We now reach the end of our seasonal preview and with the Pacific Division. The Pacific is as clear cut a division as you’ll find. The Lakers are a title contender and the cream of the crop and no real contenders after that. Let’s take a look:
1. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers are the favorites to come out of the West again this year, as they were last year. The success here isn’t a mystery. The team has few weaknesses (defending quick point guards is the only one that comes to mind) and this is a team that excels offensively and defensively. Obviously, Kobe Bryant is the key to this team but Pau Gasol is also an indispensable piece too. Assuming they are healthy, there is no reason the Lakers won’t make the Finals again. The only major differences between this team and last year’s is the effective trade of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest and the potential of having Andrew Bynum healthy for the whole season.
The Ariza/Artest trade is overblown. Artest is probably still a better player than Ariza but the difference is overstated. Artest is definitely the better scorer but his high volume shooting might actually not be a better fit for the Lakers. Further, Ariza defends quicker players better than Artest at this point. The caveat here is that Artest can still bang and he is a nice match up defensively for LeBron James, something that the Lakers were missing. As for Bynum, his health is only gravy for the Lakers. If he continues to develop the Lakers, even now, have some room for improvement.
Is there anything bad going on here? Not really. The only even quasi-bad item to note is that Kobe, as great as he is, has been declining slightly the last few years. The only part of his game where this might be evident is in his ability to get to the line. Bryant had his lowest free throw rate since 2002-03. The rate is still quite good but off from the peak of the mid-2000s. This means nothing for now but is something worth tracking over the next few seasons.
As another side note, the 2008-09 Lakers were quite good from an historical perspective. The 2008-09 team tied the 1986-87 team for the third most wins (65) in franchise history. Here’s how the team scored on SRS rating:
1. 1971-72 Lakers, 11.65 (69-13)
2. 1999-00 Lakers, 8.41 (67-15)
3. 1986-87 Lakers, 8.32 (65-17)
4. 1972-73 Lakers, 8.18 (60-22)
5. 2007-08 Lakers, 7.34 (57-25)
6. 2001-02 Lakers, 7.15 (58-24)
7. 2008-09 Lakers, 7.11 (65-17)
8. 1997-98 Lakers, 6.88 (61-21)
9. 1985-86 Lakers, 6.84 (62-20)
10. 1989-90 Lakers, 6.74 (63-19)
So, the 2008-09 Lakers don’t register as the best team ever but they are in the conversation with the Wilt/West teams, the Showtime Lakers, and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. Interestingly, the 2008-09 team didn’t score as well as the 2007-08 team and neither team hit the heights of the best of the other Laker dynasties.
-PG, Gary Payton 2003-04: 14.6 ppg, .471 FG%, 4.2 rpg, 5.5 apg, 17.3 PER
-SG, Kobe Bryant 2005-06: 35.4 ppg, .450 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 28.0 PER
-SF, Lamar Odom 2005-06: 13.3 ppg, .481 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 17.0 PER
-PF, Pau Gasol 2008-09: 18.9 ppg, .567 FG%, 9.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 22.2 PER
-C, Shaquille O’Neal 1999-00: 29.7 ppg, .574 FG%, 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 30.6 PER
2. Phoenix Suns: After three straight years of decline, the Suns have kind of righted the ship. They’ve come to terms with the fact that a Steve Nash/Amare Stoudemire team is supposed to run and defense and half court offense don’t have to be a focus but that they only need to be acceptable. Indeed, the whole Shaquille O’Neal excursion made the Suns actually worse defensively than they were in the Mike D’Antoni years (in fact, the D’Antoni teams were decent defensively). When Alvin Gentry came in and Shaq was sent out, the Suns returned to running but the defense declined even further (26th in the NBA) and the Suns ended up wasting nearly two years of Nash’s prime farting around with a half court offense.
Now, the Suns are back to the old ways but time has not stood still in the meantime. The core is still there for a solid team but no longer is this a title team. Nash is a little older and Stoudemire struggled with eye injuries and a very unsettled contract situation. Amare has a $17 million option for next year (which he is likely to exercise) and the Suns don’t seem to trust him enough to give a big extension because of the injuries he has had, the money he’s demanding, and the fact that the Suns have been careful with cash the last few years. Indeed, I think the Suns gave Nash an extension at a time when he was still under contract for a few years because he’s a decent bet to stay good, the fans love him, and the goodwill will help management when Amare is ultimately traded or let go as a free agent.
If Amare remains, having him along with Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, and Leandrinho Barbosa gives the Suns a formidable running team. They never will be able to stop any of the really good teams but will have a vibe like some of the old Don Nelson teams in Golden State and Dallas, where they can beat anyone if everything breaks right for their offense. Expect the Phoenix to be a seed somewhere between 5 and 8 seed with an entertaining but decisive first round loss.
