Western Conference Pacific Division
I still haven’t gotten used to seeing “Pacific Division” and not have it relate to the Blazers. But whatever. Last week we looked at the loaded Southwest division; this week we turn our attention to the Pacific. It’s a very top-heavy division, but one that carries with it several question marks. The class of the division is clearly Phoenix, and the Clippers are a playoff-caliber team as well. The remaining three teams all have big question marks: Lakers, Warriors, and Kings. You could put those last three in any order and you wouldn’t get much argument around the league. Sacramento was good last year, but lost its starting 2-guard. Golden State has always had that magical “P” word – potential – and may finally have a coach that can fulfill some of it. And of course the Lakers. They have the best player in the NBA, but not much else. On to the details!
1. Phoenix Suns
Starters: Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, Kurt Thomas
Bench: Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Marcus Banks, Sean Marks, Pat Burke, James Jones, Eric Piatkowski
“The Stoudamire Conundrum” is what we call this one. Phoenix is clearly among the league’s most talented teams once again, and though they don’t quite have the depth of last season, they may yet be improved. We all know they’re the NBA’s highest scoring team, we all know Steve Nash has won two consecutive MVP’s, we all know they can shoot the rock. The question is, what will a full season of a healthy Amare do to this squad? Personally, I expect his impact to affect the team’s defense much more than its offense. They’ll still put up a ton of points, but with his interior defense he’ll be a big step in the right direction for them. They’ll also have a full season of a healthy Kurt Thomas, a very underrated center. I expect the Suns to challenge the Mavs for the #1 playoff spot in the West, and let’s hope we can watch those two powerhouses duke it out in the Western Conference Finals again.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Starters: Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman
Bench: Shaun Livingston, Tim Thomas, Aaron Williams, James Singleton, Quinton Ross, Zeljko Rebraca
Looking at a team like the Clippers makes me realize just how powerful the Western Conference is (and just how far Portland has to go). The Clippers are no better than the fourth or fifth best team in the West, but yet they’ve got everything you want in a basketball team: a leader PG who can penetrate and knock down shots, a do-everything small forward, a PF who can take over a game and dominate the post, and a big center who can defend, rebound, and score. They’ve also got impressive depth, with stud-in-waiting Shaun Livingston, big-man shooter Tim Thomas, as well as Williams and Ross. Replacing Radmanovic with Thomas this offseason is essentially a wash. I still maintain that LA has the third-best starting 5 in the NBA (behind Phoenix and Dallas), and if they can indeed land a top-4 seed, they could do some real damage in the playoffs. They were good last year, and Maggette and Livingston should be around for an entire season this year. How would you like to be the Spurs and staring a seven-game series with the Clippers in the face come second round of the playoffs? I sure wouldn’t.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Starters: Smush Parker, Kobe Bryant, Vladmir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown
Bench: Sasha Vujacic, Aaron McKie, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm, Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum
Ah, the hated Lakers. I can’t believe I’m putting a team with Smush Parker as its starting point guard and virtually no bench to finish third place in their division. But them’s the brakes. With Kobe Bryant around, anything is possible. I expect the Lakers to do similar things to what they did last year: hang around .500 for most of the season and end up fighting for one of the last three playoff spots. (If you consider that SA, Phx, Dal, Clips, and Denver are virtual locks and essentially the “big 5” in the West, that leaves three spots). Signing Radmanovic will be a nice addition for them – and although they overpaid, he can shoot the ball and will help open up a bit of space for Kobe and Lamar to do their things. Assuming that Brown can give them similar production to what he did last year, they’ll be a decent-but-not-great team again this year.
4. Golden State Warriors
Starters: Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Michael Pietrus, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy
Bench: Ike Diogu, Adonal Foyle, Dajuan Wagner, Keith McLeod, Andris Biedrins, Zarko Cabarkapa, Patrick O’Bryant
What a bizarre team to try and figure out. They’ve got a ton of talent on the team – both old (Davis, Murphy, Richardson) and young (Dunleavy, Pietrus, Diogu, O’Bryant). The talent is undeniable, but so are the holes in this team. They can’t shoot threes, and take WAY too many of them. They can’t get consistency out of Dunleavy or Diogu or Pietrus. They didn’t do a whole lot to improve the on-court personnel this offseason, essentially dumping Derek Fisher’s contract for a bunch of spare parts. But they did go out and add Don Nelson as their head coach. Now my blog partner here doesn’t buy that he’ll be good for much, but I can tell you from watching this team first-hand: he’ll remove the 5 wins that former coach Mike Montgomery cost them and add five more of his own. Upgrading to Nelson is in itself a 10-game improvement, and I think you’ll see a big part of that improvement come from Golden State’s 7-14 record in games decided by 3 points or less. Like the Lakers, Golden State will likely middle around or just below .500 for most of the season and end up duking it out for one of those last playoff spots.
5. Sacramento Kings
Starters: Mike Bibby, Kevin Martin, Ron Artest, Kenny Thomas, Brad Miller
Bench: Francisco Garcia, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vitaly Potapenko, John Salmons, Jason Hart, Loren Woods, Mo Taylor, Corliss Williamson
I look at this roster and I see mediocrity, from top to bottom. The Kings – so lauded for their depth in seasons past – have sadly become a bunch of spare parts. Mike Bibby is a decent point guard, but he tries to do too much at times and doesn’t have enough support to help during his off nights. Ron Artest is violently talented but crazy beyond belief. Brad Miller, Kenny Thomas, and Shareef’s skills are all diminishing before our eyes. The Kings do have some nice young parts in Martin and Garcia, but I truly expect Sacramento to take a major step back this year, and don’t be surprised if you see Bibby’s name get floated around the trade deadline.
Projected Order Of Finish:
2. LA Clippers
3. LA Lakers
4. Golden State
Next up: Northwest Division.