By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

In case you missed it, we previewed the Eastern Conference on Tuesday. Here's one man's look at the Western Conference, from worst to first:

14. Denver Nuggets
Nick Van Exel
Nick Van Exel is just one of the volatile personalities on the Denver roster.

The Nuggets were pencilled in for this spot even before Antonio McDyess was sidelined for half the season ... now they have legitimate 15-win potential. Can Nuggets fans file a class-action lawsuit against GM Dan Issel? Has that ever been done before? The Avery Johnson signing last summer was almost a cry for help; wouldn't you have loved to have been in the room when Avery's agent told him that the Nuggets had offered a three-year deal. Really? Three years? Are you sure? They definitely said three? If Johnson didn't accept that offer, Tiny Archibald was Denver's Plan B.

Wait, it gets worse. Check out some of the locker-room head cases: Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Nick Van Exel, George McCloud, Kenny Satterfield and the immortal Isaiah Rider. Good God! When are Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla stopping by to play poker with that group? I keep waiting for NBA.comTV to launch some sort of reality show set in the Denver locker room. Can you imagine? Coming up next on "Real World: Denver," George skips practice, Nick snaps at the coach, and Isaiah slaps a stewardess on the team charter! That's all next week on "Real World: Denver"!!!

(Putting Van Exel and Rider on the same team reminds me of Saturday Night Live's classic "Bad Idea Jeans" commercial. Remember that one? Everyone was wearing "Bad Idea" jeans and saying things like, "So I was gonna use a condom with her, but then I figured, 'When's the next time I'm going to be in Haiti?' " You can almost picture Issel and assistant GM Kiki Vandeweghe sitting around in Bad Idea Jeans this summer and saying, "Hey, Isaiah Rider's available -- maybe he'll be a good fit for us!")

13. Seattle SuperSonics
Hey, it's the generic section of predictions for the Sonics season! Let's go down the checklist; feel free to play along at home during the season:

Gary Payton
It's a good bet that Gary Payton will be unhappy at some point this season.

  • "During a losing streak, Gary Payton sounds off and questions his future in Seattle." (CHECK HERE)

  • "New free agent $35 million center Calvin Booth hasn't panned out like the Sonics had hoped." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Vin Baker rounds into shape ... he's down to 412 pounds." (CHECK HERE)

  • "The Sonics need Rashard Lewis to step up and become the leader of team." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Payton very unhappy -- would welcome a trade if possible."(CHECK HERE)

  • "Overwhelmed by the presence of Vladimir Radmanovic, Olumide Oyedeji and Predrag Drobnjak on his bench, a tongue-tied Nate McMillan resigns." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Pining for more minutes, a frustrated Desmond Mason spends most of his practice time trying to trip Brent Barry." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Sonics make Baker and Barry available before trading deadline -- rest of the league laughs uproariously." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Repeat: Payton is very, very unhappy." (CHECK HERE)

  • "Page 2 editor and die-hard Sonics fan Kevin Jackson fires the Sports Guy after reading this section." (CHECK HERE)

    12. Memphis Grizzlies
    The Memphis Grizzlies haven't just supplanted the Utah Jazz for "Dumbest team name in sports" honors, they could be one of the most enticing DirecTV teams of the 2001-2002 season. Check out this lineup:

    Pau Gasol & Zach Randolph
    Pau Gasol has some serious skills, but he could stand to gain a few pounds.

    There's White Chocolate, hooking himself up to the Juvenation Machine (you always knew he'd be better off playing for a bad team, didn't you?). There's 7-foot rookie Pau Gasol, who has been described as a cross between Kevin Garnett and Toni Kukoc, but with Tara Reid's physique. There's Lorenzen Wright, the kind of guy who can grab 20 rebounds even though he watches the Jumbotron during timeouts. There's Shane Battier, ready for a "Rookie of the Year" run. There's Michael Dickerson, gunning for a new contract and capable of 300-400 crunch-time airballs.

