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The West’s “Other” Top 5 Contenders (Besides OKC/LAL)

It’s easy to see why the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers are the prohibited favorites in the Western Conference. Sipping from the Thunder and Lakers sweet and convincing Kool-Aid makes sense given the All-Star and Hall of Fame to-be names on their rosters.

But putting premature foregone conclusions aside, I offer libations of a different flavor. There are a handful of teams that play amongst those titans who have a chance to contend. If their stars are so inclined to align, the Western Conference may not be the open and shut case many think it will be.

Here are the five best Western Conference contenders outside of the Thunder and Lakers.

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5. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The Mavericks slipped badly last season and were ultimately swept out of the 2012 Playoffs by the Thunder. Then they whiffed on all of the big name free agents this summer after partially sacrificing their season for a chance at making a big offseason splash. Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard all passed on playing in Big D, leaving the Mavericks looking lottery-bound with an aging and untalented roster.

Then with rapid fire action they reloaded, adding Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, and O.J. Mayo within two weeks time. All are above-average players with points to prove, and should easily take to Rick Carlisle‘s philosophy.

Contention will depend on Kaman and Mayo. Kaman, a well-known outdoorsman, has trouble staying healthy enough to play the game he is paid to play indoors. The former All-Star has averaged 20 missed games per season over his 9-year career. He must play 70-plus games to give Dallas a chance. He’s their best offensive center in years.

Mayo could be a star, and has Most Improved Player potential by simple virtue of more consistent playing time. He fell out of favor in Memphis after a successful rookie season, and was regulated to a sixth man role under Lionel Hollins. How he responds to this fresh start while playing with a former MVP in Dirk Nowitzki should go a long way in determining the fate of the Mavs this season.

4. DENVER NUGGETS
If you’re looking for a team that seems to overachieve despite not having a legitimate superstar (or All-Star for that matter), then look no further than Denver. Over the last two seasons, they have been one of the surprise teams in the West since being forced to trade Carmelo Anthony. Last season, they pushed the Lakers to seven thrilling games in the Western Conference’s opening round before finally succumbing to Kobe and the Lake Show.

The Nuggets were already one of the fastest teams in the league, darting down the court with Tron-like speed, and they got even faster with this summer’s addition of Andre Iguodala. Many applauded Denver for the acquisition of Iggy, and when you factor in that it only essentially cost them Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington as part of the Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum deal, it does seem like a major coup. He will bring them a lockdown defender that can guard three positions, and another ballhandler outside of the emerging Ty Lawson and the veteran Andre Miller.

In addition to Iguodala, Denver re-upped with JaVale McGee over the summer (four years, $44 million) and hope the brilliance he showed in the playoffs was not just the work of a player in search of a new lucrative deal. His length patrolling the lane defensively should really help the Nuggets improve on defense, especially with Iguodala controlling the perimeter and Kenneth Faried cleaning up the boards.

The old moniker of “defense wins championships” is not lost on their coach, George Karl. The hope is that with an improved defense to compliment the league’s highest-scoring team last season (104 points a game) the Nuggets will be able to do more than scare Western Conference opponents in the playoffs. The thought of Lawson to Iguodala or Iguodala to McGee alley-oops is quite frightening if you are the opposition.

3. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
One has to wonder where the Memphis Grizzlies might be if they had a healthy roster heading into the playoffs the last two seasons. Rudy Gay missed the entire 2011 Playoff run while Zach Randolph was a shell of himself in the 2012 Playoffs after recovering from a very scary knee injury earlier in the season. The Grizzlies bowed out after seven games at the hands of the Clippers in last season’s first round, and are probably still slapping themselves for not winning.

Nevertheless, they enter the 2012-2013 season with renewed hope and a deep roster that seems to have great chemistry. Chemistry may be even better now that O.J. Mayo trade rumors will no longer surround the team. Memphis replaced Mayo with Jerryd Bayless, whose numbers were remarkably similar. Another plus is that Bayless really can play both guard positions, something Mayo was incapable of accomplishing in a failed experiment a few seasons ago.

Also, if you saw Josh Selby‘s performance in the Vegas Summer League, you would understand why they won’t miss Mayo. Selby was named Co-MVP of the 10-day affair and for good reason, averaging 27.5 points in Vegas. If he can be anywhere near that good, the Grizzlies will have exceptional depth at the guard position, which will include the No. 25 pick in the draft, Tony Wroten, and incumbent starter, Mike Conley.

Still it’s the Grizzlies frontline that powers the show. Marc Gasol transformed himself into an All-Star, while Gay and Randolph (a former All-Star) shoulder most of the scoring load. Their size is what gives them the advantage over most teams, ranking fifth in offensive rebounding last season (but a perplexing 26th on the defensive side).

Memphis can’t afford an injury to anyone on their starting frontline again this season if they are to have a puncher’s chance out West. Their size matches up well with both the Lakers and Thunder, but they will need to find more efficient ways to score to be more than just a nuisance in the playoffs.

2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
It is difficult to envision the Spurs hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next June… difficult but not impossible. Every season is the same for San Antonio, written off as non-contenders simply because experts think they should be put out to pasture. Their biggest offseason move was the inevitable re-signing of Tim Duncan. While Duncan would never appear in a Dos Equis commercial as the most interesting man in the world, he does bolster a team rich in tradition with a history of contending when they are not supposed to.

These Spurs evolved over the last two seasons, no longer pounding teams inside with a healthy dose of Duncan. Instead, led by Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, they fly up and down the court. They allow “The Big Fundamental” to pick his spots and use crisp ball movement to feed sparsely-known role players like Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Danny Green for open threes. All of that translated into the Spurs becoming the second-highest scoring team in the league last season at 103.7 points per game.

Questions surround their frontcourt depth with Tiago Splitter still very much in development and DeJuan Blair as an undersized center. Yet there is promise in small forward Kawhi Leonard, and much needed firepower coming off the bench from Stephen Jackson.

Count the Spurs out (again) if you want to, but Gregg Popovich will have this team in the hunt.

1. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
For a minute, the Clippers had a chance of stealing the hearts of basketball fans in L.A. They still might. The additions of Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green and Ronny Turiaf add needed depth to a roster that finished 26th in bench scoring last season. Odom’s ability to once again become a contributing member of a team is a looming question that the Clippers will need to get an answer to early on.

Those additions, plus the pending return of Chauncey Billups (Achilles injury) make the Clippers a legitimate 10-deep squad with interchangeable parts. The continued development of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will also factor into the equation.

Griffin suffered a knee injury over the summer that prevented him from joining the USA Olympic Team. Learning from the caliber of guys on that team would have gone a long way in Griffin’s development, and he also would have built a better rapport with Chris Paul. Still, Griffin is a monster talent who says he is healed and ready for the start of the season. Crawford, and everyone on the Nuggets, agrees.

Jordan, however, needs to be more than a thunderous pogo stick of dunks and put-backs, and probably should head for another session with legend Hakeem Olajuwon to polish his offensive game. But his defensive presence around the rim, and his ability to keep Griffin happy and loose, make him valuable.

Paul is simply one of the best competitors and talents in the league. There is little doubt that with him there to guide them, the team is primed to be legitimate contenders in the Western Conference.

The Thunder and Lakers may not be shaking in their boots at the thought of playing any of these teams in the playoffs. They’re too focused on eliminating one another en route to the Finals. But if Dallas, Denver, Memphis, San Antonio or the Clippers gets the right playoff matchup? Who knows.

Which of these teams has the best chance to knock off OKC or the Lakers?

Follow Warren on Twitter at @ShawSports.

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