Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NBA Preview: Pacific Division

Thanks for waiting everyone! It’s time for the Pacific Division preview which, thankfully, is our last stop in a tour around the divisions. The Pacific seems to be fairly obvious at the top, but after that it’s anyone’s best guess. Here’s mine:

PHOENIX SUNS (2005-2006 record: 54-28; Lost to Dallas in Western Finals)

Predicted division finish: 1st

What the Suns did a year ago was truly remarkable. They played all but three games without Amare Stoudemire and were great. They lost Joe Johnson and turned the man they got in return, Boris Diaw, into an All-Star caliber player. Raja Bell brought a certain toughness on defense that had been lacking. When it was all said and done, the team no one thought could get the job done without Stoudemire almost went to the Finals.

That brings us to this season. Phoenix has to be on the short list of legitimate championship threats.

Steve Nash is the defending two-time MVP (which is utterly absurd and a whole other column) and is motivated to win a title. He’s the best in the game at getting the most out of his teammates, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t have another big year this season.

Stoudemire is working his way back, and honestly, if he gets back to 75% healthy this team will be dramatically improved. The Suns lacked an inside presence for most of the year, and Stoudemire is one of the top five big men in the league when he’s healthy. If his knee is right, look out.

Obviously the Suns are going to score. It’s what Mike D’Antoni knows and preaches, and with Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa, Nash, Stoudemire, Bell, Diaw, James Jones, Kurt Thomas and newcomers Jumaine Jones and Marcus Banks comprising the rotation, the Suns are going to score a lot.

The big question mark that Phoenix always faces is defense, but with the offense the Suns have, they’re going to win a ton of games regardless. I was really impressed by the heart and mental toughness Phoenix showed in the postseason last year. They fought back from 3-1 against the Lakers, they battled against the Clippers and they gave Dallas everything they could handle in a six game series. That grit and desire will be stronger this season, and I think if Stoudemire’s knee is healthy, this is your team to beat in the league. However, that’s a huge if.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS (2005-2006 record: 45-37. Lost in round one to Phoenix)

Predicted division finish: 2nd

I’ve already written my feelings on this Lakers team in depth, so I won’t bore you with it again.

In fact, here’s the link: Lakers Preview

I wrote that in July, and my feelings haven’t changed.

The Lakers will need to get off to a good start with a lot of early games at home, and they’ll need Kobe Bryant and Chris Mihm healthy, but if you look at Phil Jackson’s second year with teams historically, you’ll see plenty to be optimistic about. I stick to my 50 wins prediction.

SACRAMENTO KINGS (2005-2006 record: 44-38; Lost in round one to SA)

Predicted division finish: 3rd

This team scares me. If you look at the roster, it doesn’t necessarily jump out at you, but there’s something about this team that should be scaring the rest of the Pacific Division. I suppose it could just be Ron Artest.

Speaking of Artest, the Kings were 18-24 when they acquired the forward from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Peja Stojakovic. With Artest, the Kings finished 26-14. If he can stay away from distractions, Artest is one of the game’s all-around best players. He can post up, he can shoot the three, he can defend, and he can rebound. If he matures, this team can be dangerous.

Artest has some help. Kevin Martin looks like a breakout star in the making and will get the time to shine now that Bonzi Wells is a Rocket. Mike Bibby is a quality point guard who quietly scores 21 points per game, and Brad Miller is the best shooting center in the league. That’s a fine core group. Add in hard working players like Kenny Thomas, Francisco Garcia, Corliss Williamson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim and you’ve got the makings for success.

Eric Musselman is the new head coach, and I’ve always thought Musselman got a raw deal in Golden State. He has a lot of talent to work with in Sarcramento, and he’ll work hard to make them a better defensive team, which works well since he’ll have the game’s best defender in Artest.

If Artest can keep it together in cowbell-land, watch the Kings. They could be one of the surprise teams out West this season.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (2005-2006 record: 47-35; Lost in round two to PHX)

Predicted division finish: 4th

I hear you. This seems too low for the Clippers.

They have Elton Brand, Sam Cassell, Shaun Livingston, Chris Kaman, Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette all back in the fold.

That’s a quality rotation right there.

They added Tim Thomas in the off-season. They’ve got unsung bench players like James Singleton and Quinton Ross. Mike Dunleavy is one of the best coaches in the game.

I know all of this.

So why pick the Clippers fourth in the division?

Because they’re the Clippers, and until they show me they’re REALLY not anymore, then I say they can’t do it two years in a row. I just can’t buy into this. Something will go wrong. Some horrible mistake will still be made.

Now, in all seriousness, the middle of this divison is a complete toss up. The Lakers could be a disaster if Odom or Bryant get hurt. The Kings have to deal with Artest. The Clippers are the Clippers. Anything is possible. Someone has to be fourth, and as good as the Clippers were last year they still only finished three games ahead of the Kings and one game ahead of the Lakers. So, this year, I predict they finish fourth, and I’m fully prepared to look stupid if I’m wrong.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (2005-2006 record: 34-48; Missed playoffs)

Predicted division finish: Last

The big news out of the Bay is that Don Nelson is back on the sidelines.

Sadly, he won’t be able to turn this around in one year.

Sure, the Warriors are going to run all over the place and they’ll probably be very exciting to watch. Baron Davis and Jason Richardson are going to enjoy playing up-tempo basketball. However, they don’t have enough around them to compete for the playoffs.

Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy have been huge disappointments the last couple of seasons. For the Warriors to improve, both Dunleavy and Murphy will have to find consistency in their games.

In addition, Golden State has a lot of unproven young talent who have had a hard time playing well night in and night out. Michael Pietrus is going to get a chance to start, so they’re hoping for big things from him. Andris Biedrins, Zarko Cabarkapa, Ike Diogu, Monta Ellis, and Matt Barnes are all pieces that fit somewhere on this roster, but I’m not even sure Don Nelson knows what to expect out of them.

Nelson wants the Warriors to get better defensively. I wish him the best of luck.

The bottom line for Golden State is that Nellie will help them improve more than they would have if Mike Montgomery was still around, but there are just too many teams that are better in the Pacific. Unless there’s a huge surprise that no one sees coming, the Warriors will find themselves in the cellar of the division for one more year.

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