Calling it the Wild West just doesn’t do it justice anymore.
The NBA’s Western Conference is brutal. It’s loaded with talent. And the eight teams that make it through a gruelingly competitive regular season to reach the playoffs will only find slugging their way to the NBA Finals even more daunting.
Even after Minnesota traded All-Star Kevin Love to LeBron James and Cleveland and Pau Gasol left the Los Angeles Lakers for the Chicago Bulls, the balance of power still resides firmly out West.
The Spurs return everybody from a team that won 62 games in the regular season and dethroned the Miami Heat in the finals. Dallas lured Chandler Parsons away from rival Houston to give Dirk Nowitzki another scoring threat and Anthony Davis appears poised to become the league’s next superstar as he tries to help the New Orleans Pelicans break into the crowded playoff field.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: The one thing Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have yet to accomplish is win back-to-back titles. With Kawhi Leonard blossoming and preparing to take over as the face of the franchise, the Spurs are ready to roll again.
2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: New owner Steve Ballmer has buried the Donald Sterling reign under an avalanche of enthusiasm. And Blake Griffin is shooting 3s. Look out.
3. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: They swapped coach Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr and fortified their depth with Shaun Livingston. But the biggest deal might be the one they didn’t make, turning down a chance to land Kevin Love from the Timberwolves because they wanted to keep Klay Thompson.
4. DALLAS MAVERICKS: The team that gave the Spurs the most trouble in the playoffs last season got a whole lot better over the summer, adding Parsons, big man Tyson Chandler and steady point guard Jameer Nelson to the arsenal of coach Rick Carlisle, one of the few who can match coaching wits with Popovich.
5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Would be much higher on this list, but Kevin Durant’s foot injury looms large. They’ll be fine once he returns, but an extended absence will make it hard for the Thunder to crack the top half in this conference.
6. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: They won 50 games last season despite dealing with injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Now that everyone is healthy and on the same page, the Grizzlies are ready to grind again.
7. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: They took the Spurs approach this summer, making smaller tweaks around their core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum and hoping continuity breeds success.
8. HOUSTON ROCKETS: Hey, somebody has to finish eighth. Losing Parsons could put more pressure on Dwight Howard and James Harden to carry the load.
In the mix
9. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: Davis was a monster for Team USA. If the Pelicans can stay healthy, they could sneak in.
10. PHOENIX SUNS: They won’t sneak up on anyone this year. If they are to improve, Eric Bledsoe will have to earn that $70 million.
11. DENVER NUGGETS: Welcome back, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari. Keep growing, Kenneth Faried.
Facing long odds
12. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett have loads of potential. But it will take time to recover from trading Love.
13. SACRAMENTO KINGS: DeMarcus Cousins should make his first All-Star team. That will likely be their highlight of the season.
14. LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Steve Nash is already out. Not even a 28-year-old Kobe Bryant could carry this crew to the playoffs.
15. UTAH JAZZ: Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter need to start asserting themselves if the Jazz are going to make a jump.
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