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All the best is in the West Ñ again

Shaquille O'Neal's big toe is killing him. Latrell Sprewell's pinkie is still broken, though he'd bet that it didn't happen in an altercation after a woman puked on his boat. Mike Bibby's right foot is in a cast, the result of a stress fracture. And the NBA regular season hasn't even started yet.

But the show must go on, and that's exactly what it will do in 28 NBA cities (Los Angeles has two franchises these days, now that the Clippers are finally playing professional basketball).

The Los Angeles Lakers are favored to claim a fourth straight championship, which would be a first time since Boston won seven straight, from 1960-66.

The usual suspects are the Lakers' top challengers.

Sacramento, which took the Lakers to overtime in the seventh game of the Western Conference finals, is reloaded and ready for another run. San Antonio, Dallas and maybe even the Trail Blazers add intrigue to what promises to be another 'High Noon' drama in the West.

Dikembe Mutombo has joined up with New Jersey, champion of the East, where talent runs dry and so-so clubs such as Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana and Detroit could challenge for the Triple-A conference title.

Here's how we see the regular season, which starts Tuesday; teams are listed in order of projected division finish with overall record in parentheses.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PACIFIC DIVISION

1. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)

SUMMARY: Even with Shaq out until Nov. 15, the Lakers will wield the scythe to the division crown.

STARTERS: Samaki Walker, Rick Fox, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.

TOP RESERVES: Robert Horry, Devean George, Tracy Murray, Brian Shaw, Stan Medvedenko.

KEY ADDITION: Murray. The one-time Blazer provides a long-ball threat off the bench.

2. Sacramento Kings (56-26)

SUMMARY: Mike Bibby is out until December. Bobby Jackson will do fine at the point, but Bibby's absence thins the bench in the backcourt.

STARTERS: Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Bibby, Doug Christie.

TOP RESERVES: Hedo Turkoglu, Jackson, Keon Clark, Scot Pollard, Gerald Wallace.

KEY ADDITION: Clark, a live-body forward/center, gives Divac more rest and the front line more versatility.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (53-29)

SUMMARY: The Blazers catch a break in the schedule, missing O'Neal twice and Bibby at least two and maybe three times before they return from injuries. With so many guaranteed-win nights against lesser competition, Portland should get off to a fast start.

STARTERS: Bonzi Wells, Rasheed Wallace, Dale Davis, Derek Anderson, Damon Stoudamire.

TOP RESERVES: Arvydas Sabonis, Scottie Pippen, Jeff McInnis, Antonio Daniels, Ruben Patterson, Chris Dudley.

KEY ADDITION: Sabonis. Blazer coaches have already fallen in love with the league's only center to qualify for a disabled parking permit.

4. Los Angeles Clippers (44-38)

SUMMARY: Injuries to several veterans could keep the Clippers from jelling early. Owner Donald Sterling could keep them from jelling at all.

STARTERS: Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Michael Olowakandi, Andre Miller, Eric Piatkowski.

TOP RESERVES: Keyon Dooling, Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette, Sean Rooks, Mike Batiste.

KEY ADDITION: Miller gives cohesion to a young, talented and undisciplined group.

5. Phoenix (38-44)

SUMMARY: Stephon Marbury has a pair of arthritic ankles, leaving Penny Hardaway the more healthy guard Ñ ouch.

STARTERS: Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Jake Tsakalidis, Marbury, Joe Johnson.

TOP RESERVES: Hardaway, Tom Gugliotta, Casey Jacobsen, Jake Voskuhl, Anthony Goldwire.

KEY ADDITION: Stoudemire. New assistant coach Tim Grgurich will be shagging balls for the game's next great big man.

6. Seattle (35-47)

SUMMARY: The big men are Calvin Booth, Jerome James and Vladimir Radmanovic. The team's best post-up threat? Gary Payton.

STARTERS: Radmanovic, Rashard Lewis, Booth, Payton, Brent Barry.

TOP RESERVES: Kenny Anderson, Predrag Drobnjak, James, Desmond Mason, Vitaly Potapenko.

KEY ADDITION: It has come to this in Anderson's career: The one-time sensation is Payton's caddy.

7. Golden State (28-54)

SUMMARY: Every season begins with renewed optimism. Every season ends with, 'Wait till next year.'

STARTERS: Antawn Jamison, Danny Fortson, Erick Dampier, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson.

TOP RESERVES: Jiri Welsch, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Bob Sura, Adonal Foyle.

KEY ADDITION: Dunleavy will help immediately, too, but the 6-7 Welsch, a 22-year-old Czech, might be a little more ready.

MIDWEST DIVISION

1. San Antonio (55-27)

SUMMARY: David Robinson's sendoff into retirement could have a happy ending.

