All right, I can’t take it any more: I think I’m the last guy on ESPN.com who hasn’t written a “How crazy is this Western Conference?” column yet. With the playoffs approaching and as many as nine Western teams headed for 50-plus wins, let’s break down those teams and make a few predictions heading into the stretch run. Please keep your seat belts on and your seats in the upright position:
9. DENVER (43-28)
Scouting report: The prototypical 20/20/20 team, which means the Nuggets can beat anyone by 20, lose to anyone by 20 and make their coach look like he’s aged 20 years in one season. … They’ve lost 16 games by double-digits and six by 20 or more, which might be the craziest stat of the year considering they’re 15 games over .500 and stayed healthy all season. … It’s unclear whether George Karl detests these guys, loathes them, hates them or just mildly despises them, but you have to give him credit for not sipping from a flask during games.
Biggest strength: The Iverson/Melo combo is good for 50-55 points a night, guaranteed. In particular, Melo has learned to punish any undersized defender down low — you can’t guard him with the Bruce Bowen/Raja Bell types anymore, it has to be someone like James Posey or Ime Udoka or he’s going to destroy you.
Biggest weakness: Peter Gammons always called the ’78 Red Sox a “25 cabs for 25 players” team; in other words, the games ended and they never saw each other until the next game. To update that dig for modern times, I think this is a “12 PlayStation 3’s for 12 players on every road trip” team. Weird vibe with these guys. They always look like they just met right before the game.
Biggest X factor: J.R. Smith, an explosive streak scorer (and just plain explosive) who could end up becoming his generation’s Isaiah Rider before everything’s said and done. We’ll see if this ends up being a compliment or an insult.
Biggest Mistake: Dumping Reggie Evans (a valuable bench player) before the season to save less than $2 million in luxury tax money when they were already $13-14 million over the tax threshold. That’s like Flava Flav switching to condoms after siring his 17th illegitimate kid.
Unsung Hero: Do you realize that Marcus Camby has an outside chance to become the first big man to average 13 rebounds and four blocks a game in the same season since Kareem did it in ’76? And to think, he’s been traded not once but twice.
Best-case scenario opponents: San Antonio (although the Nuggets wouldn’t win).
Worst-case opponents: Pretty much everyone else.
Prediction: The eighth seed and a first-round loss to New Orleans, followed by Karl flying to the furthest possible tropical location and disappearing for the next six weeks.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Shattering the “Most Tattoos on One Team” record.
8. GOLDEN STATE (43-27)
Scouting report: A 50-win season would happen for two reasons: Baron Davis playing 82 games for the first time in six years (you’re not gonna believe this, but it’s a contract year); and Monta Ellis’ improbable transformation into Dwyane Wade 2.0. … We’ve also seen Davis evolve into one of the NBA’s true end-of-the-game killers, the real reason the Warriors have to be taken seriously in any playoff series. … If you had to pick one guy to take the final shot in a down-one-with-fifteen-seconds-to-play scenario, Kobe would be first, LeBron would be second and Davis and Manu Ginobili would be tied for third. … Most important, Kelenna Azubuike might have the single most fun sports name for Marv Albert to say since “John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi.”
Biggest strength: The corruptive power of Nellieball. Eventually, nearly every opponent bends and decides to go small against the Warriors; it’s like they just can’t help themselves. (See: Johnson, Avery.)
Biggest weakness: When Lamar Odom comes within one point of back-to-back 20-20 games against you within a 24-hour span, it’s safe to say you have some rebounding problems. Could somebody tell Andris Biedrins that the All-Star break ended five weeks ago? You’re in a contract year, Andris!
Biggest X factor: Their home crowds haven’t been as good this season. Maybe the Warriors fans are saving themselves for the playoffs (glass half-full theory) or maybe there’s too many pseudo-fans on the bandwagon and some of their loyal fans have been priced out (glass half-empty theory). I’m leaning towards the latter. Come on, Warriors fans — don’t let those pseudo-fans ruin your “Best NBA Crowd In The League” gimmick. Throw a glass of chardonnay at them and tell them to leave.
Biggest mistake: Not using their $10 million exception from the Richardson trade to acquire one more reliable veteran for their rotation. They’re one rebounder short unless Brandan Wright can make The Leap.
Unsung hero: How ’bout Captain Jack … that’s right, Mr. Stephen Jackson! Do you realize he’s averaging a 21-4-4 for the season? Even better, “Captain Jack” is now a name that makes you think of Billy Joel, a bottle of whiskey or Stephen Jackson. Three of the greats. If I ever buy a boat, I’m naming it Captain Jack.
