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Mark Heisler’s NBA Western Conference preview

In predicted order of finish

1. Lakers

2008-09 record: 65-17, No. 1 in West.

New: Ron Artest.

Gone: Trevor Ariza.

It’s nice when champions get even stronger, not to mention good timing. With rivals regrouping, they won’t win the West by 11 games again. I don’t even expect them to win 65 again. Ariza fit effortlessly and Artest is Artest, but the key is Andrew Bynum, lost last spring, relocated this fall. If Bynum gets over the hump, they’re still the best thing going.

2. Portland

2008-09 record: 54-28, No. 2 (tie).

New: Andre Miller, Juwan Howard.

Gone: Channing Frye.

Like the Lakers, speculation revolves around their new player, Miller, but the real question is their young center. Greg Oden, a bust as a rookie, averaged 14 points and 9.7 rebounds in 22 minutes this preseason. With their own dynamic duo, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, a big move by Oden means a big future, maybe even now.

3. San Antonio

2008-09 record: 54-28, No. 2 (tie).

New: Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Theo Ratliff, Keith Bogans, second-round pick DeJuan Blair.

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Gone: Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas, Drew Gooden, Ime Udoka.

The team that won four titles from 1999 to 2007 limped through the last two seasons before the crowning indignity, last spring’s 4-1 first-round loss to Dallas. Missing the player they wanted, Rasheed Wallace, who went to Boston, the Spurs still found long-sought replacements. If they’re not The Spurs they are still capable of moving back up, if not all the way to a title, enough to let the Lakers know they’re still around.

4. Denver

2008-09 record: 54-28, No. 2 (tie).

New: No. 1 pick Ty Lawson, Joey Graham, Arron Afflalo.

Gone: Dahntay Jones, Linas Kleiza.

No one expected the Nuggets to do what they did . . . and few expect them to do it again. Stability remains an issue with Coach George Karl dangling on the last year of his deal, amid the usual front-office infighting. Nevertheless, with Chauncey Billups chilling out J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin and helping Carmelo Anthony grow up, they’re good too.

5. Utah

2008-09 record: 48-24, No. 8.

New: No. 1 pick Eric Maynor.

Gone: No one of note.

With Carlos Boozer out 45 games and Deron Williams averaging 9.8 points in November on a bad ankle, they were still on a 50-win pace until finishing 2-7 to fall into the Lakers’ lap in the first round last spring. In a surprise, Boozer wasn’t traded to unload his salary. With everyone back, they’re still young, tough, deep and ready to go back where they belong.

6. Dallas

2008-09 record: 50-32, No. 6.

New: Shawn Marion.

Gone: Devean George

Dear guys, keep it close while I think of something. Your pal, Mark Cuban. After a 2-7 start, they finished 48-25 under underrated Coach Rick Carlisle and upended the Spurs in the first round. With Dirk Nowitzki fond of Cuban and looking for reasons to stay, they gave Jason Kidd, 36, a three-year deal and acquired Marion. That should keep them up there, if not too far.

7. Phoenix

2008-09 record: 46-36, No. 9.

New: Channing Frye.

Gone: Shaquille O'Neal.

Sometimes you add by subtraction, as Branch Rickey said, and they did, unloading O'Neal . . . whom they, alone, had thought could fit in the first place. They’re back to Suns ball under former Mike D'Antoni assistant Alvin Gentry. Amare Stoudemire’s expiring contract may become an issue, but no one could guard Stoudemire and Steve Nash before and it won’t be much easier now.

8. New Orleans

2008-09 record: 49-33, No. 7.

New: Emeka Okafor, Bobby Brown, Ike Diogu, No. 1 pick Darren Collison, Darius Songaila.

Gone: Tyson Chandler, Rasual Butler, Antonio Daniels, Melvin Ely.

Comers no longer, they dropped five places in the West. Bumbling owner George Shinn has until 2012 before Chris Paul’s deal is up. Okafor will help, but they’re still thin and small. Management is already grumbling about 2008 coach of the year Byron Scott, on the last year of his contract with no extension forthcoming, so at least they have a scapegoat ready.

