Western Conference

Teams In Predicted Order Of Finish

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November 01, 2005|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

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.

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