Best-case opponents: Phoenix or San Antonio.
Worst-case opponent: Utah.
Prediction: The seventh seed and a life-altering series against the Lakers in round one. If their seven-game series ends up being anything like the back-to-backer we just witnessed on Sunday and Monday night, I might need to take sedatives for the last two weeks of April.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: They take their rightful place among the most entertaining/lovable/charismatic nonchamps of the past 25 years, right up there with the ’93 Suns, the ’84 Knicks, the TMC teams in G-State, the early Kemp-GP teams in Seattle, the Dominique-Spud teams in Atlanta, the C-Webb/White Chocolate era in Sacramento and the early Nash-Nowitzki teams in Dallas.
7. DALLAS (45-26)
Scouting report: The Mavericks didn’t shake things up after one of the biggest collapses in modern sports history, played half the season before realizing that they needed more leadership and toughness (wow, really?), then mortgaged everything for Jason Kidd, which would have been fine except he’s not really a leader and peaked about five years ago. … They’re not a great halfcourt team, they’re not a great running team, they’re not a great defensive team. … And on top of that, it seems like they hate their coach. … And now Dirk Nowitzki might be out for the season and they have eight tough games left (including road games at Denver, L.A., Phoenix, Golden State and Portland).
Biggest strength: In the third quarter of 20-point blowouts against terrible teams, they look like the Showtime Lakers reincarnated. So, um, they have that going for them.
Biggest weakness: Against good teams in tight games, it’s amazing how many bad shots they get and how many good shots they give up. On the bright side, they can throw out a lineup of Jamaal Magloire, Jerry Stackhouse, Juwan Howard, Jason Kidd and Eddie Jones. Ladies and gentleman, your 1999 Eastern Conference All-Stars!
Biggest mistake: Not trading Dirk for Kobe before the season. Getting the best player in basketball would have been a good move. I’m almost positive.
Biggest X factor: Josh Howard is in danger of becoming the next Ben Wallace — someone who was underrated for a while, received too much credit for bring underrated, then eventually became overrated even as everyone continued to maintain that he was underrated. We’re 97 percent there.
Unsung hero: The guy in Dallas’ organization who insisted that the 2008 No. 1 pick in the Kidd trade was lottery-protected. Hey, at least one good thing happened this season.
Best-case opponent: Houston.
Worst-case opponent: Everyone else.
Prediction: The ninth seed, no playoffs, a summer of “Should they fire Avery?” stories … followed by everyone coming back and Avery getting fired in January. I wish there was a way to wager on this.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Their own chapter in Charley Rosen’s upcoming book, “My 20 Favorite Panic Trades of the Last 60 Years.”
6. PHOENIX (47-23)
Scouting report: The Shaq trade did more than salvage the Suns’ chemistry problems, loosen everyone up, invigorate their frustrated fan base and finally give them someone to defend Tim Duncan — it totally unleashed Amare Stoudemire, who’s suddenly the most explosive big man in the league again (do you realize he’s averaging a 29-9 since the All-Star break?). … This has turned into the “Team I Don’t Want The Celtics To Play if We Make the Finals,” which warrants mentioning. … If there’s a concern other than the fact that Leandro Barbosa took a step back this season (although he’s still four steps away from the five steps backward that Boris Diaw made over the past two seasons), it’s that they have waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much riding on Grant Hill now. … He’s been doing a fairly reasonable Marion impression, but can he hold up for a 100-game season? … By the way, every Orlando Magic fan just punched something.
Biggest strength: Flexibility. It’s one of those Dirk Diggler teams that can go big or small, play fast or slow and, because of Nash, always get a good shot at the end of games. On top of that, now that they’re starting to figure out how to use Shaq, very few teams even have the bodies to handle him and Amare at the same time. (Note: Even Detroit had trouble with them this week.) These guys are scary now; it’s amazing that they were able to reinvent themselves on the fly in five weeks.
Biggest weakness: Other than the obvious defensive deficiencies with Nash (and to a lesser extent, Barbosa and Amare), you know what’s weird about this team? They never, ever, EVER seem to get calls in big moments. You’d think with good guys like Nash, Shaq and Hill that the refs would be falling all over themselves to favor Phoenix, but it’s actually the opposite — for instance, in that Detroit game this week, the Suns lost in overtime because of three indefensibly horrible calls in a row. We might see Mike D’Antoni pistol whip a referee before everything’s said and done this season.
