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Western Conference preview

The Lakers and Spurs are on course for a titanic Western Conference finals matchup, with great coaches, deep rosters and superstar leadership. No fewer than four others -- Dallas, Portland, Denver and Utah -- are formidable second-tier contenders. At the other extreme is dysfunction in Memphis and Golden State, rookie point guards and lousy interior defense in Minnesota and Sacramento, and wishful thinking in Phoenix. And in the middle are the cursed Clippers, who would have been (still could be?) a playoff team with a healthy Blake Griffin.

Southwest Division

First Take: The savvy get savvier. The best front office in the game executed the best trade and best draft value of the offseason, acquiring 29-year-old swingman Richard Jefferson, a perfect fit for their style and core personnel, for three fossils (average age: 36), then snagging rebounding fiend DeJuanBlair way down in the second round. Added to the league's most battle-tested trio of star teammates -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and a (hopefully) healthy Manu Ginobili -- the Spurs are younger, deeper and most likely better than last year's 54-win squad, perhaps the only assemblage in the conference that can compete with the Lakers even the reigning champions are firing on all cylinders.

Concerns: Ginobili's durability. ... Sorting out secondary minutes on a roster that could legitimately go a dozen deep.

Overrated: The vacuum-sealed bulwark of the Spurs' vaunted post defense has sprung leaks the past two years. Blair, free-agent signee Antonio McDyess and even the occasional insertion of shot-blocker Theo Ratliff against the bigger post players should ease the strain on Duncan (now a full-time center), but only partially remedy the problem.

Underrated: The Spurs' unselfishness is so seamless that it's part of the landscape. Suffice to say that four crunch-time studs will switch roles and share the ball without a quibble.

X-Factors: Can Parker reprise his counterpunch to his dribble penetration -- the surprising pull-up jumpers and the runners -- as effectively? ... How much rest does Duncan get before the playoffs begin?

First Take: The easy opinion is that the Mavs will again be relegated to second-round sparring partner for the heavyweights come playoff time. But picking up forward Shawn Marion was a masterstroke with multiple benefits (defensive flexibility, athleticism, second-chance and fast-break scoring), and new center Drew Gooden fills their crying need for a bull in the china shop when games get feisty. There is urgency because of the inevitable decline in the 36-year-old's Jason Kidd's game and the plateau of Dirk Nowitzki's effectiveness. If Josh Howard can regain the health and defensive focus of a few years back, Dallas will give the supposed elite teams all they can handle.

Concerns: Howard's health and attitude. ... Kidd's inability to guard more than half the conference's opposing point guards. ... They should be concerned with foolish three-pointers: While Kidd and super-sub Jason Terry were pretty accurate from beyond the arc last season, the Mavs ranked near the bottom of the league in accuracy.

Overrated: Kidd is a Hall of Famer and a wonderful decision-maker, but his physical limitations really reduce the scope of those decisions. And Kidd's pocket-rocket backups are either lacking sheer skill (Jose Barea) or seasoning (Rodrigue Beaubois).

Underrated: Coach Rick Carlisle's vanilla personality and shrewd tactical sense are a good fit on this veteran, yet excitable team. ... Terry has a Ginobili-like knack for crunch-time heroics without receiving as much acclaim.

X-Factors: How Carlisle uses Gooden and Erick Dampier in the pivot. ... How Howard and Terry help accommodate Marion in the pecking order after Nowitzki.

First Take: As much as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul is worth the price of admission. He gets an unselfish 23 points a game by shooting better than 50 percent, stays with his man and still leads the league in steals, and is a huge asset in the locker room and the community. But aside from David West -- a solid No. 3 guy on a champion contender -- Paul is being hung out to dry. Peja Stojakovic's upside is as a catch-and-shoot one-trick pony; ditto Morris Peterson. Emeka Okafor doesn't have the hops, size and quickness to mesh with Paul as well as a healthy Tyson Chandler -- even on offense. The strength of the non-Pauls is at forward -- West, James Posey, Darius Songaila, Julian Wright -- and that's not enough to prevent slippage.

Concerns: That cash-strapped ownership blows the team up. ... That a frustrated Paul expedites that process. ... That West, who maximizes his potential, begins to wear out.

Overrated: Like Robert Horry, Posey is exponentially more valuable when the stakes are high, which isn't very often for a 45-win team. (In other words, he's not so much overrated as badly situated.)

Underrated: Songaila is a reliable mucker who has added a jumper that has to guarded. ... Guys like Wright -- athletic, intriguing skills, still obscure -- have roulette-wheel futures that occasionally land them in the right spot.

