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Lakers, Kings continue
to strut stuff

Dec 2, 2003 6:49 AM

The NBA season is a month old and already some patterns are starting to emerge. The balance of power is clearly in the West to nobody’s surprise. And the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings are the best in the West.

Also not a surprise.

Whatever power exists in the Eastern Conference lies in the Central Division. Indiana has the East’s best record but Detroit and New Orleans also have better marks than the Atlantic Division leader, Philadelphia. In fact, the 76ers lead the Division despite having just a .500 record.

None of the other six teams is playing break-even basketball. The division cellar dweller, Orlando, has the league’s worst record at 1-15. The league’s next two weakest teams ”” Chicago and Cleveland ”” each have just four wins. Both Orlando and Chicago have already made coaching changes and even rookie sensation LeBron James has not yet been able to reverse the fortunes of the Cavaliers.

In the West, only the Los Angeles Clippers (4-8) are more than one game below .500. Eleven of the conference’s 14 teams have winning records. That ”˜other’ rookie ”” Carmelo Anthony ”” has been instrumental to Denver’s fine 10-6 start which has the Nuggets just a half game behind Dallas for the lead in the Midwest Division.

That success is unlikely to last and the Nuggets are still a longshot to even make the playoffs. But his impact on the team has been greater than that of James even though James may be ahead in the statistical comparisons.

In that division last place Memphis is just three games out of the lead. Coach Hubie Brown has done a fine job since taking over during last season in making the Grizzlies competitive and that improvement should continue. Unfortunately there are so many good teams in the West that many folks won’t even notice the improvement. But handicappers and bettors are aware. As is the lines maker.

You would think a team with the woeful history that the Grizzlies have would be a solid pointspread proposition given their decent 7-8 start. But the lines maker has adjusted already and Memphis has the identical 7-8 ATS record just under a fifth of the way into the season.

Through the first month of the season, home teams have covered in 123 of 229 pointspread decisions for a 53.7 percent success rate. The gap between "overs" and "unders" ”” which was established during the first two nights of the season ”” is virtually gone. The "under" holds a slim 119-112 edge through the first four weeks of play.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

T’wolves at Kings (Fri): Sacramento won the earlier meeting during the season’s first week in overtime in a high scoring game. At 9-8, Minnesota’s slow start is understandable with many new faces in the lineup. The T’wolves have a winning record on the road thus far but Sacramento is unbeaten at home through 10 games. Although the Minnesota has been involved in more "under" than "over" contests for the season the recent trend has seen five of the last six exceed the posted total. That fits nicely with Sacramento’s preferred pace. OVER.

Suns at Nets (Sat): Jason Kidd opposes his former team, while his current New Jersey squad struggles in the early season. The two time Eastern Conference champions begin the week a pair of games below .500 following a 2-2 road trip out West. Phoenix is an early disappointment following its playoff appearance last season. The Suns are one of just three Western Conference teams below .500, despite playing 10 of their first 15 at home. In each of the past three seasons the Suns and Nets have split their season series with the home team winning and covering every time. Both teams played Friday night with the Nets hosting Milwaukee and Phoenix in Boston for the start of a four games in five days road trip. NEW JERSEY.

Jazz at Lakers (Sun): It will be odd to see Karl Malone not in a Jazz uniform when his former Utah team visits the Staples Center. Utah’s early season performance has surprised many, having won 8 of 9 home games and beginning the week just a game behind Dallas. The Lakers have the league’s best record with Shaquille O’Neal back in the lineup after missing some action. The Hall of Fame quartet of O’Neal, Malone, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton is all that everyone expected and should ultimately wear down the Jazz. Utah is well coached and fundamentally sound. The Jazz should try to slow the pace to stay in the game as long as possible. Seven of Utah’s last nine games have gone below the total. Don’t expect to see a run and gun affair here either. UNDER.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 10-4