(Follow-up tangent: It’s incredible to me that Shaq, one of the 12 greatest players of all-time, doesn’t get any respect from the refs at this stage of his career. Remember the way Kareem was treated from 1985 to 1989? You couldn’t breathe on him without getting a foul, which made no sense because nobody liked Kareem! Meanwhile, everyone loves Shaq and he gets called like he’s Jamaal Magloire. It’s legitimately bizarre. Even Reggie Miller was getting every call at the end of his career, and he wasn’t one-fourth of the player that Shaq was. I don’t get it.)
Biggest X factor: Other than Grant Hill staying healthy, you’d have to go with Barbosa, who’s turned into a hit-or-miss scorer off the bench and not much else. The 2008 playoffs are going to be an all-out war for 10 weeks; I’m not sure I’d want to be in a foxhole with him or Diaw. That’s a problem.
Unsung hero: Did we ever figure out what’s going on with the Phoenix medical staff? Shaq spent most of the season plodding around like a mummy, spent two weeks in Phoenix and became more invigorated than the entire cast of “Cocoon.” In four years, that Suns medical staff has saved Steve Nash’s back, Grant Hill’s ankle’s and Shaq’s entire body. What the hell? Did BALCO move its headquarters to Phoenix and nobody told us? Let’s hope this doesn’t led to Armen Keteyian and the “Real Sports” crew infiltrating the Suns’ medical room with hidden cameras.
Prediction: The fifth seed and a gut-wrenching defeat in the Western Finals to Kobe and the Lakers.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Steve Kerr shaking up the No Balls Association with the most controversial trade in eons. Good times!
5. SAN ANTONIO (48-23)
Scouting report: Same old Spurs — they looked disinterested for a few months, only they knew and we knew that they’d be there in the end. … The bad news is that their swing guys got old (Bowen and Finley especially), and their perimeter defense is definitely weaker. … The good news is that Damon Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas give them as much depth as they’ve ever had. … More importantly, Ginobili jumped a level and became a top-four crunch-time guy (see above). … And if that’s not enough, Gregg Popovich went a long way toward erasing the bias against coaches who don’t wear ties during games and look a little sloppy. … Every time he’s yelling at a referee, he looks like some drunk guy at a Martha’s Vineyard wedding who’s furious that the open bar just closed and eventually has to be restrained by two in-laws.
Biggest strength: Experience, Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich in some order.
Biggest weakness: Other than a (predictable) lack of urgency from time to time, they don’t have anyone on the current roster who can defend Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Of course, nearly every contender could say that.
Biggest X factor: With $100 million-plus in advertising profits at stake if there’s a Celtics-Lakers or Celtics-Suns Finals, it will be interesting to see if the Spurs get a single borderline call in May or June. My guess is that somebody on the Suns or Lakers could use a chainsaw and nunchaku to stop Duncan in a Game 7 and the refs wouldn’t call it. But I’m cynical that way.
Biggest mistake: Not just giving away Luis Scola, but giving him away to a Texas team! Eight months have passed and I still haven’t heard an adequate defense from R.C Buford and Popovich for that stinker trade other than “that’s the last time we get drunk and make a trade at 3 in the morning.”
Unsung hero: Ime Udoka gives the Spurs someone to defend the Carmelos, Pierces and Bonzis of the NBA universe, as well as someone with his own Bill Brasky-esque fight story and another fun name for Marv to boot. You’re damned right that I’m enjoying the Ime Udoka era.
Best-case opponents: Houston or Los Angeles.
Worst-case opponents: New Orleans or Golden State.
Prediction: The third seed and a controversial demise in Round 2 after the Lakers benefit from a 65-10 free throw advantage in Game 7.
Eventual 2007-08 Legacy: See the previous paragraph.
4. UTAH (47-25)
Scouting report: The Jazz are a throwback to the ’80s, back when nearly every contender finished 15-20 games better at home than on the road and had at least three awkward-looking white guys on their bench. … Everything fell into the place for them after the Korver trade, as I’ve written about ad nauseam. … Imagine how good they’d be if Andrei Kirilenko was still alive? … Ironically, they’re a Derek Fisher away from being the deepest team in the West. … Here’s what’s going to kill them: Even if they win their division, they won’t even have homecourt advantage in round one unless they can pass Houston, Phoenix or San Antonio over these next two weeks (and they’re two games back).
Biggest strength: Their high screen with Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams has become Malone/Stockton-esque; it’s almost like the spirit of those two guys has invaded Boozer’s and Williams’ bodies because they’re playing in the same building. I find it creepy.
