Loosening up out West

Yahoo Sports

Steve Kerr's preseason conference rankings:
East | West

Minnesota and San Antonio are the teams to beat in the Western Conference, and there's considerable dropoff from there. As many as nine teams have a realistic chance at the third-best record in the conference, which means several very good teams won't even make the playoffs.

The good news for the conference? No more Shaq to deal with!

Here's how the Western Conference lines up on paper:

(1) San Antonio Spurs Southwest Division Last season's record: 57-25

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The Spurs would have beaten the Lakers in the playoffs last year if they had made a few more jump shots, but they went cold at the wrong time and faded. That's why Brent Barry may have been the best free agent signing of the offseason. Barry is one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, and he can play either guard spot, giving San Antonio great depth and versatility in the backcourt.

This team is terrific defensively, and will again rely on Tim Duncan to dominate games. Manu Ginobili is ready to become an all-star, and Tony Parker will get better and better. The Spurs are the team to beat.

(2) Minnesota Timberwolves Northwest Division Last season's record: 58-24

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The Wolves made a great playoff run a year ago, and they appear primed to take the next step and get to the finals. MVP Kevin Garnett finally received the help he needed from Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, but both are a bit long in the tooth. Their health and scoring could be the key for this team, because everything else is in place.

The Wolves have a terrific bench, great chemistry, good shooters and an excellent defense. Kevin McHale deserves credit for patiently allowing this team to develop; the Wolves are mentally tough as a result. Along with San Antonio, Minnesota is a favorite to win the conference.

(3) Denver Nuggets Northwest Division Last season's record: 43-39

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How about the job general manager Kiki Vandeweghe has done? The Pepsi Center was empty two years ago, but the place was rocking by the end of last season and it will be even louder this year with the addition of Kenyon Martin.

Jeff Bzdelik's squad should be improved, as Carmelo Anthony has a year under his belt and Andre Miller feels more comfortable in his second year running the club. The Nuggets snuck up on the league and really overachieved a year ago, and they'll have to deal with higher expectations this season. Their great depth should help them to improve and again make the playoffs.

(4) Utah Jazz Northwest Division Last season's record: 42-40

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A year ago I looked at the Jazz roster and predicted 25 wins. I should have realized that with Jerry Sloan at the helm, that just wasn't going to happen. Sloan has established a foundation so strong in Salt Lake City that even the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone didn't faze him.

This season, with the free agent signings of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur and the drafting of Kirk Snyder, the Jazz have some talent to help Andrei Kirilenko. And with emerging point guard Carlos Arroyo gaining confidence with his terrific Olympics showing, Utah should be back in the playoffs.

(5) Houston Rockets Southwest Division Last season's record: 45-37

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With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets have maybe the best one-two combination in the NBA. But who will run the ship?

Charlie Ward will be reunited with Jeff Van Gundy, but his best days are behind him. Ward will probably share minutes with Tyronn Lue at the point, and Bobby Sura will help too. Lost in the McGrady trade was the addition of Juwan Howard, who is ideally suited to be the third scorer Houston will need behind its Big Two.

Van Gundy will slow the pace down so as not to wear out Yao in defensive transition, and as athletic as McGrady is, he has always preferred a half-court pace anyway. Van Gundy will feel much more comfortable with this club than last year's Rockets and they'll be a tough out in the playoffs.

(6) Memphis Grizzlies Southwest Division Last season's record: 50-32

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A year ago, Hubie Brown's squad beat teams with its depth and defense. Brian Cardinal adds shooting and effort to an already potent bench, but the key to this team reaching another level will be the continued development of Pau Gasol.

For Memphis to become a great team, Gasol has to become what Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are for their respective teams: dominant, dynamic and tough. Gasol is young and still developing, and appears ready to take that next step. He was fantastic for his native Spain in the Olympics, and this could be a breakout season for him.

(7) Los Angeles Lakers Pacific Division Last season's record: 56-26

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Well, Kobe has always wanted the Lakers to be his team, and now that Shaq is gone they are. But as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

The Hollywood crowd will barely recognize this club as Rudy Tomjanovich brings in a new cast of characters and a new offense to L.A. Gone is Phil Jackson's 'share the wealth' triangle. Rudy T will give the ball to Kobe 50 times a night and he'll win the scoring title.

The question is, can the Lakers defend well enough to win at a high level? Lamar Odom will complement Kobe well as a distributor, and Vlade Divac returns to L.A. and will man the high post as the best passing center in the league. The Lakers will be fun to watch and have a chance to be good, but it may take some time.