X-Factors: Whether Paul and Okafor click. ... Does the 24-year-old Paul have yet another level in him?

First Take: This team has lost all its stars yet is brimming with role players who have big hearts. Can you make the playoffs if, choose one, Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks or Trevor Ariza is your best player? But do you count out a squad with that quartet in addition to Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry and David Andersen? It's not hard to imagine Houston hanging tough on the ingenuity of coach Rick Adelman and sweat equity early in the season and then having Tracy McGrady -- ah, a household name! -- return from knee surgery and eke them into the playoffs. That's a decent ride for a team without Yao Ming or Ron Artest.

Concerns: No Yao, no Artest and no McGrady for a while spells no hope and no interest from the fans. ... Finding out that starting the 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes at center isn't a good idea after all.

Overrated: The loss of Yao. More than once, Houston has overachieved for weeks at a time without him.

Underrated: Most of the team, but let's single out the professionalism of Battier -- it's striking how many ways he can do what's necessary -- and the multiple-franchise success of Adelman, who can make a case for the Hall of Fame.

X-Factors: McGrady's return -- scheduled for sometime after early December -- and how it affects whatever chemistry has developed.

First Take: The most easily mocked franchise in the NBA. They parted ways with their best-ever player, Pau Gasol, in order to rebuild, then went out and acquired two of the most notorious, high-maintenance, bad-habits, ball-centric anti-rebuilders they could find, Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, and are paying Randolph what it would have cost to keep Gasol. They picked up a serviceable center last year in Marc Gasol (Pau's brother), then used the No. 2 pick in the June draft to take another center, Hasheem Thabeet, who could well be a bust and is at least a formidable project. Ironically, Randolph and Iverson are skillful enough (especially Randolph) to kill Memphis two ways -- winning games that lessen its lottery chances and denying touches to young talents Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo.

Concerns: There is no evident plan or logic to create a context for concern. With or without concerns, expect a lost season in the big-picture scheme of things.

Overrated: Thabeet is the latest example of a huge, coordinated player with no court sense or passion for the game who was taken way too early in the draft (see Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, etc.).

Underrated: The Grizz got it right with 6-6 rookie swingman Sam Young in the second round.

X-Factors: Will good-soldier coach Lionel Hollins appease the front office and play to win with Randolph and Iverson, or develop Gay, Mayo and point guard Mike Conley?

Northwest Division

First Take: Is there such a thing as too much talent? Perhaps, especially if Portland's free-agent acquisition of consummate pro Andre Miller at point guard disrupts the orchestrations of All-Star creator BrandonRoy at shooting guard. Miller was the linchpin for arguably the league's best fast break in Philadelphia last season, while the Roy-led Blazers operated at the second-slowest pace in the NBA. Portland is deep enough to play two five-man units, or to create nightmare matchups for almost any opponent. They will rise or fall on how well they develop a strategy, and then work out the kinks in their rotation. There is championship potential on this roster, which still has more than its fair share of peach-fuzzed tyros. And yet, the honeymoon phase of general manager Kevin Pritchard's painstaking rebuild of the "Jail Blazers" is already over.

Concerns: Their player-rotation decisions sap rather than synergize team chemistry. ... Center Greg Oden remains injury-prone. ... The majesty of Roy gets waylaid by a bruised ego or body part.

Overrated: A tough category, given their abundance of youth. Can the thus-far underwhelming Jerryd Bayless be called overrated two months after his 21st birthday?

Underrated: Backup center Joel Pryzbilla plays hard and within himself every night, shielding the Oden pick from more scorn. ... Nicolas Batum would be more coveted and gushed over if he belonged to most any other team.

X-Factors: There are a boatload. If Oden emerges, if Roy and Miller figure out crunch time, if coach Nate McMillan can successfully make defense a determinant of playing time ... then watch out.

First Take: There are more questions than usual here for a conference finalist. In the frontcourt, can Nenê and Kenyon Martin stay healthy, and can Chris Andersen ignore the siren song of a fawning media? In the backcourt, isn't relying on the perpetually immature J.R. Smith a recipe for disaster? And how do you replace glue guys like Linas Kleiza (a long-range shooter) and Dahntay Jones (a defensive irritant)? But Carmelo Anthony is still headed toward his ceiling (especially on defense), and Chauncey Billups backed by rookie Ty Lawson is an ideal mesh at the point.

Concerns: For some reason, Denver's frontcourt got regularly roasted during the preseason at both ends of the court. A red herring or a harbinger of things to come? ... Also, is the Nuggets' confidence and swagger genuine, or borne of the unrealistic expectation of another charmed season?

