Los Angeles Lakers: If there’s one thing the Lakers know how to do better than anyone else, it’s spend top dollar for top talent year after year after year. Yet again, they led the league in salary at $95 million. Not only that, they have quite a good track record over the past decade of winning when they have an awesome frontcourt anchored by an awesome big man. They had Shaq 10 years ago: 3 titles in 4 Finals appearances. He left in 2004, the team got really average while his new team got really good, and then Pau Gasol showed up in 2008. The result has been 2 titles in 3 Finals appearances.
Gasol's frontcourt mates as a whole are great: Team USA starter and jack of all trades Lamar Odom, very-good-when-not-injured Andrew Bynum, top defender Ron Artest, shot blocker Theo Ratliff, versatile and energetic Matt Barnes, and rookie banger Derrick Caracter. The Lakers’ rebounding prowess and inside shooting percentages have been awesome because of it, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll be any different this season. Throw in Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, smart point guards who don’t force shots or passes in Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, and Kobe Bryant’s scoring and confidence, and you got the makings of another division—and probably conference—champ.
Could Make the Playoffs
Phoenix Suns: Really good offense, pretty bad defense, all at a breakneck speed. What does the loss of Amar’e Stoudemire mean to this formula? Considering who they replaced him with (Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick), I see a slight dip in the offense and probably no change in the defense. Because the Suns shoot so many 3’s and have skinny big men, they’re not a good rebounding squad. That doesn’t change. Steve Nash and Grant Hill have to slow down at some point (36 and 38 years old), but at least the bulk of their game is predicated on making smart decisions, so their demises will be slow. Phoenix’s style is a little unique (plus they have the best players of all the fast-paced teams – shout out to Jared Dudley), so it steals them some wins, but they just don’t have the overall talent to be a real contender. No one will be too shocked if they don’t reach the playoffs, in which case you can expect major personnel changes.
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors are no longer the employers of coach Don Nelson and a lot of the young talent he wasn’t developing (Anthony Randolph, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Tolliver, Kelenna Azubuike). However, they’ll still be a running team that relies on Stephen Curry (final month of rookie season: 26 ppg, 6 rpg, 8 apg, 47% FG, 47% 3FG) and Monta Ellis to outsprint opponents and score points. David Lee and Andris Biedrins make a nice inside pair for a team of this pace, but Biedrins is always hurt. The team’s back-ups are a more veteran bunch than in previous years, but there’s nothing coming off the bench you want to trust for very long. Golden State doesn’t have much defense or rebounding (hellaciously low rebounding percentages on both ends of the floor last year), and there’s no reason to think that’s magically now a strength because Lee is in town. Sure, the rebounding will be better, but it has to be when you were last in the league in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages (21% and 69%, respectively – they should add up to 100% for an average team).
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Sacramento Kings: Before the DeMarcus Cousins bandwagon runs out of room, I have a question. How many games would you expect a young squad with a burgeoning superstar to win the year after a 25-57 campaign? Maybe 30, 35…sound about right? Well that’s about what’s being predicted for the Kings, and that includes the addition of Cousins. The point I’m trying to make is that Sacramento was going to improve by 5-10 wins anyway, so I’m hoping fans don’t start attributing the extra wins to Cousins’ arrival later this season. Sure he’ll put up numbers—sometimes—but he is a fricking headcase and a half, and that’s not how you build a franchise; there’s zero percent chance his eventual departure from this team will be a good one for fans. There are definitely a few coachable guys with some skills on the roster (Omri Casspi, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Beno Udrih), but not exactly enough overall talent to start making the playoffs out West. Tyreke Evans should continue to be fun to watch, but he has to show an improved shooting touch and the ability to turn it over less while being hounded all game to take that next step, otherwise he simply becomes the newer model of OJ Mayo.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin = the offense should be better, the defense should be better, the rebounding should be better, the highlight dunks should be better. Throw in All-Star Chris Kaman and a bevy of other hustling big men (Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith, DeAndre Jordan), and you have an acceptable frontcourt. The problem is that the backcourt a) sucks, b) doesn’t know they suck, and c) is especially not aware that the frontcourt is vastly superior to them, so they do a poor job of getting the big guys involved. It doesn’t matter who you mention back there; they turn it over too much, take stupid shots, and love to dribble-drive into terrible spots. Would I want Baron Davis taking a last-second shot with pressure on him? Yes. Would I want him running my offense for the 47:59 before then? No. Until the guard situation is completely solved (I’m not kidding – everyone needs to be replaced), this team will do nothing.
Top 5 Players
C/F: Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers
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F: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
G: Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
* - It’s not a stretch to imagine Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans as the top two guards in this division by the end of the year, but I’ll go with the established vets for right now.
Possible Award Candidates
Kobe Bryant is the top scorer on a good team, so he’ll be a top-3 MVP candidate no matter how clear it is Gasol is the Lakers’ best player. In theory Steve Nash could win a third MVP if the Suns do really well without Amar’e, but I think the voters took a ton of heat for the first two, so count that out. Gasol should be a consistent top-5 candidate considering the Lakers go up and down with him, but he only scores 18-20 ppg, and NBA “value” nowadays is measured by the voting braintrust as 90% points per game and 10% hype and highlights. Blake Griffin should be the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award and could probably end up second or third team All-NBA. Unless the Suns end up really good and get Alvin Gentry some nice headlines, there probably isn’t a Coach of the Year candidate in the division (yes, I know Phil Jackson is awesome, but the award doesn’t really work that way). Ron Artest will get a few votes for Defensive Player of the Year since he is the best in the business when it comes to guarding damn near anybody.