Who’s ready to read 5,000 words on the Pacific Division even though the cliff-note version can be reduced to 7: if you aren’t from LA, you’re irrelevant. The division might as well be renamed “The Battle of Los Angeles”. Hey, at least that beats the Lakers and their 4 ugly step-sisters, i.e. the name of the paper last year. Yes, there is some excitement in what is normally the mundane and predictable Pacific. You can thank David Stern’s irrational veto power for that. There is a new sheriff in town, and honestly, who the hell would have guessed two years ago that would ever be the Clippers, the perennial wart of the league. Well, that’s what happens when you bring in the best point guard in basketball to pair with the league’s most exciting young player. The Clippers are alive and kicking. The Lakers are barely treading water. Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento are near interchangeably sunk in the murky-watered abyss at the bottom of the Conference. It’s part three of your 2011 NBA Divisional Previews here at TSHQ. Read if you dare..
Be prepared to get “Lob City” crammed down your throat this year religiously by every media outlet. Personally, I think it’s delicious. The Paul trade completed the re-invigoration process of Clipper basketball. You now have two of the three most athletic bigs in the game in Blake Superior and Jordan teamed up with the league’s premiere passing point guard. There will be lobs, there will be dunks, and frankly, that’s what feeds the present day sports media monster; excitement. The Clip Show has replaced the Lake Show as the most entertaining and exciting brand of basketball in Los Angeles. The Clips might even be the most exciting team to watch in the league. We’ll see how it translates to wins, but the casual fan cares more about a Griffin poster dunk than 48 minutes of successful defensive effort. The Clips are the shiny new toy on Christmas, and everyone eats that shit up.
Alternate Storyline: How is Donald Sterling going to fuck this up. I can’t be the only one thinking this.. Clips fans should be praying that Sterling doesn’t lose a poker game drunk on his yacht again and deal an impact player to recuperate (see Marcus Camby deal).
2.The Demise of the Lakers
The following is a general outline of what transpired for the Lakers this offseason:
A.The Lakers replaced Phil Jackson with Mike Brown, the single greatest coaching downgrade in the history of sports.
B.After striking out on CP3, LA dealt one of their only four good players in Odom to their greatest competition for free.
C.They then proceeded to fill that void with Josh McRoberts.
D.The teams championship chemistry was obliterated in the process.
E.Kobe recently got divorced and tore a ligament in his wrist.
Hard to imagine a worse off-season.. Scratch that, this was clearly the off-season from hell.
Alternate Storyline: Will Kobe demand a trade 25 games in when the Lakers are 10-15? You heard it here first..
3. Will the Lakers land Dwight Howard?
D-12 is really the only saving grace for LA at this point, given they can land him without giving up both Bynum and Gasol (unlikely). Trading Odom for free instead of having him to include in a potential Howard trade is one of the 10,000 head-scratching parts of the LO deal. Most importantly though, star players inevitably on the move, especially to big markets, dominates news in the Association. You haven’t heard the end of Dwight to LA, even if he never ends up in purple and gold.
Alternate Storyline: What cellar-dweller will exceed expectations. Oh, I forgot there are other teams in this division outside of Los Angeles. Maybe I would have been better off going with “why is Robert Sarver such a cold-hearted bastard” here, given it is probably the more prominent storyline.
Draft: Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie
Key Additions: Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler
Key Subtractions: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, Charles Smith
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Chauncey Billups
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
The Clippers underwent a significant backcourt overhaul this offseason, replacing Mo Williams and Eric Gordon with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. CP3 instantly makes this team an offensive efficiency and crunch time dynamo. The Clips were 23rd in offensive efficiency last year and 18th in assist rate, due largely to the fact Mo Williams (the starting point in the latter half of the season) isn’t a true point guard. With Paul in tow, LAC’s offense will flow much more effectively. More importantly, the Hornets were the best crunch-time team in the league over Paul’s stint there. CP3 quietly dominates in the clutch, so I expect that to continue in LA.
