2013-2014 Western Conference Pacific Division Preview
In case you missed it, just a reminder that I previewed the Northwest Division in the Western Conference a few days ago and now I move on to my final division, the Pacific Division. The Western Conference’s top six teams will be something to watch this season and this division boasts two of those teams, the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors. Heading into this season, there are high expectations for both of these clubs, something we are not accustomed to hearing about either of these teams in recent years. There are plenty of question marks surrounding the other three teams in this division so let’s start in descending order where I believe each team finishes the season.
Phoenix Suns (Last season: 25-57)
Roster additions: Eric Bledsoe, Emeka Okafor, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee
Roster losses: Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Wesley Johnson, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley
With reasonable expectations, all fans of the Suns could agree this team is not built for this NBA season or the next. But what they can agree upon is the future of this Suns team has a few sun-shining spots, but days of exciting sun shine are going to be saved for quite some time.
Question marks surround the structure of this team, specifically the combo guard starting combination of incumbent starter Goran Dragic and newly acquired Eric Bledsoe, who will conceivably taking over the shooting guard role although he has been a point guard for his entire, short NBA career. How will this team be able to function, specifically in the Western Conference, when both their starting guards are either incapable of guarding their counterparts, will struggle to work off the ball as opposed to controlling it and neither can be classified as having superb defensive games especially when both will be juxtaposed to guarding supreme talent while being undersized at the same time. Dragic and Bledsoe will be exciting to watch offensively, if not to see who will become the more reckless with the basketball in transition and in set designs. Bledsoe will need to vastly improve his shooting from the outside if he is destined to succeed for this team at the two guard position and envision his struggles could lead to more time operating the basketball then shooting it.
The premise for this team is not about this year, but about how the future plays out for a team who has toiled in dissilience while trying to figure out what kind of basketball team they want to field for extended seasons to come. With the recent trade of Marcin Gortat to the Wizards, the Suns now have the potential to secure four 1st round picks in next year’s draft, a draft being labeled as one of the deepest drafts since 2003. The Suns will experience a ton of growing pains this season and will struggle to slow down the opposing team on a nightly basis. Let’s hope clear skies are waiting in the future, because this year’s sky will be filled with darkness for a team who has its’ eyes set on next year’s draft, specifically positioning itself to have a chance to secure the #1 overall pick. Record: 20-62, 5th in Pacific
Sacramento Kings (Last season: 28-54)
Roster additions: Carl Landry, Greivis Vasquez, Ben McLemore, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Roster losses: Tyreke Evans, Toney Douglas, Cole Aldrich
With the Kings remaining in Sacramento after a long battle with the Maloof brothers and their previous ownership, where we turn to now is how fast this year’s team will be able to communicate and work together as one solid unit, as opposed to year’s past when the team was being dominated by a bunch of me-first option players who refused to acknowledge any semblance of team unity.
For all the hype that surrounded Tyreke Evans, I have never been or will be impressed with the game he brings with him to the court on a nightly basis. Evans, who had a phenomenal rookie campaign, never blossomed into the player he was supposed to be for this team, only showing signs of what he could do as a player while alienating and ignoring his teammates more often than not. The recipe thrown together for last year’s team had no chance of creating a winning atmosphere, so with Evans out of town and Greivis Vasquez in to replace him, the future of this team rests on the big, broad shoulders of DeMarcus Cousins and how the maturation of his game from complacent ball stopper to team leader will encompass the journey this team takes to becoming a winning franchise once again.
Cousins, who earned a new contract before this season, is one of the NBA’s biggest enigmas, a player who is capable of so much and has shown the ability to take over basketball games, but has refused to take the next step in understanding the complexities and intricacies that come along with being a great basketball team. Isiah Thomas once said, “the secret to basketball is that it isn’t about basketball.” This quote is quite necessary for a team like this and encompasses what it means to really take the next step in becoming one of the best teams in the NBA. This team has surrounded Cousins with an ideal team for a big guy with his specific game, most notably Vasquez because of his high basketball IQ and his proven ability to handle the ball with supreme efficiency while being a more pass oriented leader who is capable at times of scoring the ball if necessary. Ben McLemore could go from rusted quartz to a polished diamond in this system, maintaining his consistency with knocking down jumpers from the corners, enabled by the intricate offensive zone system centered on the high posting position Cousins is able to find. Although Landry is injured and out for a significant amount of time, his leadership off the court is just as important to a player like Cousins as he would be on it. Landry has been widely recognized as one of the most respected players in the league with a great head on his shoulders. We all know Cousins’ head clearly has a mind of its own, and being able to control and maintain his composure is something that has lacked for his entire career. Landry should be able to reach out and help improve the mannerisms and controlled aggression needed from Cousins game.
