Looks are never more deceiving than they are in the NBA's Western Conference.
Oklahoma City held what seemed to be exclusive rights to the conference championship as recently as summer 2012, when the Thunder's run-and-fun core of young stars was poised to make yearly trips to the Finals.
Then the Los Angeles Lakers got Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Thunder traded James Harden and it was hello, Lakers dynasty!
That sentiment lasted all of eight preseason games last fall.
There's still a team from Los Angeles with title hopes that aren't as fake as most noses in the 90210 neighborhood, but it isn't the Lakers.
The Clippers will try to conjure a championship under new coach Doc Rivers as the Boston Celtics did six years ago upon the formation of their Big Three.
Of course, the Clippers need Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to play up to their massive potential to have a Big Three.
Even then, they'll meet considerable resistance from the San Antonio Spurs, whose star remains bright with the rise of Kawhi Leonard, and the Thunder, who will be formidable once Russell Westbrook returns from his latest knee setback to join Kevin Durant.
There's also Golden State, eager to show that last season's playoff run was only a prelude to something far more memorable.
Houston remains giddy over Howard's arrival, though Rockets fans should probably wait to see how he fits into the Rockets' giddy-up offense before ordering championship T-shirts.
At least you know that Howard is going to have fun no matter what.
It's easy to overlook Memphis after the Grizzlies -- and then coach Lionel Hollins -- disappeared amid a snap-your-fingers-and-it's-over conference finals, but there's more than enough talent left on their roster for another foray deep into May.
Fringe playoff contenders include Minnesota, the Lakers, Denver and Portland. The Timberwolves seem like a smart bet to end their 10-year playoff drought behind Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and newcomer Kevin Martin.
Then again, around here, things aren't always as they seem.
BEN BOLCH PICKS WEST (IN PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH)
1. San Antonio
2012-13 finish: 58-24.
Coming: Marco Belinelli, Jeff Pendergraph.
Going: Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair.
Before anyone asks the Spurs to appear en masse on the next episode of "Derek," Ricky Gervais' thoughtful look at retirement home living, let's assess a few benefits of being old and reliable: San Antonio has finished first-first-second in the West over the last three seasons. Plus, the Spurs aren't really all that old; Kawhi Leonard, the team's new No. 3 option, is barely out of his Nickelodeon Jr. stage.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 finish: 56-26.
Coming: Coach Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens, Reggie Bullock.
Going: Coach Vinny Del Negro, Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill.
Chris Paul + Rivers equals NBA Finals? It's certainly possible, but a few things have to happen for the league's onetime lottery-pick franchise to reach the elite level. First, Blake Griffin needs to become a late-game offensive option and DeAndre Jordan must morph into a defensive force. If the Clippers can also improve their three-point shooting, well, see you in June.
3. Oklahoma City
2012-13 finish: 60-22.
Coming: Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Ryan Gomes.
Going: Kevin Martin, DeAndre Liggins.
Hello, anyone there besides Kevin Durant for the next four to six weeks? A team already dealing with separation anxiety after the departure of Kevin Martin now must gird itself for a month or more without Russell Westbrook and his worrisome right knee. Even the spindly wonder known as Durantula may not be enough to keep the Thunder from taking an early season tumble in the standings.
4. Golden State
2012-13 finish: 47-35.
Coming: Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, Jermaine O'Neal, Toney Douglas, Nemanja Nedovic.
Going: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush, Charles Jenkins, Jeremy Tyler.
As consolation prizes go, you can do a lot worse than Iguodala. The Warriors couldn't entice Dwight Howard but landed a lockdown perimeter defender who can also help facilitate one of the league's most dynamic offenses. The flip side is that they must replace Jack and Landry, whose toughness and court savvy rival anyone's.
2012-13 finish: 45-37.
Coming: Dwight Howard, Omri Casspi, Ronnie Brewer, Reggie Williams.
Going: Carlos Delfino, Thomas Robinson, James Anderson.
As the Lakers learned last season, the euphoria of landing Howard can quickly go from "Yay!" to "Yowzers!" Howard hasn't developed a go-to move around the basket after nine NBA seasons and it might take a NASA engineer to devise a formula to fix his misadventures at the free-throw line. At least he's lots of fun in the locker room before games.
2012-13 finish: 56-26.
