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Western Conference Preview

October 29, 2006


* 2005-06 record: 63-19, No. 1.

* Outlook: In a season in which little worked out, they still had the most wins in the league before losing to Dallas in a seven-game second-round series after the Mavericks won the pivotal Game 3 with the help of a raft of close calls. Nevertheless, Coach-General Manager Gregg Popovich set about finding help up front for 30-year-old Tim Duncan, letting methodical Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic go, bringing in springy Francisco Elson and athletic Jackie Butler. More important, Duncan is healthy again after playing hurt all last season and posting career lows of 18.6 points and 48.4% from the floor. Manu Ginobili, who was supposedly set to take off, didn't but he's healthier too. Tony Parker did take off with career highs of 18.8 points and 54%.

* Bottom line: Three stars, a rock-solid defense and no egos mean they'll be back.



* 2005-06 record: 60-22, No. 4.

* Outlook: Despite his madcap behavior, owner Mark Cuban was smart enough to accept Don Nelson's nomination of Avery Johnson as the next coach, even if Cuban and Nellie didn't get along. Johnson made the Mavericks bigger and tougher with D.J. Mbenga, whose skill level wouldn't have cut it under Nelson. Once-soft Dirk Nowitzki was approaching superstar status when they blew that fourth-quarter lead in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Their 0-4 plummet as the team switched hotels and bristled at the press suggested they were sucked into Cuban's anguish. Nowitzki even zinged his boss, noting, "Do I think it's a bit much sometimes? Yeah. He's got to learn how to control himself as well as the players do."

* Bottom line: Winning another 60 when everyone knows they're coming will be harder, but they're still the biggest, deepest team of all.



* 2005-06 record: 47-35, No. 6.

* Outlook: No, really. Having shocked the world, they're not a surprise anymore. Everyone knows they're no longer a laughingstock. Instead of the old just-passing-through atmosphere, there's a deep, businesslike, unified roster. Coach Mike Dunleavy enjoys unprecedented power. Since his arrival, owner Donald T. Sterling, whose previous record was $15 million (Eric Piatkowski's five-year deal) has offered $40 million or more to Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas and Chris Kaman. With Kaman and Shaun Livingston still coming fast, their best is ahead of them, assuming the new environment lasts.

* Bottom line: Of course, only they could give someone all that power without locking him up. With Dunleavy's contract running out, everyone is waiting to see if they re-sign him or haggle and risk all they've gained.



* 2005-06 record: 54-28, No. 2.

* Outlook: Everything seemed set up for them when Amare Stoudemire returned last spring, but his comeback lasted three games. He's still not his old, explosive self and, at least for the moment, neither are they. Without three starters, Coach Mike D'Antoni created another high-powered offense last season around Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and newcomers Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas. However, when Vladimir Radmanovic jilted the Clippers for the Lakers, Thomas jilted the Suns for the Clippers. Giving away size, the Suns have to make three-pointers, but having lost Thomas, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson in two seasons, they suddenly find themselves short on shooters.

* Bottom line: The key may be Bryant's favorite, Raja Bell, who made 44% of his threes last season and 32% in exhibitions.



* 2005-06: 34-48, No. 12 (tie).

* Outlook: Short of disbanding, they couldn't have done worse, dropping 17 games in the standings while Tracy McGrady sat out 35 with minor ailments, before hard-working Yao Ming got hurt and missed the last 25 games. Assuming Yao is healthy and McGrady feels like playing, they should be back, at least part way. They traded for solid Shane Battier and got a bonus, signing Bonzi Wells, who averaged 22 points in the playoffs last spring, then left Sacramento to get a big offer and wound up having to take half of their veteran's exception, $2.1 million. Jeff Van Gundy, who was good at his slow-down style, says he's going small and pushing the ball with Battier at power forward and McGrady moving from guard to small forward.

* Bottom line: It's no longer safe to assume anything, but they should make the playoffs standing on their head.



* 2005-06 record: 41-41, No. 9.

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