NBA Preview: Pacific Division

Thu, 10/16/2008 - 1:19pm

By Jon Pastuszek

(Teams listed in projected order of finish)


Kobe Bryant
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Head Coach: Phil Jackson
2007-2008 Record: 57-25 (Lost in NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics)
Key Additions: Sun Yue (Draft), Josh Powell (FA from LA Clippers)
Key Losses: Ronny Turiaf (FA to Golden State)

What a difference a year makes. Prior to the 2007-2008 season, the Lakers were a daily soap opera, a team engulfed in distractions over Kobe Bryant trade rumors.

The Kobe rumors eventually fizzled, and once they were free from the media frenzy surrounding them, the team settled into a nice groove.

Then, on February 1st, 2008, the Lakers make an acquisition that would upset the NBA balance of power forever. Los Angeles transformed themselves into a Western Conference juggernaut by acquiring center Pau Gasol from Memphis in exchange for Javaris Crittenton and a $50 gift certificate to Ross. The move not only turned the Lakers into a perennial contender, it also triggered a flurry of other big deals among opposing Western Conference teams who were panicking to keep up.

After the Gasol heist, the Lakers piled up wins en route to the best record in the West. Kobe Bryant was handed a lifetime achievement award by voters, winning his first MVP, and the Lakers dominated every opponent they faced in the Western Conference playoffs before finding themselves in the NBA Finals, where they eventually lost to the Celtics.

The Finals loss to the Celtics still stings, but they can take pride in knowing that A: they lost to the better team, and B: they will be back even better in 2008-2009.

There are many reasons to like the Lakers’ title chances this season. First and foremost, is Kobe Bryant. Mamba is arguably the NBA’s best overall player as well as it’s most tenacious. The bitter taste of defeat in last year’s NBA Finals should make for an even more motivated and focused Kobe, which is good news if you’re a Laker fan, and horrible news if you’re not. With another great season, it’s not a stretch to think Kobe could wrap up another MVP award.

Pau Gasol is another great reason to like the Lakers. Gasol gives the Lakers a legitimate big-man to throw the ball into. He enjoyed great success playing as Robin to Kobe’s Batman last season and with a full training camp under his belt, Gasol should become even more comfortable and effective as he plays more and more with Kobe and the rest of this talented Lakers team.

There are other good players besides Kobe and Pau, too. This team is deep. Just how deep, you ask? There’s talk of Lamar Odom coming off the bench to play the role of 6th man. Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Vladamir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar and Trevor Ariza make up “The Bench Mob,” and all are versatile, capable role-players with experience in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.

And oh yeah, there’s that Bynum kid. After suffering a season ending knee injury, Andrew says he’s at 100 percent and will be completely healthy for the new season. A healthy Bynum will be a welcomed addition, as he should provide rebounding, defense and size to a Laker team that is desperate for toughness. When he’s finally paired up with Pau Gasol on the blocks, the Lakers are expected to have one of the best frontlines in the world.

However, there is cause for slight concern. Kobe Bryant, aged 30, is coming off a summer in where he got no rest as a member of the Redeem Team in Beijing, and is still nursing a torn ligament in his pinky finger. Bryant, who has played the most minutes out of anybody in the league the last five seasons, will be once again be expected to log a high volume of minutes as the Lakers will be fending off one great Western Conference team after another as they try to lock up homecourt for the playoffs. Gasol, who played for Spain in the Olympics, also did not rest and may be fighting off fatigue as the season wears on.

Lamar Odom has also expressed discontent at possibly coming off the bench, which may prove to be a distraction. If Odom becomes a malcontent and/or plays inconsistently, expect the Lakers move the versatile forward in a midseason deal.

For the Purple and Gold, these mild apprehensions are greatly outnumbered by all of the tremendous positives, making the Lakers the prohibitive favorite to come out of the West again in June. Anything less than the Larry O’Brien trophy will be considered failure.

