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Western Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Southwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Last season -- 59-23

Coach -- Gregg Popovich, 10th season, 455-233.

Spurs' formula -- The addition of Michael Finley bodes well for a team seeking its fourth title in eight seasons. Tim Duncan is arguably the best player in the league, and the supporting cast is terrific. Oh, did we mention that Nick Van Exel is in the mix as well?

The buzz -- Everything is as good as it looks on paper. They will be favored to win it all again, and the egos are in check here so there is no concern about the team chemistry blowing up. Besides, you want this team to go deep in the playoffs just to check out Tony Parker's cutie pie, Eva Longoria.

Houston Rockets

Last season -- 51-31

Coach -- Jeff Van Gundy, third season with Rockets, 96-68; 344-240 overall.

Rockets' formula -- Chemistry and continuity will help the Rockets, with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming getting a better feel for each other. Free agent Stromile Swift adds athleticism to Yao's size in the frontcourt, and combined with new acquisitions Derek Anderson and Rafer Alston, could mean they will play at a faster pace.

The buzz -- This team lost by 40 points to the Mavericks in the seventh game of a first-round series. Will a hangover linger? The signing of Yao to a long-term deal means he and McGrady both are locked up long term now so another pertinent question is whether they will get in better sync.

Dallas Mavericks

Last season -- 58-24

Coach -- Avery Johnson, second season, 16-2.

Mavericks' formula -- With only Dirk Nowitzki left from a core group of players that were perennial challengers but never NBA champions, the Mavericks are hoping to be re-energized with a new supporting cast that includes former Magic head case Doug Christie. Good luck with that.

The buzz -- Owner Mark Cuban didn't want to pay luxury taxes to keep star Michael Finley. Without him, Dallas could struggle. It could depend upon whether Marquis Daniels is ready for prime minutes. It's unclear whether he or Jerry Stackhouse, who has been hurt, will come off the bench first.

Memphis Grizzlies

Last season -- 45-37

Coach -- Mike Fratello, second season with Memphis, 40-26; 612-491 overall.

Grizzlies' formula -- Fratello got rid of three malcontents - James Posey, Jason Williams and Bonzi Wells - hoping to build on a 4-26 record after taking over the team last season. He might lose a bunch of points, but Pau Gasol is set to blossom as this team's franchise player.

The buzz -- Bobby Jackson will have scoring help off the bench from either Eddie Jones or Mike Miller, but that might not be enough. Gasol needs to step up to the next level for this team to make a true impact in the playoffs. Fratello will keep pushing this team until the Grizzlies get it right.

New Orleans Hornets

Last season -- 18-64

Coach -- Byron Scott, second with Hornets, 18-64; 167-203 overall.

Hornets' formula -- Despite having two homes (Oklahoma City/Baton Rouge), the Hornets have fresh legs and a youthful look to keep pace. Chris Paul, a rookie point guard, faces high expectations, and J.R. Smith, his backcourt companion, averaged 14.7 points a game after the All-Star break.

The buzz -- This team will be the sentimental favorite throughout the country after Hurricane Katrina, but it will face a daunting challenge playing away from New Orleans. It could be really hard on power forward P.J. Brown, a year-round Slidell, La., resident. Paul could emerge as the centerpiece of this franchise.

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets

Last season -- 49-33

Coach -- George Karl, second season with Nuggets, 32-8; 740-507 overall.

Nuggets' formula -- Denver hopes to feed off its post-All-Star break success, when it had the league's best record by playing an up-tempo style under Karl. He is back and is counting on the continued improvement of Carmelo Anthony, who will seek a long-term extension next summer.

The buzz -- Denver has great athletes. Staying healthy likely is the team's main concern because Voshon Lenard, Andre Martin and Marcus Camby have missed a significant number of games in the past. Given their style, the Nuggets could go deep in the playoffs, particularly if Karl keeps pushing the right buttons.

Seattle SuperSonics

Last season -- 52-30

Coach -- Bob Weiss, first season as Sonics head coach; 210-282 overall.

Sonics' formula -- Despite losing Antonio Daniels and Jerome James in free agency as well as coach Nate McMillan to the Portland Trail Blazers, the SuperSonics will remain solid, given the continued improvement of Luke Ridnour and the scoring power of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis (combined 45 ppg).

The buzz -- Seattle won't sneak up on everybody as it did last season and will have to somehow compensate for a weak inside game without James to make a deep run in the playoffs. It's uncertain how the Sonics will respond to Weiss, an assistant with the team the past 11 seasons.

Utah Jazz

Last season -- 26-56

Coach -- Jerry Sloan, 18th season with Jazz, 849-496; 943-617 overall.

