Sizing Up Golden State Warriors Against the Rest of the NBA's Pacific Division

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2012

Sizing Up Golden State Warriors Against the Rest of the NBA's Pacific Division

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    It's been a long time since the Golden State Warriors took home the NBA's Pacific Division crown.

    So long, in fact, that no current Warrior player was even born when the Dubs last won it in 1976. But after the roster upgrades the Warriors made this past offseason, Golden State is poised to feature its best, most balanced lineup in decades.

    Andrew Bogut will be in the middle, giving the Dubs a legitimate center and defensive anchor. The bench is deep and versatile, with Brandon Rush, Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack expected to make significant contributions. And rookie Harrison Barnes should be able to help right away at small forward.

    With a returning core that features players either in their primes (Stephen Curry and David Lee) or on the upswing (Klay Thompson), the Warriors are set to compete. No longer will the Warriors have to rely on gimmick offenses and unconventional lineups. The 2012-13 version of the Dubs is built to win the right way—with defense, ball movement and clearly defined roles for every player on the roster.

    But the Warriors aren't the only Pacific Division team with a new look.

    The L.A. Lakers made changes of their own, adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a roster that already featured All-Star mainstays Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

    And the L.A. Clippers tinkered with their roster, bringing Lamar Odom back to Los Angeles and gaining some veteran experience by signing defensive stalwart Grant Hill and the gritty Matt Barnes.

    The Sacramento Kings are an individually talented, but utterly disorganized mess. They'll still be hard to ignore, though, as most train wrecks are. And the Phoenix Suns pushed the reset button after losing Steve Nash, bringing in four new potential starters.

    The landscape in the Pacific Division has transformed substantially over the last couple of months. Here's how the Warriors stack up against the changing faces of their division opponents.

Sacramento Kings

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    Put simply, the Sacramento Kings are a bad team.

    What's more, they're bad in a way that should seem pretty familiar to Golden State Warrior fans. The Kings, you see, have cobbled together a lineup of good individual scorers who make absolutely nobody else around them better.

    Sound familiar?

    Sacramento, much like the Warriors did for years, will try to mask their inability to execute in a half-court set by running—a lot.

    Last season, the Kings ranked first in the NBA in pace factor, which means they generated the most offensive possessions in the league. As you might imagine, they didn't use those possessions effectively, ranking 20th in total offensive efficiency.

    The Kings are really a study in how not to put together an NBA roster. They've got a ton of shoot-first gunners and no facilitators, which showed in their assist rate (second-to-last in the NBA).

    From a matchup perspective, Kings center DeMarcus Cousins dominated the Warriors last year, amassing averages of 22.3 points and 16 rebounds over four contests. Golden State had no answer for Cousins inside.

    But that figures to change this year, when Andrew Bogut will step in to check the Kings center. That'll be a substantial upgrade over David Lee, who played out of position, and Andris Biedrins, whose position is on the bench.

    Strategically, the Warriors can't let themselves be lured into a track meet with the Kings. Sacramento runs because they're disorganized and undisciplined, and the Warriors used to do the same thing. Now, though, Golden State is equipped to execute efficiently in the half court with smooth-passing bigs and knockdown shooters on the perimeter.

    On paper, it's interesting to note that the Kings' prospective starting five of Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins are all more athletically talented than the Warriors starters. But the Kings are essentially a streetball team, and don't execute or defend enough to be a real threat to Golden State.

    Look for the Warriors to play a disciplined team game while the Kings' ballhogs take turns pounding the dribble and casting up bad shots.

    With Bogut neutralizing Cousins, the Warriors should easily sweep all four contests against Sacramento this year.

Phoenix Suns

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    There are few players who more completely dictate a team's style than Steve Nash. If he's your point guard, your offense hums like a finely tuned engine. You play fast, shoot efficiently and hope your offensive prowess makes up for your defensive shortfalls.

    But Steve Nash is gone.

    Having lost their iconic point guard to the Lakers, this year's Phoenix Suns won't look anything like they did over the past eight seasons. In fact, the Suns' front office blew the team up completely. So using statistics from 2011-12 doesn't really help in evaluating how the Suns compare to the Warriors.

    But we can look at Phoenix's new players to figure out what to expect in 2012-13.

    For starters, Goran Dragic is returning to the Suns and will take the reins of the offense this season. In 28 starts for the Rockets last year, Dragic averaged 18 points and 8.4 assists on 49 percent shooting, proving himself capable of big minutes.

    Dragic is capable, but as we'll see, he's also got some pretty exploitable flaws.

    If Wesley Johnson beats out holdovers Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley for the starting job at shooting guard, he'll join Dragic, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley among Phoenix's four new starters.

    Marcin Gortat, who troubled the Warriors last year—like every offensively skilled center did—will man the middle. Gortat shot a blistering 61 percent from the field in three games against Golden State last season with averages of 17 points and 10 rebounds. But there's a new Aussie sheriff in town for the Warriors, and—as will the be case for Cousins and the Kings—Gortat will find it much tougher to operate inside against Bogut this year.

    Strategically, the Warriors' key advantage against Phoenix is the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy Sports, Stephen Curry ranked in the NBA's 97th percentile in points per play on pick-and-roll sets last year, and David Lee is as good a roller as there is.

    But the real value in using the pick-and-roll comes when looking at the Suns' two most foul-prone defenders. Dragic ranked third among point guards in fouls per 48 minutes, and Scola struggles mightily when asked to cover mobile power forwards like Lee.

