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The NBA’s Western Conference is having one of its most competitive seasons in recent years. Don’t believe me? Just look at the frequency of lead changes in the standings or the constant jostling for position in various power rankings across the press. The term “wild, wild west” has never been more applicable, but let’s try to make the picture a little clearer.

The are four elite teams in the West: the San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers. While each of these teams has stood out from the rest of the conference, none of them has been able to establish undisputed ascendancy over the others.

The San Antonio Spurs, last year’s champions, are a modern day basketball dynasty, having won three of the past five NBA titles. The Spurs haven’t exactly turned heads with their play thus far, prompting some NBA pundits to proclaim their decline. I disagree.

San Antonio will take its game to another level over the second half of the season, as the team always seem to do. As long as the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are healthy, the Spurs will remain the team to beat in the playoffs. The team is seeking to win back-to-back championships for the first time in franchise history.

The division rival Dallas Mavericks should have something to say about the Spurs’ quest to repeat. Their meltdown in the playoffs last year, coupled with a drop-off in regular season performance compared to last year, has made many skeptical about their title chances. Dallas fans, however, look at the positives from the first half of the season — Dirk Nowitzki’s improved passing game, Devin Harris’s all-around improvement, and the productivity off the bench.

The Dallas front-office should resist pulling the trigger on any trade for All-Star Jason Kidd that involves giving up their talented, young point guard Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse. The Mavericks have all the parts they need to make a title run right now, and I expect them to do well in the playoffs.

The Phoenix Suns pulled off a massive trade to bolster their title hopes last week. While NBA fans have enjoyed the Suns’ entertaining play for the last few years, the franchise has not won the Western Conference title since 1993. Consequently, the front-office decided to trade away one of its stars, Shawn Marion, in a package for superstar Shaquille O’Neal. It remains to be seen whether this trade will propel the Suns to a title, but one thing’s for sure though — watching Steve Nash and the Suns come playoff time will be exciting.

The Los Angeles Lakers also made a big move before the trading deadline. Their deal was more of a steal though, getting the talented Spaniard Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for next to nothing. With Gasol, this team is now one of the best in the West. Kobe Bryant is playing well enough to finally earn his long-overdue first Most Valuable Player award, and the Lakers bench is arguably the best across the league.

There are several other quality teams in the West. New Orleans has been brilliant, led by this year’s best point guard Chris Paul (sorry Steve Nash). Paul and the Hornets should be a tough match for anyone in the playoffs (if they get there). The Utah Jazz also have a young stud at point guard, Deron Williams. While they have played brilliantly in spurts, they still lack a few essential pieces to go all the way.

The Denver Nuggets aren’t top contenders, but they can still be a factor in the playoffs with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony leading the way. Baron Davis has played superbly for the Golden State Warriors, but don’t expect a repeat of last year’s playoff run when they knocked off top-seeded Dallas. The Houston Rockets continue to be a quality team but they just haven’t improved enough to be a serious contender.

It remains to be seen how the West will be won, but as a fan, it sure does make for compelling viewing.