Timing not right for Lakers' foes

The Western Conference isn't a Lakers lake as it was in the '80s, when they made eight NBA Finals, beating five different West finalists 32 games to 7.

Nor is it the land of titans it was from 2000 to '02, when the Lakers won three titles despite finishing No. 2 in the conference to the San Antonio in '01 — and No. 2 in the Pacific Division to Sacramento in '02, when the Kings and Spurs were 1-2 in the West.

Injury issues and all, the Lakers are favored to come out of the West draw for the fourth season in a row over ... whomever.

No new rival at the Lakers' level has emerged, although the young Thunder has its own ideas about that.

As athletic as the Thunder are, with no starter over 24 and a willowy front line, their future may not be quite yet.

Meanwhile, several old challengers — the Spurs, Suns, Nuggets and Trail Blazers — have gone away.

The Spurs, who were already veterans, are three years older than they were when they made their last West finals in 2007.

Newly arrived Tiago Splitter could be the missing piece. But after sitting out the preseason with a calf injury, he may need time to show it.

The Suns shopped Amare Stoudemire for two years before finally deciding they wanted to keep him.

But Stoudemire's contract ran out in the interim, and he signed with the Knicks over the summer. Now he and the Suns are just a high-scoring memory in Phoenix.

The Trail Blazers, who keep losing Greg Oden, also misplaced general manager Kevin Pritchard, who was fired after run-ins with owner Paul Allen's corporate minions.

The Nuggets are under a gun wielded by Carmelo Anthony, who wants to play in a bigger market. Unless they dazzle him, or several million people move to Denver, that will be that.

If titans are in short supply, however, good teams aren't. It took 50 wins to make the playoffs last spring.

Not that the Lakers look like they're going to run away and hide, with Kobe Bryant still not back all the way and Andrew Bynum not back at all.

If Phil Jackson's 10 seasons in Los Angeles are a guide, expect the unexpected.


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