Overrated: Anderson and Smith are welcome shots of espresso, but are likely to cause indigestion when taken in larger quantities.

Underrated: How many people realize that Nenê was a top-five center last year, and second only to Shaquille O'Neal in field-goal percentage?

X-Factors: Where Smith is on the maturation spectrum. ... How much Anthony improves at both ends. ... How this team responds to adversity.

First take: Utah is paying a huge luxury tax because the No. 2 guy in its pecking order, Carlos Boozer, picked up the player option for what will be his final season in Utah. Unless Boozer is traded after his offseason flirtation with Miami and Chicago, the Jazz's unity could be tested. Point guard Deron Williams and Paul Millsap (Boozer's heir apparent at power forward) are a solid foundation, and center Mehmet Okur has created a niche for himself in Utah. But in the rugged West, that's not enough to get out of the first round.

Concerns: Injuries. The Jazz play ruggedly, and Kyle Korver (knee) and C.J. Miles (thumb) are already on the shelf for a while. ... Interior defense. ... Boozer and Millsap are undersized, and Okur has trouble rooting people out of position. ... Perimeter shooting, a weakness exacerbated by Korver's absence.

Overrated: Boozer's history of injuries and defensive limitations aren't worth $12 million per year.

Underrated: The job coach Jerry Sloan and Williams, recovering from ankle woes, did to get this club to 48 wins last season.

X-Factors: What the returns are if Boozer is dealt. ... Sloan's ability to integrate rookies Eric Maynor and Kosta Koufous into the system. ... A roaring start that could minimize distractions.

First take: There was a lot to like last year despite a 23-win season, including the explosive scoring of Kevin Durant, the tenacious perimeter defense and slashing penetration of Russell Westbrook, the step-out shooting and interior grinding of Jeff Green, and inspired minor roles for Thabo Sefolosha (guarding the swingmen Durant couldn't) and Nenad Krstic (a 7-footer with a feathery touch and a little bit of moxie). With a better big man and two more years of seasoning, OKC could become a perennial playoff team.

Concerns: Their flaws begin overwhelming their virtues and supplant excitement with doubt among fans, players and front office alike.

Overrated: Durant, who is being hyped as the second coming of Kevin Garnett or Jerry West instead of George Gervin.

Underrated: Sefolosha, a stabilizer who won't chafe if rookie James Harden gets most of the minutes at shooting guard.

X-Factors:Shaun Livingston, erstwhile point guard phenom, coming back as a swingman after shredding his knee two years ago.

First take: New general manager David Kahn razed the roster, drafted three point guards, plucked new coach Kurt Rambis from the side of Phil Jackson, reaped cap space with nearly every move and arrayed a team of scouts across the country for pro as well as college games this season. The result: fresh air, heightened anticipation of the future and precious few immediate rewards. The interior defense and outside shooting will be awful. Al Jefferson owns the league's best low-post scoring moves, and Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions are a dynamic pair of penetrators in the backcourt. This year's step backward is more assured than next year's two steps forward.

Concerns: Rambis ramrods the triangle offense despite incompatible personnel. ... Flynn and Sessions are too small to pair and one rides the pine too often. ... Injuries old (torn ACLs for Jefferson and spindly swingman Corey Brewer last year) and new (Kevin Love's broken wrist) slow development.

Overrated: Like Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix, Jefferson's wonderfully honed offensive skills shouldn't negate scrutiny and criticism of his half-hearted defense.

Underrated: Forward Ryan Gomes, a smart, selfless forward who would be even more valuable on a good team.

X-Factors: Kahn's whirlwind of change continues at the trade deadline.

Pacific Division

First take: Many people believe that the only team that can beat the Lakers is the Lakers -- and that with the volatile Ron Artest on board, it is a distinct possibility. But if center Andrew Bynum can duplicate last year's first half throughout this season, Artest will move from necessity to luxury for Kobe and Co., at least until the conference finals. On the other hand, if Artest goes loco and Bynum reprises last year's stumbling second half, the Lakers won't escape the conference to defend their crown, and Lamar Odom will get an early start on his reality show.

Concerns: Besides Artest and Bynum, L.A. has to fret about its point guard situation. Derek Fisher's knowledge of the triangle offense and savvy positioning on defense can no longer forestall the ravages of Father Time.

Overrated:Adam Morrison jokes. The man has suffered enough.

Underrated: The value of Luke Walton on the second unit, especially if Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar continue last year's decline.

X-Factors: Will L.A. follow Houston's example and tolerate Artest's shot selection as a trade-off for his shutdown defense? ... If Bynum slips, can DJ Mbenga fill the void?