STARTERS: Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen, Robinson, Tony Parker, Steve Smith.

TOP RESERVES: Emanuel Ginobili, Malik Rose, Kevin Willis, Speedy Claxton, Danny Ferry.

KEY ADDITION: Ginobili. The 6-6 Argentine rookie, 25, has everybody in Spurtown excited.

2. Dallas (54-28)

SUMMARY: Young, deep, talented team is growing together.

STARTERS: Dirk Nowitzki, Adrian Griffin, Raef LaFrentz, Steve Nash, Michael Finley.

TOP RESERVES: Raja Bell, Shawn Bradley, Popeye Jones, Eduardo Najera, Nick Van Exel.

KEY ADDITION: Coach Don Nelson says former 76er Bell has been the surprise of the preseason.

3. Utah (45-37)

SUMMARY: Karl Malone and John Stockton won't let the Jazz slip too far.

STARTERS: Malone, Matt Harpring, Jarron Collins, Stockton, Calbert Cheaney.

TOP RESERVES: Greg Ostertag, DeShawn Stevenson, Andrei Kirilenko, Mark Jackson, Scott Padgett.

KEY ADDITION: Harpring replaces Bryon Russell and must provide perimeter shooting.

4. Houston (42-40)

SUMMARY: If everybody stays relatively healthy, the Rockets could make a playoff run.

STARTERS: Maurice Taylor, Kenny Thomas, Yao Ming, Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley.

TOP RESERVES: Eddie Griffin, Kelvin Cato, Glen Rice, Juaquin Hawkins, Bostjan Nachbar.

KEY ADDITION: Ming. Ready or not, here we come.

5. Minnesota (39-43)

SUMMARY: Too many injuries, too little help for Kevin Garnett.

STARTERS: Garnett, Joe Smith, Rasho Nesterovic, Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson.

RESERVES: Kendall Gill, Anthony Peeler, Terrell Brandon, Gary Trent, Marc Jackson.

KEY ADDITION: Hudson, who must fill in at point guard until Brandon returns.

6. Memphis (33-49)

SUMMARY: The future looks bright, but now sure isn't.

STARTERS: Drew Gooden, Stromile Swift, Pao Gasol, Jason Williams, Mike Dickerson.

TOP RESERVES: Gordon Giricek, Shane Battier, Wesley Person, Lorenzen Wright, Earl Watson.

KEY ADDITION: General Manager Jerry West, who provides instant credibility and direction.

7. Denver (21-61)

SUMMARY: New coach Jeff Bzdelik will need to buy a few vowels.

STARTERS: Juwan Howard, Chris Andersen, Mark Blount, James Posey, George McCloud.

TOP RESERVES: Nene Hilario, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Donnell Harvey, Kenny Satterfield, Rodney White.

KEY ADDITION: Hilario, a 6-11, 260-pound Brazilian Ñ only 20 but already a man on the court.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. New Orleans (50-32)

SUMMARY: A division title in its first season on Bourbon Street.

STARTERS: Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown, Elden Campbell, David Wesley, Baron Davis.

TOP RESERVES: Courtney Alexander, George Lynch, Jamaal Magloire, Lee Nailon, Jerome Moiso.

KEY ADDITION: New city, and distance from the old, sorry owners.

2. Indiana (46-36)

SUMMARY: At 37, Reggie Miller needs help from the young guns.

STARTERS: Al Harrington, Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller, Reggie Miller, Jamaal Tinsley.

TOP RESERVES: Fred Jones, Ron Artest, Jonathan Bender, Ron Mercer, Jeff Foster, Erick Strickland.

KEY ADDITION: Jones. Not Frederick or Freddie anymore, the rookie guard from Oregon is Miller's heir apparent at shooting guard.

3. Milwaukee (44-38)

SUMMARY: The Heat is on coach George Karl to make something happen this season.

STARTERS: Tim Thomas, Anthony Mason, Ervin Johnson, Sam Cassell, Ray Allen.

TOP RESERVES: Toni Kukoc, Michael Redd, Jason Caffey, Mike Wilks, Jason Gadzuric.

KEY ADDITION: Kukoc. At 34, versatile Croatian must provide a spark off the bench.

4. Detroit (43-39)

SUMMARY: Coach Rick Carlisle will miss Jerry Stackhouse more than he thinks.

STARTERS: Clifford Robinson, Michael Curry, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton.

TOP RESERVES: Corliss Williamson, Chucky Atkins, Jon Barry, Hubert Davis, Zeljko Rebraca.

KEY ADDITION: Billups, the acquisition from Minnesota, who will run the offense at point guard.

