Mailbag: Which West squad has best title shot?

Tuesday January 21st, 2014

Kevin Durant and the Thunder are 21-4 with Russell Westbrook this year and just 7-6 without him.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Which team has a better chance at winning the championship this year: the Blazers or the Thunder?
-- Jeff W., Milwaukee

It all depends on which version of the Thunder you're talking about. If it's Oklahoma City without Russell Westbrook, then picking the Blazers is a no-brainer.

But if Westbrook is able to stay healthy and play to form upon his anticipated return from his latest knee surgery next month, then I'm sticking with Oklahoma City to not only win the West but also the championship while they're at it. The Thunder were my preseason pick to beat Miami in the NBA Finals, and I like them more than Portland in the West because the Thunder have won a half-dozen series over the past three years, they're superior defensively, and their two stars (Kevin Durant and Westbrook) are better than Portland's (LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard).

DOLLINGER: Blazers No. 2, Thunder No. 5 in latest in Power Rankings

Portland's success has been remarkable, but to win in the postseason requires another kind of focus and discipline. Can the Blazers instantly raise their level amid their first playoff appearance in three years? Aldridge, Lillard and Nicolas Batum have never won a series.

We know that the Thunder can raise their level. The other team in the conference that is committed defensively with a track record of deep playoff runs is the West-leading Spurs, which is why I'm guessing that the conference championship will come down to San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

If you could pick any players in the current NBA to participate in the Dunk Contest, who would it be?
-- Joe, Los Angeles

Since you asked, Joe, I would pick the four shortest, most explosive guards I could find -- starting with Nate Robinson and Isaiah Thomas -- and have them play one-on-one in a mini-tournament. Each game would be decided by the first player to dunk three times. The winner of each of the two opening-round games would meet in the final. Then the contest would mean something.

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I'm not a big fan of the dunk contest in its current form. It has raised the profile of players like Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin, but it has also branded them as stars who produce highlight plays at the expense of the fundamental skills that matter most in the biggest games. Griffin may be on his way to breaking that stereotype, but I'd argue that the dunk contest has neither reflected nor encouraged the bedrock values of competitive basketball.

Who do you think can win a first-round series in the East besides the Pacers or Heat?
-- Sam, Chicago

The most dangerous first-round teams are going to be the Bulls and Nets. The Bulls won a series last year while most of their leading players were injured. The Nets have the talent to win a series against anyone except for Miami or Indiana. The goal for Chicago, Brooklyn and every other playoff contender in the sorry East is to avoid Miami and Indiana in the opening round -- in other words, to be seeded No. 3, 4, 5 or 6.

Does Lance Stephenson deserve to be an All-Star? His scoring numbers aren't crazy, but Indiana is first in the East, and he's been huge this year.
-- Marc, Fort Wayne, Ind.

He deserves consideration, Marc, and it may be that as many as seven players from Miami (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) and Indiana (Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Stephenson and David West) deserve to make it since their teams are the only teams that matter in the mediocre East. Right now I'm leaning toward including Stephenson, who leads the East's best team in assists and is No. 1 in the NBA with three triple-doubles.

Do you think there will be an NBA team in Europe in the next 10 years?
-- Vincent Martin, Dallas

The NBA would like to create a division in Europe, Vincent, but it will depend on the economy. Will NBA-worthy arenas be built in the right cities? Will the money from TV and ticket sales enable the teams in Europe to compete financially with the franchises in North America? Basketball is not a major TV draw in Europe, so it will require a leap for that market to approach the NBA's high standards financially.

It looked like the Knicks had righted the ship after winning five straight, but they've now lost four in a row. Which Knicks team do you think we'll see the rest of the season?
-- Paul, Bronx, N.Y.

What you'll see, Paul, is a team that wins four or five in a row, and then loses four or five in a row. What you've seen is what you'll get.

Which rookie besides Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo has impressed you the most this year?
-- Stan, Charlotte, N.C.

I'd rank Trey Burke ahead of Oladipo, Stan. But the most intriguing rookie is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's barely 19, he's approaching 7 feet, and he may turn out to be the biggest star of this draft.

What do you think Rajon Rondo's first two games back do to his trade stock? Will the Celtics keep him if he struggles?
-- Ben Ross, New Jersey

He looks pretty good for someone who hasn't played in a year following major knee surgery, Ben. If he struggles then they won't have any choice -- they'll have to keep him because no one else will offer enough for him. But if he looks like his old self over the next month, then a market may develop for him at the trade deadline.

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