Monday, February 18, 2008

The NBA’s Western Conference has morphed into an unforgiving alliance.

You can tell by the high-profile comings and goings and the also-rans on a 50-win pace.

The latter would be the Warriors, Nuggets and Rockets.

One of the teams would be dispatched to the lottery if the playoffs commenced today.

Even the strong are feeling insecure now that Pau Gasol going to the Lakers has disturbed the balance of power in the conference.

The Lakers can point to reaching the NBA Finals with conviction, so long as the boo-boo on Kobe Bryant’s right pinky is not terminal, Andrew Bynum heals sufficiently and the Zen Master remembers how to get inside the head of the opposition and the referees in a tight playoff series.

With the acquisition of Gasol, Bryant has resigned as the de-facto general manager of the Lakers and renewed his quest to spend the rest of his career in Los Angeles.

Mitch Kupchak also has restored his good name.

He was the one who sent two-time All-Star Caron Butler to the Wizards in exchange for the dead man who is Kwame Brown.

The trade was considered a good one for the Wizards at the time it was made. It soon developed into a heist of colossal proportions.

Now Kupchak can contend that the loss of Butler resulted in the addition of Gasol, with the dead man who is Brown being the link between the two.

Gasol is a 20-10 robot ideally suited in temperament to serve as Bryant’s caddy. He needs neither a lot of touches of the ball nor isolation sets to inflict his damage on the opposition.

The move allows the Lakers to be in the championship hunt the next couple of seasons, even if the Spurs are able to deny them, the Suns and Mavericks this season. Gasol is 27 years old, Bynum 20, and Bryant — although 29 — is showing no signs of slippage.

The Spurs remain the championship favorites, even if they are graying around the temples and on an understated 55-win pace. The latter is partly because of injuries and the need of an older team to treat the 82-game schedule with a certain body-preserving detachment.

It may not come down to the Spurs and Lakers in the conference if Shaquille O’Neal keeps his promise to the Suns.

O’Neal, who turns 36 next month, is hardly the imposing force he once was. Yet the Suns do not need him to be that person. They merely need O’Neal to be healthy and a vague approximation of his former self.

The reloading of the Lakers and Suns is encouraging Mark Cuban to keep his phone lines open to the Nets.

Jason Kidd was all set to return to the team of his youth before Devean George exercised his right to stay put in Dallas.

The two teams have until Thursday to complete the deal, either with George’s help or with a redone package.

As appealing as Kidd is to the Mavericks, the exchange only works if he delivers a championship to Dallas this season or next.

The Mavericks would have to part with the youth of Devin Harris for a point guard who turns 35 next month, is shooting a career-low 36.6 percent and is no longer able to stay in front of the quicker dribble-penetration players around the NBA.

The lure of a short-term benefit is what motivated the Suns to act on O’Neal. It is driving Cuban in the Kidd talks now.

The securing of the previously dominant player inevitably ends badly, as it did with O’Neal in Miami and is happening with Ben Wallace in Chicago.

At least Pat Riley and the Heat earned a championship ring with O’Neal in 2006 to ease their misery now.

Two or three seasons from now, when the Lakers are still among the conference elite with their core, the Suns, Mavericks and Spurs will be well into their free-fall mode.

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