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Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011


Western Conference up for grabs in compact 66-game season

LOS ANGELES — Before we see what's cookin' in the Spaghetti Western Conference (eight projected playoff teams, in no particular order), it has come to my attention Kim Jong Un isn't quite the NBA freak as publicized. On the other hand, a North Korean source (David Petraeus wishes he had my contacts) reveals he was a big fan of the lockout.

Lakers: "We almost have to be perfect this season," Kobe Bryant said Wednesday night at dinner. "There's little margin for error." His damaged right wrist that supposedly can't get worse with game use/abuse the team medical staff maintains (famous last words), cut that margin. This could get unsightly and unfriendly real fast.

Lamar Odom was donated to the defending champs without receiving so much as a squeaky working part in exchange. There's a conspicuous nonexistence of a bouncy, brainy orchestrator, like, say Chris Paul or Chauncey Billups, to stage-manage Mike Brown's revamped offense (as opposed to clear-it-out-and-let-LeBron-go-one-on-one) and stay in front of dribbling machines.

Andrew Bynum is suspended for the first four games and operates on 25-year-old, four-time surgically repaired knees. Pau Gasol is in a flamin' funk in the wake of nearly being extradited to Houston after contributing decidedly to two titles and three Finals forays in four seasons. And World Peace is finding it Mettaphysically impossible even to shoot as well as Ron Artest did.

It sure looks like management is more interested in decreasing luxury tax debt — saving $17.8 million this season in Odom's case — than winning it all this season, Kobe lamented.

"Hopefully, management knows what it's doing and will provide us with our missing pieces. Hey, I'm just a player. I have no input concerning anything that happens here. In fact, I learned we'd hired our coach from reading it online. . .

"I've never known what's going on. That's why I went public (May 2007) and demanded a trade. When it became obvious to me that management wasn't trying to compete for a championship I felt my only recourse was to embarrass (owner Jerry Buss) into doing it;" hence the hijacking of Gasol from Memphis.

So, how do you think your team is going to do? I asked.

"No, we're going to be perfect," Bryant said. "I have a good feeling about how things are going to turn out."

Clippers: Life has become practically mediocre since I've begun shamelessly selling Personal Seat Licenses on my Paper Clip bandwagon. What's not to swoon over? Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Billups, Caron Butler and a troupe of well-trained supporting actors. Sources say Vinny Del Negro had better get off to a good start; Donald Sterling is poised to bring back Mike Dunleavy . . . and actually pay him this time.

"I'm not concerned about them," Bryant said. "They're tiny."

Mavericks: Most disrespected team coming off a championship ever. Making perfunctory effort (one-year offers) to re-sign Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and (non-contributor-due-to-injury) Butler has a lot to do with it. Owner Mark Cuban recovered splendidly by shoplifting Odom and enlisting Vince Carter and Delonte West. But it's hard to imagine Dirk Nowitzki coming out of this more than a one-Heat wonder with purely a downcast of scorers.

Thunder: Everyone's chic selection to lift Larry O'Brien's hardware. Have made requisite steps deeper into postseason. Being younger, deeper, together longer and more athletic than just about any other outpost is not a detriment in Uncle David's Mad Dash.

Popular opinion advocates Celtics made unspeakable deal giving up Kendrick Perkins. An insider claims a hard-core center isn't all that popular with the coaching staff. Toughness and a block or two doesn't compensate for inferior rebounding and inability to finish a layup.

Russell Westbrook needs to become more of a point, learn to balance the floor and not force his shot. It also wouldn't be a bad idea if he learned how to play off the ball when James Harden is dockside. A freak athlete, Westbrook would be a force in the occupied area. If Serge Ibaka keeps improving, OKC will be tough to beat four times in a seven-game series.

Spurs: I'm guessing matching last season's 61 wins is a crack-pipe dream — even with those AARP discounts. How do they replace George Hill and Antonio McDyess?

Aging star Tim Duncan spent the off-season in San Antonio working out twice a day. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili represented France and Argentina and led their national teams to qualifying berths in the 2012 Olympics.

Grizzlies: Rudy Gay may be the team's superior sharpshooter, but they established a nasty defensive attitude after he got hurt, in large part traced to Shane Battier, Darrell Arthur, Sam Young and Tony Allen. Duplicating those 46 wins and advancing to the second round is not an encore I envision.

The Heat-seeking Battier is gone. Arthur's ruptured right Achilles deactivated him for the season. And a Memphis source divulges the self-absorbed Allen has become unbearable to coach and be around.

Nuggets: As we get further removed from the Carmelo Caper and George Karl's health issues, they become a tougher out. Nene and Aaron Afflalo re-upped. Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson are next in line to get overpaid. And then there's the matter of the Chinese takeout once free agents Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler return to the United States.

Timberwolves: Positioned to take a giant step for (David) ManKahn. The GM added Derrick Williams, Barea, Ricky Rubio, Brad Miller and coach Rick Adelman.

"Rubio is going to benefit playing and learning from Luke Ridnour. Just ask Brandon Jennings how that worked," column contributor Ricky St. Jean accentuates.

Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.

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