With Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the primes of their Hall of Fame careers, it looks like coach Phil Jackson will be the Zen-master behind yet another three-peat NBA championship run.

The Lakers, who lost only one playoff game last season en route to a championship, are even better. General Manager Mitch Kupchak has reloaded with top-shelf veteran guards Lindsey Hunter and Mitch Richmond to provide depth and experience in the backcourt.

Perennial headache Isaiah Rider is gone and the addition of power forward Samaki Walker will help to offset the departures of inconsistent big men Horace Grant and Greg Foster. Their greatest challenge this year will be “complacency.” Though unlikely to be dethroned, many talented teams in the West will challenge the Lakers.

The San Antonio Spurs, who lead the NBA in wins last season, will again be a force. Lead by big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the middle, the Spurs will likely start Steve Smith and Antonio Daniels at the guard spots, with Bruce Bowen coming off the bench as a spark plug.

After being swept by the Lakers in conference finals last season, the Spurs will be playing for self-respect this year. They are the only team that can challenge Shaq in the paint, but will likely fall short again in the backcourt.

The Dallas Mavericks spent a lot of money this summer to keep their young guns and now boast one of the league’s most balanced and potent scoring attacks.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley both averaged over 21 points-per-game last season, and Steve Nash has established himself as one of the premier pass-score point guards in the NBA. Juwan Howard, who was acquired in a mid-season trade last year, will be solid inside. Dallas also signed veterans Tim Hardaway and Danny Manning to provide leadership and experience ? the duo has played a combined 91 playoff games ? off the bench.

Look for the Mavericks to challenge the Lakers for a shot at the Western conference title. But with string bean Shawn Bradley matching up against Shaq at center, Dallas is grossly overmatched in the post and is unlikely to prevail in a best of seven playoff series.

The Sacramento Kings helped themselves greatly in the off-season by acquiring steady point guard Mike Bibby from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for the entertaining, yet erratic Jason Williams.

When MVP-candidate Chris Webber returns to the lineup from an ankle injury, the Kings will be as dominant as they were a year ago. Defensive specialist Doug Christie, shooting sensation Peja Stojakovic and veteran center Vlade Divac make up on of the league’s best supporting casts. Add a bench that includes reliable veterans such as Bobby Jackson, Scott Pollard, Lawrence Funderburke and Hidayet Turkoglu and you have a team capable of vying for a spot atop the West.

But, like the Mavericks, the Kings have no real answer for Shaq, and thus will likely be competing for tee-times rather than a championship ring come June.

There are also several unheralded teams in the West capable of earning a spot, and possibly advancing, in the playoffs.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, who have never made it past the first round of the playoffs, are a team that will go only as far as star forward Kevin Garnett will take them. Garnett, who is revered as one of the league’s top players, is still underrated.

Veteran point guard Terrel Brandon will run the offense and wing guard Wally Szczerbiak is poised for a breakout season. Minnesota will also rely heavily on their bench, which runs as many as seven deep.

Garnett and Co. will not only make the playoffs this season, but will advance to the second round for the first time in franchise history.

Though Portland has the talent to be a force in the West, they also have a ton of question marks. Rasheed Wallace’s temContinued from Page 22

per, Bonzi Wells’ knee, Derek Anderson’s ankle and Scottie Pippen’s motivation are all variables that could make or break the Trailblazers’ season.

New coach Maurice Cheeks could lead Portland back to Western conference supremacy or watch them fall even deeper into obscurity.

In Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon is gone, and it is Steve Francis’ team now. With the ability to post a triple-double on any given night, it is hard to find a better all-around guard than the versatile Francis.

The Rockets’ strength lies in their backcourt, namely Francis and shooting guard Cuttino Mobley.

If Houston can dictate the speed of its games, and make other teams play fast-paced basketball, they have the potential to win some games and sneak their way onto the playoff stage for a cameo appearance.

In the end, no one will catch the Lakers as they march toward a third consecutive NBA title.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.

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