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NBA PREVIEW \ 2006-07 season



Published: Tue, October 31, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



EASTERN CONFERENCECENTRAL DIVISION

CHICAGO BULLS

Last season: 41-41, lost to Miami 4-2 in first round of playoffs.Starting five: G Kirk Hinrich (15.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.4 apg), G Ben Gordon (16.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.0 apg), F Luol Deng (14.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.9 apg), F P.J. Brown (9.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.2 apg), C Ben Wallace (7.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 1.8 spg)Key additions: Wallace (free agent, Pistons); Brown (trade, Hornets); F Tyrus Thomas (drafted No. 4 by Trail Blazers, then acquired for No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge); G Adrian Griffin (free agent, Mavericks)Key losses: C Tyson Chandler (trade, Hornets); F Darius Songaila (free agent, Wizards)Coach: Scott Skiles, fourth season with Bulls; seventh season overall, 223-202X-factor: Andres Nocioni. Chicago's best player in the postseason, he averaged 22.3 points in the series against Miami. Bulls have plenty of defense and rebounding, but they'll need a consistent third scorer behind Gordon and Hinrich.Outlook: Peaked at the end of last season, then played eventual champion Miami as tough as anyone in the playoffs. An already superb defensive team got better with defensive player of the year Wallace, so Bulls will go far, as long as the perimeter shooters don't struggle.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Last season: 50-32, lost to Detroit 4-3 in second round of playoffsStarting five: G Eric Snow (4.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.2 apg), G Larry Hughes (15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.6 apg), F LeBron James (31.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.6 apg), F Drew Gooden (10.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 0.7 apg), C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (15.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.7 bpg)Key additions: G Shannon Brown (draft, No. 25); G David Wesley (free agent, Rockets)Key loss: G Flip Murray (free agent, Pistons)Coach: Mike Brown, 2nd season; 50-32X-factor: Hughes. Brought to Cleveland before last season to be the Cavs' No. 2 option, but was limited by injuries to 36 games. Cavs need him on the floor to keep pressure off James along the perimeter.Outlook: After barely missing the conference finals, Cavs basically stayed put this summer after making plenty of changes last offseason. Even with James' greatness, that could leave them right where they were last season, battling for home-court advantage in the first round.

DETROIT PISTONS

Last season: 64-18, lost to Miami 4-2 in Eastern Conference finalsStarting five: G Chauncey Billups (18.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 8.6 apg), G Richard Hamilton (20.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg), F Tayshaun Prince (14.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Rasheed Wallace (15.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.3 apg), C Nazr Mohammed (6.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.6 bpg)Key additions: Mohammed (free agent, Spurs); G Flip Murray (free agent, Cavaliers)Key loss: C Ben Wallace (free agent, Bulls)Coach: Flip Saunders, second season with Pistons; 12th season overall, 475-344X-factor: Mohammed. Nobody expects him to do everything Ben Wallace did on the defensive end, but he will be an upgrade offensively. If he fits in, Pistons still could have the NBA's best starting five.Outlook: Lost team leader to a rival club in perhaps the NBA's most balanced division, so hard to imagine them being as good as they were last season. With three All-Stars in the starting lineup and Prince is getting close, they still could be the class of the Central.