    There's Stromile Swift, a fantastic physical specimen (and a work in progress). There's Bryant Reeves, who can look competent enough during some games that most GM's are afraid to watch him when they've been drinking (lest they trade for his contract). There are the Artists Formerly Known As Grant Long, Nick Anderson and Brevin Knight. There's perennially overmatched coach Sidney Lowe looking befuddled by the White Chocolate Experience.

    You have to admit ... on paper, that's a pretty entertaining team. I'm not saying they'll make a playoff run, but it will be a pleasure to monitor their box scores every morning. There's something to be said for that.

    11. Phoenix Suns
    Poor Tom Gugliotta. He could have re-signed with Minnesota for $71 million three years ago, but he couldn't bear the thought of playing one more year with Stephon Marbury. He even said as much. So he tried to finagle a sign-and-trade to the Lakers, but T-Wolves GM Kevin McHale refused to help out the Lakers (Celtic pride, baby!).

    Tom Gugliotta
    AP
    Tom Gugliotta can only wince at the thought of playing with Stephon Marbury again.

    So, Googs was stuck ... he ended up signing with the Suns for a piddling $52 million, where he promptly blew out his knee, almost died from an allergic reaction to one of those muscle enhancement drugs, looked like the reincarnation of Kenny Reeves during his final days with the Bulls on the "White Shadow" and watched in horror as the sublime Shawn Marion stole his position. And just when it couldn't get any worse, this summer, the Suns traded the best teammate on the planet (Jason Kidd) for ... you guessed it! Mr. Stephon Marbury.

    (We'll be back on "Depressing Stories of the NBA" after this.)

    Of course, Marbury is talented enough that there's a chance -- a slim chance, but a chance -- that he'll figure out the same thing Isiah figured out in the mid '80s: "Get my teammates involved early and often." There's always time to take over the last few minutes of any game, but for those first 43 minutes, you need to spread the ball around and sublimate your offense for the sake of everyone else. It's not rocket science. Everyone plays harder when they're getting enough touches ... yet for some reason, Marbury still hasn't realized this. Drives me crazy.

    FANTASY SLEEPERS
    The Sports Guy's top eight fantasy basketball sleepers in the West:

    1. Jason Williams: Classic "Good stats on a bad team" candidate.

    2. Lorenzen Wright: Ditto.

    3. Darius Miles: Should get stronger as the year goes on.

    4. Kenny Thomas: Getting 40 minutes a game at the 4-spot.

    5. Antonio Daniels: Finally getting chance to run the Spurs.

    6. Bobby Sura: Always produces when he gets the minutes.

    7. Calvin Booth: And you won't have to pay $35 million for him.

    8. Jason Richardson: Keep an eye on him starting in January.

    As for the rest of the Suns, you have to love the potential of Marbury and Marion, but their success seems inexorably tied to the collective health of Googs and Penny Hardaway, who injured his knees so many times over the years that the WNBA just made him eligible for next summer's draft. Recently, I was watching Game 3 of the '95 NBA Finals and was struck by how talented Penny was back then, probably the most talented all-around guard since Michael Ray Richardson. You can almost see why the Suns rolled the dice with him and his knees for $86 million two years ago. When he's healthy, he's that good. Tantalizing.

    (You know it kills Scott Skiles to imagine a healthy Penny, a healthy Googs, Marion and Marbury on the court all at the same time. Don't think about it too much, Scottie ... you'll go crazy. Take it from someone who still imagines Reggie Lewis and Lenny Bias playing together. Some things just aren't meant to be.)

    10. Golden State Warriors
    Every time I write one of these previews, one team ends up confounding me, and I can't think of a single interesting thing to say about them. I write a section about them, erase it, write another section, erase it ... this goes on for about 45 minutes. Eventually I'll take a walk to my local Store 24, buy some gum, talk to Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy for a few minutes, and finally return to the Sports Guy Mansion, invigorated ... until the same write/erase process repeats itself for another 45 minutes.

