The Wild Wild West

. Saturday, February 23, 2008
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There's nothing more annoying than when older sports fans go on about how the NBA is "nothing like it was in the glory days" or that "things haven't been the same since Michael Jordan retired".

I'd argue that the NBA experienced a return to those "glory days" earlier in this decade with the Los Angeles Lakers battling teams like the Sacramento Kings and Portland Trailblazers in legendary playoff series'.

For NBA fans who still feel disenchanted with the product, the remainder of the 2008 season should provide them with just the roller coaster ride they are looking for.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have loaded up and finally reclaimed a spot atop the NBA totem pole. The Detroit Pistons are still as tough as ever and the Orlando Magic are an exciting and dangerous young team led by emerging-by-day superstar Dwight Howard.

The real action, however, is taking place in the Western Conference. The West has long been the superior conference, but that dominance has been turned up a notch this season. The current 8th seed in the West, the 33-21 Denver Nuggets would currently be the fourth seed, only a game behind the third place Orlando Magic.

Adding to that dominance are the acquisitions that Western Conference teams have made in recent weeks, including the Lakers getting Pau Gasol, the Mavericks getting Jason Kidd and the Suns trading for Shaquille O'Neal.

With all the moves, it's anyone's guess as to who is going to win the Western Conference prize, but we'll attempt to size it up here at the halfway point of the season.

1.) San Antonio Spurs, 36-17: While many people aren't fans of it, I'm a big believer in the "champions are the champions until someone beats them theory". The Spurs 36-17 record, which would be excellent most years, is good enough for only fifth in the West this year. Because of the strength of the teams around them, people seem to be forgetting how good this Spurs team really is. The Spurs have more playoff experience than just about every team they're battling with out West, and despite what their record is or where they ultimately finish in the standings, the path to the NBA Finals still goes through San Antonio. The team recently made a somewhat under the radar move, acquiring power forward Kurt Thomas. Compared to Shaq, Kidd and Gasol he's not a big name, but he's an underrated player for what he brings to the table, and most importantly is a big body inside that can defend players like Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum come playoff time.

2.) Los Angeles Lakers, 37-17: What seemed to be a sinking ship at the beginning of the season has now become a well-oiled machine. Kobe Bryant has to be pleased that he now has the kind of team around him that he's been looking for. The acquisition of Pau Gasol for virtually nothing has to go down as one of the all-time great coups in NBA history. It can be argued that they're the best team in the West right now WITHOUT Andrew Bynum, who is scheduled to return from his knee injury next month. And don't forget defensive ace Trevor Ariza is on his way back soon from a similar knee injury. The big advantage the Lakers have over almost every other Western Conference team is their versatile lineup. They have the size to slow it down against a team like the Spurs, and the speed and quickness off the bench with guys like Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar to play an up tempo game with teams like Phoenix and Dallas.

3.) New Orleans Hornets, 38-17