Updated: Nov. 15, 2006, 4:42 PM ET

Fresh challengers in West

After the first weeks of the NBA season, I think we're seeing a Western Conference that is more wide open than people thought.

It's not just San Antonio, Dallas and everybody else.

There are many clubs showing signs of being potential contenders: both Los Angeles teams, Phoenix with a healthier Amare Stoudemire, the rise of Houston, and now Denver showing signs of life. The West has a lot of teams now that can be considered to have a shot at the conference finals.

Here's how I rank them so far.

1. San Antonio Spurs (6-1) -- We know what Tim Duncan and Tony Parker can give. But Manu Ginobili remains the wildcard. When he's good, the Spurs are good.

2. Utah Jazz (7-1) -- A team with great talent. When healthy, Jerry Sloan has the best halfcourt offense in the game. But health is a concern with this team, with Andrei Kirilenko hurt again.

3. Houston Rockets (5-3) -- Is Yao ready to take the torch as the game's best big man? Yao-McGrady-Battier is a potent trio.

4. Los Angeles Clippers (5-2) -- Sam Cassell can still get it done. Once Elton Brand and Chris Kaman start hitting on all cylinders, we'll see how good they can be.

5. Dallas Mavericks (3-4) -- Still trying to integrate the new guys. They're playing better. The guys have to adjust to what Avery Johnson wants defensively without losing their offensive identity on the way.

6. Phoenix Suns (2-5) -- The conditioning of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire hurt them early on, but Steve Nash is the key. As he goes, so goes this team.

7. Los Angeles Lakers (5-3) -- One of the surprise teams. Andrew Bynum is growing up quickly. Is he ready to be the next great post-up center? It's interesting that their record is better without Kobe Bryant. They have hit on something with Lamar Odom as their point forward. If he can continue that while integrating Kobe, they could be very scary.

8. Denver Nuggets (3-3) -- Carmelo Anthony would be leading the league in scoring had he not been ejected from one game. He's been great. I like the energy guys they're using, Reggie Evans, Eduardo Najera and DerMarr Johnson.

9. Sacramento Kings (4-2) -- Quietly one of the better teams around. The emergence of Kevin Martin, a very complete player, has been important. When they get Brad Miller back, they still have one of the best teams in the West.

10. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (5-3) -- Are the Hornets for real? We'll watch if they maintain this good energy level. Chris Paul and David West are helped by the news that Tyson Chandler seems to have reverted to form as one of the best rebounders in the game.

11. Golden State Warriors (5-3) -- As expected, they're better with Don Nelson. His style will make them even better. Are they going to trade Adonal Foyle?

12. Portland Trail Blazers (4-4) -- Better than expected. Jarrett Jack is a pleasant surprise. Zach Randolph is on a mission. When Brandon Roy is back and healthy, they're even more dangerous. But not a playoff team yet.

13. Seattle SuperSonics (4-4) -- An inconsistent team. Are they going to stay with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis or change direction and build? If the team doesn't play well, look for them to be traded. Earl Watson wants to be dealt already.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-4) -- Looks like Craig Smith is going to have a bigger impact in his rookie year than Randy Foye. Kevin Garnett's still great -- but will the team move him and rebuild?

15. Memphis Grizzlies (1-5) -- Mike Fratello could be one of the early coaching casualties. Playing without Pau Gasol is as tough as it gets.

ESPN analyst Kiki Vandeweghe, who was the Nuggets GM for five years until last spring, played 13 NBA seasons, averaging 19.7 ppg for four teams from 1981-1993.

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The Power Of Tim
Tim Duncan
Bill Baptist//NBAE via Getty Images
Tim Duncan (19 points, 15 rebounds) helped lead the Spurs to a 92-84 win over the Rockets. It was San Antonio's seventh straight win over Houston.


Hollinger's Observation Deck: Bucks-Hawks

MILWAUKEE BRUISER: Dan Gadzuric needs to learn how to take a charge. He had the baseline covered on a Joe Johnson drive but never got into proper defensive position, and ended up with a blocking foul even though Johnson basically dribbled right into him. He ended up the first half with three fouls in four minutes, which is pretty much par for the course with him.

PLEASE FLOP: Now it's Andrew Bogut's turn. Josh Smith sticks a knee in his chest while leaping to make a pass and Bogut does an unconvincing half-stumble backwards. Fall down dude, you'll get the call every time. Later he took a pathetic flop on a drive by Zaza Pachulia and ended up conceding a layup.

WALK CALL: Next item for officials' points of emphasis -- calling traveling on the catch on the perimeter. Michael Redd took an inbound pass and casually strolled four steps without penalty before making his next maneuver, much to the dismay of the locals.

IN LUE GIFTS: If you're talking about Sixth Man contenders, don't forget Tyronn Lue -- he's playing out of his mind. The Hawks were getting rolled in the first quarter and Lue completely turned things around when he came in. It's not just the offense either -- he's defending much more aggressively. In a related story, he's a free agent next summer.

JUST SHOOT IT: Shelden Williams' muscle has helped the defense, but he's really struggling offensively. Josh Smith found him wide open under the hoop and Williams, instead of going straight up, went shot-fake/dribble/shot-fake and ended up traveling.

ROBBIN' BLAKE: Steve Blake just got murdered by Lue -- some on screen and rolls where Gadzuric and Skinner didn't slow down the dribbler much, but several times on straight drives. Everyone likes how Blake runs an offense, but he's gotta provide some resistance.