    And that's when I start breaking things.

    9. Houston Rockets
    Watching last year's Houston team was like watching the greatest pickup hoops team of all-time -- all one-on-one stuff, no passing, no picks and whichever Rocket dribbled the ball over midcourt got to shoot. Here's the funny thing: Considering they almost made the playoffs, it might have been Rudy Tomjanovich's greatest coaching job yet.

    Steve Francis
    Francis is leading the team in boardwork -- again.

    Few coaches have the guts to change their system depending on the personnel, but Rudy T graduated from the Don Nelson School for Fly-By-The-Seat-Of-Your-Pants Coaching. Back in the mid-'90s, Rudy T created an offense that revolved around Hakeem's low-post offense and Houston's 3-point shooters; last year, he created an entirely different offense where Stevie Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Moochie "There's comedy, there's high comedy, and then there's my afro" Norris could freelance, take people off the dribble and kick out to shooters spotting up. How many NBA coaches would have even thought of that? Few coaches can maximize the talent of their players, regardless of the circumstances.

    Unfortunately, even Rudy T can't save Houston this season. With Hakeem Olajuwon gone and Mo Taylor sidelined for the year, that means the Rockets have Kenny Thomas, Kelvin Cato, Eddie "The Fantasy Enigma" Griffin and Jason Collier manning the 4 and 5 spots this season, and that's in a conference that features guys like KG, Duncan, Shaq, C-Webb, Malone, Jamison, Nowitzki, Brand and Rasheed. You don't want Thomas playing 40 minutes a game and trying to push Tim Duncan out of the low block. Too bad. We need to sneak the Rockets into the playoffs at some point.

    8. Utah Jazz
    Karl Malone
    Is this the year that Karl Malone and the Jazz finally fall out of the playoffs?

    All right, I've had it. Every year we give Utah the benefit of the doubt ... when does it end? On paper, it's impossible for the Jazz to make the playoffs again -- they're the only team in the West that definitively slipped over the summer. Stockton and Malone are now a combined 128 years old. Character actor John Amaechi is the new starting center. Here are the first five guys off the bench: John Starks, Greg Ostertag, John Crotty, Andrei Kirilenko and Rick Majerus. The new rules make it much easier to defend a pick-and-roll. And even their one attempt at young blood (DeShawn Stevenson) allegedly ended up pulling a Jerry Lee Lewis with a junior high groupie.

    Normally, you look past these things because, well, this is Utah. Somehow they always seem to keep winning. And when it comes right down to it, the Stockton-Malone connection is to the NBA what Shannon Tweed is to Cinemax -- every time you think they're ready to hang it up, there they are, looking as good as ever. I've stopped trying to figure it out.

    (But one of these years, the wheels will come off and it's going to be ugly -- I mean, "20-62"-level ugly. As Tom Cruise said in Cocktail, "Everything ends badly, or else it wouldn't end." Words to live by.)

    7. Los Angeles Clippers
    There are very few things I love on this planet, but here's one of them: Falling asleep to a Clippers game that's playing on DirecTV. There's just something comforting about bad headbands, cheap tattooes, poor shot selection, crummy defense, third-rate uniforms and guessing which players are stoned on a given night, with the added bonus that Bill Walton is screaming "That's terrible! That's just TERRRRRRRIBLE" every time Michael Olowakandi gets hit in the face by a no-look pass. Can you put a price on this kind of fun, especially when it's taking place after midnight on the East Coast? I think not.

    Lamar Odom
    Lamar Odom is a five-tool guy with 3-point range who can play any position on the court.

    Over the course of last season, I found myself developing a strange affection for the Clips, even nudging the Sports Gal awake to ask her questions like, "Why do you think Gentry plays the Kandi Man over Rooks at crunch time?" and "Check out the guy shooting the free throw right now -- is he stoned or am I crazy?" while she blurted out responses like, "Remind me to break up with you tomorrow morning when I'm awake" and "I couldn't hate you any more; it's not possible." But hey ... it wasn't my fault. The Clippers Experience was more fun than humans should be allowed.

