Los Angeles Lakers: The two main pieces from back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010â€”Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasolâ€”are still there. There are several issues, though:
- They traded Lamar Odom to the Mavericks and replaced him with Josh McRobertsâ€”thatâ€™s a major downgrade. Odom was one of the leagueâ€™s most versatile players, as well as a quality shooter and rebounder that never sought to overstep his role in their offense. Now theyâ€™re replacing him with a guy who averaged seven points and five rebounds per game as the fifth- or sixth-best player from a 37-win Pacers team.
-Their starting backcourt has a combined age of 71.
-How will famously fragile center Andrew Bynum hold up against the leagueâ€™s compacted 66-game schedule?
-Perhaps most importantly, new coach Mike Brown inherits a team teetering on the brink of collapse after last seasonâ€™s playoff meldown, an ugly four-game sweep at the hands of the Mavericks marked by violence and frustration. If Brown doesnâ€™t get this team on the right track, that series will be viewed as the beginning of the end for the Bryant-era Lakers.
Fortunately for the LA, this division boasts three of the Westâ€™s four worst teams from last season (though the Clips figure to be better this year) while the other team, Phoenix, faces some serious question marks of its own. Gasol and Bynum will still dominate inside and Bryant, though past-his-prime, can still score in bunches. The new-look Clippers could certainly present a challenge (now playing at Staple Center: CP3 to Blake, the Worldâ€™s Greatest Alley-Oop Combo), but beyond Griffin and Paul, nothing is certain about the Clips. The Lakersâ€™ talent and experience should be enough to win a fifth straight division title. Theyâ€™ll contend this season, but there are too many good teams in the West to guarantee anything beyond that.
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Los Angeles Clippers: If the Lakers fall apart and the Clippers exceed expectations, LAâ€™s other team will have a chance to win the first division title in franchise history, which dates back to 1970, when the team was still in Buffalo. Even if that doesnâ€™t happen, the Clips should find themselves in the playoffs this season barring a major injury. Much like the Lakers, the Clippers have one elite guard and one elite forward.
All-World PG Chris Paul almost single-handedly took down the Lakers in last yearâ€™s playoffs, and they certainly wonâ€™t be happy to see him in their division permanently. Blake Griffin should see more easy baskets with Paul feeding him, but he needs to drastically improve his defense if the Clippers want to do anything come spring. Paulâ€™s acquisition, as great as he is, does come with some negative side-effects. LA had to surrender one of the leagueâ€™s top young 2-guards (Eric Gordon) in order to get Paul, who also creates a logjam at point guard next to free agent signing Chauncey Billups and the incumbent Mo Williams. Expect Billups to back up Paul and for the Clippers to shop Williams, who at 6-foot-1 would be a defensive liability if teamed with Paul in the backcourt.
In the frontcourt, after Griffin the Clippers arenâ€™t particularly strong. DeAndre Jordan took a step forward last season (7 RPG, 1.8 blocks per game and 69% FG in 66 starts), but with Chris Kaman now in New Orleans and no backup in sight, he will be relied upon heavily this season. Caron Butler, on his third team in as many seasons, is on the downswing, and it doesnâ€™t help that heâ€™s coming back from knee surgery. The biggest problem, though, is lack of depth. After Paul and Griffin, the rotation is below-average; after Billups, Butler, Jordan, Randy Foye, and (maybe?) Williams, the rest of the team is flat-out terrible. Expect this team to struggle early due to the abbreviated training camp and its abundance of new pieces. They should eventually figure things out, but the Clippersâ€™ lack of depth will hurt in the regular season and kill in the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns: I donâ€™t feel confident in calling this squad a playoff team, but the fact of the matter is that eight teams make the playoffs in each conference, and thereâ€™s no reason to say that the Suns, 10th in the conference a year ago, couldnâ€™t leapfrog a couple teams and find their way in this season. Thatâ€™s the best thing I can say about a team thatâ€™s not good enough to contend but not bad enough to bottom out and rebuild.
