NBA Preview: Pacific Division
Predicted Pacific Division Rankings and predicted win range
C Kurt Thomas/Boris Diaw/Amare Stoudemire
PF Boris Diaw/Amare Stoudemire/Shawn Marion
SF Shawn Marion/James Jones/Eric Piatkowski
How can a team which dealt both of its draft picks for cash (fleeing the luxury tax) improve without making a major signing? Answer: The return of Amare Stoudemire. While I would hate to count my chickens before they hatch, Amare may potentially make the difference between the Suns being solely a regular season team as we’ve seen in years previous, or contending for their first ever NBA Championship. He played in a few summer league games and did appear to have kept some of his explosiveness which we saw from his first few seasons pummelling poor stiffs like Michael Olowokandi, and also worked out some with the likes of Elton Brand, Dwight Howard, Brad Miller and perennial All-Star team-mate Shawn Marion as Coach Mike D’Antoni kept him close at hand, taking him along for the two weeks of training camp for the US team. Couple that with the increased focus on shooting that he put himself through and you’d think “Damn, he’s gonna be a monster now that he’s back!” Thing you have to realise though is that this is still a players knees we’re talking about here and the ‘micro’ which comes before ‘fracture’ still doesn’t have me forgetting that it’s a fracture nonetheless. I could make a list of promising players whose form never recovered from knee injuries but I think Suns fans have cried enough… He did however come out and average 9ppg, 5.4rpg and 0.7 blocks whilst shooting at a .500 clip in his seven pre-season games, playing 21.3 minutes per over the 7. Make of that what you will. Fortunately for the Suns the presence of Amare doesn’t really make a difference to their playoff hopes and the personnel now know for certain they can play, no thrive, without him. This means there’s no use rushing him back whatsoever and all in the team know it.
Another positive to have come out of the off-season is the nice signing of Marcus Banks as a back-up point guard. The Suns have had trouble for years in finding the perfect back-up to run the show for when their transition orientated star point guards needed pine-time, in fact a fair case could be made for Steve Nash to be the last quality back-up they had, way back in ’98. Leandro Barbosa is a nice enough player and will produce, showing off a good stroke from outside last year (finishing third with .444 in 3Pt%) but there have been constant doubts on his ability to keep control of the offense in Steve Nash’s absence. Banks is another pg with a pair of quality jet-packed legs on him, he’s also somewhat of a defensive stopper. Veteran Eric Piatkowski was also signed to add another dangerous shooter to the Suns perimeter, we should see him playing both the 2 and 3 roles at times this year. At bare minimum he’ll push James Jones (who had a poor shooting year despite finishing with a misleading career best 9.3ppg.
Overall the clock is ticking, there has already been talk in years previous that they would look to deal Shawn Marion. Now is the time for the Suns to strike or risk having the team dismantled in a financial-based rebuild.
· Ease Stoudemire back
· Bench production, particularly at point guard but also in general (D’Antoni went with 6 man rosters far too often in the playoffs, others must prove they belong out there)
Los Angeles Clippers
C Chris Kaman/Zeljko Rebraca/Aaron Williams/Paul Davis
PF Elton Brand/Tim Thomas/James Singleton/Aaron Williams
SF Corey Maggette/Tim Thomas/Quentin Ross
It’s only right to follow the Suns with the team which took them to 7 games to get to that Conference Final. After 2 years of solid improvement the Clippers have gone from the NBA’s running gag to one of the best teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers have a pretty solid mix of everything you could measure a team by, they’ve become a versatile squad who can mix it with anyone in any style. Speed? Yep. Size? Yep. Youth to build for the future? Yeah, they got it. Experienced vets to show ‘em how it’s done? Yep. In fact they’ve built such an impressive base that its not just one guy who’s going to be carrying this show. Elton Brand, who has undoubtedly been the MVP of the team every year since he arrived will be joined with Corey Maggette who is looking to have a quality year after the last injury ridden season. Add in Chris Kaman, who has improved astronomically and is still only just going into his fourth season, back-court leader Sam Cassell and stalwart Cuttino Mobley and you have a seriously solid starting 5.