Coming: Coach Dave Joerger, Kosta Koufos, Mike Miller, Nick Calathes, Jamaal Franklin.
Going: Coach Lionel Hollins, Darrell Arthur, Tony Wroten, Austin Daye, Keyon Dooling.
Grit-and-grind is giving way to get-the-shot-off ASAP under Joerger, an analytics adherent who noted that big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have been more effective scorers in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock while playing together. Mike Conley, perhaps the league's most underrated point guard, is fully capable of giving the offense some vroom.
2012-13 finish: 31-51.
Coming: Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf.
Going: Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour, Malcolm Lee, Mikael Gelabale.
Ricky Rubio's knee injury derailed the Timberwolves' playoff hopes in 2012. Last season, it was Kevin Love's hand. If the rest of the roster can get full-body protection from Lloyd's of London, then maybe the team will reach the postseason for the first time since 2004. Martin adds some needed consistent scoring and Brewer can be an occasional revelation off the bench.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
2012-13 finish: 45-37.
Coming: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Marcus Landry, Elias Harris.
Going: Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Darius Morris.
As best-case scenarios go, the Lakers' won't amount to much. If Kobe Bryant returns intact (and relatively early in the season), Pau Gasol and Kaman combine to give opponents 14 feet of hell, Nick Young plays a shred of defense and Steve Nash, 39, doesn't dissolve into dust before our eyes ... the Lakers could make the playoffs!
2012-13 finish: 57-25.
Coming: Coach Brian Shaw, Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, Darrell Arthur.
Going: Coach George Karl, Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos, Corey Brewer.
Shaw may discover that head coaching jobs aren't always as fun as they seem from the safety of the No. 2 gig. He'll have to deal with JaVale McGee's unfulfilled potential and Danilo Gallinari's knee injury, which could keep the dynamic small forward out until December. Wait, why did Shaw want this job again?
2012-13 finish: 33-49.
Coming: Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson, Thomas Robinson.
Going: J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith.
General Manager Neil Olshey is a smart guy, which means he knows his overhaul of the Trail Blazers might take a little more time to result in a playoff appearance. McCollum's broken foot won't help. On the plus side, Olshey added some quality depth to support the core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard.
11. New Orleans
2012-13 finish: 27-55.
Coming: Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Greg Stiemsma, Anthony Morrow.
Going: Robin Lopez, Greivis Vasquez.
The Pelicans hope to be all about transformation, from the new nickname to Evans finding a niche to suit his skills to Eric Gordon making it through a full season after playing in only 51 of a possible 148 games since joining the franchise. Holiday gives New Orleans its first upper-echelon point guard since Chris Paul's departure.
2012-13 finish: 41-41.
Coming: Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair.
Going: Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand, Mike James.
Strange but true fact: The Mavericks are only two years removed from an NBA title. Sad but true reality: It's probably going to take a lot longer for them to become contenders again. Their latest makeover has left them with a mishmash of parts that aren't going to add up to much in what could be Dirk Nowitzki's final season here.
2012-13 finish: 28-54.
Coming: Coach Mike Malone, Greivis Vasquez, Carl Landry, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ben McLemore.
Going: Coach Keith Smart, Tyreke Evans.
Having been granted a reprieve from moving to Seattle, the Kings cannot escape being once again unfit for NBA competition. Their prospects were dicey even before Landry suffered a torn hip flexor that could sideline him for the season's first four months. There's also the matter of how Malone will coexist with the capricious DeMarcus Cousins.
2012-13 finish: 25-57.
Coming: Coach Jeff Hornacek, Eric Bledsoe, Slava Kravtsov, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Alex Len.
Going: Coach Lindsey Hunter, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, Jared Dudley, Wesley Johnson.
The Suns should gird themselves for another possible painful departure one year after losing franchise cornerstone Steve Nash. Center Marcin Gortat's productive play and expiring contract make him a likely midseason trade target, particularly if the team finds itself embedded in last place in the Pacific Division.
2012-13 finish: 43-39.
Coming: Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush, John Lucas III, Andris Biedrins, Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert.
Going: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye, Kevin Murphy.
Wait, so the Jazz actually meant to acquire past-their-prime Richard Jefferson and Biedrins and their combined $20 million in salary? Oy, vey. If this is what it takes to take a stab at drafting Andrew Wiggins and give youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter a shot at carrying the team, well, get ready for lots of losses along the way.
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