Biggest weakness: As good as Korver has been for them, the Jazz still don’t have a 2-guard to defend the Kobes, T-Macs and Ginobilis or even make them work a little for their points. Remember in the ’04 All-Star Game when the West brought in Kirilenko to guard T-Mac on the deciding play? What the hell happened to that guy? He might earn “Most Frustrating Player of the Decade” honors before everything’s said and done. Whoops, I forgot about Vince Carter. Scratch that.
Biggest X factor: Memo Okur — he looks like Mr. Big and plays like Mr. Small in too many big games.
Biggest mistake: Not moving on a Kirilenko/Shawn Marion trade earlier in the season when Kirilenko’s stock was higher. Word on the street was that Utah owner Larry Miller has a longstanding grudge against agent Don Fegan (Marion’s agent) dating back to the acrimonious Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson negotiations in 2,400 B.C., so he squashed the trade before it got going because he hates dealing with Fegan so much. Personally, I think that story is too good to be made up. Any owner-agent grudge dating back to Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson is too far-fetched to be fake, right?
Unsung hero: Paul Millsap, probably the most talented of the ever-growing “Undersized Power Forwards Who Were Drafted 15-20 Picks Too Late” Club right now.
Best-case opponents: Golden State or Houston.
Worst-case opponent: Lakers.
Prediction: Fourth seed and a Round 1 exit courtesy of Phoenix.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: The team whose fans killed its karma for the season by callously booing Derek Fisher.
3. HOUSTON (48-23)
Scouting report: The Rockets won 22 straight games thanks to great chemistry, great defense, great ball movement, a super-easy schedule, a couple of breaks (like Nowitzki’s one-game suspension) and some inspired play from T-Mac and Rafer Alston. … In the big scheme of things, it’s not going to matter because any team with size (like Phoenix) or superior team defense (like San Antonio or Boston) is going to beat them. … No matter what happens in the playoffs, it’s absolutely astonishing how much they don’t miss Yao Ming.
Biggest strength: Chemistry and defense. That’s how you win 22 straight. And by the way, that was freaking amazing. I still can’t get over that streak. No matter how easy its schedule was, for a team without superior talent to get by 22 straight teams without getting derailed by one bad break, one bad call, one white-hot shooting performance, one injury or one off-night is absolutely unfathomable. That was like watching someone catch fire at a craps table for two solid hours without crapping out.
Biggest weaknesses: Lack of size; lack of anyone who can create scoring opportunities other than T-Mac; lack of playoff success for the Rockets’ best player; lack of overall talent. Other than that, they’re in good shape.
Biggest X factor: Rafer Alston. Just look at his month-by-month splits and throw in the fact that he’s been playing fantastic defense. Where did these last two months come from? Frankly, I’m a little frightened. I like things to make sense and this makes absolutely no sense.
Unsung hero: According to John Hollinger’s player efficiency ratings, Shane Battier is the 45th best small forward in the league right now. I give up. Uncle. I can’t fight the good fight anymore. Somebody else needs to take over.
Best-case opponent: Golden State or Denver.
Worst-case opponent: Everyone else.
Prediction: The sixth seed and a thrashing from San Antonio in Round 1.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: For the rest of eternity, they’ll show that “Longest NBA Winning Streaks” graphic during an NBA game and viewers will say, “’72 Lakers, ’08 Rockets, ’00 Lakers, ’71 Bucks … wait a second, what????”
2. NEW ORLEANS (48-21)
Scouting report: Considering they Hornets have beaten Phoenix by 17, San Antonio by 25, the Lakers by 10, Utah by 12, Boston by seven and Houston by 21 in the past four weeks, I think it’s time to start taking the Hornets seriously. … Throw in the fact that their point guard is submitting the single greatest all-around season in the history of the position and it’s definitely time to take the Hornets seriously. … Put it this way: if these guys played in New York, Chris Paul would be the new Derek Jeter. … I don’t subscribe to the “they’re not a threat because they don’t have any playoff experience” theory because their top three guys (Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler) are three of the most competitive guys in the league. … With that said, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re a year away.
Biggest strength: Paul is ridiculously, overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly good. Look at his numbers since the All-Star break: 25 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 55 percent shooting, 49 percent on 3-pointers and an astonishing 6-to-1 assist/turnover ratio in 18 games. … And that doesn’t even account for all the passes he makes that lead to foul shots. You can’t play point guard any better than that. It’s impossible. Other than that, you’d have to go with their foul shooting in close games — Peja’s at 94 percent, Paul and West are in the mid-80s, and every guy in their rotation is 80 percent or better except Tyson Chandler.
