Comparing L.A. Lakers to Each of Their Division Rivals

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2012

Comparing L.A. Lakers to Each of Their Division Rivals

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    Last season, the L.A. Lakers won the NBA's Pacific Division for the fifth consecutive season, holding off the Chris Paul-led L.A. Clippers by a single game.

    And while it might seem disheartening—for the other four teams in the division, anyway—that the Lakers are typically inked into the division's No. 1 spot at the beginning of every season, it's worth noting that the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings all made up a ton of ground on the Lakers last year.

    In 2010-11, the Lakers won the division by 17 games over Phoenix. Last year, the difference between the Lakers and the last-place Kings was just 19 games. So while the division hasn't exactly been a model of parity, Los Angeles does have a few division rivals that are growing in the rear-view.

    Of course, Kobe and Co. didn't stand pat during this past offseason. The starting lineup now boasts the league's best center in Dwight Howard and a Hall of Fame point guard in Steve Nash.

    But the rest of the division made some tweaks, too.

    The Clippers brought back reclamation project Lamar Odom, while the Warriors will feature Andrew Bogut and a (theoretically) healthy Stephen Curry. The Suns blew the whole thing up, and the Kings used their lottery pick on Kansas' Thomas Robinson, who should help immediately.

    With so many moving parts and plenty of new question marks, is it possible the Lakers won't end the 2012-13 season with a Pacific Division title?

    Here's how the Lakers stack up against each of their division rivals.

Sacramento Kings

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    Let's just get this one out of the way. The Sacramento Kings are a joke. The roster seems to have been pieced together without a discernible plan and the team's owners can't even guarantee the team will stay in Sacramento.

    It's a franchise in disarray, top to bottom.

    Last year, the Kings played at the fastest pace in the NBA, averaging 97.3 offensive possessions per game. From a glass-half-full perspective, that strategy—if you call running back and forth in a disorganized fashion a strategy—seems to suit the young, athletic roster. But really, teams that play fast only do it because they're too undisciplined, or simply not good enough, to play slow.

    The Kings fall into the latter category.

    Virtually every player on the roster has a shoot-first mentality, with Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans being the chief offenders. The ball doesn't move on offense, which netted the Kings the NBA's second-worst assist rate last year.

    Nobody on the roster defends at all, which led to the Kings' No. 28 ranking in defensive efficiency last season. And despite some good size in DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson, the Kings don't rebound, either. They finished 25th in rebound rate in 2011-12.

    The Lakers are bigger, stronger, smarter and more balanced than the Kings, who'll be lucky to win 30 games this season. They'll play the Lakers four times in 2012-13, and none of those contests will be close.

    The Kings are wholly insignificant to the Lakers' quest for a division crown.

Phoenix Suns

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    One way to improve your odds against a division opponent is to snatch up their best player. And that's exactly what the Lakers did when they landed Phoenix Suns icon Steve Nash in July.

    Last year, the Lakers finished eight games ahead of Phoenix in the division, and that gap will probably widen in 2012-13.

    Without Nash, the Suns' eighth-ranked offensive efficiency will almost certainly suffer. The roster is comprised of four new starters in Goran Dragic, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley and Luis Scola. Center Marcin Gortat rounds out the starting five, which is largely unproven.

    Beasley and Scola are both capable frontcourt offensive options, but neither are bruisers inside. So the Lakers front line, if healthy, should swallow up both of the Suns' finesse scorers.

    The Lakers' main advantage against the Suns will be on the boards. Phoenix finished tied for 22nd in the NBA in rebound rate last year, while the Lakers were second-best on the glass. That disparity, coupled with the Suns' almost certain decrease in field-goal accuracy (losing Steve Nash, while adding Michael Beasley, will do that), means there will be no second-chance points for Phoenix. And the Lakers big bodies will be free to play volleyball on their own offensive glass.

    Phoenix has no shot to win the division, but if they intend to steal a game from the Lakers, it'll have to be in their first meeting on November 16 when Dwight Howard may still be sidelined with a bad back.

Golden State Warriors

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    Here's where things start to get interesting. The Golden State Warriors, after a flurry of moves that started with the acquisition of Andrew Bogut last March, are suddenly on the upswing.

    Their starting five matches up with the Lakers' as well as anyone's, with Stephen Curry doing the best high-efficiency, crafty Nash impression in the league. Bogut can bang with Howard and Klay Thompson cannot be left alone beyond the arc. The Warriors are going to make the Lakers work.

    The Warriors feature a ton of excellent three-point shooters to complement Bogut inside, who's now the division's second-best center. If Golden State can space the floor with its perimeter gunners and hang with the Lakers' bigs down low, the four contests between these teams this year might all be tight.

    The Warriors' main advantage over the Lakers is their bench. With Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Brandon Rush and either Harrison Barnes or Richard Jefferson (depending on who earns the starting nod at small forward), Golden State's bench is actually deeper and more versatile than the Lakers'.

    But, the Lakers are flush with veteran savvy and still have Kobe Bryant, who the Warriors haven't had an answer for in years.

    Don't expect the Warriors to finish ahead of L.A., but the Lakers will definitely have to take their neighbors to the north seriously this season. If they're not careful, Golden State could absolutely split the season series and nip at the Lakers' heels in the division race in 2012-13.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Naturally, the biggest division threat to the Lakers this season will be the team that finished just one game behind them last year. The Los Angeles Clippers will return in 2012-13 to challenge the Lakers, but this time, they'll have a couple of new weapons to toss at their co-tenants at the Staples Center.

    Grant Hill and Lamar Odom give the Clippers major depth and versatility on the wings. Hill, despite his age, has turned himself into a phenomenal perimeter defender. He'll definitely make things harder on Kobe, and could see plenty of minutes in relief of Caron Butler.

    Odom is a significant matchup problem for the Lakers, assuming he returns to form this season. He's too quick for any of the Lakers' defensive frontcourt options and too long for their wings.

    Plus, Chris Paul will be able to get wherever he wants against Steve Nash, and should be able to operate from the middle of the floor without much difficulty. If the Clippers had any perimeter shooters to speak of, Paul could set up open threes all day long. Fortunately for the Lakers, they don't.

    The Lakers have definitely improved over the summer, but so have the Clippers. Considering that the Clippers were just as good as the Lakers last year—and actually had a better point differential—L.A.'s second team is a legitimate threat.

    If Dwight Howard's back isn't fully healthy or Father Time finally catches up to Bryant or Nash, the Clippers can absolutely nose ahead of the Lakers in the Pacific.

    Call the Lakers the favorites again this season, but between the improved Warriors and the hungry Clippers, there are finally a couple of worthy challengers.