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SPORTS EXTRA / NBA 2000-01 PREVIEW | WESTERN CONFERENCE
PREVIEW

Road to Top Just Got More Difficult

October 30, 2000|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can almost hear every coach and general manager in the Western Conference sighing, as if things weren't tough enough. . . .

All the elite teams and a bunch of others geared up over the summer, so it's not enough to be "better." In the West where they crown all the eventual champions these days, they only pay off on "best."

The Lakers, defending NBA champions, added Horace Grant and Greg Foster, not to mention Phil Jackson's new favorites, Mark Madsen and Slava Medvedenko. Where Jackson only had one big man he trusted last season, he now has an assortment.

Unfortunately, it's a small assortment, compared to the Portland Trail Blazers' Mike Dunleavy, whose roster looks like an all-star squad and whose bench looks like the land of the giants.

The San Antonio Spurs have twin towers, as they always have, and this season they're sound.

The Seattle SuperSonics, who used to be cannon fodder, just brought in Patrick Ewing and a bunch of big guys and now resemble contenders again.

Even the laughingstock Vancouver Grizzlies and Clippers are loaded with good young players.

The West in predicted order of finish:

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

* Record: 53-29, fourth in Western Conference.

* Offense: 96.1 points a game , 26th in NBA.

* Defense: 90.2 (1st).

* New: Derek Anderson and Danny Ferry.

* Gone: Mario Elie.

* Outlook: As defending champions, the Spurs were duds, with Tim Duncan's free agency hanging over them and Sean Elliott sidelined. They rallied when Elliott returned, only to have Duncan suffer an injury and fall to the Phoenix Suns in the first round, giving the Lakers, who were warily eyeing a second-round matchup, a reprieve. Now, however, Elliott is OK, they've replaced Elie, an old warhorse, with Anderson, a young athlete, and Duncan is no longer a free agent. There was speculation when Duncan was hurt that Coach/General Manager Gregg Popovich was resigned to circumstances and focused on keeping Duncan happy. Duncan's still there, so maybe it wasn't such a bad season, after all.

* Bottom line: Duncan and David Robinson make them one of the few teams with an answer for Shaquille O'Neal. For Shaq, the bad news is, they're still together.

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PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Avery Johnson

G: Derek Anderson

F: Sean Elliott

F: Tim Duncan

C: David Robinson

2. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

* Record: 59-23, second.

* Offense: 97.4 (16th).

* Defense: 91.0 (3rd).

* New: Shawn Kemp, Dale Davis, Will Perdue,

No. 1 pick Erick Barkley.

* Gone: Brian Grant, Jermaine O'Neal, Detlef Schrempf.

* Outlook: Owner Paul Allen and trader Bob Whitsitt have stacked the roster and payroll to incredible levels--try $86 million worth--making the Trail Blazers, once again, the talk of the NBA in the off-season. Once again, it's Dunleavy's job to make sense of it all. Last season, when the Trail Blazers looked like they were about to take a 4-2 tumble in the Western finals, there were suggestions the players weren't happy with the coach, and his job hasn't gotten any easier. If Kemp starts, Scottie Pippen might have to move to guard and either Steve Smith or Damon Stoudamire would have to sit. Or they could sit Arvydas Sabonis . . . well, there are too many scenarios to count.

* Bottom line: One way or another, they'll be deep, they'll defend and they'll be OK, at least until late May.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Damon Stoudamire

G: Steve Smith

F: Scottie Pippen

F: Rasheed Wallace

C: Dale Davis

3. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

* Record: 67-15, first.

* Offense: 100.8 (6th).

* Defense: 92.2 (6th).

* New: Isaiah Rider, Horace Grant, Greg Foster, No. 1 pick Mark Madsen.

* Gone: Glen Rice, A.C. Green, Travis Knight, John Salley.

* Outlook: No one expected them to win last season and they did. Now that everyone's on the bandwagon, they may be a longer shot than they were a year ago. They're deeper, especially on the front line, but they're still the thinnest of the elite teams, especially on the front line. Oh, and who is going to shoot the ball? Of last season's 344 three-point baskets--which was low enough--Rice, who had a team-high 84, is gone and Derek Fisher, who was third with 52, is sidelined. On the plus side, O'Neal and Bryant are by far the best 1-2 punch in the game. This is now a businesslike professional team and it defends.

* Bottom line: This could still work, but it's anything but a sure shot.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PROJECTED STARTERS

G: Ron Harper

G: Kobe Bryant

F: Rick Fox

F: Horace Grant

C: Shaquille O'Neal

4. UTAH JAZZ

* Record: 55-27, third.

* Offense: 96.5 (20th).

* Defense: 92.0 (5th).

* New: John Starks, Donyell Marshall, Danny Manning, John Crotty, No. 1 pick DeShawn Stevenson.

* Gone: Jeff Hornacek, Howard Eisley.

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