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Lakers still rule the West, but conference has plenty of good teams

The West isn’t a Lakers lake, as it was in the ‘80s when they reached eight NBA Finals, beating five Western finalists, 32-7.

Nor is it the land of titans it was in 2000-2002, when the Lakers won three titles while finishing No. 2 in the conference to San Antonio in 2001 ... and No. 2 in the Pacific Division to Sacramento in 2002 when the Kings and Spurs were 1-2 in the West.

Injury issues and all, the Lakers are favored to come out of the Western draw for the fourth season in a row over ... whomever.

No new rival at the Lakers’ level has emerged, although the young Oklahoma City Thunder has its own ideas about that.

Athletic as the Thunder is, with Jeff Green, who’s 24, the only starter over 22 and a willowy front line, their future may not be quite yet.

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Meanwhile, several old challengers — San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Portland — have gone away.

The Spurs, who were already veterans, are three years older than they were in 2007, their last Western finals.

Even if it’s late in the game, newly arrived Tiago Splitter could be the missing piece. Unfortunately, after sitting out the preseason because of a calf injury, he may need time to show it.

The Suns shopped Amare Stoudemire for two years before finally deciding they wanted to keep him.

Unfortunately, Stoudemire’s contract ran out in the interim. Now he, and the Suns, are just a high-scoring memory in Phoenix.

The Trail Blazers, who keep losing Greg Oden, also misplaced General Manager Kevin Pritchard, who was fired after run-ins with owner Paul Allen’s corporate minions.

The Nuggets are under a gun wielded by Carmelo Anthony, who wants to play in a bigger market. Unless they dazzle him, or several million people move there, that will be that.

If titans are in short supply, however, good Western teams aren’t.

Not that the Lakers look as if they’re going to run away and hide, with Kobe Bryant still not back all the way and Andrew Bynum not back at all.

If Phil Jackson’s 10 Lakers seasons are a guide, expect the unexpected.

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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