-PG, Steve Nash 2006-07: 18.6 ppg, .532 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 11.6 apg, 23.8 PER
-SG, Leandro Barbosa 2008-09: 14.2 ppg, .482 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 19.4 PER
-SF, Boris Diaw 2005-06: 13.3 ppg, .526 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 6.2 apg, 17.3 PER
-PF, Shawn Marion 2005-06: 21.8 ppg, .525 FG%, 11.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 23.6 PER
-C, Amare Stoudemire 2007-08: 25.2 ppg, .590 FG%, 9.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 27.6 PER
3. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clipps were as terrible as any team last year. The year started out with Elton Brand spurning the Clipps to go East and leaving new signee Baron Davis without his expected running mate. Davis’ signing was dubious even if the Clipps had re-signed Brand and Brand was still great. Without Brand, Davis had a career worst season, shooting poorly and just generally looking like a bust. On top of that, Chris Kaman was injured and the Clipps somehow decided that Zach Randolph would work well as a Bizarro Elton Brand. This all worked about as well as one would think and the Clipps basically folded on the season (4-20 the last month of the season) and earned enough ping pong balls to get the Blake Griffin, the prize of the draft.
Now, the Clipps look a little better. Eric Gordon and Marcus Camby both played well and Kaman should be healthy and Davis might seem more motivated. Add in Griffin and you might have a playoff team. Well not quite, particularly since Griffin broke his knee/leg and will miss six weeks. But even with a healthy Griffin this team had a long way to go, as they pulled of the remarkable feat of being the worst offensive team in the NBA and almost the worst defensive team too last season. We expect some improvement but unless the vets (Davis) return to form and Griffin ends up being an instant star, improvement will be measured in being a competitive team, if not an above .500 team.
-PG, Sam Cassell 2005-06: 17.2 ppg, .443 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 6.3 apg, 18.5 PER
-SG, Derek Anderson 1999-00: 16.9 ppg, .438 FG%, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 16.9 PER
-SF, Lamar Odom 2000-01: 17.2 ppg, .460 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 5.2 apg, 18.9 PER
-PF, Elton Brand 2005-06: 24.7 ppg, .527 FG%, 10.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 26.5 PER
-C, Chris Kaman 2007-08: 15.7 ppg, .483 FG%, 12.7 rpg, 1.9 apg, 17.5 PER
4. Golden State Warriors: We’ve all seen this show before. The formula is pretty clear: moderately talented offensive team (9th in the NBA) + not so great defense (28th in the NBA) + apathetic Don Nelson = lottery. Somehow, Nellie has wrested control of the organization again and burned some bridges in the process. Stephen Jackson and Monta Ellis are both unhappy in Golden State. Neither of these developments are entirely the organization’s fault. Jax was just given an inexplicable extension and should be thanking management, even if the team isn’t as good as he expected. Ellis seems annoyed that the Warriors have given him a hard time about violating his newly minted contract too.
Where Nellie has had problems is with his own commitment to the franchise. After Robert Rowell forced out Chris Mullin and gave Nellie back more power than he has had since the 1990s, Nelson responded by talking more about how he could be retiring soon. You hate to play amateur psychologist but such public pronouncements couldn’t have helped the team deal with Jackson and Ellis, even if their complaints are totally irrational. Despite all this, there is some young talent in Andris Biedrins, Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph. To make this team work is a long term project and Nelson isn’t really in the place to be doing this. This is not to say that older short-term coaches can’t work (Chuck Daly did great in New Jersey and Orlando as a short term fix) but Nellie hasn’t rallied the troops yet and this smells like another fold job, as we’ve seen a few times in the past with Nelson (think the 1989-90, 1992-93, and 1994-95 Warriors).
-PG, Baron Davis 2006-07: 20.1 ppg, .439 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 8.1 apg, 21.0 PER
-SG, Jason Richardson 2005-06: 23.2 ppg, .446 FG%, 5.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 19.2 PER
-SF, Antawn Jamison 2002-03: 22.2 ppg, .470 FG%, 7.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 19.0 PER
-PF, Troy Murphy 2004-05: 15.4 ppg, .414 FG%, 10.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 16.8 PER
-C, Andris Biedrins 2007-08: 10.5 ppg, .626 FG%, 9.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 19.2 PER
5. Sacramento Kings: Move along…not much to see here. The Kings have known they had to rebuild for years. The problem is the Kings have not rebuilt well. They divested themselves of the old guard (Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic) without huge commitments when the players declined but starting over has proven difficult, as they have sunk to the bottom and just stayed there. The Kings have gone through several coaches since forcing out Rick Adelman and have managed to give long-term deals to players who should be working on short-term deals (Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia, Mikki Moore). This is not the kind of stability an organization needs when it’s trying to come up with a coherent plan.
Now the team is trying to start over again with a team that could fit in quite well with the rebuilding squads of the 1980s and 1990s that featured Mitch Richmond and trinkets. The current roster consists of one scorer like Richmond (Kevin Martin), the aforementioned long-term salary anchors in Udrih and Garcia, and a bunch of potentially decent young players (Spencer Hawes, Jason Thompson, Omri Casspi, and Tyreke Evans). It’s not clear if any of these players constitutes a future building block but, hopefully, the Kings won’t be hung up on a style of play and will, instead, focus on developing the youngsters. Whether the focus is right or not, however, this probably will be the worst team in the NBA in 2009-10.
-PG, Mike Bibby 2003-04: 18.4 ppg, .450 FG%, 3.4 rpg, 5.4 apg, 19.3 PER
-SG, Kevin Martin 2006-07: 20.2 ppg, .473 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 20.1 PER
-SF, Peja Stojakovic 2003-04: 24.2 ppg, .480 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 21.8 PER
-PF, Chris Webber 2000-01: 27.1 ppg, .481 FG%, 11.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 24.7 PER
-C, Vlade Divac 1999-00: 12.3 ppg, .503 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 18.0 PER