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 Will Lakers remain the best in the West?

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PostSubject: Will Lakers remain the best in the West?   October 26th 2008, 1:18 am

Fox Sports: For the past decade, it didnít take a lot of keen perspective while peering into the foggy crystal ball known as NBA preseason predictions to recognize the uniforms of the San Antonio Spurs. They did win four of nine titles from 1999 to 2007 and were favorites again last season when they came up short in the Western Conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.



And it certainly wouldnít be a stretch to put the Spurs in the mix again to win the West. But this time around the Lakers are not coming out of nowhere. They are not just a bunch of upstarts around 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant Ö in fact, until their benchís collapse in the Finals to the Celtics in June, many believed them to have the best depth in the NBA.

So as we take a look at the West this time around, itís impossible not to have great expectations for the Lakers with Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Co. playing for coach Phil Jackson, who just happens to have the best winning percentage of all time in both the regular season and postseason.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

OK, Lakers fans, you can start breathing again now that it is apparent Kobe Bryant's knee hyperextension this week was a false alarm. The more interesting analysis will be whether or not Phil Jackson opts to bring Lamar Odom off the bench, how well Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum will fit together, and whether Jordan Farmar is ready to take over as the starting point guard.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Not by the white hair on his chinny, chin, chin, will coach Gregg Popovich take his foot off the gas while pushing these guys defensively and confidence-wise back to the precipice of another conference crown. Tim Duncan may not be what he once was, but Tony Parker is better and Manu Ginobili may be better than ever after surgery. The questions surround everybody else.

3. Houston Rockets

Everything begins with the health of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the annual questions from the opening tip. But Ron Artest gives them a stronger base, and Rick Adelman proved last season that he is the perfect coach for this team and the role players respond accordingly. If Rafer Alston grows up as the point guard, they've got a chance to win it all this season.

4. New Orleans Hornets

Maybe this is not fair to the Hornets considering they were within a whisker of the top seed a year ago. But Chris Paul and David West have to prove they can stay healthy and play at a high level consecutive seasons. Has Tyson Chandler grown his game beyond rebounding and catching Paul's lob passes? James Posey will help, but coach Byron Scott needs more from his bench.

5. Utah Jazz

Every year the presumption is Jerry Sloan is the most underrated coach and the Jazz are the sleeper team to win the West. This season may be no different, but expectations are much higher for Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and the mystery that is Andrei Kirilenko. Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver will hit jumpers, and they will be tough. But good enough to win the West? Uh-uh.

6. Dallas Mavericks

They'll have a training camp with Jason Kidd now, Dirk Nowitzki is still the best shooting 7-footer we've ever seen and the coaching staff led by Rick Carlisle should be a difference-maker. But what about the bizarre turn of events that has changed Josh Howard's effectiveness? The rest of the team certainly has to prove itself too. They're still dangerous, but no longer daunting.

7. Phoenix Suns

It seems as if the Suns have done everything but change their name. With Terry Porter replacing Mike D'Antoni as coach, along with Shaquille O'Neal now in the middle and Amare Stoudemire at power forward, it's a different deal for aging point guard Steve Nash. As bright, experienced and likeable as GM Steve Kerr is, this will be an interesting test for him.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

To put the Blazers in this spot seems bold, and perhaps too much for coach Nate McMillan. Greg Oden is healthy and growing in confidence as the young center of the future, alongside Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Kevin Pritchard appears to be a master architect, including Spanish star Rudy Fernandez. Everything is in place except actually winning, so when will it be?

9. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are really difficult to get a handle on for now and the future. With Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, nobody is more explosive offensively, plus Kenyon Martin and Nene ó if they happen to be healthy for a change ó give them a presence inside. This is a great test for coach George Karl.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

Now Mike Dunleavy is officially coach and general manager. Now it's his team of Baron Davis, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Al Thornton to prove they are more than an interesting ornament in the West. If they stay healthy, they can challenge to make the top eight. Dunleavy has spent five seasons trying to dispel the notion they are destined to lose. He's still trying.

11. Golden State Warriors

Having lost Baron Davis to free agency and Monta Ellis to a moped accident for at least a couple of months, this is a different team for Don Nelson that will be no less inclined to run ó just more inclined to lose. Adding Corey Maggette brings some firepower, but they are very young and internal problems have surfaced. After a brief reprieve, the old W's are back.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves

Maybe with Fred Hoiberg more involved in the shaping of the roster they'll have better luck than with Kevin McHale. The good news is they've added Mike Miller and Kevin Love to play with Al Jefferson. That's encouraging. If Randy Foye or Sebastian Telfair would suddenly blossom, they'd have a chance. It's not going to happen for coach Randy Wittman.

13. Sacramento Kings

Geoff Petrie has spent the past few years reconstructing this team while the Maloof brothers have been unable to get an arena construction going. Both seem doomed to failure for at least this season, as Reggie Theus is still trying to get his feet on the ground coaching this team. Kevin Martin is a great scorer and John Salmons better than people think. That's about it.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

The funny thing is Marc Gasol gives them much-needed toughness inside and if they had just kept his brother Pau, they might actually be decent. Instead, they'll be counting almost solely on the young trio of Rudy -Censored-G, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, who are years away from being able to lead anybody anywhere in this league. Good thing expectations are so low.

15. Oklahoma City Thunder

Whatever they wanted to call this team stolen from the hearts and minds of Seattle SuperSonics fans, the OKC fans will get a firsthand view of what it's like to see a terrible team, and an unhappy overmatched coach in P.J. Carlesimo. Sure, Kevin Durant may be destined for greatness, Jeff Green much goodness and Russell Westbrook will be fun. Enjoy the 25 wins.
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