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Western Conference Preview

In predicted order of finish by Mark Heisler

October 30, 2007

1. PHOENIX

* 2006-07 record: 61-21, No. 2.

* Key newcomer: Grant Hill.

* Outlook: Aching to show their little offensive machine can too win in the playoffs, the Suns suffered the cruelest blow of all when Amare Stoudemire's suspension torpedoed them last spring in the second-round series they had just tied, 2-2, in San Antonio. Happily for the Suns, they're still improving as Stoudemire grows up and Leandro Barbosa happens. Hill gives Coach Mike D'Antoni, who goes with seven players, an invaluable play-anywhere piece. If Shawn Marion cares about winning a title too, this is his chance.

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2. SAN ANTONIO

* 2006-07 record: 58-24, No. 3.

* Key newcomer: None.

* Outlook: What's not to like after three titles in five seasons with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, a tough defense and chemistry that's the envy of the league? Of course, a year ago at this time everyone thought the younger, more athletic Mavericks had passed them by -- including Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who pondered personnel moves for half the season before committing to his team, which then came together. Now with Parker's NBA Finals breakout suggesting he's still getting better, the road to the title goes through here.

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3. DALLAS

* 2006-07 record: 67-15, No. 1.

* Key newcomer: Eddie Jones.

* Outlook: The Mavericks' 127 wins over two seasons are six more than next-best San Antonio. Unfortunately, after blowing their 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals, they got whacked in last spring's first round, but Coach Avery Johnson looks at the bright side. "We can go 82-0 this year and we're still going to be the underdog," he said. "There's no pressure on our team."They're still the NBA's deepest team and go all out for their hard-driving coach. The question is whether they're tougher for their experience or if they're spooked.

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4. UTAH

* 2006-07 record: 51-31, No. 4.

* Key newcomer: Jason Hart.

* Outlook: It's no small task for a tiny-market team on a tight budget with no appeal for big-ticket free agents to replace Karl Malone and John Stockton, but with rising stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, Jerry Sloan's physical young team resembles his physical old ones. With Williams showing he's coming fast with the U.S. team last summer, the only question mark is shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, who's promising but lacks range. The Jazz just has to beat out Denver in the Northwest Division again, and that's doable.

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5. DENVER

* 2006-07 record: 45-37, No. 6.

* Key newcomer: Chucky Atkins.

* Outlook: With all their firepower, not to mention all their potential for volatility, the Nuggets started off 19-25 with Allen Iverson before going 10-1 in April. Kenyon Martin's return makes them even deeper and more volatile. Untamed J.R. Smith will start -- after serving his latest suspension, for a bar fight. In a problem for a team that lives by its offense, they couldn't shoot, but the emergence of Carmelo Anthony and the development of Linas Kleiza and Anthony Roberson changed that. Now their opponents have the problems.

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6. HOUSTON

* 2006-07 record: 52-30, No. 5.

* Key newcomers: Coach Rick Adelman, Steve Francis, Luis Scola.

* Outlook: Jeff Van Gundy's slow-paced style grated on owner Les Alexander, which was how Van Gundy won 52 games and wound up on the street. Adelman's Sacramento teams had all the flair anyone could want. He'll also be fortunate enough to have a much deeper team with the acquisition of Scola, the rugged Argentine power forward, and the return of Francis. It still comes down to Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who have sat out 105 games in two seasons between them.

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7. GOLDEN STATE

* 2006-07 record: 42-40

* Key newcomer: No. 18 pick Marco Belinelli.

* Outlook: After last spring's jubilation, the Warriors had a grisly summer as Nelson held out for a raise and extension talks broke off with Baron Davis, who can opt out next summer. In a typically quirky move, Nelson named Stephen Jackson a captain. Of course, Nellie once had a pig for a pet. Nevertheless, no one could guard their four-guard lineup as they finished 16-5 and rocked Dallas' world. Belinelli, the Italian sharpshooter, fits right in. If they hold it together, they'll be back.

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8. LAKERS

* 2006-07 record: 42-40, No. 7.

* Key newcomer: Derek Fisher.

* Outlook: In the good news for the Lakers, even assuming the top seven spots are spoken for, it's hard to imagine anyone else beating them out. In the bad news, there's everything else. Events have been tumbling out of control since Jerry Buss said he would trade Bryant, who skulked around so noticeably, his lone ally, Phil Jackson, zinged him. Of course, last fall Kobe and Phil missed the entire preseason and they started 26-13. On the other hand, this makes last October look like the good old days.

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9. NEW ORLEANS

* 2006-07 record: 39-43, No. 10.

* Key newcomer: Morris Peterson.

* Outlook:

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