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NBA: Best remains out West

Oct 28, 2003 5:31 AM

The NBA season tips off this week. It’s been an eventful offseason with the retirements of David Robinson and Michael Jordan, the Cavaliers drafting phenom LeBron James, and the Kobe Bryant trial. Here’s a look at some of the best teams in the NBA, starting with the West, a conference that has won the last five NBA titles.

SPURS: San Antonio has the best player in the game, as well as a ton of depth, defense and smart role players. The only thing they don’t have is the classy Admiral, who walked off into the sunset with a title, which was only fitting. There’s no shortage of height in the frontcourt, however, as the Spurs added 6-foot-9 Hidayet Turkoglu via a trade from Sacramento, 6-10 Robert Horry and 7-0 former Minnesota Timberwolves center Rasho Nesterovic (6.5 rpg).

They will be role players, because the Spurs still have 7-footer Tim Duncan (23.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 3.9 apg). The reigning league MVP is a remarkable player ”” smart and team-oriented. Guard Tony Parker (15.5 ppg, 5.3 apg) is a sparkplug, while 6-6 Emanuel Ginobili and 6-7 Malik Rose round out a unit that plays brilliant defense. The Spurs were 35-18 SU and 32-20-1 ATS on the road last year.

LAKERS: Los Angeles has the kind of talent that every GM would covet, yet the multiple clashing egos and chemistry questions make one wonder whether the victory total reaches 70 or 40. Interest will be high as the Lakers seeking their fourth NBA title in five years. The quest begins and ends with the health (and heart) of Shaquille O’Neal (27.5 ppg, 11 rpg). The likeable giant battled toe problems and seemed unhappy at times, feuding with Bryant and Phil Jackson. Bryant (30 ppg) led the team in scoring, which may have contributed to the poor chemistry: The truth is, LA is much better when the ball goes through Shaq first.

Veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton come aboard, creating hoop-heaven for Laker fans. They’re hoping versatile Rick Fox returns healthy from last year’s injury in the playoffs. Health and depth are the weak spots for an aging team. Payton is 35, Malone 40 and Shaq 32. O’Neal also has to demonstrate that his recent history of weight and foot problems are under control. The Lakers look great on paper, but the games are played on the court. The 1998-99 Rockets had Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Akeem Olajuwon, while the 1969 Lakers had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Neither team won the title.

KINGS: Perhaps the greatest collection of NBA talent never to win the NBA championship. Sacramento is overdue to win it all, and certainly has the talent. The key will be the health of 6-10 Chris Webber (23 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 5.4 apg), who went down with a knee injury in the second round of the playoffs and is still rehabbing. Sacramento traded away several role players to get 7-foot center Brad Miller (13 ppg, 8.3 rpg with Indiana), who will share time with veteran Vlade Divac.

Miller will more likely be asked to rebound and play defense considering the ton of depth and scoring ability. Guards Mike Bibby (15.9 ppg, 5.2 apg) and Bobby Jackson (15.2 ppg, 3.1 apg) are terrific. Doug Christie is a defensive wizard, while 6-10 Peja Stojakovic (19.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is one of the best young players in the game. So is this the year, or has time passed this talented group?

MAVERICKS: If the NBA were all about running and scoring, Dallas would be working on its fourth straight title. They have yet to taste champagne, but will be in the running thanks to an awesome collection of height, depth and talent. Seven-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki (25.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.0 apg) is an elite player and might be the closest thing to Larry Bird we’ll ever see.

The Mavs had a ton of offense with guards Steve Nash and Michael Finley, but went out and acquired 6-9 Antawn Jamison (22.2 ppg) from Golden State and Antoine Walker from Boston. The Dallas run-and-gun offense was fun last season, and should be even more exciting. This team fared well on the road (31-19), even without playing any defense: The "over" was 29-21 in games Dallas played away from home.

ROCKETS: Houston didn’t even make the playoffs last season, but who wouldn’t want all the talent on this roster? Second-year 7-5 center Yao Ming (13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) enjoyed an impressive rookie season, when some wondered if he could succeed. Ming impressed many with his skilled play and excellent work ethic. Throw in 6-10 Eddie Griffin (8.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 6-11 Kelvin Cato (4.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and this is a young, tall frontcourt.

The backcourt is impressive with Steve Francis (21.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 6.2 apg) and Cuttino Mobley (17.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.8 apg). The Rockets made a key acquisition in the offseason, bringing in sharpshooter Eric Piatkowski, who will help off the bench and can knock down jumpers on a regular basis. The Rockets need to improve their defense on the road, going 15-26 SU away from home. The "over" was 25-16 in games away.