Billups might have been the sneaky best signing (off amnesty waivers) of the off-season. Being plugged in at shooting guard is perfect for Chauncey, whose strength and lack of foot-speed is much better suited guarding twos than ones at this stage of his career. His leadership, crunch-time shot making, and floor-spacing around Superior will be a tremendous asset to this young core.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of the Butler signing. $8 mil a year for a player coming off a significant knee injury who hasn’t been good in three years is WAY too much, but hey, he’s a significant upgrade over Ryan Gomes. Butler is an isolation ball-stopper, not a spot up shooter or plus defender, making the fit here a bit questionable. Still, it’s a positive, albeit expensive move.
The Clips in re-signing Jordan were able to keep their uber-athletic frontcourt of the aforementioned Jordan and Blake intact. Both are tremendous rebounders and Jordan’s shot blocking compliments Blake’s lackethereof in that department well defensively. Offensively, Jordan is a non-factor (he didn’t make a shot outside of the paint all last year), and Blake is still developing. Blake’s go-to move last season was a whirling-durbish spinning hook that was rough on the eyes and largely ineffective. Any development he makes offensively this year is a huge bonus. He’s already an excellent ball-handler and passer for his size. Any semblance of a post game or improved face-up midrange game could spell doom for the Western Conference..
The Clips have ridiculous depth in the backcourt with Williams, Foye and Bledsoe. Both Williams and Foye can get you 15 in limited minutes as a scoring spark, difficult assets to come by. Bledsoe showed promise last year as well, but with the backcourt logjam it’s difficult to see him getting ample playing time.
LAC’s frontcourt depth is another story entirely. The Clips don’t have a backup center on the roster. The not gun-shy Brian Cook expects to get most of the minutes there to begin the season, but he doesn’t have the size to man the center spot in critical situations, such as in the playoffs with DeAndre in foul trouble. Gomes is capable of playing some stretch four, as well as his normal three spot, but beyond him there really isn’t much else to fall back on. Trey Thompkins has shown promise as a scorer in the preseason, but it’s the preseason..The lack of frontcourt depth is the Clippers greatest weakness.
Overall, the Clips should be an uptempo offensive juggernaut with the combination of Paul, athletic finishing bigs, and a plethora of shooters. Simply put, this team will be near impossible to stop with Paul tearing up teams in the screen roll game with Blake and finding his multitude of perimeter shooters. They do have significant chinks in the armor however, mainly their lack of a perimeter defensive stopper and lack of depth in the frontcourt. Ideally, Caron Butler will play inspired defense for a change and they’ll flip one of their backup guards (Mo or Bledsoe) for a serviceable backup big. Right now, I think they’re one big away from truly contending for a title, but as currently constituted, with their young legs in this shortened season, they’ll be good enough to capture the Pacific Division crown from their “older brother”.
Projection: 44-22 (1st in the Pacific)
Draft: Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock
Key Additions: Josh McRoberts, Jason Kapono, Troy Murphy
Key Subtractions: Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown
PG: Derek Fisher
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Matt Barnes
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Andrew Bynum
Dissecting the Lakers is an easy task. They have as good of a core three as virtually any team in the league with Kobe, Pau and Bynum. However, the surrounding cast is made up of barely adequate to scrub players. Essentially, you have the “Big Three” and disposables.
Out of the 150 possible positions on all teams last year (30 teams, 5 positions), the Laker point guards were ranked 149th in terms of net productivity, being edged out by only the Nets small forwards for the biggest goat. Both Fisher and Blake were outside the top 59 point guards in terms of PER. Think about that. Neither player would’ve even been a backup quality guard on most teams. It’s been well established that point guard is LA’s greatest deficiency, so how do they address it this offseason? Well, they don’t. Both Fish and Blake return in their respective roles. Cue the likes of all Western Conference point guards foaming at the mouth. Fisher has been overdone to the point he’s burnt crisp now. His one or two clutch playoff shots used to partly overcompensate for his deficiencies, but when those shots stopped falling he became a total liability. Steve Blake remains the gun-shy point guard who was actually better suited for the triangle as a spot up shooter who never penetrates than any offense Mike Brown will run (much to the dismay of Lakers fans). Thus, even if Blake sacks up and becomes more decisive shooting the rock, at most he’s a marginal improvement over last year. Rookie Darius Morris, quickly emerging as the “irrational confidence guy” on the team, could get some burn, but regardless, point guard remains a total nightmare situation for the Lake Show.
