PER Diem: Feb. 9, 2009

Finally, out of the morass, we have a second contender in the Western Conference worthy of the title.

All season long we've watched as one team after another has fumbled the opportunity to pass as a credible rival to the Lakers in the Western Conference. For much of the past two months, no team besides the Lakers has projected to win more than 53 games -- something that six Western clubs did a year ago.

That's all changed of late, thanks to the patented Rodeo Road Trip charge by the San Antonio Spurs. Sunday's 105-99 win in Boston was the Spurs' ninth victory in 11 games, and their ninth out of 10 if you discard the game they tanked to the Nuggets last week. Their only other loss came to the Lakers on the road.

In a league that has been the Big Four and the Little 26 all season, San Antonio has ascended to become the clear No. 5. Today's Power Rankings confirm that -- they're at 103.9, fifth in the league, even with the nolo contendere in Denver. And for the first time in months, a fifth team projects to win at least 55 games, as San Antonio's likely record is 55-27, according to today's Playoff Odds.

Meanwhile, the Spurs' rivals in the West keep finding new and creative ways to stumble. New Orleans, for instance, is without Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler, and probably will be without David West for a game or two as well after his scandalous cheap shot on Minnesota's Mike Miller on Sunday night. (Side note: How is it that nobody from the Timberwolves got in West's face after that?) Even when healthy, the Hornets have hardly looked like contending material.

The list goes on behind them. The Denver Nuggets were all excited about getting Carmelo Anthony back, and celebrated by losing by 44 to the New Jersey Nets. The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder and nearly followed it up by losing at home to the New York Knicks. The Dallas Mavericks lost Jason Terry just as they were playing well, the Houston Rockets have chemistry and injury issues, and the Phoenix Suns have decided to rebuild around their 35-year-old point guard. Somehow, the Utah Jazz trail all of them.

San Antonio still has five games left on its road trip, but the Spurs are already through the tough part. The final five games are on the road against Eastern Conference teams after the All-Star break, and only one opponent -- the Detroit Pistons -- has a winning record.

It's taken unusually long for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to recalibrate the mix in light of the Spurs' age issues, but now -- with Roger Mason, George Hill and Matt Bonner supplanting Bruce Bowen, Jacque Vaughn and Fabricio Oberto -- San Antonio has begun its annual second-half charge.

And the Spurs still could have another trick up their sleeves. They have no bad contracts and several short-term deals that could be packaged in a trade for another quality big man, so it stands to reason they could be one of the teams taking advantage of the fire sales going on around the league right now.

Add it all up, and one Western team has finally stuck its head out above the eight-team crowd below the Lakers. While San Antonio still has a long way to show it can play at L.A.'s lofty level, we can at least contemplate the possibility of an interesting Western Conference finals. For much of the season, that had seemed highly unlikely.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.