Once upon a time in the West. . . .
There was once a mighty conference that fell into ruin until last season, when no team could come closer than 11 games behind the Lakers.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, it turned out to be a very brief time.
With all eight playoff teams on pace to post 50-59 wins and heating up since the All-Star break -- well, except for the Lakers -- any West team really can beat any other.
Forget the Cleveland Cavaliers. If the Lakers play well enough to see the Cavaliers, they'd have every chance of beating them.
The trick for the Lakers is going back to playing well enough to get out of the West draw.
Barring new developments, they aren't going to open against a team in free fall, like last season against Utah, which was 46-27, lost seven of its last nine games and dropped from No. 6 to No. 8, into the Lakers' lap.
Barring any centers going down, there won't be any mismatches, like Houston after losing Yao Ming.
Of course, this could be good for the Lakers, who then kicked back last spring and wound up having to go seven games against Houston's remnants.
One thing is certain, the West doesn't look the way it did a year ago:
Record since All-Star break: 14-9.
Why they can win the West: Unmatchable length and skill with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum; Phil Jackson, one of the great postseason game planners, plus the game's best finisher, Kobe Bryant.
Or not: Bynum isn't back yet and they've been a mess since he left.
Record since break: 19-7.
Why the Mavericks can win: Depth and size after acquiring Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington Wizards to go with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.
Or not: Cooled off since 12-game post-trade winning streak. If it's superstar versus superstar, Dirk isn't quite Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Kevin Durant.
Record since break: 16-9.
Why the Nuggets can win: Lakers of the Rockies almost swept the real Lakers, 4-0, last spring before succumbing; Chauncey Billups, whose acquisition was like getting four players, with the three Nuggets he chilled out, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith.
Or not: Agile, mobile and volatile, having just ended 3-7 spin-out. Coach George Karl may not be back for the first round of the playoffs. Martin, one of their uber-athletes, is out because of a sore knee.
Record since break: 20-5.
Why the Suns can win: Hottest West team and biggest surprise, playing updated version of Suns small ball with seven-foot center Robin Lopez and Amare Stoudemire averaging 27 points since the break.
Or not: Stoudemire won't put an end to speculation that he'll leave. Matchup problem with Lakers' length, demonstrated again in Suns' loss in Phoenix on March 12 in the middle of an 18-2 run.
Record since break: 19-9.
Why the Jazz can win: Deep, physical, fireworks show with one fewer hole as rookie Wes Matthews, 39% three-point shooter, replaces non-shooting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, whom Bryant used to play off. Deron Williams is the NBA's best point guard at the moment, averaging 22 points over the last five games.
Or not: Still soft defensively up front with Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer. Matchup problem with Lakers' length; 28-7 against rest of the NBA since Jan. 20, 0-2 vs. Lakers.
Record since break: 16-6.
Why the Trail Blazers can win: 13-4 with Marcus Camby. True grit. Nobody thought Brandon Roy and Co. could do this without Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, but they did.
Or not: Overachieved to get this far and it's harder from here. Of course, for the Lakers, who just ended a four-year losing streak in the Rose Garden, they've already gone too far.
7. San Antonio
Record since break: 18-9.
Why the Spurs can win: Wanted to be go into playoffs hot but cut it awfully close before current 7-1 run with Manu Ginobili breakout taking pressure off Tim Duncan, Tony Parker returning, George Hill happening and Richard Jefferson getting it.
Or not: One big man short with 35-year-old Antonio McDyess, not-even-6-6 DeJuan Blair at center.
8. Oklahoma City
Record since break: 18-9.
Why the Thunder can win: If it's superstar versus superstar, Durant is now top four with Bryant, James and Wade. Thunder players don't seem to know they're too young, with best-in-West 34-15 record since Christmas.
Or not: Experience may or may not hurt but lack of balance surely will without enough firepower from centers, shooting guards and bench.