Pacific preview: Can the Warriors overtake the Clippers for No. 1?
With no shortage of storylines to watch, the Pacific Division will be a battle of teams at very different stages of their evolution. Some are looking to solidify their place in the West's top tier, others are continuing to build chemistry with a core group of (hopefully) long-term teammates, and then there are some trying to recapture success after being bogged down by injuries and getting stuck in rebuilding mode.
All of those organizations are following a blueprint. The Los Angeles Clippers have one that’s worked since Chris Paul arrived. They’ve won back-to-back division titles and won’t be slowing down in 2014-15. With a new owner in Steve Ballmer and a renewed purpose to win following this summer’s distractions, the Clippers, who return the core of their lineup, have a good chance of winning a third division crown in a row, and possibly the biggest prize of all.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 record: 57-25 | Lost in West Conf. semifinals (4-2) to Thunder
Top addition: Jordan Farmar. With the departure of Darren Collison, the Clippers had to fill the void with a quality, cost-effective guard. Farmar fits the mold.
Biggest loss: Darren Collison. Losing Collison won’t hurt the Clippers unless injuries hit and Farmar can’t deliver.
Outlook: Donald Sterling is finally gone and the arrival of Steve Ballmer brings in a new culture to one of the top teams in the NBA. With Doc Rivers now in charge as the VP of Basketball Operations and the Clippers coming off a decent offseason in which they filled small holes, it’ll be on the core group of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford to finally get past the Thunder and Spurs in the playoffs.
Rivers made good moves in the offseason to solidify the bench and give the Clippers some flexibility. Adding pieces like Spencer Hawes, a 7-footer who can help space the floor, and Chris Douglas-Roberts who can defend on the perimeter, Los Angeles is looking to improve its weaknesses from last year. CDR addresses the Clips' lack of perimeter defense, an area this team desperately needs to improve if they’re looking to slow down the LeBrons and KDs of the league. These additions are small pieces of the bigger picture, though. Griffin needs to stay healthy after having an injury scare over the summer. With his game steadily improving throughout his career, Griffin’s on his way to becoming one of the top 5 players in the league. He’s even rumored to be sporting a shiny new jump shot, which could open things up for the rest of the team.
Best case: Paul and Griffin stay healthy and the Clippers continue their dominance in the Western Conference, but this time they carry it to the Finals for a storybook ending to a tumultuous offseason.
Worst case: Any injury to Paul or Griffin would be a disaster. Though the bench is deep, this team isn’t built to run without the best point guard in the league.
2. Golden State Warriors
2013-14 record: 51-31 | Lost in first round (4-3) to Clippers
Top addition: Shaun Livingston: Picked up on a three-year, $16 million deal, Livingston adds depth and diversity to the Warriors' backcourt.
Biggest loss: Passing on the opportunity to trade for Kevin Love.
Outlook: Last season, the Warriors were one of the best teams on paper. With the addition of Andre Iguodala, Golden State seemed like it could be one of the best teams in the league. Klay Thompson and Steph Curry had the best seasons of their young careers, with Curry posting career highs in scoring (24.0), assists (8.5) and rebounding (4.3). Thompson also continued to improve; the third-year sharpshooter posted a career-high 18.4 ppg while hitting consistently from downtown.
For the Warriors, the biggest move of the offseason was the one that didn’t happen. Though the Warriors did bring on a new head coach in Steve Kerr, who will look to put his own stamp on this team, the biggest move from the summer was the indecision surrounding the Kevin Love trade. Whether that will come back to haunt Golden State or will merely serve as motivation for Thompson and David Lee -- the pieces rumored to be out the door for Love -- will likely decide the Warriors' season.
Barring any serious injuries to Iggy and the Splash Brothers, the Warriors should challenge the Clippers for dominance in the Pacific and the Western Conference. Look for Curry and Thompson to show doubters why they are in fact one of the best backcourts in the league. The biggest unknown for the Warriors will come from the bench where Kerr is serving his first year as a head coach. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but with Kerr’s experience as a general manager and former player, as well as the talented roster he’s inherited, Kerr’s first season in Golden State should be a success.
Best case: Thompson proves every analyst wrong who chided the Warriors for passing on the Kevin Love trade. The Splash Brothers continue their evolution and become the best backcourt in basketball and back it up with a trip to the Finals.
Worst case: Thompson gets hurt, or worse, regresses just enough for the media to continually question whether or not it was a good idea to pass on Kevin Love.
3. Phoenix Suns
2013-14 record: 48-34 | Missed playoffs
Top addition: Isaiah Thomas. Acquired via sign-and-trade on a four-year, $27 million deal. Thomas will provide some relief for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and help keep the offensive flow consistent.
Biggest loss: Channing Frye. A big part of what made the Suns work so well last season, Frye was terrific at spacing the floor and setting screens for the Suns' talented backcourt duo.
Outlook: After taking the league by storm last season, rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek will look to build on that momentum with mostly the same young group that won 48 games. The Suns have a lot of talent and have found the right personnel to extract that from their players. Hornacek brought in a new group of coaches to work with the young roster and it paid dividends on the court. Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green shot inexplicably better then ever before last season, with their True Shooting percentages almost twice as high in some cases, according to basketball-reference.
