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WESTERN CONFERENCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)

Midwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich (279-163 in six seasons, all in San Antonio)

2001-02 season: 58-24, won the Midwest Division, lost to the Lakers in the second round.

Big offseason pickups: G Speedy Claxton, G Steve Kerr, G Emanuel Ginobili, C Kevin Willis

Key offseason losses: F Mark Bryant, G Antonio Daniels

In a perfect world ... : Tim Duncan has another tremendous season, David Robinson's back holds up for the last go-round and Claxton and Ginobili bring speed and offense to the backcourt.

Nightmare scenario: Robinson gets even older, Tony Parker suffers a sophomore jinx and Duncan starts packing his bag to leave.

Likely outcome: The Spurs make one last unsuccessful charge before Robinson hangs up his saddle.

Dallas Mavericks

Coach: Don Nelson (1,036-806 in 24 seasons; 185-177 in five seasons in Dallas)

2001-02 season: 57-25, second in Midwest, lost to Sacramento in second round.

Big offseason pickups: F Popeye Jones, F Walt Williams

Key offseason loss: F Danny Manning

In a perfect world ... : With so many offensive weapons to pass to, Steve Nash sets an assist record, Jones brings mental toughness and Dirk Nowitzki becomes one of the five best players in the NBA.

Nightmare scenario: Nick Van Exel throws repeated tantrums, the interior remains soft and no one plays a lick of defense.

Likely outcome: Until someone can make a key stop in April, the Mavericks are good for one playoff round and no more.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coach: Flip Saunders (277-245 in seven seasons, all with Minnesota)

2001-02 season: 50-32, third in Midwest, lost to Dallas in first round.

Big offseason pickups: G Kendall Gill, G Troy Hudson

Key offseason loss: G Chauncey Billups

In a perfect world ... : Kevin Garnett takes criticism to heart and takes over more often, Hudson keeps things settled until Terrell Brandon is ready and Wally Szczerbiak assumes more of an offensive load.

Nightmare scenario: Marc Jackson isn't the answer at center, Rasho Nesterovic provides little as backup center and Hudson can't step up as a starter after being a backup in Orlando.

Likely outcome: Another first-round playoff exit.

Houston Rockets

Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (460-358 in 11 seasons, all in Houston)

2001-02 season: 28-54, fifth in Midwest, missed playoffs

Big offseason pickups: C Yao Ming, F Bostjan Nachbar

Key offseason losses: F Walt Williams, C Kevin Willis

In a perfect world ... : Steve Francis shakes his migranes, Maurice Taylor is healthy and Eddie Griffin and Cuttino Mobley get better.

Nightmare scenario: Yao doesn't adjust to the tougher American game, Taylor is a bust and Mobley is shot-happy.

Likely outcome: The Rockets are on the rise and should sneak into the playoffs.

Utah Jazz

Coach: Jerry Sloan (828-486 in 17 seasons; 734-365 in 14 seasons in Utah)

2001-02 season: 44-38, fourth in Midwest, lost to Sacramento in first round

Big offseason pickups: G Matt Harpring, G Mark Jackson, G Raul Lopez

Key offseason losses: F Bryon Russell, F Donyell Marshall

In a perfect world ... : Karl Malone and John Stockton defy the aging process one more year, Lopez brings an offensive spark from Spain and Andrei Kirilenko, DeShaun Stevenson and Jarron Collins start the Jazz youth movement.

Nightmare scenario: Stockton and Malone are just older, not better, Sloan stifles the kids and Jackson has little left in his tank.

Likely outcome: The Utah playoff streak ends at 19 seasons and Sloan, Malone and Stockton ride off into the sunset.

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach: Sidney Lowe (79-220 in four seasons; 46-118 in two years with the Grizzlies)

2001-02 season: 23-59, seventh in Midwest, missed playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: F Drew Gooden, G Earl Watson, G Wesley Person

Key offseason loss: None

In a perfect world ... : Gooden and Pau Gasol form a dynamic frontcourt tandem, Jason Williams plays under control and Shane Battier continues to blossom.

Nightmare scenario: Either Gasol or Gooden have trouble adjusting to the power forward slot, the interior game continues to founder and the Memphis fandom shows indifference.

Likely outcome: It won't be long before new GM Jerry West makes this team over, but patience is needed.

Denver Nuggets

Coach: Jeff Bzdelik (first season)

2001-02 season: 27-55, sixth in Midwest, missed playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: F Nikoloz Tskitishvili, F Nene Hilario, C Marcus Camby, F Rodney White, G Chris Whitney

Key offseason losses: F Antonio McDyess, C Scott Williams

In a perfect world ... : Tskitishvili, Hilario and White give Denver a nice young forward rotation for the future, Juwan Howard plays hard and moves on, allowing the Nuggets to recoup his $20 million salary slot to get free agents and Bzdelik, the former UMBC coach, lays the groundwork for a promising future.

Nightmare scenario: Lots of losing.

Likely outcome: Nuggets will battle Cleveland for worst-team- in-the-NBA status.

Pacific Division

Sacramento Kings

Coach: Rick Adelman (544-361 in 12 seasons; 187-109 in four years in Sacramento)

2001-02 season: 61-21, won the Pacific Division, lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Big offseason pickup: F Keon Clark

Key offseason loss: None

In a perfect world ... : The NBA's most dynamic offense gets even better, Clark provides energy off the bench and Chris Webber puts up MVP numbers.

Nightmare scenario: Peja Stojakovic comes up small in the playoffs, Webber shrinks and Vlade Divac shows his age (37) in the middle.

Likely outcome: The Kings will look good until mid-May, when the Lakers show them what's what.

Los Angeles Lakers

Coach: Phil Jackson (670-232 in 12 seasons; 181-65 in three seasons with the Lakers)

2001-02 season: 58-24, second in Pacific, won third straight title.

Big offseason pickups: G Kareem Rush, F Tracy Murray

Key offseason loss: G Lindsey Hunter

In a perfect world ... : Rick Fox hits his shots, Rush and Murray provide bench support, oh, and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant show up.

Nightmare scenario: Either O'Neal or Bryant miss a significant amount of time with injuries, particularly late in the season.

Likely outcome: A fourth straight title.

Portland Trail Blazers

Coach: Maurice Cheeks (49-33 in one season)

2001-02 season: 49-33, third in Pacific, lost to Lakers in first round.

Big offseason pickups: G Jeff McInnis, F Qyntel Woods, C Arvydas Sabonis, G Antonio Daniels

Key offseason losses: F Shawn Kemp, G Steve Kerr

In a perfect world ... : Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells grow up, Sabonis comes back from a year off to shore up the interior game and Scottie Pippen has something left in his tank.

Nightmare scenario: Wells and Wallace repeatedly go ballistic, Kerr's calm and composure are missed and Sabonis just looks another year older.

Likely outcome: One more first-round collapse before Blazers management starts from scratch.

Seattle SuperSonics

Coach: Nate McMillan (83-66 in two seasons, both in Seattle)

2001-02 season: 45-37, fourth in Pacific, lost to San Antonio in first round.

Big offseason pickups: C Vitaly Potapenko, G Joseph Forte

Key offseason losses: F Vin Baker, G Shammond Williams

In a perfect world ... : Gary Payton looks like the guard who led Seattle to the 1996 Finals, Jerome James and Rashard Lewis continue to develop and Calvin Booth returns from injury to plug the middle.

Nightmare scenario: Payton is indifferent, Potapenko provides little help inside and Lewis can't get past the protracted contract negotiations.

Likely outcome: Another playoff stint, albeit a short one.

Phoenix Suns

Coach: Frank Johnson (11-20 in part of one season)

2001-02 season: 36-46, sixth in Pacific, missed playoffs

Big offseason pickups: F Amare Stoudemire, F Casey Jacobsen, F Dan Langhi, C Scott Williams

Key offseason loss: None

In a perfect world ... : Stoudemire is the steal of the draft, Stephon Marbury shakes off his 2001-02 season and Penny Hardaway finally shows up.

Nightmare scenario: Marbury remains moody, Hardaway contributes little and Stoudemire is a bust.

Likely outcome: The Suns should battle for the last Western playoff spot.

Los Angeles Clippers

Coach: Alvin Gentry (158-187 in six seasons; 70-94 in two seasons with the Clippers)

2001-02 season: 39-43, fifth in Pacific, missed playoffs

Big offseason pickups: G Andre Miller, F Chris Wilcox, F Melvin Ely

Key offseason losses: F Darius Miles, G Jeff McInnis

In a perfect world ... : Miller brings composure and unselfishness to the offense, the Clippers make use of their wealth of young forwards and Lamar Odom bounces back from a year of hassles.

Nightmare scenario: Odom gets into more trouble, Quentin Richardson goes into a funk over the absence of Miles, his running mate, and Michael Olowokandi prepares to bolt after the season.

Likely outcome: More problems for Team Turmoil.

Golden State Warriors

Coach: Eric Musselman (first season)

2001-02 season: 21-61, seventh in Pacific, missed playoffs

Big offseason pickups: F Mike Dunleavy Jr., F Jiri Welsch

Key offseason loss: G Larry Hughes

In a perfect world ... : Dunleavy joins with Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson to form a promising young perimeter, Danny Fortson continues to hit the boards hard and Troy Murphy continues to develop.

Nightmare scenario: Antawn Jamison remains indifferent, Dunleavy looks like he should have stayed at Duke and Richardson and Arenas start to read their clippings.

Likely outcome: This could be the Bulls West in a couple of years.

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