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The Los Angeles Lakers, if healthy, should be the favorite, but the Suns, Nuggets and Jazz loom.

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Denver center Nikola Jokic will lead his Nuggets in the loaded NBA Western Conference.As always, the Trail Blazers face stiff competition just to get to the NBA playoffs.

Here's a look at the Western Conference contenders in Tribune's predicted order or finish:

1. Los Angeles Lakers — If they stay healthy, specifically LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers should be the West favorite — it's a big if, of course. Can teaming of triple-double machine Russell Westbrook with two stars be seamless? Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard are among supporting cast. It's a deep team, but older team. Outside shooting could be suspect.

2. Phoenix Suns — Chemistry and style carried the Suns to last year's NBA Finals. The key will be the health of point guard Chris Paul. With Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton in their prime, and with quality players surrounding them, there's no doubting Phoenix can put another strong team on the court for coach Monty Williams.

3. Denver Nuggets — Once Jamal Murray (knee) returns to the court, the Nuggets should be formidable. They have reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic and have invested in Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon as young pillars. The Nuggets beat Portland in playoffs without Murray; with him, they are legitimate West contenders.

4. Utah Jazz — Will the Jazz break through and make the NBA Finals? Donovan Mitchell is a bona fide star. Center Rudy Gobert is a finisher and a defensive menace. Bojan Bogdanovich is a big-time scorer on any given night. If only Mike Conley Jr. can stay healthy for a full season (and playoffs).

5. Dallas Mavericks — If new coach Jason Kidd can get the Mavs to play defense, they could be a West top-three team. Luka Doncic should be an MVP candidate — there's not much the Slovenian can't do. Maybe Kristaps Porzingis stays healthy and plays to his potential consistently (in seventh season)?

6. Golden State Warriors — Maybe the Warriors ascend to top-four West team when Klay Thompson and James Wiseman return from injuries. Golden State, seemingly, has the right parts with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, some young players (including Wiseman) and coach Steve Kerr.

7. Los Angeles Clippers — If/when Kawhi Leonard returns from his ACL injury, and returns to form, the Clippers could be a West contender. Paul George can only carry the Clips so much; the likes of Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka, Marcus Morris Sr., Terence Mann and Eric Bledsoe need to play well.

8. Portland Trail Blazers — One of the league's worst defensive teams needs to be more stout when the other team plays offense. Jusuf Nurkic will likely have a bigger offensive role to complement Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and a solid bench needs to be developed. Could be a quality team under Chauncey Billups.

9. New Orleans Pelicans — If healthy, Zion Williamson is quite the player to build around, and Brandon Ingram is a really good player alongside the star. One would think the Pelicans, now coached by Willie Green, would take another step and make at least play-in games. But, it's another team that needs to play better D.

10. Memphis Grizzlies — Star guard Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. are part of the young nucleus, and Steven Adams adds veteran presence at center and experience. The Grizzlies were on the brink of making the West playoffs last year; do they have enough to make the leap to top six?

11. Minnesota Timberwolves — Anthony Edwards is a burgeoning star and Karl-Anthony Towns could be a top post in the NBA. D'Angelo Russell, who has turned into an NBA journeyman, and a good one, maybe plays well with the two young stars and the Timberwolves challenge to make the playoffs? It's still a tall order.

12. Sacramento Kings — The Kings have a star in guard De'Aaron Fox, and a good one in Tyrese Haliburton. Can Buddy Hield be effective off the bench, and forward Marvin Bagley Jr. stay healthy? Defense-challenged Sacramento has missed the playoffs past 15 seasons (tied longest NBA drought).

13. San Antonio Spurs — It's hard to pick who the Spurs' top players will be. Guard Dejounte Murray? Center Jakob Poetl? Guard Derrick White? Forward Keldon Johnson? All indications are coach Gregg Popovich's team won't be very good; far cry from standout players carrying the Spurs to NBA titles.

14. Houston Rockets — It should be fun to watch rookie Jalen Green, who could be this season's Anthony Edwards. Kevin Porter Jr. had a 50-point game last season, but needs to be more consistent. Eric Gordon could be a stabilizing force (or be traded, along with John Wall). Too young Rockets are destined to miss playoffs.

15. Oklahoma City Thunder — The youth movement process continues with the Thunder, who sport the likes of not-household-names Luguentz Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley. Veteran Derrick Favors could help. Oklahoma City has a plethora of draft picks; the process continues beyond 2021-22.


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