Exhibition games have begun and the regular season is fast approaching. The staff here at Hickory-High is previewing the entire league, taking a stab at answering the big questions, division by division. We’ve already looked at the Northwest and the Atlantic. Today we’re talking Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Suns and Kings in the NBA’s Pacific Division.
1. What is the most intriguing storyline in the Pacific Division?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - The Lakers. Really, how could it be anything else? A teaming of the NBA’s strongest personality (Kobe Bryant) and its most unpredictable character (Metta World Peace), with the NBA’s villain du jour (Dwight Howard) and its Prince Charming (Steve Nash); enter actual basketball talent into the equation and this seems like a once in generation experiment. Every scenario from 73-9, to a Red Sox-style complete organizational meltdown feels like it’s in play. Historically fantastic or epically craptastic, how can you take your eyes off the Lakers this year?
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Can Kobe share? After an amazing offseason that landed them Dwight Howard and Steve Nash for Andrew Bynum and a whole lot of nothing, the Lakers seemed primed to challenge the Heat and Thunder for league supremacy. It appears only two things can get in the way of a deep run for LA’s best team – injuries and chemistry problems. While the backs of Howard and Nash are worrisome the biggest potential pitfall is one Kobe Bean Bryant. Kobe has already gone out of his way to make sure everyone understands that the team is “still his” and I assume with that he still expects to get the lion’s share of shots. If Kobe can’t realize that his iso’s are now the teams third or fourth best offensive weapons than I could easily see things spiraling out of control. If he can, then the juggernaut we all expect may indeed come to fruition. I have my doubts Kobe will allow it to happen, although for the sake of good basketball I hope he proves me wrong.
Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Will the Kings move? The Kings have been linked with moves to Virginia, Seattle and Anaheim. I remember when Chris Webber and Vlade Divac ran Arco Arena and it seemed like an insane place to watch a basketball game. Now, Power Balance Pavillion posts attendance counts near the league bottom, just above Detroit, one of the most depressed cities in America, and New Jersey, which no longer has a team. The Kings have a young and talented core, including Tyreke Evans, who has yet to match the highs of his rookie year, and Isaiah Thomas, one of my favorite rookies from last season. If they can play to their potential early, it might help save basketball in Sacramento.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - How good can the Kings be? They have a nice young duo in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins and have added a few solid pieces heading into this season. Thomas Robinson is a grown man and is ready to contribute right away, becoming part of what could be a top front line in the Western Conference. Their size and athletisim up front is their calling card, but they have an improved backcourt that shouldn’t be overlooked. Isaiah Thomas is fresh off of a solid rookie campaign (11.5 ppg 4.1 apg) and Aaron Brooks looks to build on his success in 2009-2010 (19.6 ppg in 82 starts). John Salmons is the consummate professional and should provide a nice veteran prescence for a team that is coming into 2012-2013 with vastly more promise than in years past.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Championship or bust for the Lakers. One season after the Clippers made the big move in LA by trading for Chris Paul, the Lakers felt it necessary to trade for both a star point guard and center Dwight Howard. This may be the best team Kobe has ever had (perhaps the Malone, Payton, Bryant, Shaq group was better on paper), and Lakers fans should expect to at least make it to the finals with this star studded team.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Lakers vs. Clippers. I guess the Battle for Los Angeles should be about something like corporate studios in Hollywood resorting to warfare for supremacy in the Hollywood hills, or gangs fighting the LAPD on city streets and alleyways, or Man against Mother Nature with fault lines acting as the natural barrier cleaving each side. But no, the Battle for Los Angeles in 2012 is about Lakers vs. Clippers, a potentially psychopathically-driven Kobe Bryant versus groin-punching Chris Paul, newly-arrived Dwight Howard playing real-life NBA Jam against Blake Griffin, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups 2005-ing it up, Sterling and Buss, Stern vetoing Laker trades; a California schism in a state familiar with splitting along lines of loyalty—and they share the same home. The battle isn’t strictly taking place on the courts, but it’s about Blake getting endorsements and video game covers, an imaginary place called “Lob City,” column inches and trending topics, the idea of an alternative offering promise—a multi-dimensional battle. Like so many sporting competitions today, the Battle for Los Angeles is measured beyond wins and losses and while intriguing, it’s boringly sobering.