Biggest weakness: Take a deep breath, Hornets fans — your title hopes are riding on Bonzi Wells and his ability to post up smaller guys, defend small forwards and create points so that every Hornets crunch-time possession doesn’t rest on the high screen with Paul and West (who’s been simply outstanding, by the way). If he comes up big in the playoffs — and he’s done it before — then the Hornets can win the title. Anything less and they can’t.
(Important note: As recently as a month ago, their biggest weakness would have been their appallingly bad home crowds, but that’s changed notably since the All-Star break and now they’re no better or worse than any other bandwagon crowd.)
Biggest X factor: Jannero Pargo, who’s quietly turned into a rich man’s Eddie House. You couldn’t even call him a streak shooter — he’s more like a Malibu forest fire.
Unsung hero: Chandler has evolved into a lankier, sleeker version of Ben Wallace in his prime, which is interesting because … well … you know.
Best-case opponent: Too many to count. They can beat everyone except …
Worst-case opponent: The Lakers.
Prediction: The No. 1 seed and a loss to Phoenix in Round 2 despite Paul averaging a 30-15 for the series.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: They laid the groundwork for a substantial run as title contenders, saved basketball in New Orleans and found themselves a superduperstar. Hard to complain about a season like that.
1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (49-22)
Scouting report: This team has everything you’d ever conceivably want in a playoff contender — a superstar, two more scoring options, a low-post player who has to be double-teamed, a shotblocker, multiple 3-point shooters, a bench that can effect games, a superior coaching staff and, most importantly, a scorer who’s going to get every borderline call in a close game because he’s Kobe Bryant. … If the Lakers are healthy and running on all cylinders, they have the highest ceiling of any playoff team. … Of course, we don’t know if they’re healthy yet, so all bets are off. … They’re most vulnerable in Round 1 as they’re working back Bynum and Gasol into the rotation, which is what makes a potential Lakers-Warriors series so damned tantalizing.
Biggest strength: Whether they win the title or not, it’s been a sincere pleasure as a basketball fan to watch Kobe tap into his talents, trust his teammates, pick his spots, forget about statistics and become the player we always wanted him to be. Whether Kobe or Chris Paul wins the MVP award, we haven’t seen two better individual seasons at the same time since Jordan and Barkley in 1993. … And if you throw in the fact that LeBron is averaging an absurd 31-8-8 right now, you’d have to go back to Bird, Magic and M.J. in ’88. Holy schmoley. Should I write the word “amazing” again? Probably not. This season has turned me into “The Bachelor.”
Biggest weakness: I know he’s been playing out of his mind lately, but I still don’t trust Lamar Odom. During regulation of Monday’s Warriors game, he went to the line in the final few seconds with a one-point lead, endured a few taunts and standing-in-front-of-him maneuvers from Davis and Jackson … and eventually, he had this weird smile on his face, almost like the smile a boxer gets right before he’s about to get knocked out. Of course, he missed the first free throw. Mark my words — there’s going to be at least one monster moment in April, May or June when Odom has to come through in a humongous spot for the Lakers. And he won’t.
(Follow-up to that story: In that same game, the Lakers were up two with four seconds left in overtime when Kobe got fouled. Three interesting things here. First, none of the Warriors came within 10 feet of him as he was preparing to shoot the first free throw. Second, he stared down all the Warriors around him, drained the first free throw and muttered “Game over, game over” to everyone who would listen. Third, he made the second one and that was that. The lesson, as always: It’s good to have Kobe Bryant on your team.)
Biggest X factor: Bynum. Can he bounce back from the knee injury? Can he get back in shape in time? Will he be able to effectively defend Shaq or Duncan in Round 2 or Round 3? Every Lakers fan just stopped breathing for a few seconds.
Unsung hero: Sasha Vujacic, quite possibly the league’s best bench player of anyone who plays 20 minutes or less. He’s a feisty defender, he shoots 40-plus from 3-point range, he can guard anyone and play three positions, he’s a legitimate threat to get punched in the face during the playoffs and, if that’s not enough, I’m almost positive that he’s wearing some sort of hair net. We haven’t had a so-much-fun-to-hate-him playoff villain like this guy in eons. He’s like Bruce Bowen crossed with one of John Lithgow’s henchman in “Cliffhanger.”
Best-case opponents: New Orleans, Denver or Utah.
Worst-case opponents: San Antonio or Golden State.
Prediction: A throwback Lakers-Celtics Finals will end up being the single best thing to happen to the NBA in 10 years. And that’s an understatement.
Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Put it this way — I wouldn’t bet against the answer to this question being, “The year Kobe won the MVP and the title and earned his rightful place among the greatest players ever.” As always, stay tuned.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.