If you couldn’t tell, the 2013-2014 campaign for the Kings will be based solely on the leaps DeMarcus Cousins decides to take this season, in what could be deemed a precursor for many seasons to come. I think this is the start to a transition in Cousins game, and I expect the Kings to be highly competitive throughout the season, but are still young enough to give away more games than they probably should. Record: 36-46, 4th in Pacific
Los Angeles Lakers (Last season: 45-37)
Roster additions: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson
Roster losses: Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Devin Ebanks
There are many concerns surrounding this edition of the Los Angeles Lakers and could we possibly become witnesses to its transformation from Showtime to Lotterytime?
The Lakers organization should be questioning plenty of potential red flags heading into this season, mainly securing the healthy status of the team’s top three players: Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and most importantly Kobe Bryant. Bryant, who tore his Achilles’ tendon before last season ended, has not been given a concrete return date for this upcoming year. Most people have penciled in Bryant to return around Christmas time, but what if it is too late for Bryant to have an impact on this year’s season? Although I do not doubt the tenacity and fire he brings to the court every night, Bryant is on the wrong side of father time and who at 35 years old is coming off an injury that has been known to greatly alter athletes’ careers. Questions surround how he will be able to come back from such injury and have a lasting impact on the season for the Lakers, who will struggle in his absence while also struggling to compete for a playoff position in the deep Western Conference.
Rushing Bryant back to lift a lottery team out of disposition seems like a bad strategy, but the front office of the Lakers has been mired in lackadaisical and questioning decisions, mainly the hiring of Mike D’Antoni and why his system of offense is not suited for a team of this structure. D’Antoni’s offense is predicated on an up-tempo style, with guys who can both handle and stretch the floor for opposing defenses. The run and gun is what he is known for, but the roster assembled last season as well as this season are far from ideal to what D’Antoni is solemnly preaching. Steve Nash, who will turn 40 years old this season, was hobbled with a variety of injuries last season. Even though his shooting splits were still significantly efficient, questions arise around the mobility and ability for Nash to show some semblance of defense throughout the entire season. His defense has turned hazardous, strictly relying on help defense from all sides of the court, maintaining he has enough time to wander to the next defender to impose any defense he has left in the tank. He will become obsolete on that end of the floor, and prove to potentially be a liability on the floor at the end of games, while not maintaining floor help in the paint like Howard could provide last season.
With a roster more reflective of past Clippers’ teams as opposed to the darlings of the Staples Center, this season could provide a lot of soul searching for a franchise still loaded with plenty of concerns and decisions heading into the future. If Bryant can come back and still maintain the high level of basketball he has provided over the years, then this team could realistically have a chance to compete for a spot in the playoffs. I see them competing elsewhere this year, specifically for the maximum amount of lottery balls they can swing. Record: 37-45, 3rd in Pacific
Golden State Warriors (Last season: 47-35)
Roster additions: Toney Douglas, Andre Iguodala, Jermaine O’Neal, Marreese Speights
Roster losses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson
The Golden State Warriors march into the season as one of the league’s most anticipated teams to watch, with the point of 26 nationally televised games proving why fans of the game are clamoring to see the spectacle that is this Warriors team.
We also want to see how ridiculous Stephen Curry’s threes will become a staple of this year’s highlights.
The Warriors, who surprised many pundits by advancing into the 2nd round of last season’s playoffs before finally being held down by the Spurs, are loaded with talent across each position and have somehow improved a roster already destined for greatness this season. They get rid of perennial “veteran guy who adds nothing to his team” in Richard Jefferson and also lost Jarrett Jack, a loss which cannot be labeled as a liability for a few reasons. Obviously adding Iguodala plays a big part in this, but Jack, for his entire late game prowess, was a dangerous chemical added to this team. I have never been the biggest fan of his game and his continual ball handling and choosing to take over at times sometimes was uncomfortable to watch. He advertently would try to be the hero, as opposed to letting the game come to him in crunch time. Losing him only opens up the ball to be more in the hands of Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, which should be deemed as a positive upgrade for a team like this.
But, let’s revert back to Iguodala and some of the other pieces added this offseason by the Warriors. Iguodala suddenly comes in as the team’s best overall defender, more than willing to guard the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. His ability to cover a wide range of players will also help alleviate some of the defensive struggles shown in the past by either Curry or Thompson, who struggle on the ball and against players whose physicality enables them to drive around both guys. Iguodala won’t allow that to happen, along with the feisty Toney Douglas, who will only add to a deep bench by providing streaky three-point shooting and his abilities on the defensive side of the floor will also provide a boost to the second unit. Marreese Speights has also been an under the radar addition, as he will provide a safety blanket for the Warriors provided Andrew Bogut or David Lee struggle to stay healthy for a whole season.
