To finish up our NBA Preview, we look at the star studded Pacific Division.
Projected Starting Lineup:
SG Raja Bell
PG Steve Nash
Coach: Mike DAntoni
The good: A focused Nash, Amare and Marion give them the tools to win a championship.
The Phoenix Suns left the postseason with a semi-final loss to the San Antonio Spurs, most memorable for the altercation in which Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench, netting them a suspension for Game 5, costing them the series in six games. The Suns were in the headlines all summer, most notably for being in the hunt to acquire now Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. The bait? Shawn Marion, who has been the subject of trade rumors all summer. Although the rumors havent calmed down, Marion is still a Sun, and that means trouble for the rest of the league.
Two-time MVP Steve Nash nearly won a third one last season, being the glue that helps this team work. Hell have many weapons at his arsenal, including Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa, who scored 18 PPG off the bench, becoming a major spark off the bench. Amare Stoudemire in his first full season back from microfracture surgery returned back to dominance and was on the All-NBA First Team. This team is not short of depth with draft picks Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry there to provide defense and complement All-Defense First Teamer Raja Bell. This is a team that, when on all cylinders, looks like a team destined for greatness.
The bad: Not being able to get to the Finals is becoming a mental hurdle. Those are the toughest obstacles to overcome.
As great as Steve Nash is, he has not been able to lead his team to the NBA Finals, leading some to question his validity as a former MVP. The defensively challenged point guard isnt exactly getting younger, so time is running out on their opportunity to win a championship. If he wants to be compared to the greatest PGs of all time, then he needs to be the facilitator to this championship team come playoff time. Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion need to coexist together in the same locker room and head coach Mike DAntoni has to become peacemaker in that rift. Also, DAntoni has to implement a sense of defensive urgency within this team.
Relying on offense will not help when teams like the Spurs play suffocating defense. Most of all, Shawn Marion cannot be worried about trades and about money. Hes the most overrated player in the NBA. He benefits off of a great point guard as much as Mikki Moore did off Jason Kidd last season. If he wants to make $15 mil per season, tell him that Lamar Odom is Lamar Odom, not the second coming of Larry Bird. Marion needs to recommit to defense and attempt to create his own shot. If he does that, then the Suns are a lock to win a championship.
The outlook: 1st in the West, 1st in the Pacific, my pick to win it all. Steve Nash finally gets his due from haters everywhere.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Golden State Warriors
Coach: Don Nelson
The good: Nellie ball will continue to be a huge success. The pieces will just be different.
The Golden State Warriors crept up on everyone last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1994. They didnt stop there as they proceeded to have perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the NBAs First Round as they upset the Dallas Mavericks in six games. They managed to do spark the rebirth of the franchise by making a big trade that January where they acquired troubled guard Stephen Jackson and forward Al Harrington for forwards Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy. That trade transformed a team mired in mediocrity to a team fun to watch and with a mean streak.
Baron Davis was healthy for the first time in years and it showed in his play averaging 20 PPG. Monta Ellis will now get a chance to start and improve on his Most Improved Player status. The best thing about this team is that they can plug in almost anyone at certain positions. Head Coach Don Nelson, not a believer in the traditional offense, will go with three, maybe four guards on the court at the same time in hopes of pushing the ball. With rookies Brandan Wright and Marco Belinelli on board, this team will be a highlight reel waiting to happen.
The bad: Losing Jason Richardson will hurt. Not being able to match up well with slower teams will hurt more.
The Golden State Warriors on draft night traded Jason Richardson, the star forward who had become their franchise guy, to the Charlotte Bobcats for North Carolina forward Brandan Wright. Letting go of J-Rich will hurt because you knew what you were getting from him. Always good for 20 PPG, the Warriors are now faced with the task of having to replace that production with their bench and rookies. Monta Ellis could provide that as a starter, but whos going to replace him on the bench? A revolving door at certain positions means there is more opportunity for a player to fail. For a team that came off of that playoff appearance, tinkering with success might not be a good thing.
Its usually too early to say if a first round player is a bust after one year, but center Patrick OBryant has no fit on this team. If they see he has some value, they should move him for a forward who can run up and down the court quickly. The Warriors need to play their style of basketball because if they are ever in a position where they cannot play their up-tempo style, they will not have the personnel to adjust, making their offense gimmicky at times. Don Nelson will have to make the team a bit better-rounded before they get to the next level of the postseason.
The outlook: 6th in the West, 2nd in the Pacific, this time a first round loss. The inexperience of the new guys will hurt.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Coach: Phil Jackson
The good: As long as Kobe Bryant is there, the Lakers will always have a chance.
Well, much has been made clear over the last few months. For starters, the Lakers cannot beat the Phoenix Suns. Next, no reputable journalist could get the inside scoop on how superstar guard Kobe Bryant really feels about his team, but an amateur guy outside of a supermarket could. Lastly, Kobe wants out of L.A., the team he has been on his entire career. After a summer of questions and outrage on the part of Kobe, the Lakers front office, and fans everywhere, it all leads back to the present moment, where Kobe Bryant is still a Laker. The team can count on Kobe Bryant good for at least 30 PPG each time he is on the court. He is that prolific of a scorer to the point where he alone is the biggest game changer in league.
Head Coach Phil Jackson has never missed the playoffs, and doesnt plan to with this group of guys. Ronny Turiaf will get a chance to start and maximize the energy he puts forth. Forward Lamar Odom will be out for the first couple of weeks recovering from a bum shoulder, but once hes back, he has shown that he is one of the more versatile players in the league when he is not scared. They are banking their future on center Andrew Bynum and guards Jordan Farmar and 2007 first round pick Javaris Crittenton. In the meantime, Derek Fisher has returned to the Lake Show to give them much needed leadership. Kobe alone will give the Lakers a chance every night.
