In the West, it’s all about the Lakers

It’s no secret that the NBA’s brightest stars play in the West. Shaq. Kobe. Duncan. Webber. Garnett. And now, Yugoslavia too.

That’s right, the whole team has relocated to the western half of the United States to show off their gold medals. Seriously, seven members from the country’s gold medal-winning team are playing in Western Conference training camps. And you thought the West couldn’t get any better. How’s it all going to turn out? My answers to the regular season lie below, from first to worst in each division.



Midwest Division

Dallas — The Mavericks couldn’t land Michael Redd, but this team is still so stacked with talent and youth that it will run away with the Midwest title. But the same youth that will help this squad during the regular season could spell trouble in the postseason. One of the team’s big three — Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley or Steve Nash — needs to step it up and become a consistent leader, though, or else it’s another early postseason exit.

San Antonio — “Manu” has arrived. Emanuel Ginobili, the man who led Argentina to their historic upset of Team USA, will team with Tony Parker to form an international backcourt desperately needed to keep Tim Duncan happy and in San Antonio. But David Robinson — who will retire after this season — is fading fast, and so will the Spurs come playoff time.

Minnesota — It’s not easy to stay in the first round of the playoffs for six years, but the Wolves have done it and they will do it again this season. Something big needs to happen in Minneapolis — like trading Kevin Garnett — for this franchise to change its mediocre ways.

Utah — This could very well be the last season of Stockton-to-Malone. Both John Stockton and Karl Malone are in the last years of their contracts, with retirement looming for Stock and a run with perhaps another team for the Mailman. Though the team has begun its rebuilding process, adding veteran point guard Mark Jackson to the mix will help Utah inevitably find the postseason for the 20th year in a row.

Houston — The playoffs aren’t far away, Steve Francis. Just don’t worry about your migraines, let Cuttino Mobley shoot a little more, and hope Glen Rice went on a diet this summer. Oh, and get Yao Ming the ball.

Memphis — Drew Gooden is going to be the Grizzlies’ second Rookie of the Year in a row, following Pau Gasol’s lead. Memphis will also draft high in the lottery for the umpteenth time in a row, following Vancouver’s lead. At least two more years and several ingenious moves, Jerry West, before you can bring Memphis to the postseason.

Denver — Wow. This is a bad team. Brazilian Nene Hilario and Georgian Nikoloz Tskitishvili are the latest foreign sensations, and they will be appalled to find that their teams back home were better than these Nuggets. As if his job wasn’t hard enough, new coach Jeff Bzdelik will have to learn how to pronounce names more difficult than his own. Tsk. Tskitishhhh. Tskitishishishivilili?



Pacific Division

Sacramento — Don’t be fooled by their calm demeanor — Mike Bibby’s injury hurts the Kings, and they better hope he gets completely better come April. Sacramento claims first place because the Lakers will squabble over who’s team it is midway through the season again, but Bibby must be back in top form to stand any change against L.A. in the playoffs. Keon Clark was a nice pick-up, but it doesn’t change the fact that Chris Webber is a wuss in the fourth quarter.

L.A. Lakers — Yawn. Good start. Midseason lull. Strong finish. NBA Championship.

Portland — The Blazers’ management has it all wrong. You can’t keep putting together a different team of talented thugs each year and expect to improve. Arvydas Sabonis is back, but the Portland team that once vied for the title is not and won’t be until Paul Allen buys Shaq. You know he would if he could.

L.A. Clippers — Aren’t Los Angelinos lucky. They get to watch the best team in the NBA (see above) and the most exciting team in the NBA (see right here). But before we start talking about a City of Angels conference finals, the Clippers need to grow. A lot. Also, Lamar Odom needs to come clean for this L.A. squad to do even the slightest damage in the playoffs, which it might just make for the first time in a decade.

Seattle — Getting rid of Vin Baker and re-signing Rashard Lewis were smart moves and the Sonics look like they’re ready for the future. As for the present, Gary Payton will have another stellar, if bitter, season while watching Seattle fall behind an ever-improving Clippers team. But hey, they’ve got two Yugoslavs — big men Predrag Drobnjak and Vladimir Radmanovic — so who knows?

Phoenix — The Suns’ backcourt should be the best in the league. It should average over 50 points a game. It should strike terror in every single defense. It should consist of Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury. But it doesn’t. Hardaway and Marbury are shells of their former selves, and what should be the sickest tandem in the league will struggle to find a consistent rhythm on offense throughout the season.

Golden State — Another year, another lottery, another bad Warriors squad. Rookie Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a keeper, but he’s not exactly star quality. Look for Golden State’s highlight of the season to be an impressive win over the Lakers or Kings where Antawn Jamison or Jason Richardson plays the game of his life. Then look for the ping-pong balls, again.

In the playoffs, in order of seeding: Sacramento, Dallas, L.A. Lakers, San Antonio, Minnesota, Portland, Utah, L.A. Clippers.

And, in what will start to become a heated rivalry and the real NBA finals, the Lakers over the Kings in the West finals before L.A. destroys whichever Eastern Conference cream puff has the unfortunate task of playing league whipping boy for the final stage of the Lakers’ four-peat.

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