Ranking the West: Lakers once again team to beat

After what seemed an eternity, the Dwightmare is over. Team USA giddily won gold in London. And the Los Angeles Lakers are again the envy of the NBA.

When U.S. star of stars and Lakers icon Kobe Bryant squeezed Spain foe and L.A. teammate Pau Gasol for an extended embrace after Sunday's gold medal match, surely Bryant whispered in Gasol's ear to savor his stunning survival in Tinseltown and to sharpen his mind the rest of the summer for another championship run -- the one that will even Bryant with Michael Jordan at six.

Apologies to the NBA's fun bunch and reigning Western Conference champs in Oklahoma City, but the Lakers are again the team to beat. How can they not be? General manager Mitch Kupchak, the runaway favorite for Executive of the Year, shored up the club's greatest weakness by landing two-time MVP Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade, and last week incredibly upgraded at center as the other 29 franchise's could only shake their heads. L.A. shipped out All-Star Andrew Bynum and acquired the game's most dominant paint force, Dwight Howard.

The Lakers are set to roll out a starting five of Nash, Kobe, Metta World Peace, Gasol and Howard. A cynic might suggest that the first four average nearly 34 years of age and will never hold up. OK, but they collectively bring 27 All-Star Game appearances and three league MVPs. And that fifth guy on the list, Howard, is only 26 and is a six-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

With that, here's my early rankings for what should be a remarkably competitive West:


1. Los Angeles Lakers: The big question is if second-year Lakers coach Mike Brown is capable of handling this collection of talent and ego (somewhere in Montana Phil Jackson is contemplating a return). It's not only the two blockbuster moves that should create a more dynamic offense and a more intimidating defense that makes L.A. the favorite in the West, but also quieter moves that bolster the Lakers' previously questionable depth. Antawn Jamison, the 6-foot-9 veteran forward, will be elated to come off the bench and add scoring punch for this bunch (he averaged 17.2 points for Cleveland last season). Soon after Howard signed, the Lakers shrewdly signed free-agent shooting guard Jodie Meeks to shoot 3-balls (37.1 percent last season for Philadelphia) that will come in endless supply with this lineup. Backup point guard Steve Blake is back and so is young, 6-10 forward Jordan Hill, who sparked L.A. with energy and rebounding and even a bit of scoring after coming over at last season's deadline.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: Hey, we still love these guys. Kevin Durant might win 10 more scoring titles in a row, Russell Westbrook will continue to mature and James Harden and Serge Ibaka only seem to be scratching their potential. So why is it seemingly so easy to rank the West champs behind the Lakers? Because L.A. has double the number of scoring threats and that new defensive stopper in the middle. The Thunder will again rely on the same three scorers: Durant, Westbrook and Harden accounted for nearly 70 percent of the team's scoring last season. Ibaka, at 9.8 points a game, was the closest to averaging in double figures behind the Big Three and then there was significant dropoff to the next high-scorer, L.A. castoff Derek Fisher. Upon his arrival at the deadline, Fisher became the team's fifth-leading scorer and best 3-point option. He won't be back and the Thunder still lack scoring punch off the bench, although the return of Eric Maynor will help. Inside, even with Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder will be as hard-pressed as everyone else to contain Gasol and Howard.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: That other team in L.A. is pretty good these days and should get better. So close to becoming a Laker, Chris Paul has instead made the Staples Center co-tenant relevant and a real threat for next season, assuming health for himself and his buddies, starting with the most violent scorer in the league, Blake Griffin. Coach Vinny Del Negro takes a lot of grief, but he got an inconsistent and banged-up team to 40 wins (in 66 games), to finish with the No. 5 seed and to advance to the second round. He has more to work with this year starting with CP3 at the wheel and a ridiculously athletic front court. Veteran guard Chauncey Billups is coming off the early season Achilles injury and he'll be joined by a healthy Eric Bledsoe and an intriguing trio of newcomers including scorer Jamal Crawford replacing Mo Williams, veteran leader Grant Hill and Lamar Odom as he seeks to reclaim his reputation and a spot as one of the more versatile and useful forwards in the game.

4. San Antonio Spurs: The dream season of a year ago spiraled after taking a 2-0 lead on the Thunder in the West finals. It only gets tougher for Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who played at an MVP level last season, to get back to the Finals, a place they haven't been since 2007. Still, considering how Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford re-tooled the franchise on the fly, both in roster and style, the Spurs, who won 50 games last season, will again be a contender. In-season deals that sent out Richard Jefferson and brought in Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw were shrewd. Youngsters Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter will continue to improve.