INDIANA PACERS

Last season: 41-41, lost to New Jersey 4-2 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Jamaal Tinsley (9.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.0 apg), G Stephen Jackson (16.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.8 apg), F Danny Granger (7.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 apg), F Al Harrington (18.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.1 apg), C Jermaine O'Neal (20.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg)Key additions: F Harrington (trade, Hawks); G Darrell Armstrong (trade, Mavericks); G Marquis Daniels (trade, Mavericks); F Shawne Williams (draft, No. 17)Key losses: F Peja Stojakovic (trade, Hornets); G Anthony Johnson (trade, Mavericks); F Austin Croshere (trade, Mavericks); G Fred Jones (free agent, Raptors)Coach: Rick Carlisle, fourth season with Pacers; sixth overall, 246-164X-factor: Tinsley. Limited to 82 games combined the last two seasons, his scoring average dropped six points last season. Pacers need him to stay on the floor after trading Anthony Johnson, who started at the point and played so well for them last postseason.Outlook: Need to stay healthy and out of trouble, and they've struggled to do much of either over the last couple of seasons. If they do, more than enough talent to make the postseason and possibly even win a series.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Last season: 40-42, lost to Detroit 4-1 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Mo Williams (12.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.0 apg), G Michael Redd (25.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.9 apg), F Ruben Patterson (12.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.8 apg), F Charlie Villanueva (13.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg; 1.1 apg), C Andrew Bogut (9.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 apg)Key additions: F Villanueva (trade, Raptors), G Steve Blake (trade, Trail Blazers); F Ruben Patterson (trade, Nuggets); F Brian Skinner (trade, Trail Blazers)Key losses: G T.J. Ford (trade, Raptors); C Jamaal Magloire (trade, Trail Blazers); F Joe Smith (trade, Nuggets)Coach: Terry Stotts, second season with Bucks; fourth overall, 92-127X-factor: Williams. Comes off perhaps best season but that was largely as a reserve. Will be counted on to avoid a dropoff now that he has returned to starting role, which he held two years ago.Outlook: Could be looking at tough start with Bogut (leg) and Bobby Simmons (foot) both out with injuries to start the season. In a division where every team made the playoffs last season, it could be tough to climb out of that kind of hole.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

BOSTON CELTICS

Last season: 33-49, missed playoffsStarting five: G Sebastian Telfair (9.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.0 apg), G Paul Pierce (26.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.8 apg), F Wally Szczerbiak (19.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.6 apg), F Ryan Gomes (7.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.0 apg), C Theo Ratliff (4.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg)Key additions: C Ratliff (trade, Trail Blazers); G Telfair (trade, Trail Blazers), G Rajon Rondo (draft, No. 21)Key loss: C Raef LaFrentz (trade, Trail Blazers)Coach: Doc Rivers, third season with Celtics; eighth season overall, 249-254X-factor: Telfair and Rondo. Both terrific athletes, the Celtics will be better if they can handle the point guard duties so Delonte West can play both guard spots instead of having to focus on that position.Outlook: Pierce was brilliant last season, and he'll keep the Celtics in plenty of games. Winning them won't be easy when he's surrounded by so many young players.

NEW JERSEY NETS

Last season: 49-33, eliminated by Miami 4-1 in second round of playoffsStarting five: G Jason Kidd (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.4 apg), G Vince Carter (24.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.3 apg), F Richard Jefferson (19.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.8 apg), F Jason Collins (3.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.0 apg), C Nenad Krstic (13.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.1 apg)Key additions: G Marcus Williams (draft, No. 22, Connecticut), G Eddie House (free agent, Suns)Key losses: NoneCoach: Lawrence Frank, fourth season, 116-88X-factor: Krstic. The 7-footer was greatly improved in his second season but must continue his development to take pressure off the Nets' perimeter trio.Outlook: The Kidd-Carter-Jefferson trio is one of the league's best and easily should be enough to give the Nets another title in the NBA's weakest division. A lack of depth is still a concern -- they will start the season without Williams, House and another first-round pick, Josh Boone. Williams must produce when he returns so Kidd isn't forced to play too many minutes during the regular season.

NEW YORK KNICKS

Last season: 23-59, missed playoffsStarting five: G Stephon Marbury (16.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.4 apg), G Steve Francis (14.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.9 apg), F Jared Jeffries (6.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.9 apg), F Channing Frye (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.8 apg), C Eddy Curry (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.3 apg)Key additions: F Jeffries (free agent, Wizards); F Renaldo Balkman (draft, No. 22)Key loss: F Maurice Taylor (waived)Coach: Isiah Thomas, first season with Knicks; fourth season overall, 131-115X-factor: Curry. He arrived out of shape last season after sitting out the summer because of concerns over a heart ailment, and was often a non-factor in the second half of games because of fatigue or fouls. He must show that he has the potential to be a dominant center on a guard-heavy team.Outlook: Thomas already has been warned that he has one season to show progress or he's out as coach and team president. He has a chance if he's a better coach than executive, because there is some talent on the team. But much of it was unhappy and underperformed under Larry Brown, and Thomas needs to get more out of the players this season.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Last season: 38-44, missed playoffsStarting five: G Allen Iverson (33.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 7.4 apg), G Andre Iguodala (12.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.1 apg), F Kyle Korver (11.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.0 apg), F Chris Webber (20.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.4 apg), C Samuel Dalembert (7.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg)Key addition: F Rodney Carney (draft, No. 16)Key loss: F John Salmons (free agent, Kings)Coach: Maurice Cheeks, second season with 76ers; sixth season overall, 200-183X-factor: Dalembert. He fell out of favor last season, but the Sixers are better if he proves he deserves to be the starter. Played well early in the preseason during Philadelphia's games in Europe. Bothered by sore hamstring later in preseason.Outlook: Depends on its defense. Philadelphia should score plenty, but if it allows 101.3 points per game, which it did last season, it probably will be home again when the playoffs start.