The bad: As long as Kobe continues to whine and complain and Phil refuses to play the future stars, this team will be in disarray until the other shoe drops.
The one man army that is #24 on the Lakers does have pieces around him if he utilizes them. The problem is, Kobe is not too fond of his teammates. In many ways, neither is Phil Jackson, who has lobbied for trades in the past to acquire more veteran talent since he is horrible at developing talent on his own. Kobe averaged over five assists a game, but at many points last season, the team played a lot more cohesively when Lamar Odom was leading the team and Kobe was not playing. Odom is talented, but he is the most scared star I have ever seen play. He needs to be assertive on the court. Also, Phil Jackson needs to trust the young guys. Bynum, Farmar, and Crittenton need to be thrown into the fire in order for their development to steady out. By benching them and giving playing time to the likes of Kwame Brown and Maurice Evans is just not smart, especially for a team building for the future while trying to win now.
What will ruin this team more than anything will be the constant speculation about Kobe possibly moving to another team. He has become their biggest distraction and ultimately it just seems like Kobe will never win in L.A. The team looks determined to build around youth and Kobe is trying to win while he is in his prime. They have failed to get players such as Kevin Garnett, Ron Artest, and Carlos Boozer. Instead, it looks like Kobe will not be long for the City of Angels.
The outlook: 9th in the West, 3rd in the Pacific. They will miss the playoffs, but Kobe will not be traded during the season. However, this will be Kobes last season as a Laker. I got my money on him going to the Atlanta Hawks. Your guess is as good as mine.
Projected Starting Lineup:
SG Kevin Martin
PG Mike Bibby
Coach: Reggie Theus
The good: Kevin Martin is ready to become one of the best pure scorers in the NBA.
The Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Its funny that a team associated with futility was able to turn it around and become a constant in the playoffs. Although things may look bleak for this team, Kevin Martin has become a pleasant surprise for this team. Draft #27 overall in 2004, no one was really expecting much from him. Since then he has improved every year to the point that he is now the primary scorer on the team. Signing an 5 year extension, Kevin Martin looks to be the franchise here for a long time. Also, the Kings drafted the heir apparent at the center position held by Brad Miller in Spencer Hawes out of Washington. Mikki Moore who made his career last season off of playing alongside Jason Kidd will now be paid to play alongside defensive stalwart Ron Artest and guard Mike Bibby. This is a team that can be a playoff contender if everything clicks.
The bad: This team is the epitome of mediocrity. Until they figure out what to do with some of their players, they have no plan.
The Sacramento Kings are like a runner in a treadmill. Theyll exert energy but they really wont be going anywhere. First year Coach Reggie Theus will soon learn that this is not his old show Hang Time. This will be an uphill battle for him. The names on the team do not yell really good team to you. Kenny Thomas. Orien Greene. John Salmons. Mikki Moore. Am I lulling you to sleep with these names?
Mikki Moore will show everyone this season that Jason Kidd basically feeds a good population of big men in the NBA as Moore signed a 3 year, $10 mil deal to sign there. Moore will show like former Net Kenyon Martin that Moore will miss Kidd. They have young pieces such as Francisco Garcia, Quincy Douby, and Justin Williams, but they all sound like role players on good teams, not potential stars on a team that cant just get by with Kevin Martin for the future. The status of Mike Bibby is in the air and dont be surprised if he and Ron Artest get traded if the Kings get off to a slow start. Their best bet is to play the role of spoiler come March and April.
The outlook: 12th in the West, 4th in the division, and a pull of the plug on whatever they have going on as they finally begin to start rebuilding themselves.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PF Al Thornton
PG Sam Cassell
Coach: Mike Dunleavy
The good: Al Thornton may not be Elton Brand, but when you see him play, you might very well confuse the two.
Al Thornton may be one of the biggest steals in the draft. Questions about his size and his age (note: he will turn 24 this December) at Florida State caused his stock to slip. Luckily for the Clips, he fell to them at #14. Thornton will be able to fill the void left by Elton Brand who is out for most this season with an Achilles injury. Sam Cassell is back healthy and for reinforcements signed veterans Brevin Knight and Dan Dickau. This is going to be the breakout season for Corey Maggette. Alternating between starter and bench player for most of his career, Maggette will now have the small forward job all to himself. He is capable of being a consistent 20 PPG scorer in the league and he has incentive to do so. Hell be up for a new contract soon.
Another player signed to help offset Brand is forward Ruben Patterson. The Kobe-Stopper himself will now be playing in the same building as #24 (maybe not for long), but Patterson adds a veteran presence on this team that will be needed to bring upstarts like 2006 second round center Paul Davis along.
The bad: The injuries to Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston ended their playoff dreams before fans had a chance to dream.
When the news of Elton Brand suffering a ruptured Achilles surfaced, I knew their season was over. This is their franchise player and team MVP. Without him, they will have to rely on Tim I play hard when I have a contract to get Thomas to help them get through this. Also, lets not forget the injury that occurred to PG Shaun Livingston last season. That gruesome injury caused his knee to be everywhere except where it should have been. Hell be out as well, and questions will arise as to whether he will ever play in the NBA again.
Sam Cassell is getting old and injury prone and someone will have to come in for him long term. Chris Kaman signed a five-year extension last season to be their center for the future. He has to start earning his pay because last season was very underwhelming. The caveman look may have worked for Johnny Damon, but Kaman looked complacent and slow. He needs to be more assertive offensively to not dump too much of the scoring load on Thornton. After a great 2005-06 season where they made the semi-finals in the West, the goal is to not revert back into the Clippers we all know and make fun of.
The outlook: 13th in the West, 5th in the Pacific, rooting for the Minnesota Timberwolves to do well so they can get their first round pick as well and retool some more for next season.