9. Clippers

2008-09 record: 19-63, No. 14.

New: No. 1 pick Blake Griffin, Sebastian Telfair, Rasual Butler.

Gone: Zach Randolph, Mike Taylor.

After three progressively worse seasons, capped by 2008-09’s mail-in, there are few, indeed, who think they won’t mess this up too. This one will really take some work. With Baron Davis bent on reclaiming his name, two 7-footers and wunderkinder Griffin and Eric Gordon, this almost has to work, whether now or in the future, with or without Davis and/or Mike Dunleavy.

10. Houston

2008-09 record: 53-29, No. 5.

New: Trevor Ariza, David Andersen, Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

Gone: Ron Artest, Brent Barry.

At least they don’t have to worry about the health of their Big Two now. Yao Ming is already gone for the season and Tracy McGrady is years beyond making a difference. They’re still tough when reduced to their role players, as the Lakers learned in last spring’s seven-game series, but it won’t do over the long haul.

11. Oklahoma City

2008-09 record: 23-59, No. 13.

New: Etan Thomas, Serge Ibaka, No. 1 pick James Harden.

Gone: Earl Watson, Chucky Atkins.

If this were a 25-and-under league, you’d really like their chances. Kevin Durant, who just turned 21, must now do the hardest thing of all: turn those stats into wins. Russell Westbrook, 20, and Thabo Sefolosha, 25, may be the game’s most athletic backcourt, with versatile Jeff Green, 23, alongside Durant. That leaves them one center and another year or two away.

12. Memphis

2008-09 record: 24-58, No. 11 (tie).

New: Zach Randolph, Allen Iverson.

Gone: Hakim Warrick.

They’re pitiable no longer. Michael Heisley melted his team down to sell it but, three years later and with no buyers in sight, geared back up, getting Randolph and Iverson to go with promising O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. It would be a bigger surprise if Randolph and Iverson can play together, or with the other guys. But, at least, they can play.

13. Golden State

2008-09 record: 29-53, No. 10.

New: GM Larry Riley, No. 1 pick Stephen Curry, Acie Law, Devean George, Mikki Moore.

Gone: GM Chris Mullin, Jamal Crawford, Marco Belinelli.

Almost gone: Stephen Jackson?

Making the Lakers and Clippers look lucid, the Warriors toppled Mullin last season, presumably for sticking up for suspended Monta Ellis, who’s still upset. Jackson, their new leader, just turned in his captaincy after getting suspended for saying he wanted to be traded too. Meanwhile, the Big Kahuna, Don Nelson, has bailed on way better situations than this.

14. Sacramento

2008-09 record: 17-65, No. 15.

New: Coach Paul Westphal, No. 1 pick Tyreke Evans.

Gone: Coaches Reggie Theus and Kenny Natt; Brad Miller.

Kurt Rambis turned down the Kings’ two-year, $3-million “offer,” leaving the cigarette and blindfold, er, job for the personable Westphal. Fortunately or not, they have more talent -- Kevin Martin, prospects Evans, Jason Thompson, Spencer Hawes -- than patience. Theus won peers’ admiration, going 38-44 in his debut, then was fired after starting last season 6-18 with Martin out . . . after which they were 11-47.

15. Minnesota

2008-09 record: 24-58, No. 11 (tie).

New: Coach Kurt Rambis, GM David Kahn, No. 1 pick Jonny Flynn, Ramon Sessions.

Gone: Coach/head of basketball operations Kevin McHale, Randy Foye, Mike Miller.

This is the team Rambis chose? In a memorable debut, Kahn drafted point guards Ricky Rubio and Flynn at Nos. 5 and 6, before Rubio chose FC Barcelona. Rambis goes from all those Lakers 7-footers to 6-9 Al Jefferson and almost 6-8 Kevin Love up front -- or will when Love returns in a month or two, and assuming Jefferson’s sore Achilles is OK. Well, you have to start somewhere.


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