Dark horse teams litter Western Conference

Early in the morning of Thursday, October 11, just five days before the 2017-18 season tipped off, Las Vegas hosted the first meeting of the new Los Angeles Lakers – with LeBron James in the line-up, and champions the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers triumphed 123-113; it is the first Lakers win over the Warriors in two years, and only the second in 12 attempts.

But let us put that in perspective: the Warriors had three of their five All-Stars on the floor, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, who fouled out with 5:07 left in the third quarter. But they were without Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. The three All-Stars on the floor averaged more than 25 minutes each.

For the Lakers, LeBron played only 18 minutes, but was just five assists shy of a triple-double as he posted 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. Kyle Kuzma came off the bench and scored 22 points in 24 minutes and Brandon Ingram scored 26 points.

We all know about the danger the Houston Rockets pose to the Warriors, and we are aware that the Utah Jazz are a year better; but these new Lakers look to have something in the tank, and may prove difficult to beat – like any other decent team that has LeBron James, when the chips are down.

The preseason victory for the Lakers – which may mean nothing, as the Warriors are currently 1-3 in pre-season games following earlier losses to Phoenix and Minnesota, may signify a shift in mind-set for many teams, with the Lakers at the head of the line. The presence and the experience of LeBron and Rajon Rondo, the firepower off the bench, and the energy of the youth that the Lakers will bring to their contests in the West, may see them make a deep playoff run.

The other team that is likely to cause a stir in the loaded Western Conference, is Oklahoma City, and they will face the Warriors in Oakland on opening night. The arrival of Dennis Schroder didn’t make any big splash in the media, but the Gambian-German will be valuable for the Thunder off the bench, and is especially precious to the team now that Russell Westbrook is recuperating from a surgical procedure.

Schroder has valuable experience both as a leader and in the postseason. And he is not alone; the Thunder have locked Paul George down with a new contract, and the multiple All-Star is already buzzing; he averaged 23.5 points in three of the four preseason games the Thunder have played. He missed the loss to Detroit, but Oklahoma City won the next three against Minnesota, Atlanta and Milwaukee.

Then the Thunder have Andre Robertson, the shooting guard who makes them better defensively when he is on the floor. Robertson played just 39 games last season, but did not play a single minute of the preseason games as he battles back from a setback in his recovery from a lengthy injury. OKC will get better as the season progresses, and will be a dangerous team at the playoffs.

The New Orleans Pelicans have lost all five preseason games they’ve played against the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and Miami Heat, who all secured double-digit wins over the Pelicans. Only the New York Knicks won by a single figure scoreline. But it would be foolhardy to overlook New Orleans. That’s simply because they have Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday; then they’ve added Julius Randle – who will play with a chip on his shoulder, plus, they have the luxury of Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic coming off the bench. The Pelicans are much better than they were last season, and will make some noise in the West.

The Portland Trail Blazers have been knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Conference champions in four out of their last six trips to the postseason: Dallas Mavericks (2011), San Antonio Spurs (2014) and Golden State Warriors (2016 and 2017). Should their luck change, the Blazers may just end up as one of the hottest teams in the West come the playoffs.

In Damian Lillard and CJ McCullum, they have one of the best two-punch combinations in the league. Add Jusuf Nurkic and Nigerian Al-Farouq Aminu, and you understand the reason the Blazers have continued to make the postseason despite the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

However, the Trail Blazers may have a longer shot than the other teams at stirring up things in the West, simply because they are not deep enough; but as long as their first unit remain healthy, the Blazers will always be a dangerous proposition.

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