By Lee Jenkins
December 16, 2011
2011-12 NBA Preview: Pacific Division
How They'll Finish
Los Angeles Lakers
2010-11 Record: 57-25; lost to Mavericks in conference semifinals
Top Addition: Josh McRoberts | Biggest Loss: Lamar Odom
They still don't have a premier point guard, crucial to run Mike Brown's new offense, and they no longer have the deepest frontcourt in the league, after jettisoning Odom to Dallas. The Lakers are hungry to avenge their playoff flame-out against the Mavericks, but their age will be tested by the compressed schedule. Andrew Bynum wants more responsibility and he will have to assume it without injury (unless, of course, Dwight Howard takes his place).
Los Angeles Clippers
2010-11 Record: 32-50
Top Addition: Chris Paul | Biggest Loss: Eric Gordon
For the first time, they have two superstars and a legitimate chance to own L.A. With Paul tossing lobs to Blake Griffin, the Clippers will make the playoffs and challenge the Lakers -- in this season and many to come. Caron Butler solidifies a weak spot on the wing and DeAndre Jordan returns to clean up the paint, but the Clips will miss Gordon, especially when teams pack the middle and force them to shoot from outside.
Phoenix Suns
2010-11 Record: 40-42
Top Addition: Shannon Brown | Biggest Loss: Vince Carter
The seven-seconds-or-less era is entering its final days. As long as the Suns employ Steve Nash, they will score more than 100 points per game, but unless they drastically improve their defense, they will give up just as many. Marcin Gortat has helped them on the boards and Brown will make an ideal fast-break partner for Nash. But the Suns seem as if they are treading water, neither building around Nash nor stockpiling for the future.
Golden State Warriors
2010-11 Record: 36-46
Top Addition: Kwame Brown | Biggest Loss: Reggie Williams
For all the changes -- to ownership, the front office and the coaching staff -- the team remains much the same. Its backcourt, already electrifying with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, becomes even more so with rookie Klay Thompson. But the roster is short on tough defenders and volume rebounders. Kwame Brown will help fortify the paint and rookie coach Mark Jackson will preach stops. But it is clear new management has more work to do.
Sacramento Kings
2010-11 Record: 24-58
Top Addition: J.J. Hickson | Biggest Loss: Beno Udrih
DeMarcus Cousins has to build on his rookie year, and Tyreke Evans has to recapture it, for the Kings to take another stride. They have complemented Cousins with Hickson, a formidable front line, and Evans with Marcus Thornton, a potent backcourt. Rookie Jimmer Fredette could boost both attendance and the team's three-point shooting percentage, 26th in the league last season. But the Kings still lack leadership and maturity, areas free-agent signing Chuck Hayes may be able to address.
Players To Watch
Kobe Bryant
2010-11 Season Stats: 25.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG
Career Stats: 25.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG
For 11 of the past 12 years he played in the triangle offense, with Phil Jackson on the sideline, and both served him well. This is a transitional season for Bryant, as he adjusts to Mike Brown's system, yet the Lakers are leaning on him even more without Odom. Bryant may need to be patient with this group, but that is not exactly his strong suit, especially as he enters the final stage of his career.
Blake Griffin
2010-11 Stats: 22.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.8 APG
Career Stats: 22.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.8 APG
His debut season was a car-clearing marvel, but Griffin wants to be much more than a leaper. He worked most of the summer and fall on his outside shot, and if he can sink mid-range jumpers with any consistency, he will force defenders to step out and guard him. That will only make it easier for Griffin to attack the rim and deliver more of those must-see dunks.
DeMarcus Cousins
2010-11 Stats: 14.1 PPG, 2.5 APG, 8.6 RPG
Career Stats: 14.1 PPG, 2.5 APG, 8.6 RPG
In one year, Cousins earned his reputation as one of the most volatile players in the league, and also the most promising. There was the fight with a teammate, the confrontation with a coach, the argument with a trainer and the choking gesture at an opponent. But there were also more than 14 points and eight rebounds per game. Without Samuel Dalembert, who is a free agent, the Kings will depend even more on Cousins. No one can be certain yet how he will handle it.
Burning Questions
Are the Clippers better than the Lakers? The Clippers will undoubtedly deliver more highlights, thanks to the Paul/Griffin pick-and-roll combination, but the Lakers should still finish with more wins. For all that was gained in the Paul trade -- excitement, credibility, relevance -- much was lost also. The Clippers sacrificed a true center (Chris Kaman) and their best perimeter threat (Gordon). The Lakers have two skilled 7-footers, more experience and a reliable third option that the Clippers will need to find.
Will Nash last the season? The Suns want to hold on to their franchise point guard and stave off the rebuilding process as long as possible, but eventually they will have no choice. Nash makes the Suns competitive, but he doesn't have the complements to contend, leaving the club in a .500 netherworld. The Suns will come under immense pressure this season to trade Nash and start over, an unenviable prospect that might finally be necessary.
Can Curry and Ellis work together long-term? They have the same height and weight -- 6-foot-3, 185 pounds - with similar sensibilities. Curry is the point guard, but he loves to shoot. Ellis is the shooting guard, and he likes the ball in his hands. Last season, they averaged a combined 42.7 points, on a combined 34.3 attempts. They are the Warriors' most valuable assets, but to balance the roster, one may have to go. The new front office will be watching their dynamic closely.
By The Numbers
2 Years ago that both Paul and Griffin underwent knee surgery.
4 Consecutive seasons in which Bynum has missed time due to a knee injury.
29 Suns' ranking in scoring defense last season.
Bold Prediction
The Clippers' big trade will spur the Lakers into action, and by the trade deadline, Paul and Howard will be in opposite locker rooms at Staples Center.
Pacific Video Preview
Clippers 2011-12 season preview
Source: SI's Chris Mannix says that L.A.'s additions of Paul and Butler to the already explosive front court of Griffin and Jordan make the Clippers a contender in the West.

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