Season Preview: Pacific Division
1 – Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns have, by far, the most automatic regular season path in the league. With respect to the rest of the Pacific division, no one else has a chance to beat the Suns for the division title. Phoenix took the Pacific last season by a gargantuan 19 games. The second widest margin for a division winner last season was Dallas with nine, in the Southwest division.
Simply put, unless an unholy wave of injuries overtakes the Suns, they will without a doubt win their division.
The question marks come in the postseason. The addition of Grant Hill makes them better in the regular season, and gives them more of what they already have in abundance (points, playmaking ability), but they lose what they’ve always lacked with Kurt Thomas going to Seattle. Thomas was a good low post defender who more than proved his worth by doing a good job guarding Tim Duncan in the playoffs. Losing the defensive presence, rebounding, and toughness that Thomas provided is going to hurt Phoenix in the playoffs.
But again, the regular season is a lock. Phoenix wins the Pacific.
2 – Golden State Warriors
I should start off by noting that I’m still skeptical of Golden State, even after their win over Dallas in the first round last season. They can’t play the Mavs every game this year. They’re going to have to beat some other people, too.
That being said, I do think they have a talented and extremely athletic roster, with loads of potential and at least one lights out player in Baron Davis. Their offense was third in the league last season behind only Phoenix and Denver, which means you know the Warriors will never be at shortage for points.
What we need to see is some consistent defense from Golden State. Stephen Jackson, Mickael Pietrus, Andris Biedrins, and Davis all have the ability to be great defenders, and they’ve each shown that in the past. What the Warriors need is a consistent committed approach that makes defense a philosophy for them, not just an occasional whim.
If the Warriors can put together some defense, and maybe show better shot selection at times, I can see them running up about 45 wins this season, coming in behind Phoenix in the division.
3 – Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers were 42-40 last season, tying for second in the division with Golden State. I see the Warriors making some improvement. I see the Lakers staying about the same.
The development of Andrew Bynum doesn’t need to be rapid, so much as it just needs to exist on some level. Bynum needs to become a significant presence if the Lakers are truly going to start climbing back up the standings. Beyond the need for some offensive help for Kobe down low, the Lakers also need that defensive big man to control the lane. Even if Bynum could just focus on defense, and become an intimidating force in the middle, the Lakers would be better for it.
Derek Fisher is a veteran presence and good clutch shooter, but I think we’ll continue to see Jordan Farmar get increased minutes as the season goes on. And hopefully Ronny Turiaf and Brian Cook will start taking Kwame Brown’s minutes. If some of the young players can elevate their game, the outlook for the Lakers might be slightly more optimistic.
Kobe is doing all he can do, and he’ll continue to do that because he’s one of the fiercest competitors in the league. But I think he’s taken this team as far as he can take it by himself; somebody else has to step up for this team to go anywhere.
4 – Sacramento Kings
It was only a couple of seasons ago that Sacramento was in the playoff, and looking quite impressive, in fact. With much of that same roster (minus Bonzi Wells), they still have the potential to do some nice things this season.
The Kings struggled last season, finishing 33-49, good for last in the division. But taking a look at their roster, they have an adequate amount of talent, enough to the point where I can’t completely dismiss them this season. Mike Bibby being injured to start the season (thumb; out 6-8 weeks), will certainly slow them down, but Kevin Martin, Ron Artest (after the suspension), and Brad Miller should hold things down until Bibby gets back.
Had Bibby been healthy to start this season, I would have higher hopes for the Kings to return to the playoffs, but six to eight weeks is long time at the start of the season, and that slow start will be too much for the Kings to overcome. Expect better than 33 wins, but no playoffs this season.
5 – Los Angeles Clippers
I wouldn’t have had a great deal of confidence in the Clippers coming into this season if they were healthy. With Elton Brand suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the offseason, there’s even less of a chance that this team will do anything significant this season.
Brand tore his left Achilles in September, and recently had the surgically repaired tendon examined and reevaluated. The recovery time for this kind of injury is usually extensive, up to a full year. It will be a while before a definitive time table is set for his return, but the minimum he’ll miss is the first few months of the season.
That leaves the Clippers with an aging Sam Cassell and a disgruntled Corey Maggette to keep the boat afloat. I’m not sold on Tim Thomas filling in for the injured Brand either. Thomas is a great shooter, but he can’t replace the shot blocking, rebounds, and low post scoring you lose with Brand.
I think the Clippers would have had a rough season even with Brand, without him, things only get worse for them.