JOSHIN': Josh Smith did a nice job of keeping his head in the game even when the shots aren't falling -- which hasn't always been the case. He's made several outstanding hustle plays at both ends of the court in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, he turned in a 1-for-12 disaster offensively because he's been way too reliant on long jumpers.

YOUNG TURK: There was an Ersan Ilyasova sighting tonight, and he's gonna get more minutes if he plays like this. He held up much better than I expected on D and ended up playing the entire fourth quarter, scoring seven points. Most notably, he made a key switch on Joe Johnson on the final possession, contested the shot and got the rebound.

SHOOTERS ROLLING: Huge win for the Bucks -- they had this game under control before Charlie Villaneuva went out, and can thank Michael Redd for pulling it out down the stretch. Watching Redd and Johnson are going shot for shot down the stretch was one of the better finishes you'll see.

-- John Hollinger



Continental Drifter
Fred Powers (LA): Marc, why do you want to see NBA teams eventually in Europe? It's the NATIONAL Basketball Association for a reason, and wouldn't the travel between countries be brutal for the players? The playoffs would be a joke because the players would be dead tired. If you want to see a game in Europe so badly, there are already plenty of leagues which fantastic players playing year round. Enjoy your trip and bring me something nice!

Marc Stein: Because I love Europe, plain and simple. It's purely for selfish reasons. I actually agree with all the logistical concerns you cite and I'm even more pessimistic than you. I don't think a European division will ever work. Doesn't mean I can't dream about it, though.

See the full Marc Stein chat Insider




Winning Tune

The Utah Jazz are off to their best start in eight years with a 112-90 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night. Mehmet Okur had 27 points and Matt Harpring added 22 to lead Utah.

Jazz top Clippers, improve to 7-1



Dueling With The Stars
LeBron James and Nate Robinson
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Carmelo Anthony sends home two of his 33 points over Dwyane Wade (37 points) in a 112-105 win over the Shaq-less Heat.



Extreme Behavior
Peja Stojakovic

Tuesday's Best
Hornets forward Peja Stojakovic: His career-high 42 points led the Hornets to a 94-85 win over the Bobcats. With David West out of in action, the Hornets needed that.

Gary Payton

Tuesday's Worst
Heat guard Gary Payton: With his clutch 2006 NBA Finals play, people were back in love with The Glove, downright smitten with the Mitten. But a three-point, four-foul night against the Nuggets makes those days seem far, far away.

Quote of the Day
"We can't stop anybody right now."
-- Heat coach Pat Riley, after his team lost to Denver.

-- Andrew Ayres



Observation Deck: Kobe Challenger

ANTHONY ADVENT: I'm starting to think for the first time that 'Melo can lead the league in scoring. Actually, I think he will. He's become an impossible matchup, and his conditioning is now up to "leading scorer in the league" levels for the first time in his career. -- David Thorpe

C'MON KAMAN: Against a big and physical Utah team, the Clippers needed a matching presence inside. Instead they got a zombie-like performance from Chris Kaman. And they got their heads handed to them. Mr. Kaman has got to take that performance personally, and see that it does not happen again. -- Thorpe

RUSSIAN JUDGMENT: The answer is a resounding "YES"! The question? Can the Jazz play decently without AK-47. -- Thorpe

FEEL YOUR PAIN: There are a few guys in the league who are so miserable at the line, that it's just down right painful to watch them attempt a free throw. The sight of Shaquille O'Neal (44 percent this season), Ben Wallace (career 42 percent) Tim Duncan (career 68 percent) or Eric Snow (16 percent this season) at charity stripe has been making us cringe for years. Add Warriors' 7-footer Andris Biedrins to the list. Biedrins, a career 37 percent free throw shooter, wears that "there's-no-way-I'm-making-this-face" every time he steps to the line. -- Chris Ramsay

KEEPS ON TICKIN': Sam Cassell is having an amazing season. He has the Clippers on top of the Pacific Division. He leads his team in scoring (20 ppg) and assists (5 apg) and he can still get a shot off just about any time he wants. Not bad for a guy who turns 37 on Saturday. -- Ramsay



From Worst To Burst

The Good
Portland's offense. The Blazers were the worst offensive team in the league a year ago, and it wasn't even a close worst.

With much of the same crew intact this year, I wasn't expecting much of a change, especially with Darius Miles injured and rookie Brandon Roy in the lineup (scuffling along at 37.7 percent shooting). But lo and behold, the Blazers are a healthy seventh in offensive efficiency, right between the Suns and Clippers. Several factors have come together to make this possible: Jarrett Jack has proved a quick study at the point, Martell Webster got his bearings as an NBA player and Travis Outlaw awakened from a multiyear coma after somebody told him it was a contract year.

But nobody has made more of an impact than Zach Randolph, who has totally dominated in the post (27.3 ppg, 91.0 percent FT) and even thrown a pass once in a while. He probably won't play quite so ridiculously well all year, so the other Blazers need to keep stepping up.

Full John Hollinger story Insider



Ford's Daily Dish: Jerry West

How long until Memphis Grizzlies President of Basketball Operations Jerry West retires? Is his head coach on the hot seat? If he were still in Los Angeles, would he have kept Kobe or Shaq?

Ford: Daily Dish with Jerry West

 

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