By Shady Botros
It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the western conference before the season even started, and while that sounds like an overstatement, there’s little chance the Lakers aren’t representing the west in the NBA finals come June.

While the Lakers coming out of the west may seem like an undisputed statement, after that, there’s a huge grey area between who's number two, and who's number three, and so on. The only thing we know is that the Lakers are the best team in the west, and the rest is a crapshoot. All season, about five teams will be gunning for that number two spot, and the chance to get a playoff series against the Lakers, and potentially dethrone the champs.

5. New Orleans Hornets

With a healthy Chris Paul, the Hornets go deep in the playoffs.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Hornets could be the biggest surprise so far as they currently stand third in the west with a 12-3 record. Chris Paul is playing at an MVP type level, and head coach Monty Williams has the team playing with a new sense of urgency. Two concerns I have about this team: do they have enough depth to get through a whole season, and can they stay healthy enough?

This team will go as Chris Paul goes, and right now, Chris Paul is healthy and playing extremely well. Paul is averaging 16 points, and 10 assists. As you can see, Paul’s scoring is actually down, the lowest since his rookie year. However, he makes up for his low scoring due to his efficiency. Paul is shooting 49 percent from the field, and 47 percent from behind the arc, and 89 percent from the free throw line.

It’s not only Chris Paul; the Hornets are getting key contributions from guys like Emeka Okafor, and newcomers Trevor Ariza, Willie Green and Marco Belinelli. They may not be a bunch of household names, but they are providing the Hornets with necessities. Okafor gives the Hornets a big that can grab rebounds, and get easy buckets from Chris Paul. Ariza gives the team a wing defender. Green is a solid scorer off the bench, and Belinelli is another good scorer who has a great shooter’s touch.

They may not be the same squad from 2007-08 but these Hornets are still led by the same man, and while his scoring may be down, Chris Paul has the will to lead this team to a deep playoff run.

4. Dallas Mavericks

NEW ORLEANS - NOVEMBER 17:  Head coach Rick Carlisle talks with Jose Barea #11 and Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks during a timeout against the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on November 17, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Hor
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Mavericks are still going strong as they stand at 11-4, currently holding the fifth seed in the west. The Mavericks still remain an offensive team led by Dirk Nowitzki, with Jason Kidd running the point.

While they haven’t won a title, the Mavs are one of the most consistent teams in the NBA. Every year with Dirk you can expect 50 plus wins, and a top four seed in the western conference. This year looks to be no different, as Dirk Nowitzki is currently third in the league in scoring, averaging 26 points per game. Despite being 32 years old, Nowitzki still hasn’t lost a step.

The Mavs have the same core from last year returning, but a year older. Jason Kidd, now 37 years old, is still playing the point guard position at a very high level as he’s averaging eight points, and nine assists. This Mavericks team is tailor made for Jason Kidd because they have shooters all over the perimeter.

The Mavs added big man Tyson Chandler over the offseason, and Chandler has played very well, giving the Mavs a presence down low, and someone who can clean up the glass. Chandler is averaging nine points and nine rebounds.

I still think the Mavs are a major piece away from contending with the Lakers. Many thought Caron Butler was going to be that piece, but he is severely underperforming. But we all know Mark Cuban never puts down the phone, and is always trying to make some sort of trade happen.

The Mavs have been one of the teams rumored to be interested in Carmelo Anthony, but Anthony doesn’t seem too thrilled about Dallas. The Mavs believe that if they traded for him, they could eventually convince him to sign a long term deal. That’s a huge gamble, but I think the Mavs would have to make it happen. Currently they have a good roster, but not a great one, and Carmelo Anthony could be the piece that puts them on par with the Lakers, and the eventual building block when Dirk starts to decline.

The Mavs are flashy, talented, but old, and still a piece away from being able to contend with the Lakers.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 3:  Kevin Durant #32 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past Ryan Gomes #15 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on November 3, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder have become everyone’s favorite team, and Kevin Durant has become everyone’s new favorite player. The Thunder bring back the same group of starters from last season, however this year they have to play with expectations. Last season, the Thunder came out of nowhere; this season the Thunder are expected to win 50 plus games, and make a deep playoff run.

