Lakers’ talent way too much for rest of Pacific

The Pacific Division in the Western Conference is sure to produce this year’s NBA champion.

The division is loaded with talented teams, at least two of which are expecting a title.

The Los Angeles Lakers have made improvements that are sure to overcome the team’s obvious distractions, and if the Lakers can’t get the job done, the Sacramento Kings look ready to make a serious run as well.

The Phoenix Suns are likely to make some noise as well this season with a solid group of players-and don’t forget the infamous Portland Trail Blazers, whose payroll is among the highest in the league.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

After adding future Hall-of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, this Lakers squad is a shoo-in for this year’s NBA title. The biggest problems facing the Lakers involve the distractions of the Kobe Bryant rape case, as well as the severe public dissension between Bryant and teammate Shaquille O’Neal.

The back-and-forth between the two players is nothing new. The two have been warring with each other for years, but the court case could present problems for the team as the season comes to an end.

Even if the Lakers lose Bryant, they are still the only team in the league with four guaranteed future Hall-of Famers, all of whom are still playing at or near their peaks.

Predicted Finish: 66-16

2. Sacramento Kings

The Kings won the bidding war for ex-Indiana center Brad Miller, beefing up the team’s frontcourt, which already includes stars Vlade Divac and Chris Webber.

Problems for this squad include the long duration of Webber’s healing knee (he isn’t expected to play until December) and the need to replace exiting stars such as Marcus Pollard and Hedo Turkoglu.

This team came as close as it’s going to come to winning the big one. By failing to capitalize last year when the Lakers gave them a chance, the Kings now have little chance of beating the Lakers.

Predicted Finish: 60-22

3. Phoenix Suns

This team got more than it bargained for in last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, power forward Amare Stoudamire. The fearless youngster led his team to an unexpected playoff berth and the Suns will look for an even better year this season.

Point guard Stephon Marbury is proving to be an excellent replacement for Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion has established himself as one of the most effective scorers and rebounders in the league.

Predicted Finish: 51-31

4. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers round out the group likely to be seen in the postseason from the Pacific Division. With a payroll as big as ever, the group comes into the season hoping to shed the negative criminal/pothead image the team has developed over the past few seasons.

Rasheed Wallace is one of the best power forwards in the league when he keeps his temper under control, and shooting guard Bonzi Wells can shoot the ball with the best of them.

Predicted Finish: 46-36

5. Golden State Warriors

This team is in trouble after losing its two best players in Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, but the newly acquired Nick Van Exel will be glad to play for a team desperate for offensive production.

Second-year Dukie Mike Dunleavy will make a bid to emerge as a top-flight small forward, but his inability to gain weight could be a problem. Look for shooting guard Jason Richardson to make a huge splash this year with his awesome dunks.

Predicted Finish: 34-48

6. Los Angeles Clippers

The only thing preventing me from picking the Clippers last is sympathy for the troubled team. They lost Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Michael Olowokandi and a few others. They decided to re-sign Corey Maggette (screwing the Jazz in the process) and managed to retain Elton Brand, one of the best young power forwards in the league.

Let’s face it, this team is horrible. If the Jazz hope to get any wins this year, they should start by trying to beat the Clippers.

Predicted Finish: 25-57

7. Seattle SuperSonics

Shooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis come together this season as the only names worth mentioning on this wretched Sonic squad. They will be another team for the Jazz to focus on beating as the group attempts to recover from the loss of the franchise’s greatest player in Gary Payton.

Look for the Sonics to win maybe 20 games. They are not a good NBA team.

Predicted Finish: 19-63

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