Western Conference preview (cont.)
1) Los Angeles Lakers (1)
First take: Many people believe that the only team that can beat the Lakers is the Lakers -- and that with the volatile Ron Artest on board, it is a distinct possibility. But if center Andrew Bynum can duplicate last year's first half throughout this season, Artest will move from necessity to luxury for Kobe and Co., at least until the conference finals. On the other hand, if Artest goes loco and Bynum reprises last year's stumbling second half, the Lakers won't escape the conference to defend their crown, and Lamar Odom will get an early start on his reality show.
Concerns: Besides Artest and Bynum, L.A. has to fret about its point guard situation. Derek Fisher's knowledge of the triangle offense and savvy positioning on defense can no longer forestall the ravages of Father Time.
Overrated: Adam Morrison jokes. The man has suffered enough.
Underrated: The value of Luke Walton on the second unit, especially if Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar continue last year's decline.
X-Factors: Will L.A. follow Houston's example and tolerate Artest's shot selection as a trade-off for his shutdown defense? ... If Bynum slips, can DJ Mbenga fill the void?
2) Los Angeles Clippers (9)
First take: The snakebit Clippers get ambushed again. Griffin, the deservedly heralded No. 1 pick, had joined a talented team of question marks and seemed to be the sort of catalyst who could wedge them into the last playoff spot. He'd rounded out a playoff-caliber starting five, even with the inconsistent histories of Baron Davis, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and third-year forward Al Thornton. With the well-known friction between coach Mike Dunleavy and Davis, the season was a crapshoot anyway, but a hopeful, dramatic one. Perhaps it still can be. But a broken kneecap isn't exactly the kind of injury you rush.
Concerns: Griffin's recuperation, of course. ... The franchise's toxic reputation is actually a cultural force that must be quelled. ... Dunleavy and Davis are both stubborn. ... Kaman, Camby and Davis are all injury-prone.
Overrated: Davis. How do you trust a player who signs a huge contract with his hometown squad, then shows up out of shape and feuds with his coach?
Underrated: Shooting guard Eric Gordon, who ignored the "rookie wall" last year and improved down the stretch. ... Backup center DeAndre Jordan remains a raw talent but with a huge upside worth the years of investment.
X-Factors: Can Griffin catalyze a positive culture as the underachievers see a shot at success? ... How will Dunleavy respond to make-or-break year for his Clippers tenure?
3) Phoenix Suns (10)
First take: Mike D'Antoni is in New York, Steve Nash is in decline and the window of opportunity for this belated edition of the helter-skelter Suns was never really open. Yes, the Suns can still throw up 30 points per quarter, but with Shawn Marion, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw all gone from those vintage D'Antoni teams, even the pretense of defense in Phoenix is kaput. Coming into the season, the Suns' best defender in the paint was little-used second-year player Robin Lopez, who promptly broke his foot early in camp and is out until December.
Concerns: Along with nonexistent defense, Phoenix has to worry about Amar'e Stoudemire and 37-year-old Grant Hill staying healthy. And if the 35-year-old Nash gets injured, the bottom falls out of the season.
Overrated: Defense is all about athleticism and desire. Stoudemire is a great athlete.
Underrated: A relentless worker at both ends, 6-9 power forward Louis Amundson may earn minutes at center by default.
X-Factors: Stoudemire becomes a more complete player in a contract year. ... Jason Richardson likewise responds to coach Alvin Gentry's encouragement to become a better two-way player.
4) Golden State Warriors (13)
First take: Coach Don Nelson and recently deposed team captain Stephen Jackson feuded throughout the preseason, and given their extensive checkered histories with other players (Nelson) and teams (Jackson), you don't want to side with either one. After lying last year about a moped accident that cost him a piece of his new, lucrative contract, small combo guard Monta Ellis opened this preseason by saying he couldn't play with rookie small combo guard Stephen Curry. (Ellis later praised Curry, but if former Warrior Baron Davis had taken that same stance about playing with Ellis, Golden State's $66 million man wouldn't be overpaid today.) There is some genuine young talent, most notably center Andris Biedrins and forward Anthony Randolph. But the increasingly erratic whims of Nelson have transformed the once-fascinating mismatches of Nellie ball into a farce, one echoed by front-office intrigue. The loyal fans of Northern California deserve better.
Concerns: That some promising careers languish or are subverted before someone in a position of influence gets a grip.
Overrated: Corey Maggette's valuable ability to get to the free-throw line doesn't make up for his indifferent defense and ball-hogging tendencies.
Underrated: Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf do the dirty work under the hoop at both ends and don't demand touches on a roster in which most of the players are looking to score on their own.
X-Factors: What's the fallout from all this turbulence? ... Is Jackson tradable? ... Is Nelson's job secure?
5) Sacramento Kings (15)
First take: Generally regarded as the worst team in the league, the Kings have some silver linings, beginning with the efficient scoring of swingman Kevin Martin, who isn't athletic but possesses guile that makes him almost impossible to keep off the foul line. Then there is rookie Tyreke Evans, who, at 6-6, is large enough to play shooting guard but is an instant upgrade over Beno Udrih at the point. A pair of physical forwards, second-year player Jason Thompson and veteran Andres Nocioni, can hustle and hit the open shot. But new coach Paul Westphal inherits a team that permitted the highest opposing field-goal percentage last year, and the rebuild is going to take a lot of time and luck.
Concerns: That the once-loyal fans who consistently filled Arco Arena aren't coming back to help finance the wretched contracts meted out to Udrih and forward Francisco Garcia.
Overrated: Acquired in a trade with Portland, point guard Sergio Rodriguez was physically overmatched and had shot-selection problems last year.
Underrated: Martin has averaged more than 24 points on fewer than 16 shots per game over the last two years.
X-Factors: Evans becomes a star. ... Third-year center Spencer Hawes thrives until Westphal's tutelage.
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