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More Kerr: Eastern Conference preseason rankings

Just two years ago, the Western Conference resembled the world order prior to the fall of the Soviet Union: Two superpowers – the Lakers and Spurs – muscling each other for supremacy, each team's every move geared towards beating the other. But with Shaquille O'Neal's departure to South Beach, the Lakers franchise fell faster than the Berlin Wall, leaving San Antonio as the lone power out west.

So while contenders like Houston, Denver and Phoenix hustle and try to figure out how to topple San Antonio's dynasty, the Spurs simply sit back, count their rings and add pieces to a puzzle that is already complete. Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel make the defending champs that much scarier. As a result, the Western Conference appears to be a race for second place.

That race, though, will be very interesting. What the conference lacks in elite teams, it more than makes up in depth. As many as 13 teams have a realistic shot at the playoffs, with only Portland and New Orleans being non-factors.

This is how the West looks – from the top to the bottom – going into training camp.

1. San Antonio Spurs – The rich get richer. The Spurs return everyone. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are in their prime and now the Spurs have Finley and Van Exel. Oh my.

2. Houston Rockets – Yes, the backcourt is aging, but Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady looked awfully good together in the postseason. They should break through in a big way this season.

3. Denver Nuggets – They took off under George Karl when he was hired in midseason. Now Carmelo Anthony and company have him for a full year.

4. Phoenix Suns – They'll be without Amare Stoudemire until late February. Can the Suns stay in the race? Mike D'Antoni thinks they can. Phoenix still has MVP Steve Nash running the show and some new weapons in Kurt Thomas, James Jones and Raja Bell. The Suns will find a way to score a lot of points.

5. Sacramento Kings – How good is Geoff Petrie? He managed to overhaul an aging, overpaid roster and transform it into a good young team. All in the span of one year.

6. Dallas Mavericks – They lost their leader in Steve Nash last season, and now they've lost their heart and soul in Michael Finley. The Mavs will miss him more than they think.

7. Utah Jazz – The Jazz hope they finally have their replacement for John Stockton in Deron Williams. The key for this team, though, is staying healthy.

8. Los Angeles Lakers – Phil Jackson returns, and he'll solidify this club. Kobe Bryant is still one of the top-five players in the NBA, but who will play alongside him at the point position?

9. Golden State Warriors – The Warriors might be the surprise team of the season. They're young, fast and fearless. If Baron Davis stays healthy, they could be in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

10. Seattle SuperSonics – Can the Sonics repeat their magical season of a year ago? It will be tough to do, especially without Antonio Daniels and Jerome James.

11. Minnesota Timberwolves – The Wolves felt like they achieved addition by subtraction by unloading Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. But there wasn't much of a talent upgrade this offseason.

12. Memphis Grizzlies – They also shed themselves of some malcontents and added solid veterans in Damon Stoudamire, Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson. But they won't be enough to get the Grizzlies back to the playoffs.

13. Los Angeles Clippers – It's the same old story for the Clips. They have loads of talent, but will it all fit together? There are so many scorers but not enough distributors. One basketball won't be enough for this group.

14. Portland Trail Blazers – Nate McMillan takes over and gives the Blazers hope for the future, but they're still a few years away from contending.

15. New Orleans Hornets – As if things weren't bad enough for this franchise, now they're displaced from their home due to Hurricane Katrina and will play in Oklahoma City. The Hornets are in for a long season.

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