    And given that I watched way too much of the Clips last year, I feel qualified to make the following statement: The Los Angeles Clippers will make the playoffs this year."

    Let's delve into this in detail, because this is my column and I can do whatever I want:

  • The Elton Brand trade was pure genius. There's no other way to say it. The fact that Elgin Baylor pulled that baby off was right up there with Forrest Gump and Lt. Dan hitting it big with the Bubba Gump Shrimp company. I'm speechless. This team upgraded from that motley Brian Skinner/Rooks/Derek Strong combo to a 22-year-old stud who plays hard every night, gives them an etch-it-in-stone 20/10 and spent two whole years in college. Two whole years! That makes him a relative guru on this team.

    THE SIMMONS ALL-STARS
    A list of guys I inexplicably like who haven't hit the big-time yet (and many never will). Previous MVPs include Predag Stojakovic, Aaron McKie, Bo Outlaw and (gulp) Travis Knight.

    Centers: Nazr Mohammed, Keon Clark, Zeljko Rebraca.

    Forward: Scott Williams, Al Harrington, Hidayet Turkoglu, Gary Trent.

    Guards: Moochie Norris, Milt Palacio, Jon Barry, Raja Bell, Corey Maggette.

    MVP: Darius Miles.

  • Lamar Odom might be the most intriguing player in basketball, and not just because he wears a concert T-shirt from Snoop Dogg's "Puff, Puff, Pass" tour under his uniform. He's a five-tool guy with 3-point range who can play any position on the court; there's nobody else in the NBA quite like him. If Odom doesn't become one of the biggest stars of this decade, the Clippers should have their franchise yanked away. It's that simple.

  • Darius Miles is the real deal. Jumps out of the gym, multi-skilled, plays with style and panache. I can't even compare him to anyone.

    (OK, let's try: Remember the way Rodman used to play during his first two years in Detroit -- a jumping jack who always seemed to be around the basketball? Now imagine he had soft hands, a gentle touch around the basket, passing skills and the mystical ability to rebound the basketball, dribble the length of the floor and make the correct decision on every fast break. That's Darius Miles. I'm not sure if he's exploding this season or next season, but it's happening soon.)

    And the supporting cast is better than you think. Let's just move on before I pump out another thousand words here. Somebody throw some water on me.

    6. San Antonio Spurs
    Tim Duncan
    AP
    Tim Duncan might have to singlehandedly carry the Spurs into the playoffs.

    You have to feel for Tim Duncan. He could have bolted for Florida two summers ago, but David Robinson guilted him into staying around for three more years to win another title. Not a chance. The Spurs aged in dog years last season: Robinson was abused like a wrestling jabronie during the Lakers series, and the crew of veterans (Avery Johnson, Terry Porter, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry and Sean Elliott) had the proverbial salad fork sticking out of them. Once Derek Anderson went down, they were done. And with Anderson moving to Portland and Robinson slipping faster than Teri Hatcher, suddenly Duncan's on an island by himself. Heck, he could have done that in Chicago.

    That won't stop him from having a career year. He straightened out his free-throw problems -- which affected him more than people realized over the past two seasons -- and he's due for a statistical breakout season (maybe a jump from 22/12 to 26/14). He's also the smartest player in the league, the guy who consistently plays the hardest from game to game, the best defensive player, the best teammate and one of the few truly competitive stars around. And while we're here, he's the most gifted low-post player since Kevin McHale. If I were starting a team from scratch and could select anyone in the league for the next 10 years, I would take Kobe, than McGrady, than Duncan. He's that good.