TORONTO RAPTORS

Last season: 27-55, missed playoffsStarting five: G T.J. Ford (12.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.6 apg), G Anthony Parker (5.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Morris Peterson (16.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Chris Bosh (22.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.6 apg), C Rasho Nesterovic (4.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.1 bpg)Key additions: F Andrea Bargnani (draft, No. 1), G Ford (trade with Bucks), C Nesterovic (trade with Spurs), G Parker (free agent, Maccabi Tel Aviv), F Jorge Garbajosa (free agent, Spain)Key losses: G Mike James (free agent, Timberwolves), F Charlie Villanueva (trade with Bucks)Coach: Sam Mitchell, third season, 60-104X-factor: Bargnani. He's been compared to Dirk Nowitzki, but for now Toronto fans will probably settle for just being more than Darko Milicic, the last European player to have such a lofty draft position.Outlook: General manager Bryan Colangelo has surrounded All-Star Bosh with a number of overseas players. The foreign guys have done all right against NBA players lately, so maybe the Raptors can be good. More likely, they are still a year or two away.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

ATLANTA HAWKS

Last season: 26-56, missed playoffsStarting five: G Speedy Claxton (12.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.8 apg), G Joe Johnson (20.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.5 apg), F Josh Smith (11.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.4 apg), F Marvin Williams (8.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg), C Zaza Pachulia (11.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.7 apg)Key additions: G Claxton (free agent, Hornets), C Shelden Williams (draft, No. 5)Key losses: F Al Harrington (free agent, Pacers)Coach: Mike Woodson, third season, 39-125X-factor: Claxton. Currently sidelined by a broken finger, he hopes to return by the start of the regular season. The runner-up for the sixth man award last season, he's expected to be the starter now at a position that's long been a weakness for the Hawks.Outlook: Just as Claxton was set to return, lost Marvin Williams to same injury. Woodson is 86 games under .500 in two seasons as an NBA head coach. Hawks actually doubled their win total last season, so if they do that again they'll win 52 games. Don't count on it.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Last season: 26-56, missed playoffsStarting five: G Brevin Knight (12.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 8.8 apg), G Raymond Felton (11.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.6 apg), F Gerald Wallace (15.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 spg), F Emeka Okafor (13.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.9 bpg), C Primoz Brezec (12.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.4 bpg)Key additions: F Adam Morrison (draft, No. 3), F Othella Harrington (free agent, Bulls), F Walter Herrman (free agent, Argentina)Key losses: NoneCoach: Bernie Bickerstaff, third season with Bobcats, 15th overall; 382-468X-factor: Morrison. Led the nation in scoring last season at Gonzaga, but there were questions about how his game would look with such a huge jump in competition. A supremely confident player, he believes it will be just fine -- and so do the Bobcats.Outlook: Forced to play much of the season without Okafor and Sean May, Bobcats were 29th in the NBA in rebound margin. Correct that problem, get contributions from its many young players, and Charlotte will continue to progress.

MIAMI HEAT

Last season: 52-30, won NBA championshipStarting five: G Jason Williams (12.3 ppg, 4.9 apg), G Dwyane Wade (27.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg), F Antoine Walker (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.0 apg), F Udonis Haslem (9.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.2 apg), C Shaquille O'Neal (20.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg)Key additions: NoneKey losses: NoneCoach: Pat Riley, 10th season with Heat, 23rd season overall; 1,151-589X-factor: Dorell Wright. Wade loves him, and Riley might need him. The Heat know they have to give some minutes to their younger players, and the 6-foot-9 forward, who was taken out of high school in the first round of the 2004 draft, has shown at times that he's ready for them.Outlook: Brought back every important player from their championship team, so they'll contend for another title. But O'Neal looked average in the NBA finals, and there's some age on the Heat bench. Wade is as good a player as there is in the NBA, and he can hide a lot of Miami's problems.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Last season: 36-46, missed playoffsStarting five: G Jameer Nelson (14.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.9 apg), G Keith Bogans (8.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg), F Grant Hill (15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Dwight Howard (15.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg), C Darko Milicic (4.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.4 bpg)Key additions: G J.J. Redick (draft, No. 11); G-F Bogans (free agent, Rockets)Key loss: G DeShawn Stevenson (free agent, Wizards)Coach: Brian Hill, second season of his second stint with Orlando; first coached the team from 1993-97, 258-273X-factor: Milicic. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft has developed slowly and didn't get an extension this summer with the other high-profile names from the top of his draft. But he played very well for Serbia and Montenegro in the world championships and could be poised for a breakout season.Outlook: Had a strong finish to last season behind their young players. Now rejoined by Grant Hill -- if he can stay healthy -- they should have a chance to grab a postseason spot.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Last season: 42-40, lost to Cleveland 4-2 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Gilbert Arenas (29.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.1 apg), G DeShawn Stevenson (11.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.0 apg), F Caron Butler (17.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.5 apg), F Antawn Jamison (20.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.9 apg), C Brendan Haywood (7.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg)Key additions: Stevenson (free agent, Magic); F Darius Songaila (free agent, Bulls)Key loss: G Jared Jeffries (free agent, Knicks)Coach: Eddie Jordan, fourth season with Wizards, sixth season overall; 145-198X-factor: Butler. Wizards were 2-5 when he didn't play last season, including a five-game losing streak late in the season that could have cost them a playoff spot. Washington needs the energy he provides, offensively and defensively.Outlook: Plenty of firepower with the Arenas-Jamison-Butler trio, but Jordan has been reminding the Wizards all preseason that they need to do more on the other end of the floor to escape the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

WESTERN CONFERENCESOUTHWEST DIVISION

DALLAS MAVERICKS

Last season: 60-22, lost to Miami 4-2 in NBA finalsStarting five: G Devin Harris (9.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), G Jason Terry (17.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.8 apg), F Josh Howard (15.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.9 apg), F Dirk Nowitzki (26.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), C DeSagana Diop (2.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 bpg)Key additions: F Austin Croshere (trade, Pacers); G Anthony Johnson (trade, Pacers); F Devean George (free agent, Lakers); G Maurice Ager (draft, No. 28); G-F Greg Buckner (free agent, Nuggets)Key losses: G Marquis Daniels (trade, Pacers); F Keith Van Horn; G Adrian Griffin (free agent, Bulls); G Darrell Armstrong (trade, Pacers)Coach: Avery Johnson, third season, 76-24X-factor: Harris. Snuck up on teams when he was surprisingly put in the starting lineup late last season. Teams will be ready for him this time, and likely will negate his speed advantage by playing off him and making him shoot jumpers.Outlook: Minutes away from a 3-0 lead in the NBA finals, they blew that and eventually their grip on the series. With a few tweaks to the roster to surround Nowitzki and Howard, they hope they've done enough to give themselves a chance to get it right this time.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffsStarting five: G Rafer Alston (12.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.7 apg), G Bonzi Wells (13.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.8 apg), F Tracy McGrady (24.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.8 apg), F Shane Battier (10.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 apg), C Yao Ming (22.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg)Key additions: F Battier (trade, Grizzlies); G Wells (free agent, Kings); F Steve Novak (draft, No. 32); G Kirk Snyder (trade, Hornets)Key loss: F Stromile Swift (trade, Grizzlies)Coach: Jeff Van Gundy, fourth season with Rockets, 11th overall, 378-278X-factor: Wells. Starred for the Kings in the playoffs but didn't get the big money deal he was hoping for and will have to be content as a No. 3 option in Houston. If he is, Rockets have a tremendous complement to the McGrady-Yao duo.Outlook: A miserable regular season was followed by a very good offseason. Rockets are already deeper and more balanced than last season. They'll surely be much better, too, as long as they can avoid the injury woes to McGrady and Yao that wrecked their 2005-06 campaign.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Last season: 49-33, lost to Dallas 4-0 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Damon Stoudamire (11.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.7 apg), G Eddie Jones (11.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.4 apg), F Rudy Gay (rookie), F Lawrence Roberts (1.5 ppg, 0.7 rpg, 0.2 apg), C Jake Tsakalidis (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 0.7 bpg)Key additions: F Gay (draft, No. 8); F Stromile Swift (trade, Rockets); G Kyle Lowry (draft, No. 24)Key losses: F Shane Battier (trade, Rockets); G Bobby Jackson (free agent, Hornets)Coach: Mike Fratello, third season with Grizzlies, 17th overall, 667-518X-factor: Mike Miller. The NBA's top sixth man last season will have to take on a much bigger role without leading scorer Pau Gasol.Outlook: It took a turn for the worse right around Labor Day, when the Grizzlies learned that Gasol would miss four months after breaking his foot in the world championships. As Rockets learned last season, Southwest Division is simply too tough to overcome the absence of a top player for that long.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Last season: 38-44, missed playoffsStarting five: G Chris Paul (16.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 7.8 apg), G Desmond Mason (10.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.9 apg), F Peja Stojakovic (18.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.9 apg), F David West (17.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 apg), C Tyson Chandler (5.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg)Key additions: C Chandler (trade, Bulls); F Stojakovic (trade, Pacers); G Bobby Jackson (free agent, Grizzlies); F Hilton Armstrong (draft, No. 12); F Cedric Simmons (draft, No. 15)Key losses: F P.J. Brown (trade, Hornets); G Speedy Claxton (free agent, Hawks)Coach: Byron Scott, third season with Hornets, seventh overall, 205-247X-factor: Stojakovic and Jackson. Both played big roles when they were on the Kings, but have since struggled to stay healthy and haven't been as productive. Now part of the Hornets' solid offseason, they'll try to help their new team get past their old one, which claimed the final playoff spot in the West last year.Outlook: Despite lacking a true home and a ton of talent, Hornets managed to remain in the playoff hunt until late in the season. Added enough pieces over the summer to surround rookie of the year Paul and the much-improved West to give them reasonable postseason expectations.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Last season: 63-19, lost to Dallas 4-3 in second round of playoffsStarting five: G Tony Parker (18.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.8 apg), G Manu Ginobili (15.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.6 apg), F Bruce Bowen (7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.5 apg), F Tim Duncan (18.6 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.2 apg), C Fabricio Oberto (1.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 0.5 apg)Key additions: F Francisco Elson (free agent, Nuggets)Key losses: C Rasho Nesterovic (trade, Raptors); Nazr Mohammed (free agent, Pistons)Coach: Gregg Popovich, 11th season, 518-282X-factor: Go small for bigger things? Spurs often played better by going with a smaller lineup and making Duncan the center. With Nesterovic and Mohammed gone, San Antonio seems set to play that style more frequently in the regular season.Outlook: San Antonio went from NBA champ to second best in its own state. But after winning in 2003 and '05, theoretically it's the Spurs' turn again. That will only be the case if Duncan and Ginobili get back to top form after injuries slowed them last season, and Parker can stay at the level he played at in 2005-06.

PACIFIC DIVISION

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffsStarting five: G Baron Davis (17.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 8.9 apg), G Jason Richardson (23.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.1 apg), F Mike Dunleavy (11.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.9 apg), F Mickael Pietrus (9.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.9 apg), C Troy Murphy (14.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.4 apg)Key additions: C Patrick O'Bryant (draft, No. 9), G Dajuan Wagner (free agent)Key losses: G Derek Fisher (trade, Jazz)Coach: Don Nelson, first season of second stint with Warriors; 28th season overall, 1,190-880X-factor: Murphy. He becomes an undersized center in Nelson's small-ball schemes. His outside shooting makes him a tough cover on the perimeter for fellow bigs, but those opponents will have an opportunity to take advantage of him on the other end.Outlook: Nellie brings his exciting, unpredictable style back to the Bay Area, which figures to make the Warriors interesting for the first time since his last stint there. Led by Richardson, a potential All-Star, he's got some players to play his style. But in powerful West, doubtful he can win with it.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Last season: 47-35, lost to Phoenix 4-3 in second round of playoffsStarting five: G Sam Cassell (17.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.3 apg), G Cuttino Mobley (14.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.0 apg), F Corey Maggette (17.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 apg), F Elton Brand (24.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.5 bpg), C Chris Kaman (12.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg)Key additions: F Tim Thomas (free agent, Suns); F Lamond Murray (free agent, Nets)Key losses: F Vladimir Radmanovic (free agent, Lakers)Coach: Mike Dunleavy, fourth season with Clippers; 14th season overall, 510-524X-factor: Shaun Livingston. The third-year point guard remains one of the NBA's most promising young players. He'll be counted on to play major minutes this season so Cassell, who will be 37 next month, gets plenty of rest before the playoffs.Outlook: Clippers now find themselves in unfamiliar role of having to live up to high expectations. With a veteran backcourt, a strong interior duo and an explosive scorer in Maggette who could start or be a top sixth man, the Clippers have everything they need to end up in the playoffs for the second straight season.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Last season: 45-37, lost to Phoenix 4-3 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Smush Parker (11.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.7 apg), G Kobe Bryant (35.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg), F Vladimir Radmanovic (9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg), F Lamar Odom (14.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 5.5 apg), C Kwame Brown (7.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.0 apg)Key additions: F Radmanovic (free agent, Clippers); G Maurice Evans (trade, Pistons); G Jordan Farmar (draft, No. 26)Key losses: F Devean George (free agent, Mavericks)Coach: Phil Jackson, second season of second stint with Lakers; 16th season overall, 877-353X-factor: Brown. The No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft had some of the best moments of his disappointing career late last season. Injured to start the season, the Lakers need him to continue progressing, because an interior defender is mandatory in the West.Outlook: As soon as Bryant is back to full strength after late-summer knee surgery, he makes the Lakers a threat every night. Even as sensational as he was last season while winning first scoring title, Los Angeles still needed a strong finish just to grab No. 7 seed. He needs teammates to step up even more this season.

PHOENIX SUNS

Last season: 54-28, lost to Dallas 4-2 in Western Conference finalsStarting five: G Steve Nash (18.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 10.5 apg), G Raja Bell (14.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg), F Boris Diaw (13.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.2 apg), F Shawn Marion (21.8 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.7 bpg), C Amare Stoudemire (8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg)Key additions: G Marcus Banks (free agent, Timberwolves); G Eric Piatkowski (free agent, Bulls)Key losses: F Tim Thomas (free agent, Clippers); G Eddie House (free agent, Nets)Coach: Mike D'Antoni, fourth season with Suns; fifth overall, 151-124X-factor: Weary travelers? After sending some players to Japan for the world championships, Suns then went to Italy and Germany for training camp and exhibition games. D'Antoni says none of that will affect the Suns, and he'd better be right. They play four times in the first five nights of the season.Outlook: Good enough to win the division with ease last season when they had Stoudemire for only three games. If he's healthy this year and regains his role in the offense -- and there's no point guard better than two-time MVP Nash to make sure that happens -- they should be playing basketball in the desert well into June.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Last season: 44-38, lost to San Antonio 4-2 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Mike Bibby (21.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.4 apg), G Kevin Martin (10.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 apg), F Ron Artest (16.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.2 apg), F Kenny Thomas (9.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.1 apg), C Brad Miller (15.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.7 apg)Key additions: F John Salmons (free agent, 76ers), G Quincy Douby (draft, No. 19), F Maurice Taylor (free agent, Knicks)Key losses: G-F Bonzi Wells (free agent, Rockets)Coach: Eric Musselman, first season with Kings; third season overall, 75-89X-factor: Salmons. Phoenix and Toronto both tried to get him before Sacramento did, and many wondered why a player who averaged 5.1 points in four seasons in Philadelphia was such a wanted man. Kings are counting on him to show why.Outlook: A strong finish last season after acquiring Artest was followed by a spirited performance in their loss to the Spurs. But losing Wells, who was superb in that series, was a real killer. Still, Kings might have enough left to get back to the postseason.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