5. Atlanta (41-41)

SUMMARY: The Hawks could be one of most improved teams in the league.

STARTERS: Ira Newble, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, Jason Terry, Glenn Robinson.

TOP RESERVES: Dion Glover, Darvin Ham, Alan Henderson, Dan Dickau, Nazr Mohammed.

KEY ADDITION: Robinson, now playing some shooting guard, knows how to shoot.

6. Toronto (32-50)

SUMMARY: Ownership is trying to save money, not win games. After the season, Vince Carter will want out.

STARTERS: Morris Peterson, Jerome Williams, Antonio Davis, Carter, Alvin Williams.

TOP RESERVES: Lindsay Hunter, Eric Montross, Jelani McCoy, Michael Bradley, Lamond Murray.

KEY ADDITION: Hunter. But the ex-Laker reserve won't make much of a difference.

7. Chicago (26-56)

SUMMARY: The Bulls have some good young players and two decent veterans in Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall. But they will continue to take their lumps.

STARTING LINEUP: Marshall, Eddy Curry, Corie Blount, Jay Williams, Rose.

TOP RESERVES: Trent Hassell, Tyson Chandler, Marcus Fizer, Lonny Baxter, Jamal Crawford.

KEY ADDITION: Williams, the point guard from Duke who is as good a bet as any for Rookie of the Year.

8. Cleveland (25-57)

SUMMARY: General Manager Jim Paxson and coach John Lucas have some good pieces but need more time.

STARTERS: Tyrone Hill, Ricky Davis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Darius Miles, Dajuan Wagner.

TOP RESERVES: Chris Mihm, Carlos Boozer, Bimbo Coles, DeSagana Diop, Jumaine Jones.

KEY ADDITION: Miles' maturation will be critical if the Cavaliers are to be competitive.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. New Jersey (54-28)

SUMMARY: The best in the NBA's weaker conference.

STARTERS: Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Dikembe Mutombo, Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles.

TOP RESERVES: Rodney Rogers, Aaron Williams, Chris Childs, Lucious Harris, Jamie Feick.

KEY ADDITION: With Mutombo, opponents won't be taking the ball to the hole.

2. Philadelphia (45-37)

SUMMARY: Even Larry Brown concedes that he's not sure what he has.

STARTERS: Monty Williams, Keith Van Horn, Todd MacCulloch, Eric Snow, Allen Iverson.

TOP RESERVES: Aaron McKie, Derrick Coleman, Greg Buckner, Damone Brown, Brian Skinner.

KEY ADDITION: Van Horn. Will he be closer to Larry Bird or Danny Vranes?

3. Washington (44-38)

SUMMARY: Doug Collins has a much improved club, especially with Michael Jordan coming off the bench.

STARTERS: Kwame Brown, Bryon Russell, Brendan Haywood, Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes.

TOP RESERVES: Jordan, Jared Jeffries, Etan Thomas, Juan Dixon, Charles Oakley.

KEY ADDITION: Stackhouse, who needs to build on his solid team play of last season.

4. Boston (41-41)

SUMMARY: This team isn't going in the right direction.

STARTERS: Vin Baker, Antoine Walker, Tony Battie, Paul Pierce, Tony Delk.

TOP RESERVES: Eric Williams, Shammond Williams, Bruno Sundov, Walter McCarty, J.R. Bremer.

KEY ADDITION: Baker, slimmed down some but a bust through the preseason.

5. Orlando (40-42)

SUMMARY: If Grant Hill stays healthy, the Magic could be better.

STARTERS: Hill, Pat Garrity, Horace Grant, Tracy McGrady, Jacque Vaughn.

TOP RESERVES: Mike Miller, Darrell Armstrong, Shawn Kemp, Pat Burke, Ryan Humphrey.

KEY ADDITION: Coach Doc Rivers intends to start Vaughn ahead of Armstrong.

6. Miami (35-47)

SUMMARY: Without Alonzo Mourning, it looks real bad for Pat Riley.

STARTERS: Brian Grant, Caron Butler, Vladimir Stepania, Eddie Jones, Travis Best.

TOP RESERVES: Rasual Butler, LaPhonso Ellis, Anthony Carter, Sean Lampley, Eddie House.

KEY ADDITION: The Butlers. Both 6-7 rookies can play.

7. New York (22-60)

SUMMARY: What a comedown for the once-mighty Knicks.

STARTERS: Kurt Thomas, Latrell Sprewell, Othella Harrington, Allan Houston, Charlie Ward.

TOP RESERVES: Michael Doleac, Clarence Weatherspoon, Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Travis Knight.

KEY ADDITION: Doleac, now that Antonio McDyess (knee) is out for the season.

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..