The NBA Playoffs tip off this weekend, starting with the NBA-best Chicago Bulls taking on the No. 8 seed Indiana Pacers in an Eastern Conference first-round opener on April 16. The Eastern Conference is heavy in talent this postseason, with the likes of MVP-caliber stars LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dywane Wade and Carmelo Anthony all battling for a shot at the Finals.

But there’s a reason the NBA champions in eight of the last 10 years have come out of the West. The two-time defending champions Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs are easy fan favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals, as they’ve done throughout most of the last decade.

Still, there are younger and perhaps hungrier teams among the conference this spring that may be ready to force a changing of the guard. Can young talents like the Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets knock off the elites of the West? AFRO Sports Writers Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley sort it out:

Stephen D. Riley (SDR): The Los Angeles Lakers have made the NBA Finals the past three years in a row, and you can bank on them representing the West again. Yes, they’ve won this season in a cocky, beatable and drama-filled fashion, but they wouldn’t be the Lakers without those traits. Los Angeles still has the most talent, the most size, the best player and the best coach, what else do you need? L.A. held its breath when center Andrew Bynum went down with a hyper-extended knee against the San Antonio Spurs on April 12, but he’s fine and so are the Lakers’ championship chances. Like Boston, this is probably the Lakers’ last shot at a title run, and I believe they’ll be primed and poised to make their fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

Perry Green (PG): If the Lakers are the best in the West, I don’t believe the San Antonio Spurs got the memo. Fifteen-year head coach Gregg Popovich has the Spurs playing their best ball in five years, and they finished this season with a conference-best 61-21 record. San Antonio’s roster is perhaps the most solid starting lineup in the league, featuring Tony Parker, clutch-shooter Manu Ginobli and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. The trio will make sure the Spurs are a tough opponent for any team this postseason, including Kobe and the Lakers. But if you can find one team capable of beating both L.A. and San Antonio, you’ll have to go younger and faster. You’ll have to go to Oklahoma City.

The Lakers are the defending champs, but we shouldn’t forget how Washington, D.C. native Kevin Durant and the Thunder took them six games deep in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Durant, the league’s scoring champion, and starting point guard Russell Westbrook gave Los Angeles serious problems last summer and would have led OKC to an upset had they the size to match L.A. in the post. Now, the Thunder are back with notorious tough-guy Kendrick Perkins down low at center. Perkins has a history of success against L.A.’s big men and should be the X-factor needed to book the Thunder’s trip the Finals this season.

SDR: I just knew you would try to throw Perkins and all of his whopping career 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds into this. No doubt, Perkins is a great defender, a great team player and a great guy to have on your team, but your big men have to be able to score against the Lakers’ big men to beat them. Think Kevin Garnett in the 2008 playoffs, which was the last time L.A. lost a playoff series. The Thunder may have the best defensive power forward/center combination in the league—other than Los Angeles, that is. Perkins and Serge Ibaka can defend and block shots as well as any tandem in the league, but can they score consistently enough to take the pressure off of Westbrook and Durant? If Perkins was a legit low-post scorer then I would definitely consider Oklahoma a major threat but without a true low-post scorer, the Thunder are just a mild storm cloud in the Lakers’ sunny forecast.

PG:
Who needs scorers in the post when you have perhaps the most explosive offensive backcourt in the NBA in Durant and Westbrook? Sure, Perkins has never been known for his scoring ability, but the best thing is he recognizes that and he’s okay with that. He understands he must play the “junkyard” role and bang down low for rebounds and second-chance points. As long as he plays his role, the Thunder will be fine. No one in the league can defend Durant and Westbrook individually; they’ll dominate anyone you put in front of them, so points won’t be an issue.

SDR: Who needs scorers in the low post? Really? Just look at history. Michael Jordan was perhaps the only great guard over the last 20 years to hoist a championship without any major offensive contribution from his front court, and we’re talking arguably the greatest player of all time here. You can’t rely on jump-shooting in the postseason, you just can’t. And you’re expecting Westbrook, who isn’t a great shooter to begin with, and Durant, whose jump shot can be streaky at times, to topple the Lakers by themselves with no post play? Really? Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon, the formula is simple: you need to be able to dump the ball in the post when the jump shot isn’t falling. The Thunder can’t do that. The Lakers, however, can and will, which is why they’ll dispose of Oklahoma on their way to another Finals appearance.

PG:
Durant may not be Michael Jordan, but the two definitely have something in common: no one can stop them. I haven’t seen anyone in the NBA that can defend Durant when he’s feeling hot—that’s why he led the league in scoring with 27 points per game. And let’s not dismiss OKC’s backcourt as jump shooters only. At 6-foot, 10-inches tall, Durant led the NBA with the most trips to the foul line, so that proves he knows when to pass up a jumper and use his size as an advantage to attack the paint. Both Durant and Westbrook attack the hoop consistently and aggressively, and that should lead to foul trouble for defending big men like L.A.’s Bynum and Pau Gasol. Once in foul trouble, the Lakers’ size will be neutralized and it will be a shootout between Kobe and Durant. Can the young scoring champ outperform the Black Mamba? We’ll find out soon enough…

Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk