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A look beneath the surface in Pacific

Our final division preview spotlights the wild, wacky Pacific, the new home of Court TV. We have a fascinating yet ugly situation overhanging the Lakers. We have new management in Portland, but already we sense players are having a hard time shedding their old ways. We have the still-deep Kings readying for one more run, but they'll start without their best player, who is coming off surgery and, possibly, a suspension.

But we still have the Clippers to kick around. Some things never change.

This division was supposed to be an open-and-shut case for the Lakers the moment they signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Then Kobe Bryant got charged with rape and everything changed. We don't know when he'll stand trial. We do know this whole unseemly situation has to affect his play and his team's. We just don't know to what extent.

The Kings won the division the last two years and may do so again this year. They've revamped their bench, which was one of their undeniable strengths last season, and they still have an excellent starting five. Portland will face a stiff challenge from the rising Suns for the No. 3 spot. The Blazers made no meaningful changes to a team that won 50 games last year, good enough for sixth place in the brutal West. Phoenix, meanwhile, is quietly putting together a pretty nice team, although one bereft of a legitimate NBA center.

After that, it's a crap shoot. The Warriors lost their two top scorers, but, amazingly, might not be that much worse off. Seattle is rebuilding; it doesn't help that first-round pick Nick Collison is out for the season. Then there are the Clippers. Yeah, they re-signed Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. Big deal. They got nothing for Michael Olowokandi, Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, or Eric Piatkowski. That qualifies as good basketball management?

A look at the Pacific (with teams in alphabetical order).


Last year: 38-44, sixth place.

Coach: Eric Musselman (second season).

Additions: Calbert Cheaney, Speedy Claxton, Evan Eschmeyer, Avery Johnson, Mickael Pietrus, Cliff Robinson, Pepe Sanchez, Nick Van Exel.

Losses: Gilbert Arenas, Earl Boykins, Danny Fortson, Antawn Jamison, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch.

Player on the spot: Van Exel.

Outlook: The Warriors made a huge deal with Dallas, which made their team worse but their owners better off in the pockets. Who do you think's responsible? It's too bad. Last year, for the first time in a while, the Warriors actually were interesting and fun. This year, they may be neither. It all hinges on whether Van Exel decides to play. If he does, the Warriors might not be so bad and we might see what the fuss about Mike Dunleavy is all about. We'd better. But if Van Exel pouts and starts acting the way we know he can, then it could be another wreck in the Bay area. It's not as if the cupboard is bare. Troy Murphy is developing into a solid NBA player and Dunleavy will now have the time and opportunity to do the same. Van Exel will share the backcourt with frequent flyers Pietrus and Jason Richardson, one of whom may actually know how to play basketball. Erick Dampier and Adonal Foyle return as the centers with Claxton, Cheaney, and Robinson as the key offseason acquisitions. Robinson has never been on a team that didn't make the playoffs. That streak is in serious jeopardy.


Last year: 27-55, seventh place.

Coach: Mike Dunleavy (first year).

Additions: Predrag Drobnjak, Chris Kaman, Olden Polynice, Glen Rice, Sofoklis Schortsanitis.

Losses: Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi, Eric Piatkowski, Sean Rooks.

Player on the spot: Corey Maggette.

Outlook: Everyone assumed things had changed in Clipperland when Donald Sterling actually decided to spend some money and re-sign Maggette and Elton Brand. Well, he let someone else do his bidding and saved a lot in the process. Meanwhile, five others left with no compensation and his No. 1 draft pick is hurt. Welcome to the circus, Mr. Dunleavy. It's hard to envision the Clippers doing much of anything with what's left. Brand is clearly the guy, but Maggette is going to be force-fed minutes because the Clippers went out on a $42 million limb to keep him. He's one of those tweeners who can get to the basket and has the requisite hops. But who's going to be the point guard, Marko Jaric or Keyon Dooling? Who's going to replace the Kandi Man? Right now, the rarely used Drobnjak is the leading candidate. The two first-round picks from a year ago, Chris Wilcox and Melvin Ely, hardly ever played last season -- and for a team that won 27 games. Brand is a stud and as good a chap as you'll find in the league. How did he ever allow himself to get trapped in this mess?


Last year: 50-32, tied for second place.

Coach: Phil Jackson (fifth season).

Additions: Brian Cook, Horace Grant, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Luke Walton.

Losses: Robert Horry, Mark Madsen, Brian Shaw, Samaki Walker. Player on the spot: Kobe Bryant.

Outlook: This looked like a 70-something win team before Kobe did whatever he did. Now, who knows? How many games will Bryant play and how focused will he be? His trial looms as a monumental distraction, even for the Zen meister himself, Jackson. There's still Shaq, and the Big Atkins already is making noises that he wants more green from Jerry Buss. He just started a new gazillion-dollar extension this year. We don't know how long Payton and the Mailman will need to fully embrace the triangle offense. We do know it won't be very long before Shaq tells them to get him the (expletive) ball. The Lakers will begin the year without Rick Fox, who is still recovering from surgery. And they'll be without Robert Horry; who's going to make that game-winning trey when they need it? It's not the same Lakers team from years past when Kobe and Shaq dominated and everyone else did their thing. You've got two new marquee players who, regardless of the system and situation, cannot be seen as mere role players. Can they? That's just one of the many, many questions surrounding this team.


