A look at the NBA Western Conference teams as they head into the 2004-05 season, in predicted order of finish by division:
Last season: 58-24, eliminated 4-2 in Western Conference finals by Los Angeles Lakers.
Coach: Flip Saunders, 10th season, 386-300.
Added: F Eddie Griffin (free agent, Nets), G Anthony Carter (free agent, Spurs).
Lost: F Gary Trent (free agent, Chicago).
Better or worse?: How 'bout exactly the same? Very little changed for the Wolves in the offseason, except the moods of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell going south because of their lack of contract extensions. Wally Szczerbiak is once again the subject of trade speculation, but Minnesota would miss his outside shooting unless it's replaced in any such deal. The backcourt is aging quickly, and center Michael Olowokandi has provided little. They're the popular preseason pick to make it to the conference finals, mostly because of reigning MVP Kevin Garnett's dominance. But will they improve as much as they did a year ago? Don't count on it.
Last season: 42-40, missed playoffs.
Coach: Jerry Sloan, 20th season, 917-561.
Added: F Carlos Boozer (free agent, Cavaliers), F Mehmet Okur (free agent, Pistons), F Kris Humphries (draft, No. 14, Minnesota), G Kirk Snyder (draft, No. 16, Nevada).
Lost: C Greg Ostertag (free agent, Kings), F Michael Ruffin (free agent, Washington), F Tom Gugliotta (free agent, Boston), G Maurice Williams (free agent, Milwaukee), G Sasha Pavlovic (expansion selection, Charlotte).
Better or worse?: Made two major upgrades along the front line, getting a young inside-outside threat in Okur to replace Ostertag, and an Olympian in Boozer who will become the franchise's next stalwart at power forward. Point guard Raul Lopez remains hampered by knee injuries, but Carlos Arroyo isn't all that shabby. The return of Matt Harpring from an injury will help immensely, too.
Last season: 43-39, eliminated 4-1 by Minnesota in first round.
Coach: Jeff Bzdelik, third season, 60-104.
Added: F Kenyon Martin (trade with Nets), G Greg Buckner (free agent, 76ers), G DerMarr Johnson (free agent, Knicks), F Bryon Russell (free agent, Lakers).
Lost: C Michael Doleac (free agent, Miami), F Chris Andersen (free agent, New Orleans), G Jon Barry (free agent, Atlanta), F Ryan Bowen (free agent, Houston).
Better or worse?: Adding Martin without having to trade away Nene or Marcus Camby gave the Nuggets one of the deeper front lines in the West, but Martin still has to justify his maximum contract without having the benefit of Jason Kidd feeding him countless alley-oop opportunities as he did in New Jersey. Shooting guard is the weakest link, and Bzdelik is a lame duck entering the final season of his contract.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last season: 41-41, missed playoffs.
Coach: Maurice Cheeks, fourth season, 140-106.
Added: G Nick Van Exel (trade with Warriors), G Richie Frahm (free agent, Bobcats), G Sebastian Telfair (draft, No. 13, Lincoln (N.Y.) H.S.), C Joel Przybilla (free agent, Hawks).
Lost: C Dale Davis, G Dan Dickau (traded to Golden State), G Eddie Gill (traded to New Jersey).
Better or worse?: Weren't able to find a taker for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who has been unhappy with Portland ever since arriving along with Theo Ratliff last February in a midseason trade. There aren't enough minutes to keep both Van Exel and Damon Stoudamire happy at point guard. Look for a big shakeup by midseason if the Blazers start poorly, with everyone expendable.
Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.
Coach: Nate McMillan, fifth season, 160-153.
Added: C Robert Swift (draft, No. 12, Bakersfield (Calif.) HS), G Ibrahim Kutluay (free agent, Ulker Istanbul, Turkey), F Danny Fortson (trade with Mavericks).
Lost: G Brent Barry (free agent, San Antonio), C Calvin Booth (traded to Dallas), G Richie Frahm (expansion selection, Charlotte), F Ansu Sesay (free agent, Golden State).
Better or worse?: Made a more lucrative offer than San Antonio did to keep Barry, but he left anyway to join a winner. Will the same thing happen to Ray Allen, who is entering the final season of his contract? And will Vladimir Radmanovic continue to play out of position at power forward, ceding his natural position to Rashard Lewis? Franchise has been treading water for six years and counting.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 57-25, eliminated 4-2 by Lakers in conference semifinals.
Coach: Gregg Popovich, ninth season, 396-210.
Added: G Brent Barry (free agent, SuperSonics), F Linton Johnson (free agent, Bulls), C Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje (free agent, Trail Blazers), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, Kings), G Beno Udrih (draft, No. 28, Briel Milano).
