By Austin Ngaruiya
Before the 2012 season, every NBA expert and non-expert thought the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder were on a collision course for the Western Conference Finals.
Everything has changed.
The Lakers have fired head coach Mike Brown, after their first 1-4 start since 1979. Brown’s new Princeton Offense has made their superstars look less than super.
It has become so bad that Laker kingdom celebrated their first win over the winless Detroit Pistons like it was the 2004 Finals.
On the other end, their defense looked worse, and there was a clear lack of effort. This is ultimately what led to Brown’s demise, along with Kobe’s Death Stare.
Given the right head coach and time to gel, the Lakers will be just fine. However, they might not be the playoff steamroller we thought they were.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have looked pedestrian after trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
Harden’s ability to get to the basket and hit timely threes may be adequately replaced by Kevin Martin. However, Harden is a much better defender and rebounder than Martin is, and this may be where they miss him most.
Harden has hit the ground running in Houston. He’s leading the league in scoring after a week, including 37- and 45-point outbursts.
The Thunder are going to see Harden play phenomenally in Houston for the next five years and wonder if he was the one they let get away.
The shortcomings of the Lakers and Thunder have opened the door for teams like the Spurs, Clippers and Mavs.
The Spurs beat the Thunder on their opening night on a buzzer-beater by Tony Parker. Power forward Tim Duncan has found the fountain of youth and is playing like he is 25. If he can keep this up, the Spurs have a real chance to contend in the West.
Los Angeles’ other team, the Clippers, have looked great in their first week. They have an embarrassment of riches at the guard position with Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, and Jamal Crawford. Paul is considered by many the top point guard in the league. Bledsoe is a young talent that would start on many other teams in the league, and Crawford is leading the team in scoring at 21.8 ppg while coming off the bench. Combining this with their frontcourt depth, the Clippers might just make a long playoff run.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks have been without their best player, Dirk Nowitzki, but haven’t skipped a beat. The new-look Mavs are like the island of misfit toys, with several former lottery picks and all-stars. However, they have all played up to their potential, and the Mavs share the best record in the West with the Spurs.
The Western Conference is no longer a two-horse race; it is wide open and ripe for the taking. If you’re a Western Conference team, good news: there’s a chance.