- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Western Conference looks like it will be a three-team race again this season between the conference defending champion Thunder, the newly reloaded Lakers and the aging but timeless Spurs.
But if you look beyond 2012-13, a dark-horse contender is quietly emerging in the mountains, one that could be the NBA's team to beat in the near future.
In August, John Hollinger and I ranked the Utah Jazz No. 4 in our Future Power Rankings. When Hollinger and I aggregated the numbers, it raised a few eyebrows -- including ours and those of a number of observers around the league.
Newly hired Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey was among those taken aback.
"We are a long way from No. 4 right now," Lindsey said. "I can understand on the future ratings why there's reason to be optimistic -- with the cap flexibility Kevin has created and the young players that we do have -- but cap room doesn't win you games. Young players, almost by definition, don't win you games."
No one can predict the future precisely in a league where injuries, trade demands, complicated cap rules and luxury tax thresholds can shift a team's fortunes overnight. But over the past few years, our Future Power Rankings have done a solid job of giving us some clues. Most recently, the FPR signaled the rise of the Pacers well before Indiana finished with the third-best record in the East last season.
Will the Jazz be the next young team to take the league by storm?
I spent some time in Salt Lake City over the past week to dig a little deeper.
7hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne
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