The Warriors will be one of the league’s most exciting teams to watch and that will be because of the three superb, young players they shuffle onto the court, whether it is Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes or one of the most anticipated players to watch this season, Stephen Curry. What can be said about Curry that hasn’t been said already. He is one of the game’s deadliest three-point shooters of all time and will continue to amaze us with his greatness once again this season. Curry is one of those phenomenal, generational guys who find ways to continue to impress you and surprise you with feats that are unimaginable in most people’s eyes. Curry, along with the rest of this Warriors squad, should have high expectations for this upcoming season and let’s hope the noise surrounding the anticipation for this Warriors team is both answered by their fans and the team itself. Record: 51-31, 2nd in Pacific
Los Angeles Clippers (Last season: 56-26)
Roster additions: Darren Collison, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens
Roster losses: Eric Bledsoe, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom
No longer the “lost” to from L.A., the Clippers find themselves in a position to compete for a championship, a far cry from where this team has been the past two decades while hovering in the shadows of the aura from the team next door. While the Lakers will struggle at times to resemble an actual basketball team without Kobe Bryant, the Clippers are a formidable team whose sole reliance leans on the play of their superstar point guard, Chris Paul.
Paul has proven himself night in and night out to be the type of point guard your team needs. He is the best floor general in the game. The game at times appears to be in slow motion, as if he is playing a video game in real life. Those who have played the game or follow the NBA know what it takes to push a team over the top: leadership. Paul exemplifies what it means to be a leader in every facet of the game. He knows when to push the ball in transition, when to go attack a reeling defense, when to pull the ball back and play for a great possession and the list goes on and on. Paul is determined to be a winner where he plays and him signing long term with the Clippers signals he believes they have what it takes to win an NBA championship in the near future. Other re-signings include Ryan Hollins and Matt Barnes, another proven veteran who will provide the spark needed off the bench from a player of his caliber.
Following these re-signings, the Clippers made an early splash in the offseason by trading away Eric Bledsoe and the dying carcass of Caron Butler and in return acquired two guys who will come right in and easily adopt and adapt to the style of the Clippers: Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick. Let’s start with Dudley first. I believe Dudley has been underrated for quite some time and people are missing the impact he has on a team like the Clippers. Dudley has proven himself to be a consistent asset who has toiled away on a team like the Suns for far too long. Dudley is one of the smartest players in the league and understands it is about being in the right place all the time. He will walk into Doc Rivers’ system with a keen eye on spacing the floor and integrating his ability to guard multiple positions on the defensive side of the floor. His three point shot is about as consistent as it comes, he is a career 40% shooter, and long-range shooters with the ability to stretch the defense is something this team lacked last season and players like Chris Paul or Blake Griffin will surely benefit from this.
Speaking of shooting, what better way to improve your team’s shooting percentage than to add one of the league’s best all-around shooters in J.J. Redick. At this point in his career, you know what you are getting out of Redick on a consistent basis. With Chauncey Billups now retired, Redick will come in to camp as the starting two guard prepared to give the Clippers 25-30 minutes a game and provide them with another threat around the perimeter, which allows a pair of eyes to be temporarily drawn away from Chris Paul. Redick has always been a threat from the 3 point line, but over the course of his 8 year career has developed his ball handling skills which allows him to create on the ball, as opposed to being a primarily catch and shoot player. Redick also averaged a career high 4.4 assists per game last year and with the talent that surrounds him he should be able to replicate those numbers once again. Defensively, Redick has always struggled against smaller athletic wing guards, but his mental IQ on that end cannot be ignored. He does a great job of knowing when to leak away from his man and playing help defense within the painted area at the most opportune times.
With all the moves the Clippers made, from free agents, re-signings and the addition of Doc Rivers, I don’t see why you couldn’t name the Clippers the winners of 2013’s offseason contest. Offensively, this team now has the spacing and 3 point shooting it surely lacked in last season’s postseason. Paul is a winner who does not take kindly to losing. I would expect nothing less than for Chris to come into the season with that burning fire desire to finally win his first championship. The Clippers could possibly face a road block if both Griffin and Jordan continue to trot out the poorest excuse of free throw shooting between a team’s frontcourt, but let’s hope that is not the case. Griffin is said to be determined to show why he is one of the league’s premier power forwards after being labeled soft following their first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. If the Clippers can find a way to be a middle of the pack team on the defensive side of the court, then I don’t see any reason barring injuries to not expect this team to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs. Record: 59-23, 1st in Pacific