10/15/2002 11:00PM

Live-est NBA longshot? New Orleans. But wait.


Locals will get a chance to see some NBA teams up close and personal this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. when the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers take on the Phoenix Suns at the Thomas & Mack Center in an exhibition game.

The Lakers are the overwhelming 6-5 favorite to win the NBA title again, according to odds by Las Vegas Sports Consultants, even though Shaquille O'Neal will start the season on the sidelines with an injured toe. The Lakers were 1-2 in preseason games without O'Neal heading into Thursday night's game versus the Warriors. O'Neal will also miss the Vegas exhibition.

But Kobe Bryant and the rest of the champs will be playing as the Lakers prepare for another season in which every team will be gunning for them. The Suns are a 60-1 outsider to win the title.

The Lakers' main challenge will come from the Sacramento Kings, owned by the Maloof brothers. Joe and Gavin Maloof run the day-to-day operations of the team while brother George handles the family's casino in Las Vegas, the Palms, which is sure to be a post-game hangout for many of the players. The Kings are the 3-1 second choice, followed by two other Western Conference teams, the Mavericks (7-1) and Spurs (10-1). The defending Eastern Conference champion Nets are also 10-1.

With trades and free-agent signings, most teams don't resemble what they were at the close of last season. The most changed team is the Hornets, who have moved from Charlotte to New Orleans. The Hornets made a nice run last year before losing to the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Hornets may be the best value on the board at 18-1, but I wouldn't recommend making any future bets. You are better off waiting until the playoffs and making a parlay with each series price. For instance, if the Hornets make the playoffs they could be approximately -200 in the first round, -150 in the second round against a midlevel team, 2-1 against the Nets or Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and 4-1 or 5-1 vs. the Kings or Lakers in the NBA Finals. A $10 bet on the first series, parlayed each subsequent series, would be worth about $400 if they won it all, more than twice their current 18-1 odds.

The same goes for the Kings. Instead of taking 3-1 now, you can assume you would get more than that in a postseason series parlay (unless the Kings don't face the Lakers).

Unlike horse racing futures, there's no need to tie up your money for eight months if you can reasonably expect to get a much better payoff by waiting. And if your team doesn't make the playoffs, you've saved money.

Bad week for bookmakers

Jay Cohen reported to Nellis Federal Prison in north Las Vegas on Tuesday to start serving a 21-month sentence for illegal bookmaking. Cohen is the founder and former president of the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange (wsex.com), one of the largest offshore operations. In 1998, the U.S. government charged him - and dozens of other offshore operators - with violating the Wire Act by taking bets over the phone and Internet from American citizens.

Most of those charged have stayed in the Caribbean, but Cohen returned to the states to face the charges and clear his name. Cohen argued that the U.S. didn't have jurisdiction because his company is licensed and operating legally in another country. He gambled and lost. He was convicted in February 2000 in a federal court in New York, and then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. His story has been chronicled on the CBS show "60 Minutes" and other news programs. Cohen welcomes letters and visitors through his new website, freejaycohen.com.

* The Nevada Gaming Control Board raided a Las Vegas home Monday and arrested four people on felony bookmaking charges. Sylvia White, 73, and her 22-year-old grandson, Marc Weinstein, were charged with running an illegal sports book, along with Phillip Lorcher, 58, and Brian Foster, 41. The Board says the operation - which consisted of six telephones - took in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bets each week, mostly from Southern California. The Los Angeles Police Department assisted in the investigation. Two more suspects are still at large.

* With the Angels and Giants clinching their World Series berths on Sunday and Monday, respectively, this hasn't been a good week for Las Vegas's legal sports books, either. After the Monday night football game ended, about the only game to bet on in town Tuesday and Wednesday were early season NHL games. The books were able to give employees some much-deserved time off during the busy football season, and some made plans to close early on those nights. Thursday's Georgia Tech-Maryland college football game and Friday's Fresno St.-Boise St. contest were expected to start things for the weekend, with 52 college football board games and the start of the World Series on Saturday, and 14 NFL games on Sunday and Monday.

BC week has strong events

Breeders' Cup week starts off at 9 a.m. Monday with a northern California Day at the Gold Coast. Jockey Jason Lumpkins and trainer Doug O'Neill will have a Q&A session with Las Vegas Sun turf editor Ralph Siraco and will be signing autographs. In addition, there will be a free $1,000 handicapping contest on Calder races 3 and 4 and Delaware races 4 through 6.

* The Pick the Ponies tournament, held Oct. 23-25, at the Las Vegas Hilton has filled its 200-player field. Entries were $400 through Monday's early-bird deadline.

* The Paris hotel will host a huge handicapping seminar next Friday, the night before the Breeders' Cup, in its Concorde Room from 7-9 p.m. On hand will be Ralph Siraco, Richard Eng, Lauren Stich, Brad Free, and me. Phone-in contributions will be made by Steve Crist, Andy Beyer, Mike Watchmaker, Alan Shuback, and jockeys Jerry Bailey and Kent Desormeaux. The program will air locally on KSHP AM-1400 and worldwide on the Internet at drf.com and kshp.com.

* We will list the rest of the Breeders' Cup weekend activities in next Friday's edition, which will also include past performances of all the BC entries.