Top Rookie: Sun Yue, China: Sun brings his lanky 6’7 frame, his slick handle and his sweet outside shot from the Middle Kingdom into Lakerland to hopefully add to LA’s prolific stock of perimeter shooters, and to attract the large Chinese market towards buying Laker apparel. Sorry, did I say Lakerland? I meant D-Fenderland. Sun will likely spend most of the year in the D-League eating a lot of food to bulk up and refining his point-guard skills, which are not NBA ready at this point. Down the line, Sun is a somewhat intriguing prospect due to his size at the point-guard position and his handle, so keep an eye on his development if you are a Laker fan.

Bold Prediction: Andrew Bynum’s long anticipated return doesn’t go as smoothly as some are anticipating.

The tremendous pre-season hype around Bynum perplexes me. In three full seasons, he’s played around 30 games of consistently solid basketball. Though he improved greatly last year, Bynum is still pretty unpolished, especially at the offensive end. Any thoughts of him dominating the paint are too brash at this point. Furthermore, Andrew hasn’t played with the squad post-Pau Gasol – in addition to getting his conditioning back, he’s going to have to get acclimated to his new teammate and I’m sure it’s going to take a while for the two to get used to one another on the court. And if you’re going to crown Bynum as the player who solves all the Lakers’ toughness issues, consider this: Kendrick Perkins, the center that is likely to see Bynum in June, simply manhandled the youngster in both of their regular season meetings, rendering him mostly ineffective. Bynum will only make this team better, but just realize that it will be a gradual process.

Projected Finish: 58-24 (1st in West)

2. Phoenix Suns
Head Coach: Terry Porter
2007-2008 Record: 55-27 (Lost in 1st Round to the San Antonio Spurs)
Key Additions: Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic (Draft), Matt Barnes (signed from Golden State)
Key Losses: Gordan Giricek (via free agency)

Phoenix Suns, I no longer know you. You used to be a good pal, somebody I could trust to always show me a good time when I came to visit. When you weren’t running and gunning on national TV, I’d flip over to you on League Pass to see what you were up to. We didn’t have to worry about the serious stuff in life, like defense or rebounding. No, all we were about was the fun stuff like scoring, dunking, passing, shooting and fast-breaking.

I felt like I knew everybody on the squad. Me and Steve Nash were homies. Shawn Marion and I would kick it all the time together. In addition to watching your games, I even read Jack McAllum’s Seven Seconds or Less, a book which chronicled the 2005-2006 season and provided more insight into what you guys were all about.

Then, new GM Steve Kerr changed everything. He traded the Matrix for Shaq. He fired Mike D’Antoni. He brought in Terry Porter. He started preaching concepts like “half-court sets” and “defensive foundations.” Now, people are saying things are going to be different, that this isn’t going to be the Suns of yesteryear.

What we know for sure is this: This is going to be a vastly different Suns team from the “Seven Seconds or Less” team from years past. Are the Suns still going to be a 55+ win team? That is unclear.

Regardless of any change in philosophy, the Suns still have some constants that should make them a threat in the West. They still have Steve Nash, who continues to defy a bad back and age by putting up spectacular numbers every season. He’s slipped slightly, but Nash is still one of the top point guards in the league and there is not a player who fits in with the Suns personnel better than him.

One of the things I felt did not receive enough attention last season was Amare Stoudemire’s conversion from an athletically superior dunking machine to a complete offensive basketball player. Sometime in between January and Febuary, Amare Stoudemire became truly unguardable. He developed range out to 18 feet, and perfected his stroke from the charity stripe. In the final three months of the regular season, Amare produced eye popping statistics: 28.4 ppg on 58.5% from the field and 86% from the free throw line. If Stoudemire can repeat those kinds of numbers for a full season, he will easily be in the discussion for MVP and the Suns will still be a dangerous team.

Although Nash and STAT will be playing at an All-NBA level, the overall makeup of this team is extremely worrying.

Though Kerr talks a good game about playing defense and adding depth, the same inherent problems that have cost the Suns in the past still exist. Most importantly, the Suns brass was unable to acquire an able backup point-guard to take pressure of the 36 year old Nash. With a nagging back that has troubled him in recent seasons, you’d think that the Suns would have been looking to get a true point-guard to spell him. Instead, they’ll once again be putting too much pressure on the again Nash to bring his A-game every time he steps onto the court.

