Western Conference as rugged as ever entering 2014-15 NBA season with Spurs leading the way

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Calling it the Wild West just doesn't do it justice anymore.

The NBA's Western Conference is brutal. It's loaded with talent. And the eight teams that make it through a gruelingly competitive regular season to reach the playoffs will only find slugging their way to the NBA Finals even more daunting.

Even after Minnesota traded All-Star Kevin Love to LeBron James and Cleveland and Pau Gasol left the Los Angeles Lakers for the Chicago Bulls, the balance of power still resides firmly out West.

Last season 10 teams in the West had better records than the East's eighth-place Atlanta Hawks. Seven teams won at least 50 games as opposed to just two in the East. The Dallas Mavericks won 49 and the Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs despite surprising the basketball world with 48 victories.

It doesn't figure to drop off this season, either.

The Spurs return everybody from a team that won 62 games in the regular season and dethroned the Miami Heat in the finals. Dallas lured Chandler Parsons away from rival Houston to give Dirk Nowitzki another scoring threat and Anthony Davis appears poised to become the league's next superstar as he tries to help the New Orleans Pelicans break into the crowded playoff field.

A look at the West:


PLAYOFF BOUND

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: The band is back together, just as it's always been. The one thing Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have yet to accomplish is win back-to-back titles. With Kawhi Leonard blossoming and preparing to take over as the face of the franchise, the Spurs are ready to roll again.

2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: New owner Steve Ballmer has buried the embarrassing Donald Sterling reign under an avalanche of enthusiasm. And Blake Griffin is shooting 3s. Look out.

3. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: They swapped coach Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr and fortified their depth with Shaun Livingston. But the biggest deal might be the one they didn't make, turning down a chance to land Kevin Love from the Timberwolves because they wanted to keep Klay Thompson.

4. DALLAS MAVERICKS: The team that gave the Spurs the most trouble in the playoffs last season got a whole lot better over the summer, adding Parsons, big man Tyson Chandler and steady point guard Jameer Nelson to the arsenal of coach Rick Carlisle, one of the few who can match coaching wits with Popovich.

5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Would be much higher on this list, but Kevin Durant's foot injury looms large. They'll be fine once he returns, but an extended absence will make it hard for the Thunder to crack the top half in this conference.

6. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: They won 50 games last season despite dealing with injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. They also were set back early by new coach Dave Joerger's ill-fated efforts to speed up the offense. Now that everyone is healthy and on the same page, the Grizzlies are ready to grind again.

7. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: They took the Spurs approach this summer, making smaller tweaks around their established core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum and hoping continuity breeds success.

8. HOUSTON ROCKETS: Hey, somebody has to finish eighth. Losing Parsons could put more pressure on Dwight Howard and James Harden to carry the load.


IN THE MIX

9. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: Davis was a monster for Team USA. If the Pelicans can stay healthy, they could sneak in.

10. PHOENIX SUNS: They won't sneak up on anyone this year. If they are to improve, Eric Bledsoe will have to earn that $70 million extension.

11. DENVER NUGGETS: Welcome back, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari. Keep growing, Kenneth Faried.


FACING LONG ODDS

12. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett have loads of potential. But it will take time to recover from trading Love.

13. SACRAMENTO KINGS: DeMarcus Cousins should make his first All-Star team. That will likely be their highlight of the season.

14. LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Steve Nash is already out. Not even a 28-year-old Kobe Bryant could carry this crew to the playoffs.

15. UTAH JAZZ: Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter need to start asserting themselves if the Jazz are going to make a jump.


WHAT TO KNOW

NEW COACHES: The West has four new coaches. Flip Saunders (Minnesota) returns for a second tour, Quin Snyder (Utah) is a respected hoops tactician, Byron Scott (Lakers) has ties to the Showtime glory days and Kerr (Golden State) has never coached but already has pressure to win right away.

FA'S TO WATCH: Marc Gasol will be coveted if Memphis lets him get to free agency next summer. The Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, Sacramento's Rudy Gay and Portland's Wesley Matthews could all cash in as well.

WESTBROOK'S TIME: The shoot-first point guard will have to shoot even more while the MVP recovers.

KOBE'S BACK: He's 36 and coming off two major injuries. The Lakers may be bad, but watching Bryant fight off Father Time will be compelling.

HISTORY MADE: WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon joins the Spurs as the NBA's first full-time female assistant.


Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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