This team, as with most years, will go as far as Kobe takes them. And by that I mean if Kobe is healthy and has a bounce back in his step, LA has a shot a advancing to the second round. If not, they’ll most certainly get rocked in round one. Kobe was dreadful in the playoffs last year. He probably took 7 shots in the paint against Dallas all series. Essentially, he reduced himself to taking 15 foot contested fadeaways. Even though he knocked down a ridiculous percentage of those, you can’t win that way. Who knows whether that was tired legs due to three straight trips to the finals, injuries, deteriorating athleticism, or a combination (probably the latter). What’s important is he wasn’t the same player. Kobe looked re-energized his first preseason game prior to injuring his wrist. If he’s right, meaning able to get in the paint, create easy shots, and get to the line, LA can be respectable. It’s not going to help his cause, however, that LA let Shannon Brown walk and replaced him with Jason Kapono. Not that Shannon was a world-beater in the least, but he’s a hell of a lot better than Kapono.
I should modify my statement above and say the Lakers will only go as far as Kobe + the Twin Towers take them. Bynum and Gasol form the best PF/C combo in the league. The only problem is who knows how long that combo will be intact. Bynum is perennially on the injury block, and this year LA can ill afford any extended leave of absence from Drew due to, you know, the fact they gave Lamar away. Pau had a tough go in the playoffs last year, but over the first two months of the season he was arguably the league’s MVP. He’s a still a very effective player, and with Mike Brown expected to feature the post more Pau should be in for his best season yet. Bynum, as stated above, is a force when healthy. His post all-star break splits last year rendered him the only center that could even enter the Howard stratosphere on both ends of the court. Not to beat a dead horse senseless, but the key with Drew is health. I don’t see how the more intensified season helps either of his knees.
Mike Brown’s first crazy idea of his new reign is putting Matt Barnes in the starting lineup and delegating to Ron Artest LO’s former sixth man scoring role. This has full blown disaster written all over it. Artest is the vastly superior defender to Barnes and fits in much better with the starters as the perimeter stopper to take pressure off Kobe. More importantly, no way in hell should Artest ever be given a primary scoring role with high usage. He can’t create, jump, finish, or frankly, do anything positive outside of defend at this stage of his career. His shot selection and offensive awareness are also abysmal. Giving Ron primary duties as a bench scorer is essentially making way for potentially the least efficient offensive player in basketball. What a train wreck.
Devin Ebanks, unknown to the masses but quietly the 4th best player on the Lakers, is much better suited for a primary scoring role off the bench. Unfortunately, he likely wont get it. The Lakers have an onslaught of floor spacers with McRoberts, Murphy, and Kapono who are all expected to fill out the bench. However, none of those guys are anything more than barely adequate role-players. There isn’t an impact player on the Lakers bench outside of potentially Ebanks. Clearly, the Lakers lack of depth is crippling.
The Lakers are a sinking ship. You can’t trade Lamar Odom, the best sixth man in basketball, away for nothing when you already had one of the worst supporting casts in the league even with Odom and expect anything other than disaster. That’s what makes the Lakers offseason moves so perplexing. Their weaknesses were clear, and the organization is one of the wealthiest in sports (especially with the new TV deal they just signed), and yet, they didn’t address any of their needs, mainly point guard, and the LO move was purely a salary dump. You can’t win with three good players and nothing. Plus, I’m not sure if there is a team that will be more negatively affected by the shortened season than the Lakers due to the age factor and aforementioned lack of depth. The transition from Phil Jackson to Mike Brown was enough to overcome, and notice I barely mentioned Brown above, frankly because I don’t know what the hell to expect (praying it doesn’t involve strictly 1-4 isos). As currently constituted, given their lack of depth, LA is finished as a contender. Their only hope now rests on a 6-11 center that resides in Orlando..
