NBA Pacific Division
1. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers had another busy offseason this year, dealing backup point guard Eric Bledsoe and aging small forward Caron Butler to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for swingmen Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick.
Redick is a sharpshooter, with an underrated ability to play one-on-one defense, who will help spread the floor so All-Star PF Blake Griffin can continue to punish teams with his ever improving post and midrange game. Dudley is your typical 3-and-D guy; he is a smart player who will make the right play at the right time, defend a team’s top player and then spread the floor with his excellent shooting touch.
The additions of Dudley and Redick easily make up for the loss of Bledsoe on the defensive end. Arguably the biggest move the Clippers made this offseason was resigning All-Star PG Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard in the league and the key to the Clippers smooth offense.
Also new is former Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, who is a major upgrade over Vinny Del Negro due to his championship experience and ability to command respect from even the greatest of egos, such as Rajon Rondo. Rivers has already made an immediate change to the Clippers team culture by requesting that the Lakers’ Championship banners be covered up by pictures of the current Clippers lineup during Clipper home games in an attempt to have the historically pro-Lakers Staples Center have a more Clippers-friendly environment during their home games.
In a weak division, the Clippers made enough improvements to maintain their ride atop the Pacific Division.
2. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors shocked a lot of people with their run in the playoffs last season, reaching the second round and pushing the eventual Western Conference Champion Spurs to 6 games.
Not content with the early exit, this offseason the Warriors went out and signed swingman Andre Iguodala to improve their small forward position. Iguodala, who played for the Nuggets last season, is an excellent perimeter defender and his offensive game should flourish with the Warriors uptempo offense like it did in the Nuggets’ system.
Stephen Curry, coming off a ridiculous playoff run, is now on the verge of being a superstar, but due to his history with injuries, the question still looms whether he can maintain that level of play over an entire season. I would love to say that he can, but I just cannot say that with certainty.
The Warriors’ rebounding and defense should be much improved with a full season of Andrew Bogut, who missed most of last season but will be healthy at the start of this season. Along with PF David Lee, the Warriors have a strong post presence for the first time in recent memory, and this new focus on defense, evidenced by the Iguodala signing this offseason and the return of Bogut this season, is welcome change for fans used to the old “defense doesn’t matter” mindset of previous Warriors teams.
The Clippers and the Warriors are the clear top two teams in the Pacific Division, but even with the Iguodala addition, the uncertainty surrounding the Warriors’ two injury-prone starters Curry and Bogut will ultimately cause the Warriors to settle for second place.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Stay. The one hope for the Lakers this offseason was the exact thing that didn’t happen.
He didn’t stay. Dwight Howard left the Lakers for the Houston Rockets this offseason, leaving LA with a gaping hole at center. Former Clipper Chris Kaman was signed as an attempt to patch things up, but a post duo of two aging unathletic bigmen leaves much to be desired.
Pau Gasol should have a much better season this year now that he can move back to his comfort zone closer to the basket. Last season, Gasol was forced to play on the perimeter to accommodate Howard, who can only play down near the basket. The combo of Kaman and Gasol, who both can shoot and play the post pretty proficiently, will allow the Lakers to have a little fun with their offensive sets, but against young athletic big men, which most teams seem to have now, this post duo will struggle.
In a surprising turn of events, Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles’ tendon at the end of last season, has been cleared for all activity and is expected to return for the start of the regular season a mere 5 months after he initially injured it. Recovery from a torn Achilles’ tendon can take upwards of 9 months, so it truly is astonishing that a man at his age could come back so soon from this kind of injury. Regardless of his shady recovery methods, Kobe is still Kobe, and he alone can lead a team to 30 wins, but with a supporting cast as weak as his, playoffs will be tough to make.
Expect the Lakers to compete for that final spot.
4. Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings hope that their latest lottery pick turns out to be the superstar they so desperately need.
Former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans was allowed to leave to New Orleans this offseason after a couple of disappointing seasons following his incredible rookie campaign. Damarcus Cousins has yet to show the maturity of an NBA player, and despite his incredible skillset, he might be more of a headache than he is worth. Last year’s number 5 pick Thomas Robinson, who was pegged to form one of the great young post duos along with Cousins, has already been shipped out and given up on.
And now we look at Ben McLemore, this year’s number 7 pick, identified as arguably the best scorer in the draft and the player with the highest chance of being an NBA superstar, yet who struggled mightily in the Las Vegas Summer League with his shot selection and scoring ability. On a team lacking veteran presence, McLemore is going to have to learn the ropes of the NBA quickly, since he and Cousins will be expected to carry the offensive load.
Grievis Vasquez will attempt to bring some order to this team with his brilliant court vision and play making ability, but the success of this team will ultimately come down to the youngsters, who have failed to show the ability to win consistently in this league in the past. Another disappointing season for Sacramento.
5. Phoenix Suns
Rebuilding from the bottom is a very long process, and the Phoenix Suns have just gotten started. Last season was forgettable, and this draft they selected O. Alex Len, who may end up being the most talented big man in the draft, but is definitely a couple of years away from being an impact player.
This offseason the Suns traded away a solid player in Jared Dudley to the Clippers in return for PG Eric Bledsoe, who has the potential to be an exciting starting point guard, yet who is severely unproven. In a reserve role for the Clippers last season, he was the defensive enforcer off the bench who would provide an instant spark of energy to the bench unit, a large part of why the Clippers had the most dangerous bench in the league last season.
Phoenix is hoping he can bring that energy for an entire game while starting alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. This backcourt will have an interesting dynamic since both are capable ball handlers, but Dragic is by far a better shooter than Bledsoe, meaning Dragic will most likely play off ball more often than Bledsoe so he can spread the floor for Bledsoe’s penetrations. On defense it’s the opposite story; Bledsoe, being much bigger and much better at applying pressure defense than Dragic, will probably be counted on to guard the larger of the two guards while Dragic picks up the ballhandler.
It will be interesting to watch how this dynamic unfolds during the regular season, but honestly, this is the only interesting reason to watch the Suns this season.