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October 30, 2001|Tim Brown

2000-01 record: 56-26, first in Pacific Division.

The coach: Phil Jackson, third season. The early part of Jackson's season will be spent sorting out his options at power forward and backup center, toying with a backcourt suddenly rich in shooters, and gauging zone defenses, for and against. The Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant relationship has never been better, allowing Jackson to cope with the on-court mechanics of the Laker three-peat try. Jackson did start in early on O'Neal's free throws, perhaps in the hope O'Neal will seek help immediately.

Who's gone: Horace Grant, Ron Harper, Isaiah Rider, Tyronn Lue, Greg Foster.

Who's new: Samaki Walker, Lindsey Hunter, Mitch Richmond, Jelani McCoy.

Projected starting lineup: Rick Fox, Walker, O'Neal, Hunter, Bryant;

Projected bench rotation: Robert Horry, Slava Medvedenko, Richmond, Brian Shaw.

Keys to the season: The O'Neal-Bryant-Jackson chemistry stays strong, the zone defenses don't get too deep into O'Neal's head, and Bryant maintains his teammate-first edge. They also must develop a game plan at power forward, where Horry, Walker, Mark Madsen and Medvedenko could see significant playing time. The Western Conference is a bad place to be soft at power forward, as O'Neal might be forced to do more work against the likes of Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Rasheed Wallace and Karl Malone.

Outlook: Assuming good health and roster merriment, the Lakers are everyone's favorite in the West. The rest of the NBA will play the season to determine the Lakers' finals opponent, and no one in the East has a center who can deal with O'Neal. While the Trail Blazers, Kings and Spurs all played the Lakers tough last regular season, they also won't forget the humiliation of postseason sweeps by the Lakers.

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