Projection: 39-27 (2nd in the Pacific)
3. Phoenix Suns
Draft: Markieff Morris
Key Additions: Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Ronny Price
Key Subtractions: Vince Carter, Aaron Brooks
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Jared Dudley
SF: Grant Hill
PF: Channing Frye
C: Marcin Gortat
The Suns return a similar team, albeit replacing Carter and Brooks in the backcourt with Telfair and Brown, a definite downgrade. Phoenix will once again be a high pace, elite offensive team that can’t defend and struggles on the glass. You know, their MO..
I’m glad we only have to see Nash wilt away for one more year in Sarver’s prison before he relocates to New York. Any Nash led team will be top 10 in terms of offensive efficiency, which is what the Suns will be again. Nash is the engine that makes the Sun’s conglomeration of spot up shooters/non iso players go. You have him to break down defenses off screen-roll and find open shooters and your offense is legit. Without him on this Sun’s team, you have a chicken with it’s head cut off. I worry about Nash’s ability to stay healthy with this compact season. He already has back issues and with less rest time and a worse backup situation he could be in the infirmary a lot this year.
The Dudley/Brown combination at shooting guard is respectable. Dudley is a smart defender whose size is a significant asset against taller players. He can’t jump over a phone book but his high IQ and shooting ability make him a plus player. Conversely, Shannon Brown can clear Muggsy Bogues with that vertical. “TNT Legs”, as we called him in LA, will make a few extra-terrestrial dunks that will excite the crowd and make everyone forget about the Sun’s predicament for an instant, but outside of that, his streaky shooting and questionable defense render him not a game changer. Still, you could do a whole lot worse for a backup shooting guard. I don’t think there is a significant gap between Brown and VC’s corpse.
Grant Hill is the proverbial “old reliable”. I don’t know how he’s still an effective player on both ends of the court. All I know is behind Nash and Gortat Hill is Phoenix’s next most important player. The Suns training staff has done wonders for Grant.
Gortat is really the reason why I have Phoenix ranked ahead of Golden State this year. The Suns were terrible on the glass last year, with both Frye and Lopez being subpar rebounders. Gortat is much better on the glass and should give Phoenix a boost in that department. He’s also the best defender of the group, so even though the Suns will still be an anemic defensive team, they can’t be any worse than last year with Gortat now in the fold.
As noted above, swapping Brooks for Telfair is a sizable downgrade. Telfair is a blur, which fits into the Suns uptempo system in pushing the ball up the court quickly, but his lack of vision and shooting ability negates his plus speed. Childress is perhaps the biggest misfit of any team in recent memory because he can’t shoot outside 5 feet. If you can’t shoot in Phoenix’s system as a wing you’re essentially rendered worthless. The Suns would do well to limit their rotation off the bench to just Shannon Brown at the wing sports.
In the frontcourt, Markieff Morris should give the Suns much needed physicality and defensive effort. He projects to be a solid rebounder with the ability to knock down open jumpers. If Markieff can consistently make shots there is no need to play Hakeem Warrick, a pick and roll finishing specialist but who brings nothing else to the table. Morris and Lopez in combination with Gortat and Frye give the Suns a legit and versatile frontline.
What else is there to say besides what was detailed in the intro? What the hell do you people want from me? The Suns are the damn Suns. Some things never change. They will change however after this year when Nash and most likely Hill depart for greener pastures, leaving Phoenix to build around the likes of Morris and Gortat, albeit with a plethora of cap space. That’s what you get Sarver for not dealing Nash when his value peaked just to sell tickets for a lottery team. Jokes on you..
