NBA 2015-16: Pacific Division Roundup

Stephen Curry-warriors-2015-3The Pacific Division is the home of the 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are given the second-most likely odds at taking this year’s title, too, with nearly all key rotation players returning for another go.

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green lamented last year that the team would be unlikely to remain intact, but just that happened as Green stayed in the Bay despite being a coveted free agent league-wide. It is always difficult to bet against Stephen Curry, regardless of howsoever good LeBron James may have been in the Finals.

Outside of the Dubs, the only other real contending team to speak of is Doc Rivers’ L.A. Clippers. Given that the team has arguably the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul and one of the top-three power forwards in the league in the playmaking Blake Griffin, the Clips are a tough team to take out, even when battered by injury.

Griffin became the multifaceted forward the Clippers had groomed him to be last season, boosting his assists into guard-like territory. The Clippers even managed to retain DeAndre Jordan, following his dangerous flirtation (and apparent contract) with the Dallas Mavericks.

The L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are all in various stages of building, with none of the trio expected to be a title threat in 2016. That said, the Kings are an intriguing team on paper, and there really cannot be any counting out of the Lakers given that Kobe Bryant will still be lacing it up. Even the Suns still have “Mini LeBron” Eric Bledsoe and enough talent to surprise the league as it did two seasons ago.

thompson-curry-warriorsGolden State Warriors
2014-15 Record: 67-15
Championship Odds: +500
W/L Prediction: 65-17

The Golden State Warriors went unconventional in the 2015 NBA Finals, and it worked so well that every team in the Association seems to think copying head coach Steve Kerr’s model. With the season on the line, Kerr made the choice to insert Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup and essentially roll with no center. While that is not a full season strategy, it highlighted the “New NBA,” or at least a series where size would not be the decisive factor.

The choice ended up resulting in Iguodala being the series MVP, despite three voters casting their lot in on the series losing LeBron James.

James had a Finals for the ages, but the fact it was in a losing effort showed just how much Kerr’s club had arrived. The owners of the league’s highest scoring backcourt was not to be denied, nor would delusional Matthew Dellavedova fan club members get to see its hero take down the league MVP Stephen Curry. Rather, it was Curry who eventually found his overdrive and put on the triple afterburners to bury the Cavs.

So what makes the Warriors so good? It begins with the fact the team has versatile defenders at each position and a unique 4-man in Green to put the unconventional picture into perfect harmony. Aussie big man Andrew Bogut also plugs the middle up quite well when the Dubs do choose to go with a natural 5-man in the paint.

Having parted ways with David Lee, the Warriors were able to insert a much cheaper Jason Thompson into the bench to go along with the always potent Marreese Speights. Rounding out the frontcourt rotation is UCLA rookie Kevon Looney and the bruiser Festus Ezeli.

The Warriors have a glut of talent on the wings too, from defensive stopper Harrison Barnes to the three-point banging Klay Thompson. Brandon Rush, what is left of Ben Gordon and Finals MVP Iguodala are the remaining pieces on a team hardly low in options. Even backing up Curry at the point, the 6’7” remnants of Shaun Livingston pose immense problems for most second units.

That is what makes the Warriors the No. 2 most favored team this season. The team is really lacking many places that other teams can seek to exploit, most certainly because those other teams are going to have to react to Kerr, most of the time, rather than the other way around.

jj-Redick-clippers-2015Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Record: 56-26
Championship Odds: +900
W/L Prediction: 57-25

The L.A. Clippers saw its season end cataclysmic fashion in 2015. After defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round in seven games, it found itself the loses of another seven game series, but perhaps one that should never have been. The Clippers jetted out to a 3-1 series lead over James Harden and the Rockets, just to lose the final three games of the series and be sent home packing.

It was not necessarily too much Harden. The Clippers held the Rockets MVP runner-up to 7 of 20 shooting in Game 7. But the Rockets got well-rounded contributions from its bolstered front court, as newly acquired Josh Smith had 15 points in 22 minutes and Trevor Ariza hit 6 of 12 from three-point range to finish with 22 points. Chris Paul had a big game with 26 points and 10 assists, and Blake Griffin had 27 points and 11 boards, but it was not enough for Doc Rivers’ club.

What can the Clippers do to avoid another early exit in 2016? That’s tough to say. This is a team with few holes on it, and adding veteran Paul Pierce is only going to make the Clippers that much tougher late in games. Pierce will presumably start at small forward, flanking J.J. Redick’s hot shooting with one of the most well developed mid-range games in the league.

Up front the Clips still have the defensive beast that is DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin’s acrobatic acts and overall well-rounded game. The Clips also managed to take the Rockets x-factor Josh Smith and make him one of their own. If you can’t beat them…

With the Clippers having basically the same contingent back and the stealthy additions of Smith and Pierce, it is difficult to see any real regression. It is equally as difficult to imagine things getting world’s better. The West is still a man’s league, and the Clippers have to fight for regular season ‘Ws’ that are tough to come by.

That said, a two-win improvement seems at least in order, and the Clippers could challenge for 60 wins. It is just that handing that out on the basis of a headaches like Smith and ancient Pierce seems like granting too much credit. Let the team prove on the court that it is a 60-win club.

The Los Angeles Lakers are small home favorites in hosting the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon at Staples Center
Kobe is back, but does it matter?