    But with all of that said ... you can't make steak out of hamburger meat. I see Duncan switching places with Kevin Garnett as "The Big Guy Who Singlehandedly Drags His Team Into the Playoffs" this year. Fortunately for Duncan and the Spurs, they'll be able to take advantage of the new rules, play some zone and drag opponents into those excruciating-to-watch "75-70"-type games, with Duncan taking over in crunch time. That sounds good enough for 48 wins ... and a second-round exit.

    5. Portland Trail Blazers
    Rasheed Wallace

    Maybe their strangest team yet, and that's saying something. Scottie Pippen and Dale Davis are running on fumes at this point. Damon Stoudamire was playing the best basketball of his career until management stupidly undermined him by trading for Rod Strickland -- he was never the same after that -- so who knows what they're going to get out of him this season. Rasheed Wallace is completely, utterly, hopelessly insane. His battles with referees last season were almost painful to watch, almost like he was suffering from special needs or something. And yet he's one of the 10 best players in the league. Go figure.

    One major change: Arvydas Sabonis finally retired, which was too bad because his wife was one DWI away from breaking Rod Strickland's record in Portland. That leaves Davis and a somewhat slimmer Shawn Kemp to man the pivot. Kemp comes off one of the strangest seasons in history, in which he finally landed in drug rehab after acting so bizarrely that I wrote this passage about him last December (in a column for my old website):

      "No NBA player has ever acted more strangely on a basketball court. With all the weird faces and gestures Kemp makes, it's like a constant cry for help. Have you ever been riding the subway when a crazy person jumps on and starts going Crazy Guy things -- loud whoops, deranged eye contact, inexplicable pointing and so on -- and everyone moves to the other side of the subway car to get away from him? That's what Shawn Kemp does during Blazers games. He acts like the crazy guy on the subway. The NBA... it's FANNNNNN-tastic! I love this game!"

    Wait, we haven't even gotten started yet. They drafted the resident "sketchy character guy" of the 2001 Draft (Zach Randolph, who actually looked awesome in the preseason), followed that move by signing the resident "sketchy character guy" of the 2001 free agent crop (Ruben Patterson, who signed for the $4.5 exemption and a complimentary tracking bracelet for his ankle). Free agent to-be Bonzi Wells comes off knee surgery and might hoist 10 shots per minute. And they're turning this entire group over to Maurice Cheeks, one of those quiet, Lenny Wilkens-types who will probably be found duct-taped to the chair in his office by the third week of the season.

    Maybe the only bright spot here? The shrewd acquisition of Derek Anderson, a gifted wingman who could provide a nice inside/out tandem with Wallace at the end of games (assuming Wallace hasn't been kicked out of the game yet). There's enough talent here that the Blazers will probably win 50 games in spite of themselves. Come May, they'll self-implode once again. At least they're the champions of Unintentional Comedy.

    4. Minnesota Timberwolves
    Kevin Garnett
    It's time for Kevin Garnett to get some serious time on the playoff stage.

    Every year we wait for Kevin Garnett to break out in the playoffs. He's like the Tiffani Amber-Theissen of the NBA -- there's simply no rational reason why it hasn't happened for him yet. KG has all the tools (competitiveness, scoring ability, sense of The Moment, superior athletic ability), with the added bonus that he possesses more charisma than anybody in the league. You're looking for the next MJ? Stop right here. When you watch NBA games in person, there are only three NBA players who "command the room," those rare athletes who seem larger than life at all times: MJ, Shaq and KG. That's the list. I can't describe it, I can't define it ... but I know it's there. You can't take your eyes off them.

    So one of these years, KG and the Gang need to make a playoff run, and this year looms as a solid bet. Terrell Brandon still has his fastball (when he can stay healthy, blah blah blah). Wally Szczerbiak should make the leap to just-below-All-Star-level in Year 3. Joe Smith returns to give them some much-needed rebounding and defense. The bench looks fine with Felipe Lopez, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Peeler and banger Gary Trent (the most underrated free-agent signing of the season). And you just get the feeling that Loren Woods will make an impact before everything's said and done.