Projection: 26-40 (3rd in the Pacific)
4.Golden State Warriors
Draft: Klay Thompson, Charles Jenkins, Jeremy Tyler
Key Additions: Kwame Brown, Brandon Rush
Key Subtractions: Reggie Williams, Louis Amundson, Vladimir Radmanovic
PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Monta Ellis
SF: Dorell Wright
PF: David Lee
C: Andres Biedrins
Every year it seems like the same story with the Warriors. They bring in a new coach to change the “culture” of the team in effort to be more defense oriented and they either forget or are unable to actually make personnel changes to match that new methodology. Marc Jackson, like his predecessors, is saying all the right things, but again, the roster remains the same, i.e. not fit for the transformation from offense to defense.
The offensive exploits of Curry and Ellis are well documented. Curry is a deadly sniper who is quickly entering the Steve Nash Mount Rushmore of shooting efficiency. He’s also a underrated passer with an extremely high basketball IQ. Curry has definitely proven himself capable of manning the point guard spot on this level, a question-mark when he entered the league. Monta is similarly an offensive juggernaut, but his game is built more on speed and athleticism rather than basketball IQ. Actually, it’s a fair assessment to say Monta is in desperate need of some Curry IQ points. Nevertheless, Monta is an electric offensive player that can get to the cup and is devastating in the open court.
As a pairing Curry and Ellis compliment each other fairly well. Monta needs the ball to be effective for the most part, which is fine because Curry’s stroke enables him to play off the ball. However, Curry is the far better decision maker and the purer point guard instinctually, which is an issue because Monta’s forte isn’t catching and shooting. On the other side of the ball, the two are highly criticized for their lack of height. Thus, one of the players, usually Ellis, is viewed as too small to guard conventional shooting guards. Admittedly, I don’t watch a ton of Warriors basketball, but the height factor doesn’t seem to be the problem. I’ve seen Monta shut down Kobe for stretches. To me, it’s entirely about effort, especially with Monta. Six years of the organization devaluing defense can have that effect. Curry also fouls too much..
Dorell Wright is a hand in glove fit on this squad. He’s essentially a spot-up shooter, which is ideal with Curry and Monta garnering the majority of the usage. Wright also tries defensively, which is more than most of his fellow teammates can say.
It’s all well and good so far for the Dubs, but it starts getting dicey at the 4 and 5 positions. David Lee is a great pick and pop shooter, but he’s a defensive atrocity. Couple Lee with soft perimeter D and it puts an immense amount of pressure on the center position to overcompensate for the shortcomings of every one else. That was certainly the methodology behind pursuing Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan this offseason. Unfortunately, they struck out and ended up with Kwame Brown. Andres Biedrins is expected to get the starting nod though. If you think Pau Gasol is soft, what is Biedrins? Tissue paper soft? Jesus this guy has become such a disappointment. He gets mauled in the paint by virtually everyone and puts up little fight. Biedrins had the potential to be a defensive anchor. Now, he’s an pushover on that end and an offensive non-factor. Disappointing. Even more disappointing is the Warriors performance on the glass last year, ranking dead last in defensive rebounding rate. Both Lee and Biedrins, while limited players, are both excellent rebounders, so that’s definitely a head-scratcher that I expect to improve.
The Warriors old regime notoriously ran their starters into the ground, playing Monta and Steph sometimes all 48 minutes in games. There’s no way in hell they can pull that off in a shortened season, so the bench will have to assume a greater role. Rookie Klay Thompson can stroke it and should see minutes immediately as a result. Brandon Rush has never seen a shot he doesn’t like, but he can defend, and if you read the above sections you know the Warriors can use any defensive lifeline they can get (not that you didn’t know that already). Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh or both heinous offensive players, but both are big bodies who can defend. Kwame is an elite post defender and Udoh is more of a off the ball shot-blocker, offering G-State some versatility. The Warriors will miss Reggie William’s shot creating off the pine though..
