As strong and deep as the Western Conference is, the West has been dominated for the past five years by two teams – the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. They have combined to win the last five league championships. If Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal are healthy and playing well, there's no reason to think one of the two teams won't be representing the West again come June.
But the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have the top two records in the conference, and both have key players returning from injury to bolster their playoff hopes. And while Rick Adelman and Flip Saunders have difficult jobs ahead of them blending in major pieces this late in the season, they each appear to have a strong opportunity to wrestle away supremacy from San Antonio and Los Angeles. But can they pull it off?
Saunders may have the easier job ahead of him. His Wolves team has been led all year by his Big Three – Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. The pecking order has been established, which means that Wally Szczerbiak will have to accept a role as a scorer coming off the bench.
Szczerbiak is a one-time All-Star who has averaged 15 points a game and shot 50 percent for his career. He's not used to playing a backup role. But in Thursday's win over the Kings, Szczerbiak – in his first game all season – came off the bench and played 16 minutes, scored six points and was thrilled just to be on the floor. He could barely contain a smile when he entered the game late in the first quarter as the Target Center crowd rose to its feet. The fact that he's happy just to be healthy and playing will make it easier for him to accept a backup role. And for Saunders it's a luxury.
Trenton Hassell has emerged in the starting lineup as a terrific defensive stopper, and he's the perfect complement to the offensive-minded Cassell and Sprewell. Against the Kings, Hassell harassed Peja Stojakovic into a 5-for-15 shooting night, and when Peja sat down, Saunders inserted Szczerbiak into the game for Hassell and got instant offense. It's a nice mix, and one that Wally is seemingly ready to accept.
Michael Olowokandi is expected to return in the next few days, too. He's another player who must become accustomed to a lesser role. He won't get as many touches down on the block, but he's long and has the size to battle the top big men in the West. In fact, Adelman pointed out that if they're healthy, the Wolves will have five big bodies to throw out there during the playoffs – Mark Madsen, Olowokandi, Ervin Johnson, Gary Trent and Garnett. That's a lot of fouls to use should Minnesota have to defend Shaq or Duncan in the playoffs.
The Kings, meanwhile, have a much more difficult transition ahead. While Minnesota is adding players to the mix, Sacramento is adding the main ingredient to the recipe. Chris Webber is their best player, and when he returns in two more weeks from his suspension, Adelman will plug him into the starting rotation right away.
The Kings have been fantastic to watch all season, running their offense through big men Brad Miller and Vlade Divac, but now one of them will go to the bench – probably Miller because he'll be coming back from an injured sprained foot in a week or two. Unlike Minnesota, Sacramento will have a new pecking order. Webber immediately becomes the man and the offense will run through him.
Fortunately for the Kings the core group of players – Divac, Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson – have been together several years. The transition should happen more naturally. Still, they'll have to get used to Webber's tendencies again, and they'll have to get comfortable with late-game situations and understand where the ball needs to go.
As for Webber, he has a tough road ahead of him. By the time the playoffs begin, he will have had just 24 games under his belt. He'll also have the pressure to perform for Sacramento fans who have been very forgiving of him during his legal woes this past year. They expect nothing less than a championship, and Webber is the main man. He will be blamed if they don't win it all. That's a tough spot to be in for anyone, let alone someone who's been out all season with an injury.
Right now Minnesota is in the more enviable position The Timberwolves appear to be gaining momentum as the season winds down, and they have the probable MVP on their roster in Garnett. I believe in karma, and the Wolves appear to have a lot of it on their side. Passion, hunger, unselfishness – and now major depth – it's all there. This could be their year.
As for the Kings? They're ultra-talented, they're fun to watch and they play beautifully together. But can their best player fit right into the lineup with only two months left in the season? We'll soon find out.