Story to watch: Andrew Bynum was the Lakers' rising-star center before knee surgery cut his 2007-08 at 35 games. Pau Gasol was the power forward acquired from Memphis for tip money, initially to play alongside Bynum and then to replace him once it became a season-ending injury. Now they're together at last, one needing a spot on the post to develop and one needing the post to be most effective. If Gasol and Bynum can coexist, L.A. will have dominant inside play to go with the perimeter dominance of Kobe Bryant. If not, the Lakers will have an issue to work through -- and everyone chasing them in the West will have new hope.
Player to watch: Shaquille O'Neal. The great equalizer. In his first full season with the Suns, he'll be taxed by the longer practices of new coach Terry Porter compared to Mike D'Antoni and his workouts that went like speed reading, but helped that Porter won't push the nonstop running game. If Shaq holds up, he can still be a difference maker. Not the crushing force of yesteryear, but a difference maker. He is realistic that the numbers will not glow compared to his history -- the 13.6 points and 9.1 rebounds last season in 61 games with Miami and Phoenix is a reasonable expectation -- but also that he can still contribute as a factor on a championship-level team. Fair enough. An O'Neal who can still inspire fear in opponents plus Steve Nash plus Amare Stoudemire plus experience at most other spots means the Suns can still be a factor.
Coach to watch: Porter. That was no ordinary change in Phoenix. The Suns wanted a change of philosophy, from D'Antoni to someone who would teach, you know, defense. And so there will be an extra spotlight in a setting where attention would have come anyway. Winning team, popular predecessor, controversial move. Porter gets a high-risk, high-reward situation.
Newcomer to watch: Baron Davis. The Clippers invested $65 million over five years for a moody point guard who has managed to play 70 games once in the last six seasons. This will be good. Either Davis will push them to the playoffs with emotion and performance, just as he sparked the Warriors of 2007, or they'll go down in flames together, the team that made the risky signing and the player who jumped from a proven match with Golden State to the bottomless hole of Clippers dreams. Neither outcome would be a surprise.
Rookie to watch: Anthony Randolph. A lot of teams love him, just not right now, but the Warriors are considering skipping the whole project phase and using him in situations as a 6-foot-10 point forward. Maybe he'll grow up to be a power forward some day, if he gets past 210 pounds. At either position, he's got a lot of skill and athleticism and, mostly, potential. For now, he either becomes part of the solution, perhaps even as a ballhandler with Davis gone to L.A. and Monta Ellis out with an ankle injury, or the latest prospect Don Nelson falls in love with in the summer and needs binoculars to find at the end of the bench come the regular season.
By the numbers: The Clippers lost their leading scorer (Corey Maggette) and best rebounder (Elton Brand) to free agency and traded their assist leader (Brevin Knight). ... Kevin Martin averaged 23.7 points a game last season, the highest output for the Kings since Peja Stojakovic (24.2) in 2003-04. ... Nelson needs 53 victories to pass Lenny Wilkens and become the winningest coach in history. ... Bryant's scoring average has decreased each of the last three seasons -- all the way to 28.3, second-best in the league. ... Steve Nash of the Suns averaged 11.1 assists in 2007-08 while turning 34 just before the All-Star break.
Predicted order of finish (with 2007-08 record):
- Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)
- Phoenix Suns (55-27)
- Los Angeles Clippers (23-59)
- Golden State Warriors (48-34)
- Sacramento Kings (38-44)