Once again we turn our attention to the Los Angeles Lakers, not because we like them, but because they are kind of a bid deal in the Western Conference.

I was fortunate enough to have some interaction with Brian Kamenetzky, a man whose name is even more difficult to spell than it looks, from the LA Times Lakers blog. My answers to his questions on topics like how much better the Nuggets need to get on defense and whether the Allen Iverson/Carmelo Anthony combo will deliver any significant wins are posted here.

Jeremy: Lakers fans could not have been more confident entering the playoffs last season. How shocking was not only the fact LA lost to the Celtics, but how badly they were knocked out in game 6?

Brian: The psychology of Game 6 was pretty tough on Lakers fans. It wasn’t simply that LA lost, but got run off the floor from the opening tip. Had they lost that game by 14, but at least stayed in contention for most of the night the reaction would have been different. As a result, I think the sour taste made some forget that overall, the season was a tremendous success and the Lakers played excellent basketball to get where they were. Additionally, it left the perception that the Finals were a crush job throughout. Clearly the Celtics were the better team (I want to make that abundantly clear- I was wrong, wrong, wrong in all my pre-series predictions), but the Lakers certainly had their shots.

The collapse in Game 4 was a bigger killer, in my opinion. If the Lakers hold that lead, it’s probably a seven game series.

Jeremy: What team will be the biggest challenger to the Lakers for supremacy in the Western Conference?

Brian: Two answers here. On paper, it’s hard not to like the Rockets. T-Mac, Yao, Artest, Battier, Landry, Scola, etc. Come playoff time, this group will be ridiculously tough to score against… assuming everyone stays healthy. And that, of course, is a huge assumption. Yao is coming off an injury AND played in the Olympics AND hasn’t played more than 57 games since ’04-’05. McGrady has played 70+ games only once in the last three seasons. Artest played in only 57 games, though lack of interest might have been an issue there.

The odds of them making it through the season unscathed? Pretty low, I’d say. But if they’re all together and working well come playoff time, nobody will want to play them. The interesting thing with Houston is they’re the only Artestination that didn’t necessarily need Ron-Ron for his defense. Instead, he’ll give them a much needed scoring outlet. Go figure.

I’m also a huge fan of the Hornets, and see no reason why they can’t repeat their excellent season of a year ago. Losing Jennaro Pargo will hurt and they don’t have a ton of bench depth, but assuming they stay healthy the combination of Paul, Chandler, West, and Peja will be outstanding. There’s no reason to believe CP3 isn’t still improving, scary as that seems. Utah, assuming Williams is sound, will also be just as tough as they were last year. They took the Lakers to six, and had their openings as well.

I think those are the three best teams outside of LA.

Jeremy: Kobe Bryant left the game Tuesday night with a knee injury. Paint a picture of how this team would fair sans Kobe. With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson still involved are they in the mix for a playoff birth?

Brian: I think they would. Obviously not a top seed, but given their depth, they still have a playoff caliber roster even if Bryant were to miss time. Obviously that would put more pressure on Gasol and Bynum up front, and LO at… wherever Jackson ends up putting him, but these are three very good players, as good a top three as many teams in the W.C. and with their depth they wouldn’t fall off the map. There would definitely be a culture shift, since despite Kobe’s more all-inclusive approach over the last two seasons, he’s still the guy they turn to in a pinch.

Two other reasons I think they’d still be playoff caliber: Ball movement and rebounding. With Gasol and Bynum up front, LA’s glass issues ought to be corrected, and when you put in Odom it becomes that much more difficult to get a board. Beyond that, almost every member of the rotation passes the ball well, so they’ll still be able to generate quality looks at the basket. Gasol, Bynum, Odom, and Chris Mihm are all good-to-excellent passers, Jordan Farmar looks like he’s grown by leaps and bounds over the summer, Fish is Fish, Luke Walton moves the rock, and so on.

That sort of ball distribution will come in handy should Kobe miss time. That said, if he were to miss the playoffs, they’d be hard pressed to advance very far.

Jeremy: Here is a completely hypothetical situation for you. The Lakers are third in the west five games behind Utah and New Orleans at the All-Star break do they call the Nuggets about making a deal for Allen Iverson to put them over the top? Would the Lakers have any interest in AI as an unrestricted free agent next offseason?

Brian: No, and no. He’s not a good fit with how they run the offense. To integrate him at the deadline would do more damage than it would bring relief. As for the offseason, the Lakers are so far over the luxury tax threshold already that a signing like Iverson just won’t work. They’ll have enough trouble fitting role players like Trevor Ariza into the ’09-’10 salary structure.

I’m a huge Iverson fan, but he’s a terrible fit with LA.

Note from Jeremy: That is what I was afraid of.

Jeremy: Nuggets fans have followed the trials and tribulations Kobe Karl has gone through the eyes of his father and regardless what some of them think about his dad as coach, I think everyone is pulling for Kobe to make a name for himself in the NBA. Do you see him as eventually becoming a rotation player or is he destined to be an end of the bench or international player?

Brian: Hard to say. He played much better tonight (Thursday) against Charlotte, which probably had something to do with the fact that the Lakers had cut the roster down to 15, including second round pick Joe Crawford, seen as the primary competition for the last spot. Jackson said that another cut could be coming, but with Sasha Vujacic nursing a tender ankle, they wanted to keep Karl around for his shooting ability.

He could make the team, he could still get cut.

Long term, I think he’ll be able to carve out a career, but it’s hard to say how long or how prosperous. It depends a great deal on how deadeye a shooter he becomes. He’s got good length and a great work ethic, but if he doesn’t knock down jumpers from outside, he won’t stick. Stability will help Karl for sure. It’s hard to play under control when you think every missed shot might land you on the street.

I don’t think he’ll ever be a star, but with some maturity and growth, Karl could be a rotation guy. The Lakers like him, and patience with a shooter who struggled to shoot paid off when Vujacic finally blew up last season.

Jeremy: Aside from the potential battle for the top seed amongst the Lakers, Jazz and Hornets I think the most interesting battle in the west will be between Denver and Portland. Do you believe Portland is going to surpass the Nuggets this season?

Not trying to rain on the parade, but I’m not sure Denver is the 9th best team in the conference. They probably should be, given the talent level on the roster, but I’m pretty down on the Nuggets. There’s such an incredible lack of discipline on both ends of the floor. They’ll have to improve defensively (sorry John Hollinger, the Nuggets weren’t good there last year), which means health and reliability from Nene and K-Mart, and a little more dedication around the perimeter.

I know there are people in Denver who felt Camby was an overrated defender, but even if that’s true I can’t believe losing him will improve the Nuggets in that area, and losing Najera won’t help, either, though Balkman was a nice pickup.

On nights when they’re on, the Nuggets will make teams, even good ones, look bad. Unfortunately, they’ll look terrible nearly as often. I don’t think the Nuggets are a playoff team this season.

Thank you Brian for the insight. Make sure you check out the LA Times Lakers Blog as Brian and his brother Andrew do a great job covering the Lakers as well as the NBA as a whole.