Greetings to the Pacific Division!
The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have last season’s best record. They didn’t have the league MVP. They didn’t even have the Coach of the Year. But they did have the 2010 NBA Title, Kobe Bryant’s NBA Finals MVP award, and Coach Phil Jackson. That was all they needed. Going 57-25, the Lakers secured the top seed in the West and were never seriously challenged for the Conference title by any team. The Lakers had been in the NBA Finals for two consecutive seasons, first falling to the Celtics, then toppling the Magic, and finally avenging the loss to the Celtics. Can the Lakers three-peat? The only legitimate threats to them are the two teams they’ve faced in the last three seasons, and the Miami Heat. The West will fall to the Lakers – that’s all but certain, but the 2011 Title will not be up for grabs. However, that fact has always been obvious because no team is a guaranteed title – even the 1960’s Celtics dynasty had to fight for all those rings. The Lakers have improved their roster from last season. Jordan Farmar is gone. New arrivals include Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Theo Ratliff. The Lakers have improved their defense and scoring with those additions. Derek Fisher chose to resign, even though he could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. Shannon Brown also stayed put. Both Bryant and Andrew Bynum have had surgeries, and although Kobe will be healthy come October 26th, Bynum will be out till December. Along with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers are incredibly dangerous. They have every weapon in their formidable arsenal. Two 7-footers, great shooters, solid defense, and pretty much everything else a team contending for a third straight championship could want. However, they do have some weaknesses that could be exploited. Ron Artest is a streaky shooter. While underperforming during the regular season, his game 7 performance against the Celtics was MVP-worthy and helped clinch the Lakers’ win. Kobe is another year older and injury-riddled/recovering from injuries. There’s no doubt that he can play through pretty much anything when he gets down to business, but even The Black Mamba has a limit – and it could be approaching very soon. Matt Barnes isn’t guaranteed to mesh well with either Kobe or Artest. Phil Jackson’s health has been on the decline, and he’s said several times over the past several years that he’s planning on retiring. Lastly, Bynum’s health is a wildcard, as he always seems to get injured come playoff time and has made it clear that he’d rather watch the World Cup than get surgery. How many games the Lakers win this season is irrelevant. The fact that they’ll probably make it to the NBA Finals makes everything up to that point seem a lot less impressive. As they fight to hang up banner #18 in their rafters, it’ll all come down to who their opponents are from the East.
The Phoenix Suns were a smidge behind the Lakers last season (54-28), until it came to their postseason matchups, that is. The Lakers decimated the Suns with suffocating defense and brutal offensive beatdowns. Amare Stoudemire was outrebounded by Gasol, even though Steve Nash led a valiant effort. Now, Amare is in New York, Nash is yet another year older, and the roster has been reshaped. Josh Childress can help the Suns in several ways, and his return to the NBA this season has been an anticipated one. Goran Dragic showed immense potential last season, and could have a breakout year. Channing Frye is a talented 3-point shooter and fits into the Suns’ rotation nicely. The additions of Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick should patch up the problems left when Amare also left. Let’s not forget that this team also has veterans Jason Richardson and Grant Hill. While Hill is not the same player he was in his All Star years, Richardson remains a prolific scorer. Lastly, if Robin Lopez stays healthy and continues to improve his game, this roster will be one of the most talented in the league.
The Lakers and Suns were the top two seeds in the West, and both came from the Pacific Division. The three remaining teams won a combined 80 games. In other words, if the Clippers, Warriors, and Kings were a single team, they would’ve had an unbelievable 80-win season. But since teams are individually ranked, they were the bottom of the league all season. It’s interesting that the NBA champions came from California, while the NBA doormats were all from California too (sorry New Jersey, Washington, and Minnesota).
The Clippers were 29-53 last season, and boy was it a long one. The “Clippers Curse” lived up to its reputation as the team suffered setback after setback. Potential Rookie of the Year material Blake Griffin was lost to injury all season even before the season began. On the bright side, he can still win that title as he retains his rookie status. The team lost their Head Coach after losing seasons (they haven’t been to the playoffs since Spring 2006). On the bright side, Vinny del Negro is their new coach, and he did turn the Bulls around, sort of. Last season, the Clippers were plagued with injuries to virtually every player who showed any potential. On the bright side, they’re all healthy at the moment. The Clippers even got a decent 8th pick in Al-Farouq Aminu. And to top it all off, he’s still healthy. This team has a lot of potential – they’ve had it for quite some time. The problem is that between bad coaching and bad timing, the Clippers haven’t had a chance. IF they can stay healthy, and the roster can maintain a modicum of consistency, the Clippers might have a shot at the playoffs. At their best, this team can win over 40 games. Realistically, they’re looking at less than that.
Not much was shining in the Golden State last season. 26 wins will make any team sad – unless you’re the New Jersey Nets, in which case you’ve already accomplished something. Don Nelson is out. Is there a chance that the Warriors’ illogical system will now be replaced with some real defense and a little bit of poignant scoring? Sure, the Warriors love to shoot and score, and they rack up their points per game. However, if you’re only winning 26 games, while being among the league leaders in offensive production, you might want to rethink your strategy. The Warriors will be lucky to win 35 games this season. Yes, they have Stephen Curry, who has a terrific rookie season and could be an All-Star in February if his development continues. With Monta Ellis’s recovery, this team could develop quite well. The problem is that the rest of the roster is so shuffled and jumbled that the future is a mystery. Vladimir Radmanovic is talented, as is Andris Biedrins and Louis Amundson. But defense is lacking, and the rotation remains unclear. The Warriors have a bleak future in sight. They will have nights when they look like NBA champion contenders, but for the most part, they’ll be struggling to stay afloat in the ocean.
For the past several seasons, I’ve been wondering if the Sacramento Kings should change their name since “Kings” is such a misnomer. 25 wins is tough to stomach; at least they had the Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans. Sadly, after winning the award, he decided to celebrate by going approximately 110mph on the highway. Brilliant! At least he average 20, 5, and 5 – something only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James did their rookie years. Clearly, Evans has plenty to prove if he wants to be worthy of such accolade. Another promising sophomore, Omri Casspi, has received huge publicity being the first Israeli player in the NBA. Unfortunately, his rookie season was plagued by shooting slumps. Acquiring Samuel Dalembert and Carl Landry gave this team a boost. DeMarcus Cousins also has a chip on his shoulder that he should be eager to cast off. The Kings have a lot of interesting pieces, but the chessboard is looking very messy. Give them 30-35 wins.
We now make our way to the Southwest Division.