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WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Bigger, Better, That's About the Size of It

October 27, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Wouldn't this be a great league if only it ended at the Mississippi?

The day Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls, the NBA began tilting to the West, and the imbalance has only gotten worse. Seeing as how Jordan left the Bulls in 1999, this is no small problem for the league. Worse, it tilts more dramatically each season, as the West powers keep gearing up to deal with each other, and the East teams try to get it together.

West teams have been pursuing big men since Shaquille O'Neal went to the Lakers in 1996, and the process is ongoing.

Brad Miller, who was an All-Star center in Indiana, will be in Sacramento. Alonzo Mourning, who will be the best in the East if he's healthy, almost went to the Dallas Mavericks before signing with New Jersey (Dallas owner Mark Cuban claiming afterward that Mourning told him he didn't want to deal with all the West's big men.)

East teams, meanwhile, have a bad habit of just preparing to beat each other. Philadelphia General Manager Billy King said as much this summer -- "This is the East" -- when asked why he was projecting 36-year-old Derrick Coleman as his center.

In the West, the best teams are all gigantic, and you can't play in the elite unless you're huge. The Lakers were physical enough with O'Neal, who will now play alongside Karl Malone, a fearsome presence, even at age 40. The Kings have three big men who have been All-Stars, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Miller.

The San Antonio Spurs have the two-time defending MVP, Tim Duncan, and now, instead of the aged David Robinson, a young 7-footer, Rasho Nesterovic.

The Minnesota Timberwolves used to be tall and slender but have fleshed themselves out, impressively, adding Michael Olowokandi to play alongside Kevin Garnett in another 7-foot tandem.

The Mavericks had 7-6 Shawn Bradley, 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki and 6-11 Raef LaFrentz and were still considered a finesse team in the West. Now LaFrentz is in Boston, and Dallas, which won 60 games last season, isn't considered an elite team.

Here's a team-by-team look in predicted order of finish:

*

SAN ANTONIO

2002-03 record: 60-22, first.

Offense: 95.8 (12). Defense: 90.4 (3).

Coming: Rasho Nesterovic, Hedo Turkoglu, Ron Mercer, Robert Horry, Anthony Carter.

Going: David Robinson, Speedy Claxton, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry and Stephen Jackson.

Outlook: Plans A, B and C went by the boards last summer so this is about Plan D. With $14 million in cap room, the champions went after Jason Kidd and Karl Malone, who spurned them. The real hope is their young guards, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both are talented and brash; if they keep coming, this will still be a powerhouse.

Prediction: If it's not, they can drop Mercer, Turkoglu and/or Horry, whose contracts are expiring, and go shopping again.

1

SPURS

Projected Starters

G Tony Parker

G Manu Ginobili

F Bruce Bowen

F Tim Duncan

C Rasho Nesterovic

*

MINNESOTA

Offense: 98.1 (7). Defense: 96 (18).

Coming: Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Michael Olowokandi, Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg.

Going: Rasho Nesterovic, Kendall Gill, Marc Jackson, Loren Woods.

Outlook: Talk about being overdue for a break. The team that endured Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider, was abandoned by Stephon Marbury, made an example of by Commissioner David Stern and then, after never having home-court advantage, clinched it just in time to host the Lakers, finally saw something go right.

Prediction: Coach Flip Saunders has to get them to play together, but the key is leadership on the floor. With Garnett there, this should happen

2

TIMBERWOLVES

Projected Starters

G Sam Cassell

G Latrell Sprewell

F Wally Szczerbiak

F Kevin Garnett

C Michael Olowokandi

*

SACRAMENTO

2002-03 record: 59-23, third.

Offense: 101.7 (3). Defense: 95.2 (17).

Coming: Brad Miller, Anthony Peeler, Tony Massenburg, Darius Songaila.

Going: Scot Pollard, Jim Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Keon Clark.

Outlook: Our semi-civilized neighbors to the north won 59 games with Mike Bibby sitting out 27, Bobby Jackson 23, Webber 15 and Peja Stojakovic 10, suggesting the uncrowned Kings may have been the best team in the league. Then they lost Webber for good after taking the home-court advantage from the Mavericks in the second round, and it was just one more in the Kings' long series of hard-luck stories. Webber, coming off knee surgery, may not be back before Christmas.

Prediction: The sun can't shine on the same dog every year, can it?

3

KINGS

Projected Starters

G Mike Bibby

G Doug Christie

F Peja Stojakovic

F Brad Miller

C Vlade Divac

*

LAKERS

2002-03 record: 50-32, fifth.

Offense: 100.4 (4). Defense: 98 (23).

Coming: Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Horace Grant, Bryon Russell.

Going: Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Samaki Walker, Mark Madsen, Tracy Murray.

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