First take: The snakebit Clippers get ambushed again. Griffin, the deservedly heralded No. 1 pick, had joined a talented team of question marks and seemed to be the sort of catalyst who could wedge them into the last playoff spot. He'd rounded out a playoff-caliber starting five, even with the inconsistent histories of Baron Davis, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and third-year forward Al Thornton. With the well-known friction between coach Mike Dunleavy and Davis, the season was a crapshoot anyway, but a hopeful, dramatic one. Perhaps it still can be. But a broken kneecap isn't exactly the kind of injury you rush.

Concerns: Griffin's recuperation, of course. ... The franchise's toxic reputation is actually a cultural force that must be quelled. ... Dunleavy and Davis are both stubborn. ... Kaman, Camby and Davis are all injury-prone.

Overrated: Davis. How do you trust a player who signs a huge contract with his hometown squad, then shows up out of shape and feuds with his coach?

Underrated: Shooting guard Eric Gordon, who ignored the "rookie wall" last year and improved down the stretch. ... Backup center DeAndre Jordan remains a raw talent but with a huge upside worth the years of investment.

X-Factors: Can Griffin catalyze a positive culture as the underachievers see a shot at success? ... How will Dunleavy respond to make-or-break year for his Clippers tenure?

First take:Mike D'Antoni is in New York, Steve Nash is in decline and the window of opportunity for this belated edition of the helter-skelter Suns was never really open. Yes, the Suns can still throw up 30 points per quarter, but with Shawn Marion, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw all gone from those vintage D'Antoni teams, even the pretense of defense in Phoenix is kaput. Coming into the season, the Suns' best defender in the paint was little-used second-year player Robin Lopez, who promptly broke his foot early in camp and is out until December.

Concerns: Along with nonexistent defense, Phoenix has to worry about Amar'e Stoudemire and 37-year-old Grant Hill staying healthy. And if the 35-year-old Nash gets injured, the bottom falls out of the season.

Overrated: Defense is all about athleticism and desire. Stoudemire is a great athlete.

Underrated: A relentless worker at both ends, 6-9 power forward Louis Amundson may earn minutes at center by default.

X-Factors: Stoudemire becomes a more complete player in a contract year. ... Jason Richardson likewise responds to coach Alvin Gentry's encouragement to become a better two-way player.

First take: Coach Don Nelson and recently deposed team captain Stephen Jackson feuded throughout the preseason, and given their extensive checkered histories with other players (Nelson) and teams (Jackson), you don't want to side with either one. After lying last year about a moped accident that cost him a piece of his new, lucrative contract, small combo guard Monta Ellis opened this preseason by saying he couldn't play with rookie small combo guard Stephen Curry. (Ellis later praised Curry, but if former Warrior Baron Davis had taken that same stance about playing with Ellis, Golden State's $66 million man wouldn't be overpaid today.) There is some genuine young talent, most notably center AndrisBiedrins and forward Anthony Randolph. But the increasingly erratic whims of Nelson have transformed the once-fascinating mismatches of Nellie ball into a farce, one echoed by front-office intrigue. The loyal fans of Northern California deserve better.

Concerns: That some promising careers languish or are subverted before someone in a position of influence gets a grip.

Overrated:Corey Maggette's valuable ability to get to the free-throw line doesn't make up for his indifferent defense and ball-hogging tendencies.

Underrated: Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf do the dirty work under the hoop at both ends and don't demand touches on a roster in which most of the players are looking to score on their own.

X-Factors: What's the fallout from all this turbulence? ... Is Jackson tradable? ... Is Nelson's job secure?

First take: Generally regarded as the worst team in the league, the Kings have some silver linings, beginning with the efficient scoring of swingman Kevin Martin, who isn't athletic but possesses guile that makes him almost impossible to keep off the foul line. Then there is rookie Tyreke Evans, who, at 6-6, is large enough to play shooting guard but is an instant upgrade over Beno Udrih at the point. A pair of physical forwards, second-year player Jason Thompson and veteran Andres Nocioni, can hustle and hit the open shot. But new coach Paul Westphal inherits a team that permitted the highest opposing field-goal percentage last year, and the rebuild is going to take a lot of time and luck.

Concerns: That the once-loyal fans who consistently filled Arco Arena aren't coming back to help finance the wretched contracts meted out to Udrih and forward Francisco Garcia.

Overrated: Acquired in a trade with Portland, point guard Sergio Rodriguez was physically overmatched and had shot-selection problems last year.

Underrated: Martin has averaged more than 24 points on fewer than 16 shots per game over the last two years.

X-Factors: Evans becomes a star. ... Third-year center Spencer Hawes thrives until Westphal's tutelage.

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