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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

No one is rising in West to challenge Lakers

Hornets were tough last year, but they have made questionable moves this season.

February 21, 2009|MARK HEISLER

There's one thing you can count on, some Western Conference team arising to challenge the Lakers before it's over.

Before the decade is over, I mean. Or the decade after that, for sure.

As for this season, it's looking pretty good for the Lakers, who edged another fading West power, the New Orleans Hornets, 115-111, in overtime Friday night at Staples Center.

These days, most of the powers in the West are fading. Last season, five teams finished within three games of the No. 1 Lakers. Now the Lakers lead San Antonio and Denver by eight as the rest of the West tries to pick up the pieces.

The once-stalwart Spurs, who need more players, not fewer, just lost one of their big three, Manu Ginobili -- again.

Portland is still waiting for Greg Oden to break out. Instead, he mostly just breaks, returning from the All-Star break with a bone chip in one knee the Trail Blazers didn't know about.

Then there are the Hornets, who won 56 games to the Lakers' 57 last season.

They started the night tied for fifth in the conference, 11 games back.

For reasons best known to owner George Shinn -- maybe the prospect of paying $10 million in luxury taxes -- they just traded their 26-year-old 7-foot center, Tyson Chandler, to Oklahoma City -- only to have him sent back for failing his physical.

Two summers ago, Chandler played on the U.S. team with Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Last season, Chandler posted career highs at 12 points and 12 rebounds a game.

This season, slowed by nagging injuries, he's a ping-pong ball.

The Hornets said they traded him to get more big bodies, a strange explanation for trading their biggest body.

"If that's what we have to do, then we should get bigger or stronger, not take away pieces that we already have," Chandler said before the game.

"If we don't feel like we've got enough, then let's get enough, add on to what we've got. Let's not take pieces away that are huge pieces to the puzzle."

Coach Byron Scott reportedly was aghast when told about the deal, which would have brought two slender 6-10 forwards, Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox -- both upcoming free agents.

"It was still a basketball decision," Scott said before the game, "but obviously, money is always going to play a little bit of a part of it, as far as next year, the year after, whatever the case may be."

So much for the Hornets, who were already underdogs when they went all-out.

The Lakers, who just lost Andrew Bynum, have gone 8-1 without him, with some guy coming off their bench to average 16 points and 13.6 rebounds.

No one else in the West is as good, as big, or as deep. As for financial constraints, even if they're unloading salary, owner Jerry Buss can afford anyone he wants to afford, such as Pau Gasol, who represented a potential $90 million in additional salary and taxes over three seasons when the Lakers acquired him.

"It makes it a little difficult when you have an owner that's willing to spend whatever it takes and money is not an object," said Scott, the former Laker.

"We're in a smaller market and obviously money's a lot tighter. But that's the money side of it. I can't think of that stuff. . . . I care about playing and winning and I'm going to coach the guys that I have here and try and do the best job that I can."

Scott's teams always fight and this one did too. Imagine what he could do with more help, rather than less.

Chandler, asked if he might take less money next season to help Shinn out, didn't think so.

"You've got to feel loyalty before you can do something like that," Chandler said, "and, obviously, in this situation, you don't feel that right now."

Oh, and guess who's a free agent in 2011?

Chris Paul.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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