The Warriors are a carbon copy of the Suns in many ways. They’re a proficient offensive team and a terrible defensive and rebounding team (though again rebounding should improve). More importantly, it’s an entertaining brand of basketball that doesn’t win. Marc Jackson can preach defense until he’s blue in the face but it doesn’t mean shit until they go out and get those players. With Jerry West in an advising role it seems like the Warriors actually realized this and tried to remedy it, but were unsuccessful. It’s a shame. With Chandler this team was a legit playoff team. Now, they’ll fall into the same trap they always do, and the fans will love them for it, to their own detriment..
Projection: 25-41 (4th in the Pacific)
Draft: Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Honeycutt, Isiah Thomas
Key Additions: John Salmons, J.J. Hickson, Travis Outlaw, Chuck Hayes
Key Subtractions: Samuel Dalembert, Beno Udrih, Omri Casspi
PG: Tyreke Evans
SG: Marcus Thornton
SF: John Salmons
PF: Chuck Hayes
C: DeMarcus Cousins
I’m sure most are familiar with the cowboys and indians saying, where you never want too many cowboys (stars) in place of too little indians (role players). Modifying the phrase slightly in meaning, the Kings have all cowboys, not stars, but the same breed of player. I’m not sure there will be enough balls to go around in Sacramento this year. The situation will be akin to a group of Lions tearing at the carcass of its prey. Seriously, everyone on the roster is a “me” player except for poor Chuck Hayes, where divine intervention is occurring in the form of failed physicals in order to keep him out of this hell-hole.
Abiding by the above “me” premise, what do Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton have in common? You guessed it, both are black holes. Reke is one of the premiere penetrators in the game. He’s one of the true elite talents in terms of getting to the cup. Unfortunately, he drives to score, not to pass, and he isn’t a capable shooter, meaning he needs the ball to be effective and can’t really play off the ball. Also, not matter what the Kings FO thinks, HE’S NOT A POINT GUARD! Similarly, Thornton isn’t a set up man. He’s ideally suited as a source of instant offense off the bench, being a high volume scorer. Neither are point guards, and certainly, neither are unselfish.
Salmons was a horrendous acquisition. Sorry Kings fans. Washed up 31 year old small forwards with no motivation who again, need the ball, is not a recipe for success, especially on a rebuilding team.
No one questions Cousi-Bears talent. It’s there. The questions revolve around maturity and eating habits. I don’t trust Paul Westphal to real this kid in, so the onus is on you, Chuck Hayes. Good luck with that. If Cousins is in the post few players if anyone can handle his combination of size and skill. The question is, will he stop taking ridiculous perimeter shots in route to be obscenely inefficient and start using his god given talents to dominate. Oh, and did I mention Demarcus also loves chucking the basketball?
Jimmer is the truth. I just wish he was under the tutelage of say, Steve Nash, to learn the nuances of the point guard position, instead of playing behind two young ball hogs. Regardless, he’s the Kings one saving grace in not only keeping a team in Sacto but bringing these band of hooligans together. I said prior to last years draft the Kings would be the largest beneficiary of a Kyrie Irving type player, someone who can just run the show. I’m not sure if Jimmer is that guy, but he needs to be. On some teams Jimmer could just be a spot up shooter, but not here, at least if the Kings want to be borderline respectable.
Travis Outlaw expects to see the majority of the backup small forward minutes, which is a mistake because the only time Outlaw has ever been an effective NBA player is when he was a stretch 4 in Portland. The frontcourt combination of J.J. Hickson (Cleveland’s former golden boy, aka the guy the Cavs wouldn’t part with for Amare years back), and Jason Thompson is talented, especially as finishers, but they’re tweeners. There likely wont be enough minutes for either to consistently thrive.
The Kings roster looks like it was assembled by a drunk artist who painted several distinct but quality works on the same canvas and just expected them to coexist. The Kings have talent, the problem is the pieces don’t fit. There are too many chuckers and high usage players, and not enough defense and passing. This is a fantasy basketball haven, but not a successful professional basketball team.
Projection: 18-48 (5th in the Pacific)