And it’s not just Nash, either. Age amongst key players may be the Suns biggest obstacle this season. The Suns are begging to set. Shaq (37), Nash (36), Grant Hill (36) and Raja Bell (32), four players expected to log big minutes, are all past their primes. Shaq, Nash and Hill are all players that have been susceptible to injuries the past season and all three are bound to be out for a period of time this year.

If only the Suns were deep enough to cover these eventual injuries… For all the talk of adding depth, Kerr has yet to really do that. The free-agent addition of Matt Barnes from Golden State puts the Suns’ rotation at eight. If Porter is to play a deeper lineup, he will have to call on rookies Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic, who are both obviously unproven.

In addition to these roster problems, the Suns will also be dealing with a new coach and a new system. Both Porter and Kerr believe a slower-paced offense must take a backseat to defense, which will be the team’s new emphasis.

Offensively, a slowed down Suns may be effective. Porter would be silly to keep Nash entangled in a highly organized offensive system, and I expect Nash to have the freedom to probe and penetrate whenever he sees fit. The Big Cactus, despite all of his flaws, should be able to spread the court and pick out cutters for layups and spotters for threes. The Suns won’t be scoring 110+ a night, but they’ll still be in triple digits consistently.

Defensively is another story, however. The desire to play better defense is present, but is there anybody who can actually defend? Nobody on the Suns is noted for their defensive ability or focus. The one guy who could lock down on the perimeter, Shawn Marion, is playing ball in Miami. For all of the flak the Matrix took, he was an elite perimeter defender who could guard anybody from Tony Parker to Dirk Nowitzki. The lack of individual defenders is worrisome and will hinder Phoenix from becoming an upper-tier defensive squad.

The Suns will be fighting off age, injury and a lack of depth, all while employing a new offensive philosophy and learning a new defensive system. It’s just too much to ask from one team. The Suns won’t be playing the same brand of ball from yesteryear, nor will they be enjoying the same success. Most sunsets are beautiful to watch. Not this one. I already miss the old days.

Top Rookie: Robin Lopez
Shaq has already gone on the record as saying Robin is a top-15 center, comparing him to the Wizards’ Brendan Haywood. Not sure if we’re buying that yet, Big Diesel, but the Suns are hoping that the 16th overall pick out of Stanford can bring energy, defense and rebounding to an otherwise thin Phoenix frontline. Seeing that Lopez thrives on hustle plays, it’s not too unimaginable to see Robin’s crazy hair flopping around for an impactful 20-25 minutes a game. An effective Lopez would be a welcomed addition to an otherwise thin Suns squad.

Bold Prediction(s):
Robin Lopez will lose two hair brushes this season/Matt Barnes will quickly make fans forget about Grant Hill.

Steve Kerr was real smart to pick up Barnes, a handy swingman who has a great motor and can hit from the outside. Barnes struggled from downtown last year, but once he gets into the Nash Zone, expect his percentages to improve. When Hill eventually injures himself, Suns fans will be able to rest easy knowing that Barnes will be able to step in and play meaningful minutes.

Projected Finish: 49-33 (7th in the Western Conference)

3. Golden State Warriors
Head Coach: Don Nelson
2007-2008 Record: 48-34 (9th in Western Conference)
Key Additions: Anthony Randolph (Draft), Corey Maggette (FA from LA Clippers), Ronny Turiaf (FA From LA Lakers), Marcus Williams (trade with Nets)
Key Losses: Baron Davis (signed with LA Lakers), Mickael Pietrus (signed with Magic), Matt Barnes (signed with Suns)

Perhaps no other NBA team went through more this offseason than the Golden State Warriors.

First, the Warriors’ emotional leader and fan favorite, Baron Davis, shocked everybody when he suddenly opted out of his deal and signed a max deal shortly after with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Shortly after, in response to the Clippers signing Davis to too many years at too many dollars, the Warriors then inked Clippers’ brittle, but talented small forward, Correy Maggete, for a lucrative five-year deal.