5. Denver Nuggets: George Karl should have a lot of fun coaching this team, assuming he can keep center JaVale McGee relatively focused on most nights and always running in the direction of the right hoop. The 7-foot youngster has produced his share of laugh-out-loud bloopers, but he also showed in the playoffs against the Lakers that with time and patience he just might become a force to be reckoned with in this league. The up-tempo Nuggets helped to facilitate the Dwight Howard-to-L.A. trade by taking on Philadelphia 76ers All-Star and Olympian Andre Iguodala, 28, and sending off Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo. Adding Iguodala to a group that includes Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Corey Brewer should make for some fun times. Denver also brings back improving 7-1 center Timofey Mozgov and signed young power forward Anthony Randolph.

6. Dallas Mavericks: One of the most consistent and predictable outfits in all of basketball over the last dozen years is suddenly the mystery team of the league. If you lived under a rock from June 13, 2011, until now you won't recognize the Mavs outside of recently married Dirk Nowitzki and perennial bachelor Shawn Marion. It's going to take time for this team to come together, but there is intriguing potential here with Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo in the backcourt and Chris Kaman and Elton Brand joining Nowitzki, now 34 and coming off his first brush with Father Time, in the front court. Dallas failed to land Deron Williams, but recovered with a mix of speed and youth in the backcourt and a front court that is obviously not the most mobile, but is as savvy and crafty at scoring the ball as any the Mavs have fielded during their 12-year playoff run. Depth is questionable. There certainly isn't a scorer like Jason Terry to provide instant offense off the bench, but Delonte West, Vince Carter, Dahntay Jones, Brand and a rookies Jae Crowder and Bernard James are capable of being a solid backup group.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves: It's incredibly tempting to move the Wolves higher because this young, dynamic team should keep getting better under Rick Adelman. Obviously, how long it takes scintillating point guard Ricky Rubio to return from his unfortunate ACL injury last season and then ramp up his game will be a significant factor in the Wolves' quest for a first playoff berth since 2004. Rubio and All-Star/Olympian teammate Kevin Love, a 20-20 machine, have a nice cast around them with J.J. Barea, emerging center Nikola Pekovic and the additions of Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger replacing malcontent Michael Beasley on the wing.

8. Memphis Grizzlies: A team that struggled to shoot the 3-ball last season lost its most prolific bomber in Mayo and replaced him with Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington. The Grizz will continue to be a tough matchup because of their size and skill up front with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and they still possess a strong starting five with Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Rudy Gay. But Memphis finished 20th in the league in scoring last season and it doesn't appear it will be any easier for them to put up points. Never mind the mental recuperation after last season's choke job in Game 1 of their playoff series with the Clippers and then being unable to bury a banged-up Paul and Griffin in Game 7 at home.


Utah Jazz: This could easily round into a playoff team with an upgraded backcourt of Mo Williams and Randy Foye. Gordon Hayward has breakout potential and a front line that includes Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter will be rough and tough inside.

Portland Trail Blazers: Former Mavs assistant Terry Stotts takes over a roster that includes All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, J.J. Hickson and a two top-11 draft picks in point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard.

Golden State Warriors: There's some nice pieces here with Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Jarrett Jack and rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. But are there enough pieces to crash into the top eight for the first time since 2007?

Phoenix Suns: Had Mayo opted to come aboard, the re-tooling in the wake of face-of-the-franchise Steve Nash leaving would have looked a lot better. As it is, the Suns reclaimed PG Goran Dragic to replace Nash and added Luis Scola to Marcin Gortat up front.

New Orleans Hornets: From bust after Chris Paul left to boom after winning the lottery and selecting Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick and Austin Rivers at No. 10. New Orleans also re-signed big-time scorer Eric Gordon and sharpshooter Ryan Anderson as a new era officially begins.

Sacramento Kings: The team might be staying in Sacramento for the time being, but there's not a tremendous amount to get excited about as far as ending a six-year playoff drought. Jimmer Fredette needs a big year to complement DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas.

Houston Rockets: Jeremy Lin has his work cut out. GM Daryl Morey's maneuverings to land Howard failed and he's left with a hodgepodge roster that includes some nice-looking rookies and former Bulls backup center and defensive force Omer Asik.