When your role players are clicking and your backcourt is made up of two of the best guards in the league, you end up with an extremely efficient offense. The main area where Phoenix needs to improve is down low and on defense. Without Frye and the addition of a bruising post player, the Suns will look to rely on the progression of second-year center Alex Len, who played just 8.6 minutes per game last season and battled injuries. If Len can progress as his teammates did last season, and Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas can continue to drive a potent attack, the Suns can repeat their success last year and be a 50-win team on the heels of the playoffs once again.
Best case: Thomas fits right into the rotation like the Suns envisioned, allowing the flow of the offense to continue when the Dragic-Bledsoe tandem is off the floor. Chemistry strikes and propels the Suns into the playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Worst case: Bledsoe regresses in his second year as a starter after landing a huge deal, injuries hamper the flow of the offense and their lack of perimeter defense becomes a much bigger problem.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
2013-14 record: 27-55 | Missed playoffs
Top addition: Byron Scott. After going through too many coaches that didn’t seem to fit, the Lakers have hired Scott as the new leader of their rebuilding effort. Scott will look to implement a new offense and inspire an aging Kobe once again.
Biggest loss: Pau Gasol. After years of being on the trading block, Gasol finally departed Los Angeles, signing with Chicago.
Outlook: Ranking near the bottom of the league in offensive and defensive efficiency last season, the Lakers have a lot to improve upon in 2014-15. With a new coach and key players returning from injury, the Lakers have a lot of chemistry issues to work out before getting back into playoff contention. The biggest question this year will obviously be Kobe’s health. If he’s back to being even a shell of himself, it’ll be huge for a Lakers team that relied on players like Nick Young and Jodie Meeks to carry offense last season.
The subtraction of Gasol and addition of Carlos Boozer via the amnesty bidding process will also factor into how the Lakers fare. If Boozer can slide into a similar role as Gasol and be successful, Los Angeles will have to determine whether or not to keep him going forward. Other intriguing prospects like Julius Randle will give Lakers fans reason to watch. The Kentucky product appears to be pro-ready with a 6-foot-9 frame and tipping the scales at 250 pounds. The Lakers will benefit from Randle’s superior rebounding, but he’s still very much a project. Scott recently said the rookie forward was “lost” in a preseason game against the Warriors. Like Randle, the Lakers will be a work in progress.
Best case: Kobe stays healthy enough for the Lakers to stay competitive while giving them a chance at climbing up in the division, and developing their younger guys.
Worst case: Injuries continue to be an issue. If Kobe and Steve Nash can’t stay on the floor, Lakers fans should quickly turn off the TV and wait until next year.
5. Sacramento Kings
2013-14 record: 28-54 | Missed playoffs
Top addition: Nik Stauskas: Drafted with the No. 8 overall pick, Stauskas is an excellent shooter who should help the Kings spread the floor better than last season.
Biggest loss: Isaiah Thomas: After being dissed by the Kings, Thomas signed with the Suns on a reasonable deal, joining an already crowded backcourt.
Outlook: It may be another long season for the Kings as they continue to try and build some semblance of consistency with their roster. The cornerstones of the team are Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, but beyond that, there’s nothing but uncertainty. The Kings are coming off their eighth-straight losing season, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 and have gone through six different head coaches over the last eight years.
After losing Thomas to the Suns, the Kings added Darren Collison, but he won’t be the answer at the point guard position going forward. Other options include Ray McCallum, who progressed well last season and happens to be a great defender, as well as rookie Nik Stauskas, who could see time at the point this year depending on who well Collison fairs. Either way, there’s been nothing but chaos in the backcourt for the Kings the last few seasons and it’s been holding them back. The silver lining lies with forward Rudy Gay, who’s coming off a successful stint with USA Basketball. Gay has improved since he landed in Sacramento, utilizing Cousins in the post to get himself better shot opportunities. Still, the lack of leadership and consistency at the point guard position will kill any chances of success the Kings had this year. If they’re lucky, they’ll beat out the Lakers and won’t be the worst team in the Pacific division.
Best case: Losing Thomas doesn’t come back to haunt them. Instead, Collison takes a bigger role and surprises skeptics. The offense evolves and Cousins and Gay take on a bigger leadership roles. If the Kings can overtake the Lakers, they’ll be able to call it a successful season.
Worst case: The Kings’ lack of cohesion is too apparent and they endure a year of regression. DeMarcus Cousins’ resolve goes through another year of losing and ineptitude both on the floor and in the front office, causing clashes along the way.
X-factor: Pacific division
Kobe Bryant, Lakers. Coming off the most serious injury of his career, Kobe has the entire league waiting to see what he has left in the tank. The Lakers are still in rebuilding mode and will have to replace Kobe at some point. Until then, it’s all about the Kobe Bryant Farewell Show, and in his mind, the playoffs should always be on the table.
Dark horse team
The Suns aren’t necessarily a sleeper at this point. After jumping onto the NBA scene last season with a fast paced offense and effective backcourt, they’re on every team’s radar. This season they’ve reloaded and are poised to make a jump in the division race. With a seamless rotation set between Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas in the backcourt, the offense should be clicking and the Suns should be able to replicate their success from last season.
The Clippers ease their way to a third straight division title and meet the Cavaliers and LeBron James in the Finals, where they go on to win their first championship with a new owner, new image and Chris Paul as their MVP.