The Thunder currently stand 6th in the west, but only two and a half out of first place. Kevin Durant looks to win the scoring title again as he leads the league in scoring with 28 points per game. By season’s end, we could be saying that Durant not LeBron James is the best young player in the game today.

The big difference for this Thunder team is Russell Westbrook; Westbrook has been playing extremely well, averaging 23 points per game, five rebounds, and eight assists. Westbrook and Durant form the NBA’s leading scoring duo. Westbrook is the reason this year’s Thunder team could make a serious jump from being good to being great.

The Thunder still have a major hole in the middle; they simply don’t have a post presence. Serge Ibaka seems like a good player, but he's not a starting center and we don’t know if Cole Aldrich even knows how to play NBA basketball. The Thunder had a really tough time with Pau Gasol in the playoffs, and I expect them to struggle every time they go against a big man who can score.

The other obstacle holding back the Thunder is their age. They’re one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and in the NBA, young doesn’t equal wins. In terms of talent, this could be the second best team in the west, and talent is more important than experience. However, with teams like the Mavs, Jazz, and Spurs who have the talent and the experience, I can’t see the Thunder going past the second round.

2. Utah Jazz

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 12:  Deron Williams #8 of the Utah Jazz against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 12, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User i
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At one point in the offseason, it looked like the Jazz were in deep trouble. Carlos Boozer had signed with the Chicago Bulls, Wesley Matthews had signed with the Portland Trail Blazers, and Deron Williams was very unhappy with the direction the team was heading. Then the Jazz made one of the bigger moves of the offseason signing Al Jefferson in order to compensate for the loss of Carlos Boozer.

Seems like a huge win for the Jazz as Boozer has yet to make his season debut, and Jefferson has played well, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds. It’s still going to take some time for Jefferson to fully grasp and become more comfortable playing Jerry Sloan’s system, but so far Jefferson has played well, and seems like a solid fit playing alongside Deron Williams.

The Jazz are currently fourth in the west, but I think this team’s going to get better and better, and eventually claim the 2nd or 3rd seeds in the west. Deron Williams is playing like the best point guard in the NBA averaging 21 points and 10 assists. The Jazz still haven’t regained Mehmet Okur from injury yet.

The biggest factor is that Paul Millsap is playing like an all star. Millsap is averaging 19 points and eight rebounds. Many questioned Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor for rewarding Millsap with a big contract and letting Boozer walk. However, the move has greatly paid off, and with a trio of Williams, Jefferson, and Millsap, the Jazz could potentially get to the western conference finals.

1. San Antonio Spurs

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 08:  Teammates Tony Parker #9 and Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs walk onto the court against the Charlotte Bobcats before their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 8, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO US
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Spurs, not the Lakers, currently stand atop the west with a 13-2 record. The big reason: everyone is healthy. Tony Parker is playing at an all star level after a down year last season, Manu Ginobili is healthy and playing well, Richard Jefferson is rebounding from a very bad season.

Tim Duncan’s numbers are down, as he’s only averaging 13 points, and nine rebounds, the lowest of his career in both categories. Duncan’s minutes are also down; he’s only playing about 30 minutes a game. However, Coach Greg Popovich knows what he’s doing. He’s trying to limit his players' minutes in order to have them healthy for the playoffs.

While the Spurs are 1st in the west right now, I would be shocked if they finished in the top three, because they are going to pace themselves through these 82 games in order to get to the playoffs rested and healthy, unlike the past seasons.

This Spurs team is built for the playoffs; they remind me of last year’s Celtics team. They have an all star running the point, two wing players in Ginobili and Jefferson who are capable of going off, and a post presence in Tim Duncan, whom I expect to be ready for the playoffs, along with a solid bench that includes contributors like George Hill and Gary Neal.

This Spurs team won’t finish with the best regular season record. They won’t wow you or do anything flashy. However, they are this year’s version of last season’s Celtics. Don’t be surprised if everyone writes them off and you end up seeing them facing the Lakers in the western conference finals.


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