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Posted: Tuesday October 27, 2009 11:33AM; Updated: Tuesday October 27, 2009 12:25PM
Britt Robson Britt Robson >
INSIDE THE NBA

Western Conference preview

Story Highlights

Spurs' savvy offseason moves will allow them to challenge Lakers for West title

The Hornets don't have enough around Chris Paul to be legitimate contenders

Andrew Bynum could be the key to the Lakers' chances for a repeat

The Lakers and Spurs are on course for a titanic Western Conference finals matchup, with great coaches, deep rosters and superstar leadership. No fewer than four others -- Dallas, Portland, Denver and Utah -- are formidable second-tier contenders. At the other extreme is dysfunction in Memphis and Golden State, rookie point guards and lousy interior defense in Minnesota and Sacramento, and wishful thinking in Phoenix. And in the middle are the cursed Clippers, who would have been (still could be?) a playoff team with a healthy Blake Griffin.

Southwest Division

1) San Antonio Spurs (second-best record in West)

First Take: The savvy get savvier. The best front office in the game executed the best trade and best draft value of the offseason, acquiring 29-year-old swingman Richard Jefferson, a perfect fit for their style and core personnel, for three fossils (average age: 36), then snagging rebounding fiend DeJuan Blair way down in the second round. Added to the league's most battle-tested trio of star teammates -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and a (hopefully) healthy Manu Ginobili -- the Spurs are younger, deeper and most likely better than last year's 54-win squad, perhaps the only assemblage in the conference that can compete with the Lakers even the reigning champions are firing on all cylinders.

Concerns: Ginobili's durability. ... Sorting out secondary minutes on a roster that could legitimately go a dozen deep.

Overrated: The vacuum-sealed bulwark of the Spurs' vaunted post defense has sprung leaks the past two years. Blair, free-agent signee Antonio McDyess and even the occasional insertion of shot-blocker Theo Ratliff against the bigger post players should ease the strain on Duncan (now a full-time center), but only partially remedy the problem.

Underrated: The Spurs' unselfishness is so seamless that it's part of the landscape. Suffice to say that four crunch-time studs will switch roles and share the ball without a quibble.

X-Factors: Can Parker reprise his counterpunch to his dribble penetration -- the surprising pull-up jumpers and the runners -- as effectively? ... How much rest does Duncan get before the playoffs begin?

2) Dallas Mavericks (3)

First Take: The easy opinion is that the Mavs will again be relegated to second-round sparring partner for the heavyweights come playoff time. But picking up forward Shawn Marion was a masterstroke with multiple benefits (defensive flexibility, athleticism, second-chance and fast-break scoring), and new center Drew Gooden fills their crying need for a bull in the china shop when games get feisty. There is urgency because of the inevitable decline in the 36-year-old's Jason Kidd's game and the plateau of Dirk Nowitzki's effectiveness. If Josh Howard can regain the health and defensive focus of a few years back, Dallas will give the supposed elite teams all they can handle.

Concerns: Howard's health and attitude. ... Kidd's inability to guard more than half the conference's opposing point guards. ... They should be concerned with foolish three-pointers: While Kidd and super-sub Jason Terry were pretty accurate from beyond the arc last season, the Mavs ranked near the bottom of the league in accuracy.

Overrated: Kidd is a Hall of Famer and a wonderful decision-maker, but his physical limitations really reduce the scope of those decisions. And Kidd's pocket-rocket backups are either lacking sheer skill (Jose Barea) or seasoning (Rodrigue Beaubois).

Underrated: Coach Rick Carlisle's vanilla personality and shrewd tactical sense are a good fit on this veteran, yet excitable team. ... Terry has a Ginobili-like knack for crunch-time heroics without receiving as much acclaim.

X-Factors: How Carlisle uses Gooden and Erick Dampier in the pivot. ... How Howard and Terry help accommodate Marion in the pecking order after Nowitzki.

3) New Orleans Hornets (7)

First Take: As much as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul is worth the price of admission. He gets an unselfish 23 points a game by shooting better than 50 percent, stays with his man and still leads the league in steals, and is a huge asset in the locker room and the community. But aside from David West -- a solid No. 3 guy on a champion contender -- Paul is being hung out to dry. Peja Stojakovic's upside is as a catch-and-shoot one-trick pony; ditto Morris Peterson. Emeka Okafor doesn't have the hops, size and quickness to mesh with Paul as well as a healthy Tyson Chandler -- even on offense. The strength of the non-Pauls is at forward -- West, James Posey, Darius Songaila, Julian Wright -- and that's not enough to prevent slippage.

Concerns: That cash-strapped ownership blows the team up. ... That a frustrated Paul expedites that process. ... That West, who maximizes his potential, begins to wear out.

Overrated: Like Robert Horry, Posey is exponentially more valuable when the stakes are high, which isn't very often for a 45-win team. (In other words, he's not so much overrated as badly situated.)

Underrated: Songaila is a reliable mucker who has added a jumper that has to guarded. ... Guys like Wright -- athletic, intriguing skills, still obscure -- have roulette-wheel futures that occasionally land them in the right spot.

X-Factors: Whether Paul and Okafor click. ... Does the 24-year-old Paul have yet another level in him?

4) Houston Rockets (8)

First Take: This team has lost all its stars yet is brimming with role players who have big hearts. Can you make the playoffs if, choose one, Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks or Trevor Ariza is your best player? But do you count out a squad with that quartet in addition to Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry and David Andersen? It's not hard to imagine Houston hanging tough on the ingenuity of coach Rick Adelman and sweat equity early in the season and then having Tracy McGrady -- ah, a household name! -- return from knee surgery and eke them into the playoffs. That's a decent ride for a team without Yao Ming or Ron Artest.

Concerns: No Yao, no Artest and no McGrady for a while spells no hope and no interest from the fans. ... Finding out that starting the 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes at center isn't a good idea after all.

Overrated: The loss of Yao. More than once, Houston has overachieved for weeks at a time without him.

Underrated: Most of the team, but let's single out the professionalism of Battier -- it's striking how many ways he can do what's necessary -- and the multiple-franchise success of Adelman, who can make a case for the Hall of Fame.

X-Factors: McGrady's return -- scheduled for sometime after early December -- and how it affects whatever chemistry has developed.

5) Memphis Grizzlies (12)

First Take: The most easily mocked franchise in the NBA. They parted ways with their best-ever player, Pau Gasol, in order to rebuild, then went out and acquired two of the most notorious, high-maintenance, bad-habits, ball-centric anti-rebuilders they could find, Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, and are paying Randolph what it would have cost to keep Gasol. They picked up a serviceable center last year in Marc Gasol (Pau's brother), then used the No. 2 pick in the June draft to take another center, Hasheem Thabeet, who could well be a bust and is at least a formidable project. Ironically, Randolph and Iverson are skillful enough (especially Randolph) to kill Memphis two ways -- winning games that lessen its lottery chances and denying touches to young talents Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo.

Concerns: There is no evident plan or logic to create a context for concern. With or without concerns, expect a lost season in the big-picture scheme of things.

Overrated: Thabeet is the latest example of a huge, coordinated player with no court sense or passion for the game who was taken way too early in the draft (see Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, etc.).

Underrated: The Grizz got it right with 6-6 rookie swingman Sam Young in the second round.

X-Factors: Will good-soldier coach Lionel Hollins appease the front office and play to win with Randolph and Iverson, or develop Gay, Mayo and point guard Mike Conley?

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