Pacific Division: How They'll Finish
Really, their top addition was coach Doc Rivers, who arrived from Boston in June and immediately convinced free agent Chris Paul to re-sign. Now, Rivers is turning his substantial powers of persuasion on DeAndre Jordan, prodding the long-armed center to become the rim protector and back-line stopper the Clippers desperately need. They will have a more balanced offense, with Redick and Jared Dudley spacing the floor more effectively than Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, allowing Paul and Griffin to run their pick-and-rolls. But the Clips’ offense hasn’t been the problem. Their title hopes will hinge on the development of Jordan and Griffin as defensive anchors in the mold of Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins under Rivers in Boston. The Clippers do not have a Big Three, just one extraordinary point guard, plus two promising but occasionally disappointing big men. Rivers is responsible for hardening them into a solid core.
The skinny: The Clippers know what to expect from Paul, but for this season to be a success, Griffin must take the leap into superstardom and Jordan must become an able complement.
Besides Dwight Howard, Iguodala was the most impactful free agent to switch teams this summer, a defensive stopper and capable ball-handler who can match up with the league’s premier scorers and should excel in Golden State’s breakneck offense. The Warriors roster is loaded with wings -- Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes -- so they should be able to run opponents ragged playing small. But their front-court isn’t flimsy, either, featuring All-Star David Lee at power forward and Andrwe Bogut at center. With Curry and Bogut, health is always a major factor, but if they’re at full strength Golden State could easily wrest this division from the Clippers. They have the shooting, depth, size, versatility and experience, after toppling the Nuggets in the first round and challenging the Spurs. Curry is not just a sniper anymore. He is a legitimate headliner with enough help to take this group deep into the playoffs.
The skinny: Like any team with an overload of talent, the Warriors will have to settle on an identity, whether they go small in crucial moments with Iguodala, Thompson or Barnes, or big with Bogut and Lee.
Even without Howard, the Lakers still boast three future Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, but they are all deep into their thirties and coming off major injuries. Nash and Gasol will be ready for Opening Night, but there is no timetable yet on Bryant’s return from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Lakers loaded up this summer on first-round flameouts, from Wesley Johnson to Xavier Henry, and someone will find new life in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. But how are the Lakers going to stop anybody? They were poor defensively last season, even when they had Howard protecting the paint, and now they don’t even have a reasonable facsimile. If Bryant returns quickly, and Nash and Gasol stay healthy, they could squeeze into the playoffs. But that’s far from certain with players of this age. The Lakers are one serious setback or injury away from the lottery.
The skinny: The Lakers are playing for next summer, when their big contracts come off the books, and if they struggle they could start the salary dump early.
For the first time in nearly a decade, things are looking up in Sacramento, thanks to a new downtown arena deal, a new ownership group headed by Vivek Ranadive, a new general manager in Pete D’Allesandro and a new coach in Mike Malone. They also have a new pass-first point guard, a foreign concept for Sacramento, in Vasquez. With Tyreke Evans now in New Orleans, the one major holdover in Sacramento is DeMarcus Cousins, whom the Kings re-signed, in hopes that he can reach All-Star status. Regardless of Cousins and his development, the Kings are not a playoff team yet, having squandered nearly seven years of lottery picks. At this point, fans must be content that the franchise will be in Sacramento, with a plan for a brighter future.
The skinny: The Kings are staying and so is Cousins. They invested in him and now he must do the same in them, proving that he can lead the club forward.
They finished with the worst record in the Western Conference last season and they won’t be any better this time around, having lost three of their top six scorers -- trading Scola to the Pacers, Dudley to the Clippers and releasing Michael Beasley. At least the Dudley deal netted Eric Bledsoe, a 23-year-old runaway train, who might have been the most exciting backup point guard in the NBA. Now, Bledsoe will be counted on to start, but he won’t have to handle the ball all the time. The Suns are going to experiment with a two-point guard lineup that highlights Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, who led the team in points, assists and steals last season. Seeing how Bledsoe and Dragic fit is the one reason to watch the Suns. They are an intriguing combination, with Bledsoe’s strength and speed complementing Dragic’s shooting and vision.
The skinny: First-year general manager Ryan McDonough has gutted the team for the future and the most interesting moment of the season will come on lottery night.
Players To Watch
- Harrison Barnes
- 2012-13 Stats: 9.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 35.9 3P%
- Career Stats: 9.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 35.9 3P%
He excelled as a rookie in last year’s playoffs, especially as an undersized power forward in a small-ball lineup, but his role becomes uncertain with the arrival of free agent swingman Andre Iguodala. The Warriors have successfully developed young guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but coach Mark Jackson will be challenged to do the same with Barnes, who showed much promise as a rookie and is only entering his second year. He cannot get stuck between Iguodala and Lee.
- DeAndre Jordan
- 2012-13 Stats: 8.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG
- Career Stats: 6.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.5 BPG
Rivers believes Jordan can become one of the best interior defenders in the NBA and he certainly has the tools: long arms, great leaping ability, tons of energy. But the 6-foot-11 Jordan has been in the league five years and has yet to realize his potential. The Clippers can't even keep him on the floor late in games because of his woeful free-throw shooting. If you want to gauge Rivers' impact, look no farther than Jordan.
- Channing Frye
- 2011-12 Stats: 10.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.4 3PM
- Career Stats: 9.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.3 3PM
- The Suns 6-11 sharpshooter, who missed all of last season after he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, announced in September that he has been cleared to play again by multiple doctors. Even though Frye has been in the NBA since 2005, the Suns can’t know entirely what to expect from him, since he did little training or basketball activity in the past year. Given the dearth of talent on the Suns' roster, Frye could be a major contributor again.
- How effective will Kobe Bryant be when he returns from injury? If Bryant is like other players who’ve ruptured their Achilles -- and he’s obviously not like anyone -- he will lose quickness and explosiveness. But Bryant has spent years developing his footwork, his mid-range game and his comfort level in the post. Bryant will be the least of the Lakers' problems.
- Can anyone harness and channel the ability of DeMarcus Cousins? The Kings clearly believe it’s possible because they paid him a four-year maximum contract for $62 million. They also put in place a support system that includes Malone, Vasquez and Landry. The Kings are putting every effort into salvaging Cousins.
- Will the Warriors stay healthy? Who knows, but unlike past years, when one injury could cripple their playoff hopes, they are now deep enough to withstand a few blows. If Curry misses some time, Iguodala can help handle the ball. If Bogut does, Lee can fill in at center, with Barnes sliding to power forward. The Warriors versatility is one of their strengths.
The Clippers and Warriors will become the next great NBA rivalry.