DENVER NUGGETS

Last season: 44-38, lost to Clippers 4-1 in first round of playoffsStarting five: G Andre Miller (13.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 8.2 apg), G J.R. Smith (7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.1 apg), F Carmelo Anthony (26.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.7 apg), F Kenyon Martin (12.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.4 apg), C Marcus Camby (12.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 3.3 bpg)Key additions: F Joe Smith (trade, Bucks); G J.R. Smith (trade, Bulls)Key losses: F Francisco Elson (free agent, Spurs); F Ruben Patterson (trade, Bucks)Coach: George Karl, third season with Nuggets; 19th season overall, 784-545X-factor: Front-court health. Camby was on his way to a terrific season before injuries limited him to 56 games -- the same number Martin managed while battling leg injuries. That came after key reserve Nene was lost for the year in the season opener. Anthony can score, but somebody needs to do the rebounding and defending.Outlook: Have to stay healthy and have to get along. Both proved difficult last season. Karl clashed with Anthony two years ago and Martin last season. A blowup with J.R. Smith, who feuded with Byron Scott in New Orleans, wouldn't come as a surprise this time. But if the Nuggets overcome all of that, they'll repeat as division champions.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Last season: 33-49, missed playoffsStarting five: G Mike James (20.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.8 apg), G Ricky Davis (19.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.1 apg), F Trenton Hassell (9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.6 apg), F Kevin Garnett (21.8 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 4.1 apg), C Mark Blount (11.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.2 apg)Key additions: G James (free agent, Raptors); G Randy Foye (draft, No. 7); F Vin Baker (free agent, Clippers)Key losses: NoneCoach: Dwane Casey, second season, 33-49X-factor: James. Breakout season came while playing for a bad Toronto team during a contract year. Needs to show the Wolves, desperate for a top point guard since sending Sam Cassell to the Clippers, that he is the answer.Outlook: Frustrated after two straight seasons out of the playoffs, Garnett has more help this season with the additions of James and Foye. That still might not be enough in a conference where it took 44 wins to make the postseason last year.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Last season: 21-61, missed playoffsStarting five: G Jarrett Jack (6.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), G Brandon Roy (rookie), F Darius Miles (14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 apg), F Zach Randolph (18.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg), C Joel Przybilla (6.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 bpg)Key additions: C Jamaal Magloire (trade, Bucks), G Roy (draft, No. 6); F LaMarcus Aldridge (draft, No. 2); F Raef LaFrentz (trade, Celtics)Key losses: G Sebastian Telfair (trade, Celtics); G Steve Blake (trade, Bucks)Coach: Nate McMillan, second season with Blazers; seventh season overall, 233-244X-factor: Roy. Many considered him the most NBA-ready player coming out of the draft, and he already seemed worthy of major minutes early in preseason.Outlook: The good news is the Trail Blazers had a very good draft night. The bad news is that was one of their only highlights of a miserable season. There's hope for the future, and the Blazers will have to settle for that.

SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

Last season: 35-47, missed playoffsStarting five: G Luke Ridnour (11.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 7.0 apg), G Ray Allen (25.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg), F Rashard Lewis (20.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Chris Wilcox (8.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.7 apg), C Johan Petro (5.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.8 bpg)Key additions: C Mouhamed Saer Sene (draft, No. 10), F Mickael Gelabale (France)Key losses: NoneCoach: Bob Hill, second season with Sonics; ninth season overall, 279-242X-factor: Wilcox. The No. 8 pick in the 2002 draft was having a disappointing career until averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 59 percent, all well above his career averages, in 29 games after the Sonics acquired him last season. He needs to stay at that level to keep teams from focusing all their attention on Allen and Lewis on the perimeter.Outlook: Second in the league in scoring last season and still went 12 games under .500 because they yielded a league-high 105.6 points per game. The Sonics don't have any defensive stoppers, so expect them to lose plenty of shootouts again this season.

UTAH JAZZ

Last season: 41-41, missed playoffsStarting five: G Deron Williams (10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.5 apg), G Derek Fisher (13.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.3 apg), F Matt Harpring (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg), F Andrei Kirilenko (15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg), C Mehmet Okur (18.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.4 apg)Key additions: G Fisher (trade, Warriors), G Ronnie Brewer (draft, No. 14)Key losses: G Devin Brown (trade, Warriors)Coach: Jerry Sloan, 19th season with Jazz; 22nd season overall, 984-658X-factor: Carlos Boozer. Left Cleveland for big dollars in Utah, then spent much of his first 1 1/2 seasons with the Jazz nursing injuries. Played well when he finally got on the court last season, then got off to a strong start in preseason.Outlook: Just like every Sloan team, the Jazz will play hard, and they'll play smart. If they can avoid the costly frontcourt injuries they had last season, especially to the do-everything Kirilenko, they might play their way right into the playoffs.

Associated Press




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