Greetings! We’re back with the second installment of our NBA Preview series, and today, we’ll take on the Pacific division. In case you missed it, be sure to check out part 1, covering the Northwest division, but without further ado, let’s get it going!
- Los Angeles Clippers (53-29) - Despite the (faint) chance that Chris Paul would leave LA and potentially take his talents elsewhere, the best point guard in the league resides with the Clippers, and that’s where we begin. Paul will engineer what could be one of the best offenses in the league this season, as the Clips were busy in the off-season. JJ Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired to be the presumptive starters on the wing, and each guy will be improved by working with paul. I’m frankly in the tank for both guys (each would rank on my “favorites” list), and both are capable shooters (Redick being elite) who do a ton of things well, and you could do much worse as your wing combination. Up front, Blake Griffin is the focus, as the still-young big man seemed to take a step back last year (18 ppg, 8 rpg down from 21 ppg, 11 rpg in 2011-12), but they’ll desperately need him in order to join the uber-elite in the West. I think Griffin is a better player than he displayed last season, but there are still several holes in his game ranging from a mediocre jump shot to mostly below-average defensive play. Speaking of holes, Deandre Jordan is the biggest one in the starting 5 for LA, and he’s one of the players in the league with the most ability to raise or lower a team’s performance. The Clippers have virtually nothing in the way of center depth, and Jordan will be needed on the defensive end if nothing else. New head coach Doc Rivers will be tasked with how to deploy Griffin and Jordan in late-game spots, since neither can shoot free throws, and that’s why they are paying him significant dollars. On the bench, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Darren Collison anchor a solid crew, but they’ll need something out of Byron Mullens and/or Ryan Hollins in order to compete in the long-term.
- Golden State Warriors (49-33) – I think I’m lower on Golden State than most, but they are absolutely loaded heading into the year. You’ll be hearing the phrase “if all goes well…” a lot in the case of the Warriors, and it’s true that if everything goes as planned, 49 wins will look like a wildly wrong prediction. Steph Curry made “the leap” during the 2nd half of last season, and he’s the best shooter in the NBA today. However, it would be irresponsible to forget that Curry played a total of 26 games due to ankle issues in 2011-2012, and that will continue to be a part of his makeup until he proves otherwise in the long-term. On the wing, Golden State’s cupboard is full, as they headed an elite defender (Andre Iguodala) to a cast of characters that already included Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. It’s unclear how the rotation will shake out, but not many teams have a wing trio as talented as that of the Warriors, and that’s a plus. Up front, David Lee returns as one of the most offensively dynamic bigs in the league (he’s a ghastly defender, but still) and he’ll be joined by Andrew Bogut at center. Here’s where the “if’s” come into play. Bogut has appeared in a total of 44 games over the past 2 seasons due to injury ailments, and he’s earned a reputation as an injury-prone guy. With that said, Bogut is one of the league’s best defenders when he’s right, and in theory, he’d be a tremendous compliment to a guy like David Lee. On the bench, the Warriors are a bit weak after whoever Mark Jackson decides to leave there from the Iguodala/Thompson/Barnes combo, as guys like Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Toney Douglas, and Marreese Speights will see extended time. Golden State is one of the most talented teams in the league, and if they get full (or close to full) seasons from Curry and Bogut, they’ll be in the hunt for homecourt advantage.
- Los Angeles Lakers (38-44) – This is such an odd roster/situation that it’s hard to even attempt to break it down. At the top, there is still discernible talent, and it would be impossible/irresponsible to bury a team that features Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and a (reasonably) healthy Steve Nash. However, the question marks arrive very quickly. Kobe is famously attempting a comeback from a torn achilles, and there seems to be no definite timetable for his return. Some believe that the “Mamba” will be his old self from the moment he sets foot on an NBA floor, but I’m more skeptical that any explosiveness will be on display. With that, however, there’s a certain baseline for Kobe, and I can’t imagine him being less than a semi-dynamic scorer capable of carrying an offense at times. Gasol is healthy for the first time in a while, and with Dwight Howard out of the way, I’d expect a monster free agent season from the big man. I would hope that Mike D’Antoni (who is, somehow, still the LA coach) has learned how to feature Gasol in a way that suits his game, and if he’s done that, he’ll be back to the 20-10 force he’s always been. After that, the talent dip is severe and far-reaching. Nash, at 39 years old, is a question mark, and he was frankly a disaster at times last year. He can still create and shoot, but they can’t run everything through him at this stage (especially when Kobe is healthy), and the options aren’t there to distribute to. The other 2 starters are up in the air, but it’ll likely be some combination of Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill, and Jodie Meeks. Good luck with that! Young could be a useful player in some places because of his talent to create his own shot, but the fit with Kobe is very, very odd, and the big man combo of Kaman and Hill leaves a lot to be desired. The fact that I’m alotting 38 wins to this team is a testament to my belief in Kobe and Gasol, but things could get off the rails in a hurry if either of them is gone for extended stretches.
- Sacramento Kings (30-52) – The Kings are the Kings. There is talent in Sacramento, with Demarcus Cousins anchoring the team inside and guys like lottery pick Ben McLemore on the perimeter. However, the roster construction is, again, weird (at best), and they’ve already lost “glue guy” Carl Landry for 3-4 months as a result of a torn hip flexor. The backcourt is a logjam, with Greivis Vasquez coming over from New Orleans, McLemore emerging from the draft, and the Marcus Thornton/Isaiah Thomas duo returning. I’d have to imagine that Vasquez will get minutes based on the price paid for him, and he’s a dynamic offensive player (top-3 in the NBA in assists last season) with good size at the position. However, none of these guys (yes, none of them) can defend at even an average level, and that is an issue. At the forward spots, John Salmons (yikes) is the only scorer of consequence, and the power forward spot is, again, jammed up with 3 different players. Patrick Patterson, Jason Thompson, and Chuck Hayes all have individual positives, but none is a certain starter (Thompson has the highest upside) and I’m unsure how they will all be deployed. That brings us to Cousins, who has already been “credited” with two head coach firings, and he’s fresh off of a contract extension. The big man from Kentucky is one of the most talented centers in the league, but he’s a bad defender (still) and unless his head is on straight, good luck. All in all, this is a talented but misguided roster. If everything goes right, this could be a 35-to-40 win team, but if Cousins goes sideways and the guard rotation struggles, it could be ugly.
- Phoenix Suns (19-63) *Edited after Gortat trade – Put Phoenix firmly in the category of “tanking” teams. The Suns are without a “focal point” on their roster, and Phoenix doesn’t have anything resembling a top-5o player to work with. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe form an interesting guard combination, as both guys are of the “combo” variety, while Dragic is an offensive force coupled with Bledsoe’s defensive prowess. I’m skeptical of how they’ll work together, but in theory, it’s a partnership that could be okay. However, the wing is an adulterated mess for Phoenix, as PJ Tucker, Shannon Brown, Gerald Green, and Archie Goodwin (in some combination) will be getting the call. I’m actually high on Tucker as a role player, but there’s no definite scoring punch here, and that’s a concern.
Up front, I’m a big, big fan of Marcin Gortat’s game. The big man has had injury issues, though, and he’s never topped 66 games in a season as a “regular” in the league.Behind him, Phoenix has the Morris twins (uninspiring) and a recovering-from-surgery Alex Len (the team’s lottery pick), but none of those players are NBA-ready as anything but a fringe contributor. The Suns are my pick for the worst team in the Western Conference, and their roster tells you all that you need to know about that.
Check back with us for part 3, when we bring you all the details on the Southwest division. Stay tuned for what’s to come!