With B-Diddy going Hollywood, GM Chris Mullin decided to go forward with the Monta Ellis era, and re-upped the Mississippi youngster to a big long-term deal. In investing their future in the Mississippi youngster, the squad effectively announced that they had handed Ellis the keys to the Warriors offense, making him the centerpiece of their up-tempo, chaotic, rats-in-the-maze attack.

Ellis then took those keys, put them into a motorbike and went for a joyride to celebrate his new role and his new contract. Ellis ended up crashing his ride, tearing a ligament in his ankle and as a result will be in street clothes for at least three months. The situation got even more strange, as Ellis first lied about the nature of the injury before coming clean. As a punishment for his dishonesty, Mullin suspended him 30 games and fined him $3 million. Head coach Don Nelson publicly expressed his displeasure at the suspension, suggesting that there may be a rift between the two.

Before the injury to Ellis, this was a team I was growing more and more excited about.

Though Golden State threw entirely too much money at the guy, Corey Maggette, when healthy, should be an offensive force in Nelson’s frenetic offensive system with his ability to get to the rack and the free-throw line. Stephen Jackson will be in the Warriors’ opening night lineup. The addition of Ronny Turiaf, who will be backing up Andrins Biedrins, gives the Warriors two legitimate centers for the first time in a while, and also slides Al Harrington, a guy who often played center in Nellie’s small ball lineups, permanently over to the four, his natural (and best) position. And Ellis, before injuring himself, was bound to take the next step into NBA superstardom by stepping in to fill Baron Davis’ old shoes.

Now, with Ellis and his 20/5/4 on 53% shooting out for at least 30 games, the pressure is on two untested point-guards, Marcus Williams and C.J. Watson, to carry the load in his absence. Williams is a player who had lofty expectations in New Jersey, but failed miserably in living up to them, and C.J. Watson is a former D-Leaguer who played decently last year and may enjoy a nice career as a backup. Neither player has ever logged starter’s minutes at the point. The pressure will be on these two untested players to keep the Warriors afloat until Ellis comes back.

The Warriors have the talent to succeed. But, in the ultra competitive Western Conference, a slow start will be fatal for any playoff hopes. With no proven point guard to replace Ellis, the Warriors may be resigned to the same fate they enjoyed last season: looking inside the bubble in ninth place and out of the playoffs.

Top Rookie: Anthony Randolph (LSU)
Like Wright, Randolph is very long and athletic, but must gain weight and work on refining his game if he is to see significant minutes. The Warriors frontline is pretty set with Biedrins, Harrington, Turiaf and Wright. Nelson has been quoted saying that Randolph has the edge over Wright for the backup PF spot, but I think its more of a ploy to get Wright playing harder and better. Randoplh could see time at the SF position and even be employed as a point forward, but Randolph will rarely see extended minutes.

Bold Prediction: The loss of Ellis for 30 games (or more) will cost the Warriors a playoff shot.

This season will be a tale of two teams for Golden State. Without Ellis, the Warriors are going to struggle mightily under the direction of Marcus Williams and C.J. Watson at point. With so much talent in the West, the Warriors will begin sink further down towards the bottom of the standings. When Ellis comes back, however, the Warriors will be instantly transformed into the team they were supposed to be: fast, exciting and offensively unstoppable. With a potential starting lineup of Ellis, Jackson, Maggette, Harrington and Biedrins, the Warriors will have five players all capable of scoring in bunches. And with a bench that goes pretty deep, Nellie will still be able to employ his dangerous small ball lineups. At full strength, the Warriors will recover from a poor start to put up a good fight for the 8th seed.

Projected Finish: 41-41 (9th in the Western Conference)

4. Los Angeles Clippers
Head Coach: Mike Dunleavy
2007-2008 Record: 23-59 (12th in the Western Conference)
Key Additions: Eric Gordon (Draft), Baron Davis (FA from Golden State), Marcus Camby (Traded from Denver)
Key Losses: Elton Brand (FA to Philadelphia), Corey Maggette (FA to Golden State), Shaun Livingston (FA to Miami)

That other team in Los Angeles, the Clippers, made two major roster moves and a major front office move in the offseason in order to make a playoff thrust.

