The Western Conference has been the NBA's traveling carny troupe for years, and that's just how it is. You couldn't have invented a better and more volatile mix than the Zen Master, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, both in terms of real talent and exaggerated ego. There wasn't a more apt foil than the star-crossed Sacramento Kings of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac. San Antonio was the cool, almost professionally detached operator, Dallas a sort of continuously unstable chemical element, capable of exploding at any moment. And Portland -- forget about it. Just erect a big top over the franchise and be done with it.
Of course, that was then. In the here and now well, happily, not all that much has changed. The West is still loaded with character, or at least with characters. The casts have changed, some for the better and some for the worse, but I can think of at least 10 reasons why the 2005-06 season out here on the other side of the Mississippi once again will produce its grand share of amusing theater.
Well, there's Phil: And just in time to prevent the Lakers from committing the worst sin listed in the Jerry Buss Guidebook to Successful Franchising: Losing and being boring. What Phil Jackson was thinking in taking a year off from coaching, while arguably at his peak and at a point where he might see ahead the last NBA job he'd ever take, is still anybody's guess. (Right: He wrote a book.) But Jackson's return to coach Bryant is absolutely one of the feel-weird stories of the coming season: Two egos that have at times proved almost utterly incompatible, now relying upon each other as they try to a) reinstate Bryant as an NBA force, b) remind people of Jackson's essential talent in his chosen profession and c) jack L.A. somewhere north of .500, just for grins and giggles.
Bryant and Jackson either make hit music together or declare a media war upon one another by Christmas. This just in for the average NBA follower: You can't really lose.
The Spurs, in general: It's such a great idea to have the NBA champion come from your conference -- it gives everybody else in the West something either to shoot for or to attempt to shoot down. And San Antonio plays the role so perfectly, with an almost bloodless approach to winning. The real benefit to having the Spurs in the conversation so often over the past couple of years has been getting to see the volcanic side of coach Gregg Popovich and the documented mortality of Tim Duncan (unbelievably horrible free-throw shooting that seems to bear no relation whatsoever to the rest of his game, which is brilliant). When you threw in Eva Longoria making postseason appearances in the stands in support of beau Tony Parker, and the offseason addition of Fabricio Oberto, well, you're just about all the way there.
Houston getting Swift-er: It's hard to know exactly what Stromile Swift is going to bring to the table for the Rockets, in part because it's hard to know exactly anything connected to anyone who played a significant role in the bizarro-world season the Memphis Grizzlies experienced last go-round. But Swift sure made an interesting directional decision: The Rockets, with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming already aboard and Jeff Van Gundy doing the coaching, and now Swift coming along to do his stuff, are suddenly one of the great curiosities in the conference. Houston's success still might depend upon how Yao continues (or fails) to grow into the leadership role the whole world seems to want to foist on him at center -- but there's absolutely nothing about the whole Rockets experiment that looks dull. Good stuff.
The Kings go nuts: Or, in the alternative, pull another couple of fast ones. The last time Sacramento czar Geoff Petrie helped vault the franchise into competitive relevance, it was through a series of moves that were genuinely controversial at the time: Webber didn't want to come to the Kings, and draft pick Jason Williams had been booted off his University of Florida team for repeatedly smoking pot.
But Webber and Williams teamed with Divac to form the holy triumvirate that heralded the team's arrival as an actual conversation piece, and the winning soon followed. Now Petrie is banking a new success on a crabby patty like Bonzi Wells, who essentially has worn out his welcome in both Portland and Memphis, and veteran Shareef Abdur-Rahim, whose move to New Jersey washed out because of knee questions -- and who has never played on a good NBA team, much less a playoff entry. Wells is in a salary-drive year and Abdur-Rahim is simply sick of losing. Put 'em together with Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller, and Petrie has his latest combustible mix to hand to even-keeled coach Rick Adelman.
Mark Cuban still owns the Mavs: 'Nuff said.
The Warriors don't stink: At least, that's the popular thinking. With Chris Mullin calling the shots and former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery doing the X-and-O thing, Golden State came dangerously close last season to getting back into the thick of things in the West -- no mean feat when you consider that Phoenix and Seattle also seemed to come out of nowhere to grab newsprint in the same campaign. Now Mullin's gambling that the Baron Davis experiment can work long term, the W's have decided that scoring is a lot more fun than not scoring, and Oakland once again is becoming a place where other NBA teams aren't sure they want to stop. For the right reasons.
Nate McMillan goes to Hell: It's really Portland. People just tell McMillan it's Hell. This is the kind of thing that keeps the Western Conference so interesting: McMillan leads a stunning revival of the pro game up in Seattle, takes his team into the second round of the playoffs, works enough magic with the roster given him that even a veteran such as Ray Allen eventually decides to re-sign with the Sonics, thinking he can have money and success -- then bolts the whole thing, feeling unappreciated and unloved. Instead, McMillan will take his coaching act to the place where NBA hopes lately have gone to die. Macabre fun.
Donald Sterling still owns the Clips: 'Nuff said.
The Suns can't possibly do that again: But if they do, it'll mark the continuation of one of the most impressive franchise turns in recent memory. Phoenix essentially got meatier and maybe not as quick this summer (say goodbye, Joe Johnson), and it's a great open question as to how that will affect the style the Suns really love to play. The bet here: As long as Steve Nash is running the show and Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion feel like going along, putting points on the board won't really stack up as a huge problem -- and the Suns will have fans all across the NBA, the people like me who'd take a 122-114 final score over pretty much anything else being offered up by the slowpokes in both conferences.
Greg Ostertag went back to Utah: Which means he is reunited with coach Jerry Sloan. Which means that Sloan once again has a favorite practice-session whipping boy and, maybe, favorite human being all in one. Ostertag is big, he's slow and he's country. He is also one of the league's funniest and warmest people, whose skills (shot-blocking and rebounding, along with six fouls per 48 minutes) were almost completely wasted last year in Sacramento. He might even help Sloan, assuming he doesn't drive the man over a cliff first. But once again: compulsively watchable either way. In the Western Conference of the season to come, that fits just about perfectly.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at email@example.com