The rest of the West: They?re all sooooo good

Alonso Tacanga

The Lakers and Clippers have different aims this season, but they share a curse/privilege: They both play in the Western Conference.

The West has a handful of teams who believe – and rightfully so – that 2009 could be the year for them to raise a championship banner. To do that they will have to go through one another, though. Who will be the last one standing? Here are some candidates:

The Hornets were a game away from reaching the Western Finals last season. Chris Paul led a revolution in New Orleans last season. The runner-up for MVP along with All-Star David West and Paul’s favorite alley-oop target, rebounding machine Tyson Chandler, have a new buddy for this year’s run: 2007-08 NBA Champion James Posey, who hopes his defense and clutch-shooting will give New Orleans the boost it needs to get to the NBA Finals.

Just 350 miles east, the Houston Rockets, who were bounced in the fist round last year, are licking their chops. The arrival of Ron Artest and the development of Argentine forward Luis Scola alongside Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady undoubtedly makes them a top contender. They only need to avoid two things: injuries and feuds . Artest is a great player, but he can also spell disaster if not on his best behavior. Yao’s been known to get injured often and McGrady’s back is still an issue. Other than that, they’re the most talented team in the league.

San Antonio, home of the older-than-dirt Spurs. This team isn’t looking like a favorite at this point, but that can change. Manu Ginobili isn’t ready to play, defensive ace Bruce Bowen is 37 and Tim Duncan won’t always make three-pointers to send playoff games into double overtimes. They lost Brent Barry and Robert Horry. They added Roger Mason Jr. and a no-name rookie out of UIPUI. No big improvement, no big losses. The Spurs are the same as every year. It seems like no one believes in them, but don’t tell that to the rest of the West. They won’t buy it for a second. San Antonio doesn’t die easy.

Rounding the conference’s Southwest Division, there is the Mavericks, and no we don’t mean Sarah Palin and John McCain. This Dallas team has gone south ever since the third quarter of game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals – unless you consider winning a franchise-best 67 regular-season games and then falling in the first round of the playoffs to the eighth seed successful – The Mavericks made a bold move last year, trading for Jason Kidd and giving up their point guard of the future in Devin Harris. The short-term solution didn’t work in the playoffs, though, as Paul and the Hornets dismantled Dallas in five in the first round. Kidd is still as good a passer as always, but it all comes down to Dirk Nowitzki. This guy is one of the most skilled players in the league, the best shooting 7-footer ever, but he needs to learn to lead. If Nowitzki can’t lead, accept the responsibility that comes with being one of the greatest ever, the Mavs are going nowhere.

There is a one-team race in the Northwest division, where the Jazz is king. After witnessing the magic of a John Stockton-Karl Malone duo, the city of Utah now has Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Pretty nice, huh? This All Star-combo already went through its share of playoff battles and, despite being young, it’s experienced. A support cast of lengthy Andrei Kirilenko, sharp-shooting Kyle Korver and big-man Mehmet Okur makes them – again – a top contender in the West in 2008-09. This could be the year in which Utah finally gets what Malone and Stockton couldn’t bring them in 18 years together: an NBA championship.

Then, there’s the rest of the best: the Phoenix Suns, important as ever with Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire and Shaquille O’Neal, but a question mark seeing how former Head Coach Mark D’Antoni is now in New York (Are the run-and-gun days over?); the Denver Nuggets, who suffered a blow by losing their only defensive player, Marcus Camby, but still have Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony – a guaranteed 60 points every night; and the Portland Trailblazers, who have an 80-year-old looking rookie in 7-foot center Greg Oden to go along with former Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy. They have also added an international star in Spanish shooting guard Rudy Fernandez. Watch out for him, watch out for everyone in this hell of a conference. In the end, whoever gets out alive from this might be just too beat up to compete in the NBA Finals. What a shame.

It’s gotten that tough in the wild, wild West.