* This post is part of our NBA week series, where we explore all things NBA leading up to opening night on October 30th*
NBA Divisonal Previews, Part 1 – Pacific Division
“The Preview that writes itself”
Like many others who cover the NBA, gentle readers, I will be putting together previews in a Divisional format this year. Unlike most other writers, I will not insult your intelligence by pretending all 32 teams are interesting. Some are only interesting in an ironically bad way (like the Kings and their mad chemistry experiment), some are interesting because of their flaws (like the Knicks) and some are simply bad (the Charlotte Bobcats.)
It is not necessary to cover these teams with the same fervor and depth of analysis that we reserve for the playoff teams and contenders, but I will share what nuggets my exhaustive preseason research has unearthed.
The Pacific Division contains two-and-a-half interesting teams, by my estimation: the rejuvenated Lakers, deeper Clippers, and potential-laden Warriors. This is an easy Division to preview: so much bandwidth has already been consumed by stories about the Lakers’ offseason, but for good reason. Even on a site dedicated to the premise that big-market teams shouldn’t be hyped just because they play in a big market, we all have to admit: the Lakers have a chance to be damn good. They could be great.
Teams listed in order of predicted Divisional finish:
Analysis: Jerry Buss’s deal with the devil continues to pay dividends. It was an NBA generation ago that skillful maneuvering by then-front-office guru Jerry West netted the Lakers Shaquille O’Neal. Lakers this offseason lucked into Dwight Howard, proving once again that Buss’s soul is worth some high-caliber NBA talent: you couldn’t ask for a better interior defender than Howard to cover up for the defensive inadequacies of Steve Nash, The Artist Formerly Known as Ron Artest and, yes, even Kobe Bryant, at this stage of their careers.
It remains to be seen if this collection of talent will coalesce into a true team, but on a night-to-night basis they will roll the ball out with a collection of talent and size that surpasses any in the league. They have to be title favorites from day one.
Analysis: A couple of solid veteran additions aside, this is basically the same core the Clippers rode to the 2nd round of the playoffs last year. This team reminds me of the Stockton/Malone Jazz, talent-wise: they have world-beaters at two positions in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a bunch of other guys who, on paper anyway, should fill in the gaps (DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups.) Griffin should continue to improve this year (it’s easy to forget he’s only 23). With his athletic gifts and a roster built around him, he could be an all-timer if he can stay healthy.
The problem for the Clippers is that the reigning champs sport three All-Star caliber players. The class of the Pacific Division, the Lakers, have four players on their current roster who could go to the All-Star game in February. The Clippers will win their fair share of regular season games, but it’s tough to see Crawford, Hill or Odom making a difference in a playoff series against one of the heavyweights of the Western Conference.
2011/12 record: 0.348, equal to 29 wins in an 82 game season
Key roster additions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut (return to health)
Losses: none of any consequence. Warriors probably wish they could list Richard Jefferson’s corpse here.
Need to improve: team identity
Analysis: On paper, this team should feature an up-and-coming point man (Steph Curry) two promising, complementary wings (Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes) and the franchise’s first legit center since Clifford Ray (Andrew Bogut.) The problem for the Warriors over the past few years, of course, is that the roster on paper has not been the roster actually taking the floor night to night. Curry has been injury plagued for the entirety of his brief NBA career, and Bogut never appeared in a Warriors uniform after his trade to the Bay last year.
The health of NBA rosters, of course, is often predicated on forces beyond the control of regular NBA front office types or coaches. There is evidence to suggest that players like Bogut simply have not sacrificed enough of the “NBA life” to succeed at an All-Star level. I met Bogut at a bar in Milwaukee a couple of years ago – he showed up (hard to miss a seven-foot Aussie), paid for a few drinks, talked to some of the prettier girls at the bar, and moved along. Now don’t get me wrong – millionaires showing up in working man’s bars and sponsoring cheering sections like Squad 6 are not inherently against my programming. But you’d better be significantly good at your day job if you sign on for the NBA nightlife.
Analysis: The irony, of course, is that some of the most legendary partiers in NBA history are also some of its greatest players: Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan. But it’s a chicken and egg kind of thing, really: in order to last (and to become legendary), you’d better be in the league long enough, and do more noteworthy things on the court than off. Case in point: the Suns “best” player on paper is Michael Beasley. I’ve had the privilege of watching Beas play for the last two years in a Timberwolves uniform. There is no more frustrating, enigmatic and misplaced talent in the league. I use the word “misplaced” because as Beasley matures, he does seem to be awakening to the idea that he has great talent. Even unique talent.
But that talent has been placed in the hands of a man-child who has taken every opportunity given to him and reaped, oh, 40% of it. Drafted by the Miami Heat to be Dwayne Wade’s wingman, he lasted only two seasons, ending his Heat career coming off the bench behind Udonis Haslem. Brought to Wolves to complement Kevin Love and, eventually, Ricky Rubio, he was sidetracked a string of minor injuries and, again, was relegated to bench duty. The Wolves simply seemed to play better with him in a smaller role. Beas is a nice guy, in a harmless kind of way, but contributes next to nothing to a winning basketball team. Maybe this is the year, and the team, that causes Beasley to “get it” and move his priorities beyond the NBA life and into NBA greatness. He certainly has the physical tools to be great. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Key roster additions: Aaron Brooks, Thomas Robinson
Losses: league-wide respect, possibly the Power Balance Pavillion
Need to improve: fit of talent on roster
Analysis: More misplaced talent in Sacramento, but in a different way: if Jimmer Fredette were 6’6”, he would be an ideal 2 Guard in today’s NBA with his sweet shot and scorer’s mentality. As it is? He’s coming off the bench behind an undrafted rookie at the 1 (Isaiah Thomas, a nice story from last year.) He hasn’t got the size or, if we’re being honest, the contract status, to beat out the pricey Marcus Thornton at the 2. And for this reason Tyreke Evans, the once-rookie of the year, 20-5-5 producer who looked like a better-ball-handling Jerry Stackhouse as a rookie, now plays mostly at the 3, where he is undersized and miscast. And that’s before we talk about the Kings power rotation of talented but shoot-first bigs in Demarcus Cousins, Thomas Robinson and Jason Thompson.
In short, the Kings are a mess of mismatched talent. All guys who belong in the league in some capacity, but together they make little sense.
Up next: the Northwest Division, 4 up and coming teams, and the Portland TrailBlazers.