The free-agent signing period could not have started any better for the Clips. The temptation of coming home to play in front of an LA crowd proved to be too much for Baron Davis, and he opted out of his deal with Golden State to sign with the Clippers. With All-Star free-agent Elton Brand expected to re-sign with the team, Clippers fans were excited about a Davis-Brand-Kaman trio.

However, all of the Clippers plans quickly blew up in their face. Elton Brand surprised everybody by bolting for Philly. Another Clipper free-agent, Corey Maggette signed elsewhere, opting to take the quick flight up Oakland to ink with the Warriors.

To try to fill the void of Brand, the Clippers traded for former defensive player of the year, Marcus Camby.

LA also ended the Elgin Baylor era, firing the GM after 22 years of service. Head coach Mike Dunleavy will take over GM duties for now. During his reign as president of basketball operations, Baylor compiled one of the worst overall records in professional sports. Baylor is one of the best players of all time and a total class act, as well. He just couldn’t run a basketball organization, especially with a penny pinching owner.

On paper, this is a potentially interesting team. Davis is a great talent who is one of the most explosive scoring point-men in the league when he’s healthy. The trade for Marcus Camby came at almost no cost from a talent perspective, as the Clippers lost no players of impact in their deal. His defense and rebounding will be a nice addition to the Clips frontline. Chris Kaman is coming off a career year in which he saw career highs in points, rebounds, blocks and assists. Though all three have a history of injuries (between them, they combine for two full played 82-game seasons.)

One could do worse than the trio of Davis, Camby and Kaman, but even assuming they stay healthy, the Clips have serious issues at every other position, especially on the wings. After a decent rookie campaign in which he showed flashes of ability, Al Thornton is the best candidate to be the first option on the wing, but after him, LA’s options get less appealing. Cuttino Mobley is 33 years old and had dropped off considerably in recent seasons. Rookie Eric Gordon has a ton of potential, but he will probably need a year to bulk up. Ricky Davis has never been on a good team and there’s a reason for that: he doesn’t want to play defense, nor does he want to play sound, team ball. It’s troubling that the Clippers are relying on him.

In the end, the Clippers are relying heavily on three injury-prone players to carry them into the playoffs. There’s almost no supporting cast to speak of and in the Western Conference, the Clippers will be hard pressed to make the playoffs.

Top Rookie: Eric Gordon (Indiana)
Thus, Gordon will most likely be getting acquainted with the bench and it would be unrealistic to expect anything major from the 19 year-old combo-guard. Gordon had a very up and down year at Indiana last season. He set the country on fire with his incredible play through the first half of the season, and was projected to be a top 3 pick in the draft. Then, IU was rocked by scandal and dismissed head coach Kelvin Sampson midseason. Perhaps due to the events at the school, or his wrist injury, Gordon slumped horribly the last half of the year. In the final 10 games, he shot 16% from three and 36% from the field. Concerns about his consistency and his size caused him to slip to the 7th spot, where the Clippers gobbled him up happily. At 6'3 Gordon possess mind-boggling quickness and explosiveness, which he uses to either destroy his defender off the bounce or to pull up and hit from the outside. The Clippers will be pining for talented wing players, and if Gordon could supply some scoring, it would help this team out immensely. He has been very impressive thus far in preseason games.

Bold Prediction(s): Eric Gordon ends up better than OJ Mayo in the long run/B-Diddy stays healthy and puts up a huge season.

Davis reportedly showed up to camp 20 pounds lighter, which will make his knees happy. By the end of the year, Davis and his big frame broke down at the stretch run. B-Diddy is at his absolute best when he’s at his quickest, and the lost weight should help him in that department and it should put him in a better position to finish the season strong. Davis understands that he must carry the offensive load for this team, and I expect him to have a spectacular year in his hometown of Los Angeles.

