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Bubble boys

These players are key on borderline playoff hopefuls

Posted: Thursday November 9, 2006 11:46AM; Updated: Thursday November 9, 2006 1:32PM
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Kevin Martin (left) has helped Ron Artest carry the load in what is shaping up as a breakout season for the third-year guard.
Kevin Martin (left) has helped Ron Artest carry the load in what is shaping up as a breakout season for the third-year guard.
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Let's make this clear: It's too early to start talking about the playoffs. But certain teams enter the season on the playoff bubble, their sights set not on the title (no matter what they say) but on just getting the chance to play in May.

For this week's five-pack, then, let's take a look at five of those teams, along with a player from each who might be slightly off the radar but who will be important if that team is to qualify.

Sacramento Kings

Well, the golden era in Sacramento is over -- OK, it lasted only about three seasons -- and this is a team that will struggle to get the seventh or eighth spot in the West. But the Kings could still do some damage partly because of Kevin Martin's play.

Martin is one of those out-of-nowhere guys -- actually, he's from Western Carolina -- who could be on the verge of becoming an elite player. He has become the Kings' Mr. Reliable, averaging almost 40 minutes and leading the team in scoring with 23.4 points per game -- he put 30 on the Detroit Pistons in a 99-86 win on Wednesday night -- and shooting percentage at 54.2 And it isn't easy finding yourself on a team dominated by the way-out-there personality of Ron Artest and the shoot-it-first-last-and-always style of Mike Bibby.

Los Angeles Lakers

There is one school of thought -- well, that school is probably in L.A. -- that has the Lakers as a serious Western Conference contender. It wouldn't amaze me if the Lakers made it to, say, the sixth spot in the West, but right now I see them as a bubble team. And one of the key guys on Team Kobe is Luke Walton.

Walton is one of the few guys in the game who literally tries to make the right play every time, almost to a fault. (Phoenix's Boris Diaw is another one.) But Walton has become a little more assertive this season as his minutes have soared to 31.7, his points to 15.3, his rebounds to 5.5 and his assists to 3.8. All that, and he's shooting three-pointers with accuracy. Lamar Odom is generally considered the perfect complement to Kobe Bryant, but it's really Walton.

Utah Jazz

Utah's quick start notwithstanding, this is a team that will be fighting for its playoff life in the tough West. Though Andrei Kirilenko's versatility and Carlos Boozer's continued comeback command most of the attention, the overall play of the perpetually overlooked Mehmet Okur will be just as important.

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