    Keeping those two suspect defenders involved in as many plays as possible will pile up the fouls, allowing Golden State to play to its strengths on offense.

    The Suns have pieced together a fairly low-cost roster with a number of solid players. But they don't yet have an identity, and they certainly lack star power.

    The Warriors' superior skill should make it easy for them to outclass the Suns in the Pacific Division.

L.A. Clippers

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    The L.A. Clippers missed out on the Pacific Division title by a single game last year. And, after coming up just short, they've added a trio of forwards to support stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

    Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Matt Barnes give the Clips exceptional depth, solid defensive options, and a whole bunch of potential for quirky lineups.

    Of course, the Clippers also inexplicably signed Jamal Crawford to help soften the blow of Randy Foye's departure to Utah.

    Crawford, 32, does one thing: shoot jumpers. Unfortunately for his new team, he doesn't do that efficiently. He's got a career field-goal percentage that barely cracks 40 percent, and he only managed to hit 38 percent of his shots last season.

    Between Crawford's aimless chucking and starter Chauncey Billups' advancing age (he'll be 36 before the season starts), shooting guard is a major weakness for the Clippers.

    Otherwise, L.A. is a very solid offensive team, as evidenced by their No. 4 ranking in offensive efficiency last season.

    Overall, the Warriors managed to split the season series with L.A. last year despite Chris Paul absolutely decimating the Warriors' shoddy point guard defense. Paul put up averages of 24 points and eight assists against the Warriors on 57 percent shooting.

    In addition, the Clippers' new free-agent forward trio definitely shores up L.A.'s weak spot at the 3. (Caron Butler averaged just 5.5 points per game against Golden State last season.)

    The Warriors' main advantages over the Clippers are definitely in the frontcourt.

    Sure, Blake Griffin is the best big man on either team, but he's certainly not without his flaws. For one thing, he doesn't defend at all, and he can't make free throws—Griffin's made just 59 percent from the line for his career. The Warriors have plenty of front-line depth (and fouls) to utilize against Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan.

    If Golden State can knock Griffin and Jordan out of the air, and make them earn their points at the line, Chris Paul will be forced to shoulder more of the scoring load. And while, defensively, the Warriors' point guards, are no match for Paul, it's better for CP3 to go for 40 than it is for him to get 20 while tossing a dozen alley-oops.

    Make no mistake, the Clippers are a legitimate playoff team and should be taken very seriously. But Golden State's superior depth, especially up front, means the Warriors match up well. Expect these two teams to slug it out four times, with another season split the likely result.

    L.A. is likely to win at least 50 games this season, so unless Golden State exceeds expectations, the Warriors will be looking up at the Clips in the final standings.

L.A. Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers won the Pacific Division for the fifth straight time last year.

    Now they've got Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.

    The Lakers were already the class of the division before acquiring the two All-Stars; with those two now wearing Purple and Gold, L.A. has only gotten stronger.

    But stepping back, any realistic analysis of how the Warriors match up with the Lakers must factor the potential for things to go horribly wrong in L.A.

    Dwight Howard is recovering from back surgery and has no timetable for his return. There's a chance he misses a significant portion of the season, and who knows how "himself" he'll be whenever he does return?

    Steve Nash is already 38 years old and will turn 39 in the middle of the 2012-13 season. Can the aging wonder really continue to avoid injury and decline, especially without the Suns' renowned training staff?

    The same question applies to Kobe Bryant, who's actually played even more career games than Nash. How long can he sustain his skills?

    And the biggest question of all: How can anyone be sure that this collection of stars will actually be able play together as a team?

    If everything works out, the Lakers can absolutely win a championship. But there are tons of fragile knees, backs and egos that could cause the whole thing to implode.

    If we assume things do go smoothly for the Lakers, the Warriors still match up against them as well as any team in the division.

    Up front, the Lakers have a definite size advantage, with Pau Gasol being a particular problem for David Lee. But at center, Andrew Bogut is the division's best option to battle with Howard.

    Also, Golden State has a number of able defenders to toss at Kobe: Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson and Kent Bazemore can all take turns leaning on him.

    At the point, Nash isn't the type of lightning-quick guard who gives the Warriors fits. So while he's still dangerous as a distributor and shooter, he's not going to present Stephen Curry or Jarrett Jack with an unmanageable problem.

    Plus, the Warriors actually do have a couple of advantages over the Lakers.

    First, there's no question that Golden State's bench is superior. Other than Antawn Jamison, L.A. doesn't have any capable subs. In Rush, Jack, Jefferson (assuming Harrison Barnes starts at small forward) and Carl Landry, Golden State can run fresh bodies at the Lakers' tired starters all night long.

    Second, the Warriors have a major offensive advantage on the perimeter. If they can space the floor and force the elderly trio of Nash, Bryant and Metta World Peace to doggedly chase their bevy of outside marksmen, it could further exploit the Lakers' lack of depth.

    In head-to-head contests, the Warriors will need to shoot a very high percentage from beyond the arc to win against the Lakers. But Golden State is definitely capable of doing that, so the four games between these two teams could simply come down to whether the Warriors shooters are hot or not.

    If everything breaks right for the Lakers, they should repeat as Pacific Division champs. But if age, injuries or chemistry problems crop up, it's conceivable that the Warriors could climb over them in the standings.