Jazz's formula -- There is a nice framework to build on with Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer. The team is leaning on rookie Deron Williams to become its next - dare we say it? - John Stockton, for the next decade, but Sloan is not expected to put too much pressure on him by starting him early.

The Buzz -- A healthy Kirilenko will keep Utah competitive, but in the wild, wild, West, the Jazz won't win many shootouts. The drafting of Williams, who can score as well as run an offense, should help the Jazz regain its rhythm, however, and he could be starting before the season ends.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season -- 44-38

Coach -- Dwane Casey, first season.

Timberwolves' formula -- It starts with Kevin Garnett, one of the league's premier players, but his body is getting nicked up as he continues to carry the team. He now is coupled with a younger backcourt to jump-start the offense. There will be a recommitment to defense under rookie coach Casey.

The buzz -- Minnesota missed the playoffs last season, and that led to an extreme makeover, including the dismissal of coach Flip Saunders and the departure of the backcourt of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Bottom line: The Timberwolves are shaken, stirred - but not much better.

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season -- 27-55

Coach -- Nate McMillan, first season with Blazers; 212-183 with Sonics.

Blazers' formula -- They are committed to a rebuilding process around youth, and that includes one of the league's youngest head coaches. The offensive centerpiece remains power forward Zach Randolph, who played in only 46 games last season because of injuries. Make him the defensive centerpiece, too.

The buzz -- The youth movement means the struggles will continue for the Trail Blazers, and Randolph and guard Ruben Patterson already are complaining about that. McMillan will try to play up-tempo, and because of that, there will be growing pains such as turnovers. Don't expect a major improvement.

Pacific Division

Sacramento Kings

Last season -- 50-32

Coach -- Rick Adelman, eighth season with Kings, 417-289; 708-443 overall.

Kings' formula -- The offseason acquisitions of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells will bring a significant infusion of points. They will join a potent offense that includes Peja Stojakovic and a steady point guard in Mike Bibby. There is much to like in Sacramento, but the mix has changed quite a bit in two years.

The buzz -- It remains uncertain whether Wells and Abdur-Rahim, who are more comfortable using isolation plays, will fit into the Kings' Princeton, motion-driven offense. Perhaps of greater concern is whether Wells, who has a reputation as a voodoo child, will be on his best behavior.

Phoenix Suns

Last season -- 62-20

Coach -- Mike D'Antoni, third season with Suns, 83-60; 97-96 overall.

Suns' formula -- After establishing the best record in the league last season, the Suns continued to try to improve this summer, adding Kurt Thomas and Brian Grant. The extra big men will help with Amare Stoudemire out for four months after knee surgery, and Steve Nash will keep his teammates running.

The buzz -- Losing Stoudemire could be devastating, if only for playoff seeding. The Suns simply can't compensate for that, despite the talent on the roster. Nash and Shawn Marion, two-thirds of the talented Three Amigos from last season, will continue to give opposing teams big problems.

Los Angeles Lakers

Last season -- 34-48

Coach -- Phil Jackson, first season in return to Lakers; 832-316 overall.

Lakers' formula -- After kissing and making up with Kobe Bryant, the Zen Master returns to the bench to try to lead the Lakers out of a slumber (they missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons). The real key is Kwame Brown, who is needed to provide a scoring threat beyond Lamar Odom and Bryant.

The buzz -- Zen Boy (Jackson), who went 287-123 in his first stint as Lakers coach, must be at the top of his game to squeeze maximum effort consistently out of Brown, a waste in four seasons with the Wizards. Then there's the tenuous relationship with Kobe. Paging Dr. Phil (the other guy).

Golden State Warriors

Last season -- 34-48.

Coach -- Mike Montgomery, second season, 34-48.

Warriors' formula -- Jason Richardson and Baron Davis, who changed the flow of the team when he was acquired in February, are one of the NBA's best backcourts. Ike Diogu, the No. 9 pick in the draft, is needed as a rebounding presence. The Warriors got out-boarded by four rebounds a game last season.

The buzz -- Golden State might make a solid run for its first playoff berth since 1994. A spotty inside game and lack of depth to hang with the West's strongest teams could hurt, but the Warriors averaged 10 more points per game after trading for Davis, so there is something to build on here.

Los Angeles Clippers

Last season -- 37-45

Coach -- Mike Dunleavy, third season with Clippers, 65-99; 463-489 overall.

Clippers' formula -- The emergence of lottery pick Shaun Livingston as a true talent and the shooting touch of Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley will elevate the Clippers from Joke of the NBA infamy, though Livingston could be out early with a back injury. Elton Brand puts in a 20-point, 10-rebound game most nights.

The buzz -- They are still the Clippers, struggling to find a defensive presence inside and on the perimeter. A decent shot-blocker wouldn't hurt, either. It will be fabulous consolation prizes for the Clippers again when playoff time rolls around in April.

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