That’s before you look to the bench with a Shaun Livingston who’s brimming with potential, a defensive dynamo with a sweet stroke in Quentin Ross and a revitalised Tim Thomas (albeit by Steve Nash who seemingly makes EVERYONE play better). Quality talent in your top 8. Rounded out by bangers/hustlers in Aaron Williams and James Singleton, the Clips are a versatile team who can take it to anyone on their day. Also coming back, should be Zeljko Rebraca, who last year had problems with an irregular heart beat. This year expect fans and opponents alike to have moments where their hearts stop, because the Clips are nobody’s doormats anymore.
- Sam Cassell isn’t getting any younger. Look for Livingston to improve more dramatically, as he gets given more opportunities first in preparation, and possibly further down the track, by necessity.
- Corey Maggette. Playoffs saw him as a sixth man, Dunleavy likes what Maggette can provide in that role, but that was after he missed 50 games. Will he be comfortable to play that role again?
- How versatile are these Clips? 5th in the league in FG% and 4th in the league in FG% against.
C Brad Miller/Loren Woods/Vitaly Potapenko
PF Shareef Abdur-Rahim/Kenny Thomas/Corliss Williamson
SF Ron Artest/Francisco Garcia/Corliss Williamson
This third place ranking depends primarily on one man. I’m not going to treat you like an idiot and name him like you don’t already know. This is the shakiest foundation a team has ever been built around. Fortunately, Artest is so damn blatantly important in this scenario that if the Maloof brothers and Eric Musselman have any common sense whatsoever it would take a prison sentence or an FBI tranquiliser dart to take him out of this line-up. No in-house suspensions should be on the cards unless he starts eating babies. That being said it is Ron Artest… Bonzi Wells jumped ship and will be a HUGE loss. John Salmons should remind Kings fans of that about 75 games of this year. …give or take 7. Kevin Martin is a nice piece and I think he should edge out Salmons more comfortably than people think.
The Kings should look to go one of two ways; big with Kenny Thomas and ‘Reef mixing it up in the forwards and Artest dropping to guard, or ‘small’ as listed above. These Kings can’t let things get confused, they’re gonna need to score. Fortunately they have the pieces who can do that, even with the loss of Bonzi. Quincy Douby intrigues me as I’ve heard he’s a flat out scorer from his time in Rutgers, but I’m worried he may go the way of the Dajuan Wagner or Joe Forte… guys who were high scoring 2s in college and came into the NBA undersized for a combo guard and were quickly shunted away out of the league. Just like those guys, he’s going to have to learn to play the point if he’s going to stick.
· Ron Artest. Please stay out of trouble. Please?
· Can somebody other than Ron Artest play defence?
· Young guys maturing. Kevin Martin is an athlete and is steadily improving at other facets of the game like his shot and defence. Garcia has a nice shot, probably could do with calming down and focusing on what shots he’s taking though.
Los Angeles Lakers
C Kwame Brown/Chris Mihm/Andrew Bynum
PF Lamar Odom/Brian Cook/Ronnie Turiaf
SF Vladimir Radmanovic/Luke Walton/Lamar Odom
PG Smush Parker/Shammond Williams/Sasha Vujacic/Jordan Farmar
The Lakers are an odd team. Because the value of the combined pieces seldom reflect the final product. Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant are two of a kind in that both have difficulty understanding when they should be aggressive and when they should look to defer to others. Odom is yet to find the right times to defer specifically to Kobe and when to step up his own game, and Kobe has almost came across as wanting to lose, to prove a point, by overpassing to teammates in the past. Leaving team-mates like addicts, needing something which ultimately isn’t best for them just because it seems they’re incapable of going on without it. That being said, both are immensely talented and the sky could really be the limit if they made the most of what this team has. But they haven’t in the past and I sure wouldn’t bet that they will in the future.
