Western Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Western Conference

Midwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich (339-185 in seven years, all in San Antonio)

2002-03 season: 60-22, won Midwest Division, defeated New Jersey in NBA Finals.

Big offseason pickups: C Rasho Nesterovic, F Ron Mercer, F Robert Horry, F Hedo Turkoglu.

Key offseason losses: C David Robinson, G Stephen Jackson, G Speedy Claxton.

In a perfect world ... : Nesterovic will step right in for Robinson without the Spurs missing a beat, Manu Ginobili moves smoothly into the starting lineup and Tim Duncan has another MVP-caliber year.

Nightmare scenario: Mercer and Turkoglu clash for playing time behind Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker holds a grudge over the Spurs' courting of Jason Kidd and the role players leave Duncan high and dry.

Likely outcome: It's rare to see a title team make so many changes, but as long as Duncan is healthy, San Antonio has an excellent chance to repeat.

Dallas Mavericks

Coach: Don Nelson (1,096-828 in 25 NBA seasons, 245-199 in six years in Dallas)

2002-03 season: 60-22, second in Midwest, lost to San Antonio in conference finals.

Big offseason pickups: F Antoine Walker, F Antawn Jamison, G Tony Delk, F Danny Fortson

Key offseason losses: G Nick Van Exel, C Raef LaFrentz

In a perfect world ... : The Mavericks produce the highest-scoring offense since the Denver Nuggets of the 1980s, Walker relieves Steve Nash of some ball-handling duties and Jamison takes some of the interior scoring load from Dirk Nowitzki.

Nightmare scenario: Dallas doesn't play a stitch of defense, Walker shoots as indiscriminately with the Mavericks as he did with the Celtics and Michael Finley doesn't adjust well to the shift to shooting guard.

Likely outcome: It's amazing Dallas still didn't address its gaping hole in the middle, the one thing that keeps it out of the Finals.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coach: Flip Saunders (328-276 in eight years, all in Minnesota)

2002-03 season: 51-31, third in Midwest, lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in first round.

Big offseason pickups: C Michael Olowokandi, G Sam Cassell, F Latrell Sprewell

Key offseason loss: C Joe Smith.

In a perfect world ... : Sprewell and Cassell become quality scoring options behind Kevin Garnett, Olowokandi provides the long-absent low post presence the Timberwolves have needed and Sprewell becomes Minnesota's best perimeter defender.

Nightmare scenario: Cassell gripes about his shooting opportunities, Sprewell continues his downward slide and Olowokandi is as big a bust in Minnesota as he was with the Clippers.

Likely outcome: After seven straight first-round exits from the playoffs, the Timberwolves made a bunch of moves designed to get to the next level. They should work, or Saunders will pay with his job.

Houston Rockets

Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (248-172 in seven years; first season in Houston)

2002-03 season: 43-39, fifth in Midwest, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: F Jim Jackson, G Eric Piatkowski

Key offseason losses: F James Posey

In a perfect world ... : Yao Ming takes more giant steps toward being a dominant force at center, Steve Francis' headaches go away and the Rockets respond to Van Gundy's "defense-first, walk it up slowly" approach.

Nightmare scenario: Francis chafes at Van Gundy's lack of offensive creativity, Yao doesn't develop any further and Eddie Griffin's off-the-court problems get in the way of his game.

Likely outcome: There's enough talent for the Rockets to sneak into the playoffs, but the Van Gundy-Francis relationship could be toxic.

Denver Nuggets

Coach: Jeff Bzdelik (17-65 in one season in Denver)

2002-03 season: 17-65, seventh in Midwest, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: F Carmelo Anthony (rookie), G Andre Miller, G Voshon Lenard.

Key offseason losses: F Juwan Howard

In a perfect world ... : Anthony is the Rookie of the Year, Miller is the prototype point guard and Marcus Camby can play a full, productive season at center.

Nightmare scenario: Nene leaves some of his game behind along with his last name, Anthony struggles and Camby gets hurt again.

Likely outcome: Nowhere near as bad as last year, and in a year or so, the Nuggets will challenge for a playoff spot.

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach: Hubie Brown (369-456 in 12 NBA seasons; 28-46 in Memphis in one season)

2002-03 season: 28-54, sixth in Midwest, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: C Jake Tsakalidis, F James Posey, F Bo Outlaw

Key offseason losses: G Brevin Knight

In a perfect world ... : Pau Gasol explodes into the top echelon of power forwards, Mike Miller blossoms at shooting guard and Tsakalidis gives the Grizzlies the low post power the franchise has never had.

Nightmare scenario: Gasol remains soft, point guard Jason Williams remains stubborn and Brown has to turn to Stromile Swift or Lorenzen Wright to man the middle.

Likely outcome: The Grizzlies would be a playoff team in the East, and it won't be much longer before they get there in the West.

Utah Jazz

Coach: Jerry Sloan (875-521 in 18 NBA seasons; 781-400 in 15 years in Utah)

2002-03 season: 47-35, fourth in Midwest, lost to Sacramento in first round.

Big offseason pickups: F Keon Clark, G Raja Bell

Key offseason losses: F Karl Malone, G John Stockton

In a perfect world ... : Clark will bring athleticism to the front line, Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko will make the most of their additional scoring opportunities and the snows will come to the Salt Lake area and the fans will ski rather than watch the mess the Jazz have become.

Nightmare scenario: Greg Ostertag will regress even more in the middle, Carlos Arroyo will make no one forget Stockton and the snows won't come and people will actually be stuck watching this mess.

Likely outcome: Sloan should be Coach of the Year if this team wins 30 games.