Last year: 44-38, fourth place.

Coach: Frank Johnson (third season).

Additions: Robert Archibald, Leandro Barbosa, Zarko Cabarkapa, Brevin Knight, Cezary Trybansky.

Losses: Bo Outlaw, Jake Tsakalidis.

Player on the spot: Joe Johnson.

Outlook: The Suns have a real international look, with two Serbs, a Pole, and a Brazilian. But none of those is a real key to the team's prospects. The Suns have put together a solid trio of Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion, a group that will be the foundation going forward. It would help greatly if the enigmatic Johnson started playing consistently and well. We all know what he can do. But is he forever going to be someone who does it every so often instead of most of the time or even all of the time? As either a starter or sixth man, Johnson's versatility makes him someone to watch. The Suns also could use a decent man in the middle, especially out West. Right now, the starting center is none other than ex-UConn big man Jake Voskuhl, who has worked himself into an NBA player. Cabarkapa is supposed to be an excellent find, though not ready, and the Suns still have two contractual millstones who can help: Tom Gugliotta and Penny Hardaway. The Suns are improving. They may even have enough to be among the top three teams in the division.


Last year: 50-32, tied for second place.

Coach: Maurice Cheeks (third season).

Additions: Tracy Murray, Travis Outlaw, Scott Padgett.

Losses: Antonio Daniels, Chris Dudley, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis.

Player on the spot: Damon Stoudamire.

Outlook: The Blazers have made the playoffs 21 consecutive seasons. That goes back well before Paul Allen, Bob Whitsitt, Rasheed Wallace, and all those technicals, suspensions, arrests, and spending sprees. That streak should continue, even as the Blazers appear to be regressing slightly. They made no significant roster changes, unless you count the possible additions of fringe players such as Padgett or Murray. They lost two starters in Pippen and Sabonis, not to mention two guys who know how to play and, for the most part, behaved like grownups in their time in the Rose City. Up-and-comers Zach Randolph and Qyntel Woods may be ready for regular minutes now. There's no denying the talent that Cheeks has before him. Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells are probably the two best scorers, but the oft-in-trouble Stoudamire is huge. He apparently has mended his ways and is back in everyone's good graces. He's their point guard. He knows the offense and how to get his teammates the ball. He had a summer of troubles that everyone, most of all him, would like to forget.


Last year: 59-23, first place.

Coach: Rick Adelman (sixth season).

Additions: Tony Massenburg, Brad Miller, Anthony Peeler.

Losses: Keon Clark, Jim Jackson, Damon Jones, Scot Pollard, Hedo Turkoglu.

Player on the spot: Chris Webber.

Outlook: Everyone has sort of forgotten about the Kings. There was the Spurs' run to the title and then the Lakers' summer signings and, well, what about Sacramento? The Kings didn't stand still. They acquired the quirky Miller from Indiana in a sign-and-trade agreement that forced them to lose Pollard and Turkoglu, two important bench players. Jim Jackson, another key guy last year, did not return. Clark, a disappointment, was traded to Utah in a salary dump. So the vaunted Kings bench, the envy of the league, has been retooled with Miller, Peeler, and Massenburg. Sacramento is counting on third-year forward Gerald Wallace to step into the breach and for Bobby Jackson to be his usual reliable self. But in the end, the Kings need good health, most especially from Webber. When he went down in the Dallas series, the Kings didn't have enough. They gamely took it to seven games, but they need Webber. He is not ready to play following surgery and he may serve a little suspension time for his role in the Michigan money mess. But when he's ready, he needs to stay out there. If he does, no one will forget the Kings this time around.


Last year: 40-42, fifth place.

Coach: Nate McMillan (fourth season).

Additions: Nick Collison, Antonio Daniels, Luke Ridnour.

Losses: Elden Campbell, Predrag Drobnjak, Joseph Forte, Kevin Ollie.

Player on the spot: Ray Allen.

Outlook: The Sonics failed to finish at .500 or better for the first time since 1987. They may have another year or two of sub-.500 ball ahead. The signs have not been good; Collison, the 12th pick in the draft, needed shoulder surgery that will keep him out all season. Oops. Seattle also is still stuck with three centers -- Calvin Booth, Jerome James, Vitaly Potapenko -- who combined make around $15 million. It'd be great if one of them could play. But the Sonics also know that they were 18-12 after acquiring Allen, who remains one of the NBA's dead-eye shooters and good guys. He'll get plenty of scoring help from the likes of Rashard Lewis, Vladimir Radmanovic, Brent Barry, and perhaps Daniels, who may inherit the point guard slot by default. On nights when these guys' shots are dropping, they'll be tough to defend. But it's very hard to make a decent NBA living on the perimeter -- just ask the Celtics -- and the Sonics don't have much else to offer. One guy we know won't be there is Clueless Joe Forte. The Sonics wised up to him just as the Celtics did and waived him.

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