could push the Lakers pretty hard, but I’m not sure they have all the pieces to beat them through seven games. But with the trading deadline approaching in a month, will one of the contenders in the West make a move?

Let’s take a look at the West, the teams and what they could do (helped in great part by Kevin Pelton’s fantastic post on sellers and buyers at Basketball Prospectus):

San Antonio: To me, this is the second best team in the Western Conference, something I expected before the season but took a while to blend and build this season. (Of course, seemingly every year we write the Spurs off early while they aim to peak late.) I look at it this way: The Lakers are outscoring their opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions this season — San Antonio is at 7.1 (nobody else in the West is close to those spreads). Injuries and schedule factor into that simple number, but the fact is the Lakers and Spurs have started to distance themselves from the rest of the West.

The Spurs have clearly made a commitment to go for it now, this is a small market team over the tax line and not backing away. If they could get another quality player on the wing (especially defensive minded) or more depth for the front line (to help them bang on the Lakers big front line) they may jump at it. And they have the expiring contracts to do it: Matt Bonner, Michael Finley and Roger Mason are all expiring deals. While that would cut into the Spurs depth, they might make a move for the right key player.

Denver: They are physical, have a great home court, and pushed the Lakers hard last year. However, they are essentially the same team as last year and they know they don’t match up with the Lakers in the post for seven games.

Denver has not been quiet about it — they want to add another big. All they have to do it is a $3.7 million trade exception if they don’t want to cut into the core of their roster (and they don’t). Can they add a big for depth — even a loaner — for that price?

Dallas: They see themselves as close — they do have the second best record in the West — but serious questions remain if they could get out of the second round of the playoffs, let alone their match up issues with the Lakers. Last night was just another piece of evidence that the Lakers have their number.

The piece they have to dangle is the contract of Eric Dampier — he is owed the rest of $10 million this year and has a voidable $13 million for next year. Would somebody trade for him for the rest of this year, giving up something of quality, as opposed to doing it next summer (the contract becomes voidable July 1)? Dallas will try.

Houston: They are a scrappy, fighting team of role players that will make whomever they face in the playoffs work hard, but likely they cannot win. Certainly not beyond a first-round upset.

Unless they turn Tracy McGrady’s deal into an actual star player. I can’t see good reasons for Toronto to trade Bosh to them, for example, but Houston would love it. And if they can pull off the steal, suddenly this does become a very dangerous team. What they lack is the go-to guy at the end of the clock and the end of games. With that guy they are a threat.