Nearly all key components in the Pacific Division are veterans, as names like Brad Miller, Stephen Jackson, Corey Maggette, Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Baron Davis headline the division. Still, even with such a veteran presence, the young Lakers are the best of the bunch.
1) Los Angeles Lakers
Many believe that the simple addition of Andrew Bynum to an already-potent lineup makes the Lakers the team to beat in the NBA. This assumption isn’t an invalid one—but even with Bynum, the Lakers have major question marks.
For starters, while Bynum’s footwork and movement without the ball are exceptional, especially for such a young student, he has had trouble executing in the post against sturdy and smart defenders who don’t buy his various fakes, step-throughs, or duck unders.
Also, complex five-man offenses tend to fluster Bynum, and leave his head spinning like a top. It isn’t out of the question to believe he’ll rectify those problems by the end of the year.
Other positions, other questions. Is Pau Gasol speedy or strong enough to defend the multi-faceted power forwards that encompass the West? Can Lamar Odom make the adjustment to playing the small forward? Or coming off the bench, which requires the sharp attention span Odom seems to be lacking?
Derek Fisher’s smart, tough, and capable, but he’s not as quick as he once was and can’t defend the league’s blazers anymore. On the other hand, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic must show that they’ll be dependable playmakers in the postseason.
The one constant is Kobe Bryant’s offensive and occasional defensive brilliance, giving the Lakers the most dynamic player in any matchup.
The Lakers are certainly favorites in the West, but there are too many question marks, and too many other good teams to prematurely anoint them as THE favorite.
2) Phoenix Suns
Mike D’Antoni and his quick stopwatch are gone, while Terry Porter gets one season to mold the talented but synergy-lacking Suns into a cohesive superpower. If Porter can’t get it done this year, he may stay, but many of the players will almost definitely go.
Shaq gets a full season to play with Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash, but a full training camp won’t equal a full restoration to his younger, more explosive days. The current incarnation of Shaq will still punish single teams, draw double teams, and rack up the penalty shots, but he’s nowhere near as explosive as he was in his salad days.
What Shaq will do is draw help defenders to the low box, allowing Amare Stoudemire to dance and prance so successfully from the high post. In fact, now that Stoudemire’s jump shooting and free throw shooting are so prodigious, the only person that can stop him is himself—luckily for the rest of the league, Stoudemire tends to take himself out of games when opponents meet his challenges.
What’s worse, is Shaq can’t defend in space, and Amare won’t defend, anywhere. This allows teams to punish the Suns both with ball movement, and by targeting either opponent with screens.
Also, are the Suns a physical, station-to-station team with Shaq and Grant Hill, or do they want to run to their hearts content with Amare and Matt Barnes? Is Boris Diaw going to get more selfish? Is Leandro Barbosa going to slow down and see the floor for a change? Is Steve Nash going to get through a season unscathed?
There’s too much talent to miss the playoffs, but unless Stoudemire undergoes a personality transplant, the Suns will be eclipsed in the first round.
3) Los Angeles Clippers
Mike Dunleavy won’t have the personality to reign in Baron Davis—which is fine. Davis will enjoy the honeymoon to play relatively unselfish ball, at least until the Clippers start losing.
With Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman heading the back line, the Clippers should have enough rebounding to propel a potentially dangerous fast break with Baron Davis, Al Thornton, and Eric Gordon all capable of running and gunning.
However, Steve Novak is too slow to be anything more than a station-to-station gunner, Cuttino Mobley’s cat-like quickness has expired each of its nine lives, and Tim Thomas and Ricky Davis both define the term “loser.”
There are enough pieces to compete for a playoff spot, but not enough to sneak in.
4) Golden State Warriors
Perhaps if Monta Ellis was healthy there would be hope. But without him, the Warriors don’t have the fun to “fun-n-gun.” Marcus Williams has terrible court vision and average (at best) playmaking skills. Going from Baron Davis to Williams is like going from Napoleon to Neville Chamberlain.
Corey Maggette will provide some scoring, and should be excited at his escape from Clipperdom to provide defense as well, but it’s a stretch to think he’ll have enough punch to replace Baron Davis or Monta Ellis.
Stephen Jackson will still decide to show up only if and when he feels like it, while even when Al Harrington shows up, you hardly know he’s there. Andris Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf play with heart and energy, but each is foul prone and not an overly reliable defensive stopper.
Perhaps the Warriors will come together and learn to play disciplined halfcourt ball—because, believe it or not, the Warriors don’t have the players to excel in their open court system.
5) Sacramento Kings
With Ron Artest and Mike Bibby gone, Kevin Martin has the keys to an old beat up car. To soup it up, the Kings must get rid of the gunk and grime.
Brad Miller’s too slow, too soft, and too injury-prone to have any place on the roster. Ship him out to any team that needs more ball movement in their offense. Mikki Moore is likewise soft and defenseless. Ship him out to Dallas, where only Jason Kidd can make him look like a valuable NBA player.
Beno Udrih’s smart, unselfish, and athletically limited, while Bobby Jackson will make big shots, play poor defense, and do a poor job of initiating an offense. One of them should also be shipped out.
Kenny Thomas has nothing left at this stage of his NBA career, while Sheldon Williams’ fiancé has more game than he does. Both of those players should also be shipped out.
That leaves John Salmons’ versatility, Francisco Garcia’s length and athleticism, the young Spencer Hawes, and the even more inexperienced Jason Thompson as potential building blocks. With a roster as flawed as Sacramento’s, the Kings will have to hit rock bottom before they have the right to even imagine a playoff berth.