Kwame Brown has established himself as one of the better low post defenders in the league and should look to start this season after stepping up big time to play some of his best ball when Mihm went down. Chris Mihm, I like. Plays within himself and doesn’t try to do too much that he can’t do. Smush Parker looked the goods at the start of the year and even developed a cult fan base (as he has at quite a few clubs he’s played at) but fell off big time in the playoffs and has Kupchak saying a back-court addition is concern number 1 (possibly adding fuel to the fire with his poor attitude).
· Resting Kobe. Yeah he came from high school but this is his 11th year in the league. Maurice frickin’ Evans doesn’t cut it if you want Kobe to be able to play under 40 minutes per.
· Vladimir Radmanovic has been revealed to not be the answer at two teams. He doesn’t play defence either, so unless Kobe is willing to kick it to him you’ve just signed yourselves a liability. A liability which plays remarkably similar to one Brian Cook who you already have on your roster…
· As much as I hear about Kobe’s clutch play (and yes, I will acknowledge he can hit BIG shots) the Lakers were 8-12 last year in games decided by 4 points or less. Here’s Phil Jackson’s biggest test. Reverse that 8-12 and you’ve got your biggest “Red Auerbach/Pat Riley/Larry Brown/Papa Smurf/[insert name here] was the greatest coach of all time” ammunition.
Golden State Warriors
C Adonal Foyle/Andris Biedrins/Patrick O’Bryant
PF Troy Murphy/Ike Diogu/Matt Barnes/Zarko Cabarkapa
SF Mike Dunleavy/Matt Barnes/Mickael Pietrus/Zarko Cabarkapa
SG Jason Richardson/Mickael Pietrus/Dajuan Wagner
PG Baron Davis/Anthony Roberson/Monta Ellis/Keith McLeod
I think you’d have to go to New York to find a better collection of talented players who just won’t complement each other on the floor. What’s more frustrating is that the pieces the Warriors have shouldn’t be this far off of complementing each other when you look at the paper team. This would be my last shot at it with these pieces before I’d tear the whole thing down and start from scratch. If Don Nelson can’t drag these guys to .500 it can’t be done. Some of these guys deserve to be playing on winning teams anyway. Mickael Pietrus, despite talk that he’s becoming too concerned with the offensive end of the floor, would quite easily be the team’s best defender. There’s been talks of moving him on because of this, but personally I wouldn’t mind having a guy who thinks about improving the weaker aspects of his game. Troy Murphy needs to harden up offensively, his jumper is quality but he’s starting to settle too much, I think its starting to affect his post game. He could always improve on the defensive end of the floor as well, but his effort there is solid.
Their back-court’s free throw percentage is atrocious. Jason Richardson – 67.3%, Baron Davis – 67.5%, Mickael Pietrus – 60.8%?!? Hell, even Adonal Foyle beats out Pietrus with 61.2%. Maybe Pietrus was onto something when he was focusing more on shooting and his offense… speaking of free throws, my advice is to never look directly at Andris Biedrins free throws, very unappealing to the optic nerve… Ike Diogu should be an interesting player to watch, if he can keep improving steadily it may allow Murphy to play more of a 6th man role perhaps, where he’s going out to create mismatches and his defence might not get so exploited. Don Nelson’s a master with match-ups so whatever happens it should be interesting to watch the Warriors this season.
· The youth. If Diogu can steadily improve to take the pressure off of Murphy inside it gives Nelson a few more different options
· Free Throws. Jason Richardson is going to attack the rim. This means free throws. When you take that many you want to be shooting over 70% minimum. Reminder: Look away, Biedrins!!!
· Baron Davis needs to be sponsored by a medical clinic.
· Not so much a key point, but just someone I’ve had my eye on: Anthony Roberson. If he can find his niche on this team… nice player. Hell of a shooter, only thing that makes him streaky is his shot selection. At least they’ll have someone there who I know has the capacity to ice free throws.