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Spurs coach: Lakers still the team to beat in West

The only coach other than Phil Jackson to win an NBA championship the last four seasons is among those who aren't writing off the Los Angeles Lakers.

'I still think the Lakers are the best team,' says San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who earned a ring taking the Spurs to the 1999 title. 'They have the combination of a great inside player (Shaquille O'Neal) and outside player (Kobe Bryant), along with a bunch of role players who have proved to all of us that they fit.

'Whether they are in a mental funk or just going through a bad time, when push comes to shove, they will be a team that executes well at both ends of the court.'

As the Lakers approach the midseason mark with a sub-.500 record, though, the dynamics of the West race have changed.

'They have lost some of that air of invincibility,' Popovich says of the Lakers. 'Teams don't fear them like they did in the past.'

If I'm Jackson, I'm not worried about O'Neal's conditioning, as long as the damaged big toe allows him to have a major portion of his mobility come playoff time. And Bryant remains one of the game's premier perimeter players, if not the best.

But the supporting cast is wobblier than ever. Rick Fox is 33 years old, Robert Horry 32, Brian Shaw almost 37, and their contributions are inconsistent and less timely.

'They aren't making the plays (to keep the Lakers) in the game,' Jackson told the L.A. media. 'Their lack of athleticism, or age, is costing us.'

Samaki Walker can rebound a little but is otherwise useless. Derek Fisher is better suited to coming off the bench, Devean George would be a nice sixth man on a more well-balanced team, and Tracy Murray hasn't given the Lakers the long-distance lift they desired.

But what do you expect? Penny-pinching owner Jerry Buss, hellbent on avoiding a luxury tax despite netting $75 million on the Lakers the last three years, kept General Manager Mitch Kupchak's budget to a minimum during the offseason.

Shaq didn't get the power forward he desperately needed (Keon Clark, for instance), and the Lakers are paying the price.

Dallas' incredible start is more than a mirage, Popovich says.

'The only team that knows exactly who they are is Dallas,' the San Antonio coach says. 'The rest of us Ñ Sacramento, Phoenix, Portland, ourselves, Utah, even Houston Ñ are looking for consistency. Everybody is hanging around each other except for Dallas. Dallas is the one team that knows exactly what they have to do to win.

'Everybody accepts his role 100 percent; everybody knows who is going to play. They have the talent to do it. They worry a little bit about defense, but they know they have to score X amounts of points to get it done. They have great leadership in (Steve) Nash, and they are going for it, laying it on the line.'

I would place Sacramento alongside Dallas and ahead of the other West playoff teams. The Kings blasted the East's best team, New Jersey, by 36 points on the road last week.

'I remember winning a lot of statement games last year but losing Game 7 (of the West finals) to L.A.,' Webber said after the New Jersey game. 'What does a statement game matter if you don't win a championship?'

True enough. But if the Kings can get healthy going into the playoffs, they are as formidable as the Mavericks. If it comes to that in the West, I like Sacramento on the basis of its playoff experience.

Still, the Kings are only four to six games ahead of the Suns, Blazers, Spurs, Jazz and Rockets.

'Forget about the Lakers right now,' Sacramento coach Rick Adelman says. 'It's Portland and Phoenix we have to worry about. We have to try to distance ourselves from them.' Adelman says he expected the Blazers to be there. Scottie Pippen 'is playing great for them,' he says, 'and they have three guys (Pippen, Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace) who are carrying them night after night. I don't see them going away, either. It's going to be a battle.'

Final chapter?

Sadly, it appears as if Terrell Brandon's career is over. That was the whisper months ago when Minnesota's veteran point guard from Grant High and the University of Oregon was rehabilitating after knee surgery, and it has grown more public of late.

Last week, teammate Kevin Garnett told Minnesota media, 'He has let us know he is pretty much done É that's reality. Just from a life standpoint, we're all happy for him, and hopefully he will be able to make a speedy recovery so he's able to walk. From a basketball standpoint, he let us know early on it was pretty much a done deal.'

'Everybody was optimistic the guy would (eventually) play,' Minnesota GM Kevin McHale says. 'Right now, there's much bigger doubt. He just hasn't been able to get over that hump of explosion and sprinting you have to have to play. He is still having the same setbacks. He gets to a certain point, and he pushes it harder, the knee swells up, and it's very sore.'

Other than a miracle recovery, there are two reasons the Timberwolves are waiting to make an announcement.

First, insurance would cover a major portion of the remainder of Brandon's six-year, $58.3 million contract, and the Wolves need documentation to get the full benefit. Brandon, 32, also could be traded before the Feb. 20 trade deadline if another team is interested in gaining the salary cap relief his release would bring.

NOTES: If lifelong bachelor P.J. Carlesimo thought he was in for a lifestyle change when he got married two years ago, you can imagine how the birth of son Kyle six months ago affected his comfort zone. 'I used to enjoy road trips for going out to restaurants and things like that. Now I enjoy them because I get to sleep all night,' jokes the former Blazer head coach, a Spurs assistant. 'The only thing he doesn't do well is sleep. He is always laughing and screwing around, but he is happy.' É P.J., wife Carolyn and Kyle plan to spend a few days in Portland around the All-Star break 'because it's Portland, and I still have a lot of friends here,' he says. É Carlesimo, 53, wants to be a head coach again, preferably in the NBA. After two years in broadcasting, he's enjoying being back on the bench as an assistant to Popovich. 'He wants me to sit there as if I'm a head coach and tell him what I see. It's a great situation for me, and I get a chance to learn a new system.'

Steve Smith's future as a Spur grew cloudy with the addition of two good young shooting guards Ñ Argentina's Manu Ginobili, 25 and Stephen Jackson, 24. Smith, who turns 34 in March, is coming off the bench. 'I'd rather be starting,' he says. The benching is premature, in his opinion, 'but what the player thinks doesn't matter. The same thing happened to me in Portland. The important thing is to stay professional.'

Ex-Prairie High standout Dan Dickau had eight points and 10 assists in 32 minutes against Dallas in his first career start for Atlanta last week, with point guard Jason Terry moving to shooting guard. 'I liked what Dan gave us,' coach Terry Stotts says. Not all that much, evidently; Dickau played one minute in each of the Hawks' next two games.