(8) Phoenix Suns Pacific Division Last season's record: 29-53

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The Suns look a lot like Dallas and Sacramento from the past few seasons: explosive perimeter talent, a coach who likes to play small ball and not a lot of beef inside. It remains to be seen whether Phoenix can shoot as well as the Kings and Mavs, which is what made those two teams so tough to defend.

Steve Nash will lead the attack, and he'll be a great addition to a team in need of leadership. Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson and Shawn Marion are quick, athletic and versatile. Look for coach Mike D'Antoni to employ them together in a switching, attacking defense.

But the key to this club over the next two years is Amare Stoudemire. The third-year pro is as explosive as any big man in the NBA, but he's very raw and has a long way to go to develop into a dominant big man. If he does, Phoenix could challenge for the Pacific Division title.

(9) Dallas Mavericks Southwest Division Last season's record: 52-30

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Dirk Nowitzki remains the star for Dallas, but the roster turnover the past couple of seasons has been alarming. Erik Dampier is the latest newcomer after the failed experiments with Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison a year ago.

Don Nelson will be glad to have Dampier's defense and rebounding, but he'll have to figure out a way to fit him into the up-tempo offensive style Nellie enjoys.

The Mavs sustained a huge loss when Steve Nash decided to sign with Phoenix, but Mark Cuban's club quickly replaced him by trading for Jason Terry and drafting Devin Harris from Wisconsin.

(10) Sacramento Kings Pacific Division Last season's record: 55-27

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The Kings could be in for a big fall this season. They lost Divac and have some chemistry issues. Predrag Stojakovic took offense to Chris Webber's comments regarding his playoff shooting woes after the Kings lost to Minnesota. Divac – the leader of this team the past few years – won't be there to soothe the wounds.

As for Webber, he can no longer elevate off of his injured knee, and his game has suffered as a result. Mike Bibby is a great shooter and terrific player, and Bobby Jackson provides instant offense off the bench. Brad Miller had a great season in his first year as a King, and young Darius Songaila will emerge as Miller's backup.

The Kings will still be explosive and fun to watch, but they appear to be losing their mojo. And bad defense and no mojo is not a good combination.

(11) Portland Trail Blazers Northwest Division Last season's record: 41-41

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The Blazers will be under the radar this year, but they still have some talent and could be a factor in the West.

Zach Randolph is now the centerpiece of this team, and while his numbers are very good, he needs to take the next step and be a better defender and leader. It's very difficult to dominate games as a small power forward, but the Blazers are counting on Randolph to do it.

The trade of Dale Davis for Nick Van Exel gives Portland more firepower but exposes them in the middle defensively. Theo Ratliff will need to have a big year for this team to compete for a playoff spot.

(12) Los Angeles Clippers Pacific Division Last season's record: 28-54

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Can the Clips ever get it right? As usual, L.A. has some talent. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are two dynamic forwards who compliment each other pretty well. But high school phenom Shaun Livingston surely isn't ready to step in and lead this team to the playoffs. It looks like another season of looking toward L.A.'s future – but will it ever arrive?
(13) New Orleans Hornets Southwest Division Last season's record: 41-41

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The Hornets aren't really happy about moving into the Western Conference, and they'll have to make the best of it without their 20-point scorer Jamal Mashburn, who will miss the entire season with a knee injury that threatens to end his career.

Jamaal Magloire and P.J. Brown anchor a solid defense, but New Orleans desperately needs scoring and athleticism to aid Baron Davis. He's asked to carry too much of the load offensively, and without Mashburn, this team will struggle to make the playoffs in such a strong conference.

(14) Golden State Warriors Pacific Division Last season's record: 37-45

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Mike Montgomery moves across the Bay to take on a more daunting rebuilding task than the one he inherited at Stanford. College coaches do not have a great recent track record in the NBA, and Montgomery's is not likely to improve upon it given the team he has inherited.

There are no real stars around whom to build, so he'll try to get this team to defend and play hard. Jason Richardson is still blossoming, and rookie Andris Biedrins is well-liked by a lot of scouts. The signing of Derek Fisher will help in terms of leadership, and he's certainly made a ton of big shots in his career. But how many big shots will be available for a team unlikely to win more than 30 games?

(15) Seattle SuperSonics Northwest Division Last season's record: 37-45

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It's tough to envision this club doing much of anything this season. Ray Allen is probably the best shooter in the NBA, and Rashard Lewis is one of the better offensive small forwards in the game. But the Sonics have no post presence, and are underwhelming on defense.

Nick Collison returns after missing his entire rookie season, but it's unrealistic to think he will make a huge difference in his first year of action The Sonics are on the bottom looking up at the rest of the Western Conference.