MJ Who? Just Watch Lakers Rule Pacific

I’m certainly not begrudging His Diminished-Vertical-Leap ness the media crush heaped upon him that could be rivaled only by the assassination of one or all of the members of *NSYNC, but when his Washington team (Let’s Go Wiz!)starts to overshadow the two-time defending world champions, I take a little umbrage.

Especially when those champions happen to be my Los Angeles Lakers.

Don’t get me wrong, folks?I was tuned into the first installment of The Comeback II just like every other person whose interest in sports is even as minimal as Dubya’s third-grade spelling test scores, but when Shaq and Kobe are subsequently denied the attention and appreciation they have earned, I get perturbed.

Ah well?

In the end, when Jordan’s team is eliminated from playoff contention by early January and the closest he gets to the Finals is watching them on TV just like lil’ ol’ me, I suppose I’ll feel a bit vindicated.

In the meantime, since no one else is paying attention to hoops left of the Potomac, I feel obligated and compelled to do so.

That being said, here is the first installment in a four-part series of previews involving each of the NBA’s divisions. Fortunately for you, I don’t believe in any of this “saving the best for last” crapola, so we’re starting things off right?with the Western Conference’s Pacific Division.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

The center is more unstoppable than the passing of time. The shooting guard more lethal than the Texas Supreme Court. And together, O’Neal and Bryant form the league’s best duo since a pair of guys named Magic and Kareem.

They may suffer from internal rivalries, injured “pinky-winky” toes, a power forward soft enough to make Charmin claim copyright infringement, and free-throw shooting that?if directed toward Afghanistan?would put the fear of Allah into Osama and his buddies in the Taliban and al Qaeda, but?

They’ve also got a deeper bench than a year ago (with the addition of Mitch Richmond and Lindsey Hunter), savvy, guileful veterans like Rick Fox and Derek Fisher, and the coach so Zen the Dalai Lama looks secular and hedonistic by comparison.

MJ may get the spotlight, but the Lakers?MY Lakers?will get their three-peat.

Projected Record: 61-21

2. Sacramento Kings

Apparently, when you’re going to make $120 million, you can put up with driving a few hours south just to get some decent “soul food.”

Question is, can such a paycheck convince Mr. Webber to take something other than an 18-foot j in the playoffs?

Despite the fact that Webber likes contact about as much as I enjoy cutting off my own fingers and serving them as hors d’oeuvres at Halloween parties, this team will be good.

The sweet shooting of Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu, the defensive prowess of Doug Christie, the versatility of Vlade Divac, the ability of new PG Mike Bibby to throw a pass to one of his aforementioned teammates, rather than the fan sitting in Portal G, Section 6, Row 3, Seat 4 (like his predecessor often did) bodes well for the Kings.

The fact that none of them are Shaq or Kobe, however, does not.

Projected Record: 55-27

3. Portland Trail Blazers

Scottie Pippen’s a year more decrepit, Arvydas Sabonis decided that playing in Lithuania was preferable to getting a towel thrown in his face by a teammate, and new sixth man Ruben Patterson would be guaranteed postseason hardware if “Most Valuable Rapist of Your Child’s Baby sitter” were an award.

Otherwise, the only intrigue surrounding this team is whether or not Rasheed “Mr. T” Wallace’s technicals total will surpass his team’s win total.

Too close to call.

Projected Record: 50-32

4. Phoenix Suns

I’m starting an office pool predicting when Penny Hardaway’s latest bout of hypochondria will flare up and result in his latest season ending injury.

Meanwhile, I’m not yet convinced that Starbury is an upgrade from Kidd, but hey?if it gets fans in the stands, who cares about wins, right?

Hopefully, Shawn Marion will get the hell out before Tom Gugliotta starts giving him tips on using supplements.

Projected Record: 46-36

5. Los Angeles Clippers

Lamar Odom. Elton Brand. Darius Miles. Plenty of up-and coming talent here, but they’re not quite there yet.

In the meantime, I’m eagerly awaiting Elgin Baylor’s announcement that he’s going to divest himself of his GM duties to make a comeback.

Projected Record: 40-42

6. Seattle Supersonics:

All you need to know is that Gary Payton is a nutjob (albeit a talented one) and the only dunkin’ Vin Baker knows is followed by “Donuts.” ‘Nuff said.

Projected Record: 38-44

7. Golden State Warriors

Larry Hughes at the point? Somebody find out if Bud Selig’s plans for contraction can carry over to the NBA, wouldja?

Projected Record: 20-62

Eric welcomes feedback at: [email protected].