Projected Finish: 39-43(11th in the Western Conference)

5. Sacramento Kings
Head Coach: Reggie Theus
2007-2008 Record: 38-44 (11th in Western Conference)
Key Additions: Jason Thompson (Draft), Bobby Jackson (Traded from Houston)
Key Losses: Ron Artest (Traded to Houston), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (Retirement)

Despite injuries to key players Kevin Martin, Mike Bibby, Ron Artest, Brad Miller and Beno Udrih, the Sacramento Kings quietly finished slightly under .500 mark in 06-07. Even after moving Mike Bibby in a deadline deal, the Kings improved to post a winning record in their last 50 games of the year.

New head coach Reggie Theus got the most a limited roster. John Salmons and Beno Udrih both came out of nowhere to have career years, and the rest of the team played hard for the former New Mexico State head coach throughout the year.

This year, however, is going to be vastly different from last year. Sacramento clearly indicated that they were going to enter a rebuilding period by trading Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets for Bobby Jackson, Donte Green and a 2009 first-round pick. Artest was their most physical presence, a player who could guard the opposition’s best player while also proving a good source of scoring.

With no Ron-Ron, the Kings biggest problem will putting the ball in the hoop. In the frontcourt, while Brad Miller is a solid third-option, Spencer Hawes is still too young and too raw to be expected to make an impact. D-League success story Mikki Moore is more of an energy/hustle type player who struggles to create his own offense and Shelden Williams just stinks. If anybody is going to emerge as a truly viable scorer, look for rookie Jason Thompson to do so, who is impressing his coaches with his style of play.

The Kings’ backcourt suffers from the same problem as its frontcourt – maybe there’s a nice role-player or two, but nobody that is capable of getting their own shot. Francisco Garcia is a solid shooter, but is rather one dimensional. Beno Udrih had a good year considering he was picked up right at the start of last season, but due to his propensity to turn the ball over, he would be best used off the bench. Salmons is another player who had a solid year, but he should regress since defenses will be keying on him instead of Artest.

The one bright spot is shooting guard Kevin Martin, one of the most efficient and unheralded players in the league. Without Artest and Bibby jacking up shots, Martin will finally be the focal point of the Kings offense. Martin has improved his game every single year he’s been in the league and I feel he’ll be even better as he gets more opportunities to shoot.

With Artest gone, the Kings offense should at least be bricking their way to losses as one team. His departure will make this team less dependent on isolations and one-on-ones. Besides Salmons, every player on this team thrives through passing and cutting, and in that sense, the Kings should be a more fluid team to watch.

This will be a tough year for the Kings. Sacramento is an organization in transition, and this year the squad will take some lumps as it adjusts to being a team completely centered on Kevin Martin. The team is bound to regress from a rather flukey 38 win season as it moves forward with its rebuilding period.

Top Rookie: Jason Thompson (Rider)
GM Geoff Petrie messed up everybody’s mock draft by selecting Rider forward Jason Thompson with the 12th overall pick. Seen as a late first rounder by most, Thompson was viewed as a bit of a reach. However, he’s looking like a future star during preseason and in camp, and look for him to prove to be an excellent pick when all's said and done. At 6-11 and 250 pounds, Thompson has ideal size for the power forward position and with a full four years of college ball under his belt, he should be able to step in and play right away, especially when one considers the Kings’ lack of good frontcourt players.

Bold Prediction: Sacramento won't be the loudest arena in basketball this year.

The NBA is a players league, not a coaches league. Just ask noted control freaks Scott Skiles and Avery Johnson, who were both fired after their players tuned their incessant yelling out. Theus has picked up a reputation of an inflexible, controlling coach who gets in his players’ faces regularly. So controlling in fact, that the guy instituted a curfew for his team while on the road. Last year, his motivational tactics succeeded to the tune of 38 wins. This year, however, the Kings are in full rebuilding mode and are going to be lucky to win anything near that tally. If the Kings flop out of the gate, expect his players to grow publicly frustrated with his rigid coaching methods.

Projected Finish: 25-57 (12th in Western Conference)

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