LOS ANGELES -- This is a good place to start.
Staples Center. Tuesday night.
The Lakers lining up on one side, receiving their latest championship rings and unveiling their latest banner on the wall. The Rockets across from them as the opening-night opponent.
Everyone is across from the Lakers, of course, but especially in the West. The team that tested them in the conference finals just lost its second-best player, with Amar'e Stoudemire leaving the Suns for New York. The team that faced them in the conference semifinals just lost its second-best player, with Carlos Boozer leaving the Jazz for Chicago, though Utah did respond nicely by landing Al Jefferson. And the team Los Angeles played in the West final the year before is a great uncertainty as long as the moving vans are still idling in front of Carmelo Anthony's house and the Nuggets are breaking down all around him.
That makes Houston a symbolic first challenger, symbolic more than anything because the return of Yao Ming obviously won't be close to Yao at his finest, because Kobe Bryant isn't 100 percent and Andrew Bynum is out, and because, in the real perspective in the face of any medical bulletin, it's Game 1. No course is being locked in for the next six or eight months.
But the Rockets are one of the potential threats -- established starters at every position, speed at point guard, a big-man presence if Yao stays healthy with the time restrictions -- and that makes this a good framing. Or at least as close to good as they'll get with so much transition around them in the West.
Not to mention the transition within. Bryant will play, but coach Phil Jackson has promised to be stingy with the minutes as Kobe comes back from knee surgery. Pau Gasol will play center with Bynum expected to be out until sometime around Thanksgiving while recovering from knee surgery and Lamar Odom will take Gasol's place at power forward, and having that luxury of depth is great. But it's not their preferred team. Plus, there was the preseason chopped up by health issues and the unwanted trip to Europe for exhibition games.
What hasn't changed through it all, since the great free-agent shuffle of the summer, is that most of the serious challenges figure to come from the East, from Miami travelling north through Orlando and continuing up to Boston, in some order. Chicago building a credible case wouldn't be a surprise. In the West, though, it's the Lakers by a wide margin, with most observers struggling to come up with someone to so much as push them before the Finals -- the secret ballot of general managers came back L.A. as 96.4-percent favorites to claim the conference title, followed by the Mavericks at 3.6 percent. Safe assumption of the moment: Dallas got that much only because rules prohibit Mitch Kupchak for voting for his own team.
There is every chance the conference will do more than throw a few pylons down in front of the Lakers, because the unexpected usually happens. No one saw the Suns of 2009-10 coming, and they turned into genuine threats. Same with the Nuggets a season earlier.
Maybe the Spurs. The annual mistake is counting them out too soon. At some point, people are going to have to realize it's better to be a year late counting them out than a year early, because early ain't happening.
Maybe the Mavericks. That's a pretty common choice for the No. 2-team in a one-team conference. There's a lot to like in Dallas.
Maybe the Thunder. Fifty wins last season without even coming close to their potential. Oklahoma City is obviously on the come up, but improving by 20 games to get to the half-century is easier than improving by eight or 10 to take the next step.
Maybe the Jazz. Deron Williams energized by the arrivals of Jefferson, Raja Bell and lottery pick Gordon Hayward.
Maybe the Rockets. If Yao returns to his former life as an impact player, they'll have real possibilities.
Or maybe it will turn out that the opening-night vibe was absolutely accurate. Maybe there really is no serious inner-conference threat to the Lakers.
Derek Fisher, the point guard of the two-time defending champions, was asked Monday, after the final tune-up practice before the season begins, if he sees anyone close to the Lakers in the West.
"I don't know," he said.
Fisher paused, searching for the right words, or for diplomacy.
"My most-reactionary, right-off-the-top-of-my-head answer would be no," he continued. "But that's just because of how I feel about my team, not because I know what everybody else is going to be capable of doing. But every season, there are a handful of teams, from each conference, that depending on how things unfold, legitimately could come out on top."
Jackson, asked the same question, Video said he had no idea who to put in that category but listed Denver, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and "it goes on and on. We know that it's going to be a struggle in the West before things... start settling in."
Then this is a good place to start.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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