The NBA season is halfway over and only one thing is certain ? the Western Conference is a lot better than the Eastern Conference.

The West has a 134-96 record against the East and five Western teams have a legitimate shot at winning the championship.

The big five

The Lakers are clearly the best team in the league, with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal both in the top five in scoring. The defending champions seem to take the night off occasionally, but they showed last year that they can turn it on when the playoffs arrive.

Sacramento has the best record in the league and scores more points per game than any team besides Dallas. Chris Webber gives the Kings a big presence inside and Predrag Stojakovic is as dangerous a perimeter shooter as anybody in the NBA. Mike Bibby also gives the Kings the consistency at point guard that they lacked with Jason Williams.

Kevin Garnett is having his best season yet and Wally Szczerbiak gives the Timber-wolves another serious scoring threat. Minnesota’s nine-game winning streak ended Friday in Phoenix, but Terrell Brandon’s recent return from injured reserve will help ease the loss.

San Antonio is an enigmatic team ? Tim Duncan is having the best year of his outstandingly consistent career, while David Robinson is suffering through his worst season at the same time. The Spurs have the talent to make a championship run, but have had trouble defeating good teams so far.

Dallas scores a ton of points, but allows almost as many. Dirk Nowitzki is the real deal and the Mavericks haven’t even stopped scoring with Michael Finley out of action. Dallas may be too soft inside, but winning the turnover battle in most games helps offset that disadvantage.

Best of the rest

The final three spots in the Western Conference are up for grabs. Even Houston could sneak in with Steve Francis back.

Utah is getting old and mediocre, but John Stockton and Karl Malone still have some game left. They just don’t have enough left to win a playoff series.

Seattle has way too much talent to be a .500 team. It’s scary to think how bad the SuperSonics will be if Rashard Lewis and Gary Payton both leave when they become unrestricted free agents over the next two years.

Phoenix is going in the wrong direction fast. The Suns have lost seven of their last 10 games and can hear Jason Kidd laughing all the way to the playoffs.

Portland is another team that is having trouble turning talent into wins and it isn’t surprising that the Trail Blazers lead the league in technical fouls.

Elton Brand is a bona fide star. Lamar Odom, Quentin Richard-son, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles round out a young, exciting Clippers team that could be dangerous in a few years. However, the Clippers will not be a threat until they can win on the road.

Eastern surprises

Nobody knew what to expect from the overmatched Eastern Conference, but they didn’t expect New Jersey to be this good.

New Jersey is the only team in the East that seems capable of competing out West and Kidd is the clear midseason MVP. He not only puts up huge numbers himself, but also makes everybody on his team better. Kenyon Martin gives the Nets attitude and size inside and Keith Van Horn seems to finally be healthy.

Milwaukee has as much talent as any of the five Western teams, with three players averaging more than 20 points per game. While the Bucks are by far the shooting team in the East, their defense leaves a lot to be desired.

No team relies on two players as much as Boston relies on Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. The two combine for more than half of the Celtics’ points and if either of them gets hurt or has an off night, the Celtics are in trouble. Kenny Anderson does a decent job running the point, but Boston has no presence inside.

Everybody knows that Vince Carter’s the man in Toronto, but he’s not willing to go inside and do the grunt work. Keon Clark is putting up numbers very similar to those of Antonio Davis down low, despite playing 13 fewer minutes per game.

Michael Jordan’s return is already a success. The Wizards matched last year’s win total when MJ went back to Chicago for the first time and they appear to be headed to the playoffs.

Detroit seemed like it was going to join New Jersey, Boston and Washington as the feel good stories in the Eastern Conference. Then the Pistons lost 13 of 16 games and fell below .500. Jerry Stackhouse needs more help if Detroit plans to make the playoffs.

It’s not surprising that Tracy McGrady is Orlando’s leading scorer. Unfortunately for the Magic, now that Grant Hill is done for the year McGrady is also their leading rebounder.

Indiana is the East’s token talented team that should be better than .500. The Pacers have three real scoring threats and a great, young point guard in Jamaal Tinsley.

Allen Iverson makes the 76ers one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. However, Philadelphia made things a lot more difficult with a dismal start to the season.

Wondering why the Hornets want to move to New Orleans? Charlotte is the only team in the NBA with a losing record at home and a winning record on the road. Baron Davis deserves a better place to play.

The Nets will win the Eastern Conference unless Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson get on the same page and lead Milwaukee through the playoffs.

However, the Eastern Conference champion should not really matter. The Lakers will win a third straight championship unless Sacramento or Minnesota catches fire at the right time.

Jacobs can be reached at

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