    As for the destiny of the T-Wolves this season, it's all up to KG. We'll have a much better grasp of his celiling as a basketball player some time next May. Color me intrigued.

    3. Sacramento Kings
    When they were the free-wheeling Kings for the '99 season and the better part of the '00 season, there wasn't a team in the league that was more fun to watch. Heck, you could have put them in a time machine, sent them to the mid-'80s, and they would have fit right in with everyone else. But once Rick Adelman started to lose confidence in White Chocolate, and Peja Stojakovic assumed a bigger role in the offense (rightfully so), things subtly changed: They became more of a half-court, grind-it-out team, losing much of their identity in the process.

    Chris Webber
    The Kings have loads of talent and now have Chris Webber back ... look out!

    That might not be the biggest reason that the Lakers smoked them last season, but it's right up there (right behind "C-Webb: No-Show"). If you look at the way this team evolved over the past two years, they moved Doug Christie, Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson, Mike Bibby and Hedo Turkoglu into their nine-man rotation -- all good players, all defensible moves and talent upgrades in every case -- yet collectively, they seem much more passive and business-like now. When White Chocolate was riding high, he gave them a swagger they just don't have anymore. Same with Jon Barry, a heart-on-his-sleeve role player who was dealt to Detroit this summer.

    I also think C-Webb changed last season; he just didn't seem like he was enjoying himself as much. Maybe his contract situation was weighing on him, maybe he missed White Chocolate's energy, or maybe, just maybe, he knew the Kings couldn't match up with the Lakers and Shaq. Whatever the case, he wasn't playing with the same emotion. And that's what worries me about these Kings; even if it's the most talented Sacramento team of all-time on paper, that collective chutzpah seems to have vanished. It won't hurt them during the regular season that much, but it will submarine them next spring. Guaranteed.

    (Random question: Is Rick Adelman the most underrated coach of all-time or the most overrated coach of all-time? There's no in-between, is there? I was watching NBA.comTV a few weeks ago, and the '92 Blazers were self-destructing against the Bulls, and Adelman was standing on the sidelines looking like his colon was about to drop out of his body ... and I was thinking to myself, "What year is this? Am I in a time warp? Is that Chris Webber?" Isn't it amazing that Adelman has coached two of the best Western teams of the past decade, and both of those teams had the uncanny ability to self-destruct in big moments? Hmmmmm.)

    2. Dallas Mavericks
    Dirk Nowitzki
    Dirk Nowitzki continues to improve ... and he's only 22.

    There's a lot to like here. The Mavs wet their feet with the proverbial Playoff Upset last season (a stunning comeback from 2-0 down against Utah), which always seems to lead to an extended run the following year. They also have one of the best players in the league in Dirk Nowitzki, who looks like a "Die Hard" villain (especially with the new cheesy goatee), plays like Tom Chambers, purchased Detlef Schrempf's accent on eBay and has the purest "nothing but net" jumper since The Man himself (initials: LB). The thing that really strikes me about Mr. Diggler is that he improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons ... and he's only 22. There's a potential for real greatness there.

    As for the rest of the group, Steve Nash finally got the summer off after a suicidal season (the Canadian Olympic team, then 90-plus games for the Mavs). Shawn Bradley and Michael Finley signed monster contract extensions, so they're happy. Juwan Howard is happier -- he's still pinching himself to make sure he didn't dream that he got traded. Tim Hardaway should play the Terry Porter Role to a tee (leadership, much-needed swagger and an occasional clutch 3-pointer). And if that's not enough, Mark Cuban has provided more Unintentional Comedy over the past two seasons than just about anyone in sports -- even the Game Show Network hasn't been this consistently good.

    Unfortunately, as good as they are -- and I think the Mavs can win 50-55 games -- they can't beat the Lakers as long as Shaq and Shawn Bradley are involved. A few years ago, a reporter asked Shaq which opponent he could score 100 points against; without missing a beat, Shaq answered, "Shawn Bradley." He was serious. True story. Cuban should offer Shaq $300 million to retire immediately.