The Suns refused to commit to winning a championship after making the conference finals in 2010, letting Amarâ€™e Stoudemire walk and shipping Jason Richardson to Orlando last season. But they didnâ€™t commit to rebuilding either, electing to hold on to attractive trade piece Steve Nash and doling out a boatload of money to forwards Channing Frye, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. As the team heads into Year Two of the Lon Babby era, itâ€™s still unclear what his goals are in shaping the team. Looking at the on-court product, the Suns will be one of the teams hurt most by the leagueâ€™s abbreviated schedule, as the two players that started the most games for them last year were the 37-year-old Nash and the 39-year-old Grant Hill.
Adding insult to injury, backup/PG of the future Aaron Brooks went to China during the lockout, and now it appears that the team wonâ€™t be able to get him back until March, adding even more stress to Nashâ€™s job. The hope is that with a young, athletic frontcourt featuring Warrick, Frye, Robin Lopez and rookie Markieff Morris, the Suns will be able to wear down older, slower teams, especially if they can catch them on the back end of a back-to-back. Center Marcin Gortat (13 PPG, 9 RPG, 1.3 blocks and 56% FG in 55 games with Phoenix last year) is also a keeper, though Babby needs to start listening if teams ask about Gortat and Nash in a trade package. Expect a finish around .500.
Golden State Warriors: The Warriorsâ€™ biggest off-season signing in 2011? Kwame Brown. Add that to another new coach in Mark Jackson (with exactly zero coaching experience at any level!) and a roster that won 36 games last year, and you get a team destined to miss the playoffs for the 18th time in 19 seasons. Really, the most interesting things about the 2011-12 Warriors will be if/when Monta Ellis is traded and if Jackson can get anyone to care about playing defense (donâ€™t count on it). Golden State finished last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage for the fourth consecutive year in 2010-11, and donâ€™t expect that to change much with Andris Biedrins still banged up (combined 90 games lost to injury over the past three seasons).
Between Ellis and Stephen Curry, who continues to improve, the Warriors can score with the best of them, and the offense figures to be even better with the addition of two talented rookies: three-point specialist Klay Thompson (son of Mychal Thompson) and efficient combo guard Charles Jenkins. Golden State has some raw talent in Ekpe Udoh and Jeremy Tyler, but both of those guys could use some seasoning before they have a legitimate impact in the league. Ellis and Curry are both great scorers, but no team can succeed if those are your top two guardsâ€”their skill sets are too similar and neither is a strong defender. This is still a young roster, and Ellis should return some decent value in a trade if GM Larry Riley opts to shop him. All this sets up pretty nicely for 2012â€”when the Warriors figure to have a high pick in a deep draft and tons of cap space for a marquee free agent. Until then, it will be another season of irrelevancy in Oakland.
Sacramento Kings: Several players on this teamâ€”Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson, John Salmons and Jimmer Fredetteâ€”like to shoot a lot. And if the Kings had a point guard who could find these guys in their spots, that wouldnâ€™t be such a bad thing.
Instead, they have Evans, a shoot-first combo guard that Sacramento plays at the point, meaning that one-dimensional players like Salmons and Fredette become no-dimensional players. In fact, Fredette couldnâ€™t be a worse fit for this team, though itâ€™s unclear how effective he would be for any team considering that: a) he canâ€™t create his own shot by dribbling around a bunch of guys on the perimeter of backing up a lot and launching 25-footers; b) he doesnâ€™t play a shred of defense, and hasnâ€™t tried to since high school. Not exactly what you want from a top-10 pick.
Though he showed a few flashes of greatness last season (27 points, 10 rebounds, and just one turnover in a win over the Lakers on January 28), DeMarcus Cousins had a rough go of it in 2010-11. With no one else to key on in the paint, opponents collapsed on Cousins, resulting in a horrific 43% FG and 3.3 turnovers per game. Though GM Geoff Petrie added J.J. Hickson, Sacramentoâ€™s still weak inside, so expect more of the same out of Cousins this season. The Kings will again figure to be among the dregs of the league this seasonâ€”not a good sign for a team that desperately needs an influx of cash and was thisclose to moving to Anaheim last season.
Top 5 Players:
C/F: Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
G: Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns