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NBA SEASON PREVIEW / 2002-03

At A Glance

October 29, 2002|Tim Brown

2001-02 record: 58-24, 2nd place in Pacific Division.

Coach: Phil Jackson, fourth season.

Who's gone: Lindsey Hunter (trade), Mitch Richmond (free agent), Jelani McCoy (free agent).

Who's new: Tracy Murray (trade), Kareem Rush (trade), Soumaila Samake (free agent), Jannero Pargo (free agent).

Projected starting lineup: SF-Rick Fox, PF-Samaki Walker, C-Samake (Shaquille O'Neal when he returns from toe surgery), SG-Kobe Bryant, PG-Derek Fisher.

Projected bench rotation: PF-Robert Horry, SF-Devean George, PG-Brian Shaw, SG-Rush, SG-Murray, PF-Slava Medvedenko, PF-Mark Madsen.

Keys to the season: O'Neal, the first-team All-NBA center who in four years has gone from a man who couldn't win a title to one who wins one every season, has to recuperate from toe surgery, and fast. They can give him November, maybe even December, but much beyond that and the season gets unwieldy for the Lakers in the stacked Pacific Division. Bryant will have to put his new body to work, grinding inside for rebounds and easy baskets while O'Neal continues his recovery. Also, the Lakers could use some three-pointers from the likes of Murray, Rush and Fisher, particularly with O'Neal on the bench.

Outlook: Basketball being a game of feet -- O'Neal's, Mike Bibby's, Fisher's, to name a few -- the Lakers will complete their four-ay, their four-tune, their four-play, as long as O'Neal becomes reasonably sound again. There is hardly any argument anymore that the Lakers play with the two best players coached by the best coach, except in Sacramento, where the Kings have been slapping their four-heads since clanking their free throws last spring. The Kings nearly had them beat, so take your pick: They're catching up or they missed their chance. Jackson has dismissed the premise that the 2002-03 season boils down to Lakers versus Kings, insisting that the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers might also be capable. One thing is inarguable: They will be, until O'Neal returns.

Tickets: (800) 462-2849.

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--Tim Brown

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