Steinmetz: Who’s for real in crowded West? 

Heading into Tuesday’s games, only 4½ games separated the best team in the Western Conference from the ninth-best team.

Six of those nine teams already have made moves. Yes, the West is a brutal conference, but at least it’s wide open. Let’s assess the field.

» New Orleans: The Hornets have the best record in the conference, but it’s virtually impossible to picture them in the NBA Finals. They lack depth and sometimes have great difficulty scoring. As good as they’ve been, it is not inconceivable the Hornets could go from first to ninth in a couple of months and miss the playoffs entirely. Odds to make Finals: 15-to-1.

» Phoenix: The Suns received their fair share of criticism for acquiring Shaquille O’Neal in a trade with Miami. Critics say Shaq is a defensive liability, can’t get up and down the floor and won’t be on the court late in games because of foul shooting.

But it’s tough to write off a motivated O’Neal, and he sure seems motivated. Odds to make Finals: 3-to-1.

» Los Angeles Lakers: There is no doubt that the acquisition of Pau Gasol will help. But whether or not the Lakers wind their way through the Western Conference playoffs depends on how effective Andrew Bynum is upon his return … if he returns. Odds to make Finals: 4-to-1 (with Bynum); 10-to-1 (without Bynum).

» San Antonio: Acquiring Damon Stoudamire wasn’t exactly a big splash, but it will have benefits. The Spurs can afford to rest the injured Tony Parker until he is ready, which should make him better in the playoffs. Odds to make Finals: 2-to-1.

» Dallas: It’s interesting that while the Lakers, Suns and even the Warriors got bigger, the Mavericks chose to go in the other direction. They gave up starting center DeSagana Diop in the deal for Jason Kidd.

Kidd will make the Mavericks better at the offensive end, but they are worse defensively, particularly on the interior, where Erick Dampier now finds himself all alone. Odds to make Finals: 6-to-1.

» Utah: The Jazz are essentially the same team that defeated the Warriors in the playoffs a season ago, with the exception of Kyle Korver.

A year ago, the Jazz advanced to the Western Conference finals before losing to San Antonio.

Don’t forget the Jazz were fortunate to knock off Houston in seven games, then got some help from the Warriors, who had their chances, in Round 2. The Jazz will not make it as far this season. Odds to make Finals: 12-to-1.

» Denver: The Nuggets are said to be entertaining the notion of trading for Ron Artest. That would help the Nuggets at the defensive end. But on offense, the Nuggets would be reduced to Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson standing around while Artest monopolizes the ball. Odds to make Finals: 8-to-1 (without Artest); 25-to-1 (with Artest).

» Warriors: The Warriors are still hoping Chris Webber can help. Even if he doesn’t, the Warriors remain a pain-in-the-neck playoff opponent. Odds to make Finals: 20-to-1.

» Houston: Neither Tracy McGrady nor Yao Ming has made it out of the first round. Enough said. Odds to make Finals: 30-to-1.

Matt Steinmetz is the NBA insider for Warriors telecasts on Fox Sports Net.

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