Lost: G Ron Mercer (free agent, New Jersey), F Hedo Turkoglu (free agent, Orlando), C Kevin Willis (free agent, Atlanta), G Jason Hart (free agent, Charlotte), G Charlie Ward (free agent, Houston).
Better or worse?: A huge problem last season was the lack of a consistent outside shooter to take the heat off Tim Duncan on the inside, and the Spurs couldn't have found a much better one than Barry, whose .452 accuracy rate was the league's second best. Putting Barry alongside Tony Parker, Duncan, Radoslav Nesterovic and Manu Ginobili gives San Antonio a strong core that should win the West and advance to the NBA Finals.
Last season: 45-37, eliminated 4-1 by Lakers in first round of playoffs.
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy, second season with Rockets, ninth season overall, 293-209.
Added: G Tracy McGrady, F Juwan Howard, G Tyronn Lue, G Reece Gaines (trade with Orlando), C Dikembe Mutombo (trade with Bulls), G Bob Sura (free agent, Hawks), F Ryan Bowen (free agent, Nuggets), G Charlie Ward (free agent, Spurs).
Lost: G Steve Francis, G Cuttino Mobley, F Kelvin Cato (traded to Orlando), G Eric Piatkowski, G Mike Wilks, F Adrian Griffin (traded to Chicago).
Better or worse?: That'll depend on McGrady, who will be pushed by Van Gundy to be a better defender and to defer at times on offense to Yao Ming. The third-year center from China still lacks toughness and consistency. One of the "glue guys" who will be a key to their success is Jim Jackson, among the league's most underrated players.
Last season: 52-30, eliminated 4-1 by Sacramento in first round.
Coach: Don Nelson, eighth season with Mavs, 297-229; 27th season overall, 1,148-858.
Added: G Jason Terry, F Alan Henderson (trade with Hawks), G Jerry Stackhouse (trade with Wizards), C Erick Dampier, G Dan Dickau (trade with Warriors), C Calvin Booth (trade with Sonics), G Devin Harris (draft, No. 5, Wisconsin), G Avery Johnson (free agent, Warriors).
Lost: G Steve Nash (free agent, Phoenix), F Antawn Jamison (traded to Washington), F Antonio Walker, G Tony Delk (traded to Atlanta), F Danny Fortson (traded to Seattle), C Eduardo Najera (traded to Golden State), G Travis Best (free agent, New Jersey), F Scott Williams (free agent, Cleveland).
Better or worse?: Dampier provides something the Mavericks have been lacking for years, a legitimate low-post threat -- and he comes at a time when the Western Conference has been depleted of the game's most dominant big man. Michael Finley will be asked to reassume some of the scoring load that dropped off for him the past two seasons, and the presence of Dampier means opposing defenses will not be able to key on Dirk Nowitzki as much as they did in the past. It remains to be seen whether Terry can adequately replace Nash.
Last season: 50-32, eliminated 4-0 by Spurs in first round.
Coach: Hubie Brown, third season with Grizzlies, 78-78; 13th season overall, 419-488.
Added: F Brian Cardinal (free agent, Warriors).
Lost: F Theron Smith (expansion selection, Charlotte).
Better or worse?: In an improved conference, it'll be difficult for the Grizzlies to sneak up on people as they did last season. Cardinal is a gritty addition to a front line that already includes Pau Gasol, but team president Jerry West again was unsuccessful in his quest to bring in a powerful center. Mike Miller's days in Memphis could be numbered if he doesn't produce quickly. Will Shane Battier do anything to justify West's faith in him?
New Orleans Hornets
Last season: 41-41, eliminated 4-3 by Miami in first round.
Coach: Byron Scott, first season with Hornets; fifth season overall, 149-139.
Added: G J.R. Smith (draft, No. 18, St. Benedict's (N.J.) Prep), F Chris Andersen (free agent, Nuggets), F Rodney Rogers (free agent, Nets), F Lee Nailon (free agent, Cavaliers), F Tremaine Fowlkes (free agent, Pistons), F Britton Johnsen (free agent, Magic).
Lost: F Jamal Mashburn (injured), G Courtney Alexander (free agent, Sacramento), G Steve Smith (free agent, Charlotte), F Stacey Augmon (free agent, Orlando), F Robert Traylor (free agent, Cleveland).
Better or worse?: Thanks to realignment and Mashburn's season-long absence with a knee injury, the Hornets should take a precipitous fall now that they've moved to the deeper Western Conference. Smith has looked impressive in the preseason, and he might even make David Wesley expendable. Baron Davis has calmed down after requesting a trade in the offseason.
Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 56-26, lost 4-1 to Detroit Pistons in NBA Finals.
Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich, first season with Lakers, 13th season overall, 503-397.
Added: F Lamar Odom, F Caron Butler, F Brian Grant (trade with Heat), G Chucky Atkins, C Chris Mihm, F Jumaine Jones (trade with Celtics), C Vlade Divac (free agent, Kings), G Sasha Vujacic (draft, No. 27, Snaidero Udine, Italy).
Lost: C Shaquille O'Neal (traded to Miami), G Gary Payton (traded to Boston), F Rick Fox (retired), F Karl Malone (free agent), F Bryon Russell (free agent, Denver), C Jamal Sampson (expansion selection, Charlotte), G Derek Fisher (free agent, Golden State).
Better or worse?: That's the million dollar question following the breakup of the league's marquee team, through the trade of O'Neal and the departure of coach Phil Jackson to clear the way for the re-signing of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers acquired quite a bit of talent in the O'Neal trade, and the addition of Tomjanovich means an end to the triangle offense that so cramped Bryant's style over the past five years. Size is an issue unless Malone decides to return after his knee heals from offseason surgery.
Last season: 55-27, eliminated 4-3 by Minnesota in second round.
Coach: Rich Adelman, seventh season with Kings, 296-136; 15th season overall, 658-411.
Added: C Greg Ostertag (free agent, Jazz), G Courtney Alexander (free agent, Hornets), G Kevin Martin (draft, No. 26, Western Carolina).
Lost: C Vlade Divac (free agent, L.A. Lakers), F Gerald Wallace (expansion selection, Charlotte), G Rodney Buford (free agent, New Jersey), G Anthony Peeler (free agent, Washington), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, San Antonio).
Better or worse?: Actually, they were worse from the moment Chris Webber returned from a knee injury last season: Brad Miller went to the bench and the team lost half of its final 24 games. Peja Stojakovic asked for a trade in the offseason, and Sacramento reportedly shopped Webber without finding any takers. Miller can move back into the middle as the starting center now that Divac is gone, but how much does shooting guard Doug Christie have left? This seems to be a franchise whose window of opportunity is quickly closing.
Last season: 29-53, missed playoffs.
Coach: Mike D'Antoni, second season with Suns, 21-40; third season overall, 35-76.
Added: G Steve Nash (free agent, Mavericks), G Quentin Richardson (free agent, Clippers), C Steven Hunter (free agent, Cavaliers).
Lost: F Antonio McDyess (free agent, Detroit), C Jahidi White (expansion selection, Charlotte), F Donnell Harvey (free agent, Atlanta).
Better or worse?: Significantly upgraded their backcourt with two signings of Richardson and Nash, but didn't add much height to a squad whose quickness is its strength. Rumors have swirled for months that the Suns would trade Marion for a big man to play alongside Amare Stoudemire. Plenty of teams would be eager to acquire Marion, a strong defender and all-around offensive threat, but there's a better chance that Joe Johnson gets traded first.
Golden State Warriors
Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.
Coach: Mike Montgomery, first season.
Added: C Dale Davis (trade with Trail Blazers), C Eduardo Najera (trade with Mavericks), G Derek Fisher (free agent, Lakers), G Brandon Armstrong (free agent, Nets), G Ansu Sesay (free agent, Sonics), F Andris Biedrins (draft, No. 11, Skonto Riga, Latvia).
Lost: C Erick Dampier, C Evan Eschmeyer, G Dan Dickau (traded to Dallas), G Nick Van Exel (traded to Portland), F Brian Cardinal (free agent, Memphis), G Avery Johnson (free agent, Dallas).
Better or worse?: Hard to see any improvement coming from a team that dealt away two of its top three scorers and received very, very little in return. Jason Richardson has developed into a top-level talent among the league's shooting guards, but there's little else to get excited about here.
Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 28-54, missed playoffs.
Coach: Mike Dunleavy, second season with Clippers; 12th season overall, 426-444.
Added: G Kerry Kittles (trade with Nets), G Shaun Livingston (draft, No. 4, Peoria (Ill.) Central HS), C Zeljko Rebraca (free agent, Hawks).
Lost: G Quentin Richardson (free agent, Phoenix), G Eddie House, F Melvin Ely (traded to Charlotte), C Predrag Drobnjak (expansion selection, Charlotte), G Keyon Dooling (free agent, Miami).
Better or worse?: Kittles and Richardson are somewhat interchangeable parts, but a knee problem has sidelined Kittles throughout the preseason. A franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 1993 has zero chance of ending that streak.