Los Angeles Lakers
2014-15 Record: 21-61
Championship Odds: +10000
W/L Prediction: 25-57

Surely thing cannot be much worse for the L.A. Lakers. Kobe Bryant is back. He’s back, that means the team will not be at the bottom of the standings, right? Well, sort of, kind of. It has to be remembered this is a Bryant now on the tail end of his Hall of Fame career, and that he is surrounded with a lot of young talent just trying to break into the NBA.

Sure, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are both very nice talents with potentially long, great careers in front of them, but as of right now they are rookies with no games under their respective belts. And that is two-fifths of the starting lineup, no matter how much talent the pair may have.

What may bail the Lakers out is not ultimately Russell or Randle, but the signing of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert reached nearly unmatched levels of deterioration in Indiana, but he is still a former All-Star and his 7-foot-2 frame cannot be taught. With Bryant, he could propel himself right back to his place among the league’s best centers.

Adding that to a couple of gunners like Nick Young and Louis Williams could make the Lakers’ potent enough to score in the West. Kobe, Young and Williams are three guys that need the ball a lot, but the Lakers should be able to spread it out and have some fun. And maybe that has been the component missing the most, last season’s club just could not enjoy itself as it dropped three of every four games.

The Lakers also have some other interesting pieces in tow. The team will welcome back Metta World Peace, late first round pick Larry Nance Jr, and workhorse Brandon Bass. The second unit will not be a rag tag collection of misfits, but should be able to pose problems to many teams around the league.

So if the Lakers have so many good things going, why is the team projected to win just 25 games? Many reasons, not the least of which is seeing proof positive that Bryant can really string together a full season. If the Lakers linger in the bottom of the standings and Bryant is battling nagging injuries, will the Lakers shut him down? Will he even let them?

Most may be tuned in to see how good Russell and Randle can be. Bryant’s best days are behind him, and even if this is not the farewell tour, the Lakers have to be focused on the future. That likely means Randle does in fact start early in the year, even if Bass has all the trimmings of a legitimate NBA forward. The Lakers look towards the future, but Bryant fans are not letting these final days of his career go without savoring.

Brandon Knight-suns-2015Phoenix Suns
2014-15 Record: 39-43
Championship Odds: +15000
W/L Prediction: 36-56

The Phoenix Suns did what it had to do to put the headache of last season behind it, and that involved splitting up the Morris twins. Opting to keep the better of the two, seemingly against his will, the Suns will once again start a talented headache in Markieff Morris at power forward. He is surrounded by a strange lineup, but not one that lacks talent.

The Suns grabbed Tyson Chandler in free agency in attempt to rectify its defensive shortcomings, not to mention adding a guy who can help mentor a promising Alex Len. Len is a huge body with natural defensive instincts that can be honed by Chandler.

The Suns also added Mirza Teletovic to provide some three-point shooting and serve a role not too dissimilar from what Channing Frye did two seasons ago when the Suns were the surprise team in the West. P.J. Tucker is one of three small forwards on the team, which is perhaps its weakest position.

The real get up and go for the Suns comes in the backcourt where it starts point guard Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. Knight came to Phoenix late in the season after a standout campaign in Milwaukee. While he never really seemed to get his foothold in Phoenix, it was a team more or less entirely in disarray by that juncture of the season.

Eric Bledsoe may or may not be a max contract type of guy, but he is a very good player whose all around game really can not be easily dismissed. He averaged 17 points, 6.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds last year for the Suns and is a player with a skill set that poses nearly all teams problems. He may be a lot more like Russell Westbrook than LeBron James, but whomsoever he is compared to, he is very good.

Knight and Bledsoe could get this team to an eight seed, but it is too difficult to grant them that with how many good teams are in the West. What it basically means, however, is that a best case scenario season from Phoenix is still a good season.

DeMarcus-Cousins-kings-15Sacramento Kings
2014-15 Record: 29-53
Championship Odds: +25000
W/L Prediction: 38-44

So this is the year the Kings finally break out, right? Right?

It would seem so on paper. The team finally has a top-shelf coach in George Karl, and he really seems like a good fit for the team. Sacramento has a wealth of talent, but that has to go with the statement that couches it, “on paper.” Rajon Rondo has hardly been the desired point guard he once was, but Karl could be the coach to help him find his long lost mojo.

DeMarcus Cousins poses a case as the league’s most talented center, but putting it altogether has been difficult for him too. The team even ended up adding the best defender in the 2015 draft in Willie Trill Cauley-Stein, but three great former Kentucky Wildcats in the starting lineup has to be by most accounts a good thing. Even if it is just NCAA winning pedigree, wins are something the Kings’ fanbase craves the most.

The addition of WCS and big man Kosta Koufos should signal a change in Cousins career if nothing else. DeMarcus will lineup at the power forward slot, at least to start the year. Kosta Koufos is a big body with a reasonably effective post game, and Cauley-Stein is the all-purpose defender whose upside certainly was good enough to risk the No. 6 pick on. Rudy Gay is a proven scorer, and shooting guard Ben McLemore is making strides enough that the team felt confident in giving up early on Nik Stauskas.

The point guard slot hosts Rondo and a more than effective backup in Darren Collison. Rounding out the rotation is Omri Casspi and Caron Butler, both of whom are still capable of the occasional big game, while adding enough experience and talent to make the second unit work. Again, on paper. All of this makes sense on paper, so should not the Kings finally turn the corner? It is just so hard to say they will, because, well, they are the Kings. Here’s to Karl!

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