Pacific Division

Los Angeles Lakers

Coach: Phil Jackson (776-290 in 13 NBA seasons; 231-97 in four years in Los Angeles)

2002-03 season: 50-32, second in Pacific, lost to San Antonio in conference semifinals.

Big offseason pickups: G Gary Payton, F Karl Malone, F Horace Grant

Key offseason losses: F Robert Horry

In a perfect world ... : Payton and Malone learn to co-exist with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox returns early from an ankle injury and Derek Fisher adjusts to coming off the bench.

Nightmare scenario: Bryant's legal woes cast a pall over the entire season, O'Neal, Bryant and Malone butt heads all year and Grant is even older than he looks.

Likely outcome: The Lakers should still have enough, even if Bryant is away, to go deep into the playoffs and possibly win it all again.

Sacramento Kings

Coach: Rick Adelman (603-384 in 13 NBA seasons; 246-132 in five seasons in Sacramento)

2002-03 season: 59-23, first in Pacific, lost to Dallas in conference semifinals.

Big offseason pickups: C Brad Miller, G Anthony Peeler, F Tony Massenburg.

Key offseason losses: F Hedo Turkoglu, F Jim Jackson, F Keon Clark.

In a perfect world ... : Miller gives Sacramento badly needed inside beef and toughness, reserve forward Gerald Wallace steps into the minutes left with Clark's trade and Peja Stojakovic rebounds from nagging injuries.

Nightmare scenario: Chris Webber is slow to return from a knee injury he suffered in the playoffs, Miller is too plodding for the fast-paced Kings offense and Stojakovic is gun-shy.

Likely outcome: The Kings' window of opportunity is closing fast. With the right breaks, they can go through it this season.

Phoenix Suns

Coach: Frank Johnson (55-58 in two years, all in Phoenix)

2002-03 season: 44-38, fourth in Pacific, lost to San Antonio in first round.

Big offseason pickups: G Brevin Knight

Key offseason losses: C Jake Tsakalidis, F Bo Outlaw

In a perfect world ... : Amare Stoudemire teams with Shawn Marion to be the most athletic forward duo in the league, Jake Voskuhl successfully takes over in the post and Stephon Marbury continues his career revitalization.

Nightmare scenario: Stoudemire doesn't progress from his rookie year, Voskuhl is a bust in the paint and Marbury reverts to his selfish New Jersey and Minnesota days.

Likely outcome: Lots of budding young talent, but until they get a functional center, the Suns will be a quick out in the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers

Coach: Maurice Cheeks (99-65 in two seasons, all in Portland)

2002-03 season: 50-32, third in Pacific, lost to Dallas in first round.

Big offseason pickups: None

Key offseason losses: F Scottie Pippen, C Arvydas Sabonis

In a perfect world ... : Zach Randolph adjusts well to moving into the starting lineup at power forward, Rasheed Wallace adjusts well to shifting to small forward, where his length and size make him a tough matchup, and Dale Davis contributes some offense at center.

Nightmare scenario: Wallace goes back to his days of petulance, Damon Stoudamire's legal problems become a distraction and the infighting returns.

Likely outcome: The Blazers have more than enough talent to make the playoffs, but their chemistry is so out of whack that another first-round exit is certain, as is Cheeks' departure.

Los Angeles Clippers

Coach: Mike Dunleavy Sr. (398-390 in 10 NBA seasons; first year with the Clippers)

2002-03 season: 27-55, last in Pacific, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: C Predrag Drobnjak, F Glen Rice, C Chris Kaman (rookie)

Key offseason losses: F Lamar Odom, G Eric Piatkowski, G Andre Miller, C Michael Olowokandi.

In a perfect world ... : The re-signing of Elton Brand and Corey Maggette shows a willingness of the Clippers to spend, Marko Jaric takes over nicely for Miller at point and either Melvin Ely or Chris Wilcox becomes a solid backup to Brand.

Nightmare scenario: The losing continues, neither Wilcox nor Ely works out and Maggette reminds no one of Odom.

Likely outcome: The Clippers aren't likely to make the playoffs, but the gap between them and respectability narrows ever so slightly.

Seattle SuperSonics

Coach: Nate McMillan (123-108 in three seasons, all in Seattle)

2002-03 season: 40-42, fifth in Pacific, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: G Antonio Daniels, G Luke Ridnour (rookie)

Key offseason losses: F Nick Collison (rookie, injury)

In a perfect world ... : Vladimir Radmanovic adjusts to playing small forward, Ridnour takes over for Brent Barry at point and Jerome James steps up his offensive production at center.

Nightmare scenario: Ray Allen's injury lingers, Barry has to play the bulk of his minutes at the point, where he is ill-suited, and no one helps Rashard Lewis with interior scoring.

Likely outcome: Seattle's shooters are way too inconsistent for the team to be a serious threat, and McMillan may suffer because of it.

Golden State Warriors

Coach: Eric Musselman (38-44 in one season with Golden State)

2002-03 season: 38-44, sixth in Pacific, missed the playoffs.

Big offseason pickups: G Nick Van Exel, C Cliff Robinson, G Speedy Claxton

Key offseason losses: G Gilbert Arenas, F Antawn Jamison, G Earl Boykins

In a perfect world ... : Jason Richardson takes advantage of the additional scoring opportunities opened with Arenas' departure, Mike Dunleavy Jr. moves into the starting lineup and starts to fulfill his promise and Claxton and Van Exel make for one of the best point guard combinations in the league.

Nightmare scenario: Van Exel pouts his way out of town, Dunleavy continues to look bewildered and the Warriors defense, already the worst in the league, gets even worse.

Likely outcome: A franchise that looked to be one of the more promising last year takes a major step back. -

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