    (Here's the scary thing: Right now Cuban is reading this and thinking to himself, "Three hundred million ... hey, that's not a bad idea!")

    1. Los Angeles Lakers
    Let's get this out of the way first: Barring an injury to Shaq or Kobe, the Lakers will capture their third straight championship next spring. Nobody will touch them. I'm not stating this as an opinion; it's a fact. The other 28 teams in the league don't have a chance. We're one day into the season, and it's already over. Seriously. Put a fork in the season.

    Kobe and Shaq
    If Kobe and Shaq stay healthy, no one will be able to take the Lakers' best punch.

    This Lakers team is considerably -- repeat: considerably -- better than their first two title teams. Think about it. They have the best player in the league and the second-best player in the league, and they're finally getting along. Mitch Richmond represents an enormous upgrade on Isaiah Rider and Ron Harper. Ditto for Lindsay Hunter over Brian Shaw. Samaki Walker won't hurt them any worse than Horace Grant or A.C. Green. Rick Fox came to camp in the best shape of his career (with Peter Brady's hair, no less). Bob Horry always comes through at crunch-time when they need him. And a healthy Derek Fisher gives them a better starting point guard than anything they have had during the Jackson Era.

    In years past, their supporting cast didn't hurt them; this year, they might actually help them. There's some legitimate "Best team of all-time" potential here; I wouldn't be surprised if they were something like 37-4 at the halfway point.

    SIMMONS' AWARDS
    My predictions for the 2001-02 major awards:

    MVP: 1) Kobe Bryant, 2) Tracy McGrady, 3) Kevin Garnett

    ROOKIE: 1) Shane Battier; 2) Jason Richardson; 3) Joe Johnson

    MOST IMPROVED: 1) Darius Miles; 2) Kenny Thomas; 3) Jumaine Jones

    COMEBACK: 1) Michael Jordan; 2) Kerry Kittles; 3) Derrick Coleman

    COACH: 1) Jim O'Brien; 2) Rick Carlisle

    DISAPPOINTMENTS: 1) Stephon Marbury; 2) Grant Hill; 3) Jason Terry; 4) Mike Bibby

    UNSUNG STARS: 1) Predag Stojakovic; 2) Baron Davis; 3) Steve Nash

    1ST TEAM ALL-PRO: Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant, McGrady, Garnett, Tim Duncan

    2ND TEAM: Dikembe Mutombo, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki, Antoine Walker

    3RD TEAM: Raef LaFrentz, Allen Iverson, Davis, Chris Webber, Paul Pierce

    But here's the best part ...

    The Lakers's evolution is coming on the heels of MJ's comeback and every other good thing that happened with this league over the past two years: Iverson's breathtaking resurgence ... Nowitzki, Nash and Finley setting Dallas on fire ... Pierce and Walker turning Boston around ... Ray Allen and C-Webb making The Leap .. Baron Davis and Stevie Francis arriving with a bang ... the Clips improbably turning things around ... KG and Duncan poised to make a run at Shaq and the Pantheon ... and best of all, the budding rivalry among Kobe, McGrady and Vince, which should carry the league through the rest of the decade.

    The NBA ... it's FANNNNNN-tastic, dammit. I love this game.


    Playoff predictions
    First round: L.A., Minnesota (over Portland), Dallas and San Antonio (upset win over the Kings) all advance.

    Second round: L.A. destroys Minnesota; Dallas holds off San Antonio in a classic seven-game war.

    Western Finals: L.A. sweeps Dallas as Shaq averages 58.6 points per game against Shawn Bradley (L.A. still undefeated in the playoffs).

    The Finals: Milwaukee manages to win one game off the Lakers (Game 3 in Milwaukee), but the Lakers cruise in five for the threepeat. During the championship celebration, Shaq pulls an MJ and announces his retirement to a stunned Ahmad Rashad. Mark my words.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.



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