As the New York Knicks prepare to take the court with their AARP (Association of American Retired Players) roster, it's time to take a peek at the competition for the 2012 season. Do you remember a time when the Knicks and their fans actually needed to keep an eye on teams in the Western Conference - potential Finals foes? Perhaps it's why the team acquired so many senior citizens, those who might recall when the Knicks were relevant enough to dream about that. Any rational list has to begin with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers, but as usual, there are plenty of teams better in the West than most of the East.
Los Angeles Lakers
You think the Knicks are old? Check out the roster on the Lakers, who have decided, for the umpteenth time in their history it's not acceptable to be in second place. In that sense, the Lakers and Celtics are remarkably similar to the New York Yankees, an organization that looks up, sees another team between themselves and a championship, and acts accordingly.
To complement Kobe Bryant, the Lakers bring back the under-appreciated Pau Gasol in a position better suited to him. They were able to accomplish that because Dwight Howard now patrols the middle. Gasol's semi-freedom of paint responsibility means almost as much as Howard's contribution. With no disrespect to Andrew Bynum, an impact player on the verge of elite status, Howard is a more demonstrable presence. When you mix in a little Steve Nash, and the defense of the mercurial Ron Artest (go elsewhere if you want him referred to by the preposterous World Peace moniker) you'll have an idea why the Lakers are the most improved team in the league - and by a bunch.
The key pieces have some age on them, for sure - Nash, Kobe, Gasol. So injury could play an enormous role. Also, when you stock up with superstars, it leaves the bench a bit thin. Does anyone remember the last impactful game Antawn Jamison had? Enough said.
The Lakers may stalk the Thunder for a while, but youth will ultimately prevail.
Glenn Vallach has been a basketball fan, player, and coach during his lifetime and, as such, an ardent follower of the NBA even with all its warts. He have also been a New York Knick fan since the days of Howie Komives and Walt Bellamy, when he regularly boarded the IRT Subway at 180th Street in the Bronx for a trip to the Garden to see his heroes.