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News » Western Conference Preview Lakers looking like lock in West But as the Nuggets' coach can tell you, offseason moves that seem st

Western Conference Preview Lakers looking like lock in West But as the Nuggets' coach can tell you, offseason moves that seem st

Western Conference Preview Lakers looking like lock in West But as the Nuggets' coach can tell you, offseason moves that seem stHow could he not drink the Kool-


It was early 2008, and most of the NBA was guzzling the stuff. Pau Gasol to the Lakers, Jason Kidd to the Mavericks and Shaquille O'Neal to the Suns, leading most observers to think those three NBA teams would rule the Western Conference for years to come.

But Nuggets coach George Karl was skeptical. A flashy move doesn't automatically make your team better, he preached. Sure enough, Gasol proved big for L.A., but Kidd and Shaq did nothing to help their franchises move up.

So, here we go again.

While the Nuggets acquired backups Arron Afflalo and Malik Allen this summer, three other West stalwarts acquired studs - the Lakers trading for Ron Artest, the Spurs picking up Richard Jefferson and the Trail Blazers landing Andre Miller.

Count Karl, again, as less than overwhelmed.

"I really think change is not always good in our league," Karl said. "But in the summertime, change is special - 'Oh, now they're going to be great!' But I think change is more like a coin toss, 50-50."

Which brings us to the debate about this season's Western Conference. Do the defending NBA champion Lakers have the perfect recipe? Or too many cooks in the kitchen? Did other contenders get better than Denver, the No. 2 seed last season? Or did they bolster their rosters just to catch up to Denver? And did the Nuggets' minor moves improve them enough to where they can surpass the Lakers?

"The Western Conference, it's all about who can get off to a great start and who can stay healthy," said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose, a former Nugget .

For the Nuggets , getting off to a great start will be difficult without J.R. Smith, who was suspended for the first seven games, including Wednesday's season opener against Utah.

"To me, the scariest team in the West is the young Portland Trail Blazers, led by Brandon Roy," said former NBA all-star Reggie Miller, now a TNT analyst. "He's a guy that Ron Artest (said) was one of the best players he faced in the playoffs since he's been in the league. They are a young, hungry and well-coached team."

Many forget that Portland had the same record as Denver last season - 54-28 - but the Nuggets won the tiebreaker and, thus, the division and the No. 2 seed. But the Blazers are expected to be better with the addition of Miller, the pass-first point guard who could complement Roy, a two-

time all-star. Portland has a formidable low-post presence with LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden, who is back, healthy and - all of Oregon hopes - ready to prove his worth at last.

Most pundits believe the Lakers will repeat as conference champions, with the Nuggets , Spurs, Blazers, Jazz and Mavericks battling for the top seeds behind the Lakers.

The Jazz was hurt by injuries last season. When he was asked a series of questions about Portland's chances, Karl interjected: "I wouldn't disregard Utah."

The Spurs are older but can never be counted out. With the additions of Jefferson and Antonio McDyess - and rookie DeJuan Blair - the Spurs might not be ready to call it a decade just yet. The Mavericks, who Denver defeated in the second round last season, added Shawn Marion. Alongside a healthy Josh Howard and all-star Dirk Nowitzki, he provides a versatile frontcourt.

New Orleans nabbed center Emeka Okafor, but is he an upgrade from Tyson Chandler? If he stays healthy, probably, but this franchise appears headed backward.

A team that could battle for the eighth spot is the Clippers. With a healthy Baron Davis and sharpshooter in Eric Gordon, the Clippers appear to be a team on the rise - although the No. 1 overall draft pick, Blake Griffin, has a broken kneecap and could be sidelined six weeks.

Benjamin Hochman: 303-954-1294 or

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Added: October 28, 2009


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