2. Who will be the top newcomer in the Pacific Division?
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Dwight Howard. I don’t care what Shaq says, Howard is the best center in basketball. In fact he’s the fourth best player in the world in my mind (LeBron, Durant, CP3). His dominating interior defense and finishing abilities, combined with underrated post offense and Steve Nash’s ability to feed him in the pick and roll give the Lakers something that no one conceivably should be able to defend. Also between Pau Gasol and Nash, Dwight is going to finish a lot of alley-oops, an occurrence that will be a whole lot of fun to watch.
Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Dwight Howard. This man earned plenty of disdain when he staged a season-long display of waffling, but ended up in an incredible situation alongside Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Howard won’t just be along for the ride on what seems like a certain deep playoff run. His numbers were down during Whinefest 2012, but make no mistake—the Lakers still got one of the best finishers, rebounders and defenders in the league. This is a tough team, at least on paper. The moral of the story is that being wishy washy and dishonest leads to great rewards. Take notes!
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Steve Nash. Los Angeles made a bunch of noise in the off season, but the addition of an elite point guard will impact this offense more than the trading for Dwight Howard. Nash replaces a point guard by committee, while Howard is taking over for an all star big man in Andrew Bynum, meaning that the Lakers will experience a greater jump in production at PG than at C. Nash will be counted on for his dead eye shooting (his 43% career accuracy from 3 point land ranks him in the top 10 in NBA history) and should fit perfectly into the Lakers offense that is based on dominant post play and Kobe Bryant’s ability to draw in the defense.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Steve Nash. It will be extremely interesting to see how he can mediate Kobe Bryant’s obnoxious demand for shots with his incredible ability to spread the ball around. Also this is easily the best roster Nash has ever been on, with so many consistent scoring options. It will be interesting to see if he can average 15 assists a game. Let me tell you, it is definitely within reach.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Dwight Howard. I’d rather give this to someone other than Howard, but to do so would be to knowingly go against the obvious truth. A glutton for glory, Dwight might physically be the biggest star in LA, but how’s he going to react to being the second option on offense or being the second fiddle on a decorated veteran team? Will he do more to get the media’s attention? He craves spotlight the way kids crave snow days. How long until he makes a comment to the media that upsets the balance on Kobe’s Lakers? How long until he has a physical confrontation with Shaq? Why is it that I fixate on the negative when it’s equally possible that Dwight makes a seamless transition; catches high-low passes from Gasol, pile drives lobs from Nash, draws doubles and creates open looks for Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks, helps the Lakers win another title and becomes the natural torch bearer in a long line of legendary bigs: Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq … Howard?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Steve Nash. Howard and Nash will both have a huge impact on the Lakers’ season and the league as a whole. However, Howard doesn’t seem to be 100% healthy to start the season and shoehorning, his personality into the structure the organization has built around Kobe seems like it could be a fairly significant challenge. Meanwhile, Nash is about as easy-going as they come and has a game that’s much more complimentary. He gives the Lakers a skill-set they’ve never had during the Kobe era and seems like a much better bet than Howard to maximize his potential this season.
3. Who has the most to prove in the Pacific Division?
Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Steve Nash. He’s the other Lakers newcomer, and he will have the bigger adjustment to make in Los Angeles. In Phoenix, he had the ball in his hands constantly. In Los Angeles, there is a borderline sociopath who refers to himself as a snake and likes the ball quite a bit as well. In addition, it seems the Lakers will play in a structured, Princeton-style offense. It will be interesting to see whether Nash can excel in a system that isn’t completely built around him. I am also excited to see what will happen the first time Kobe yells at him.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Klay Thompson. Bursting onto the scene in his rookie season, Thompson allowed Golden State to move high scoring Monta Ellis and focus on building a competitive team as opposed to just an entertaining one. The move will pay dividends this year if Thompson can build on a rookie season that saw him shoot 41.4% from distance, on his way to 12.5 points per game. His three-point percentage was significantly higher than any season Ellis has ever posted and he averaged more points than Rudy Gay did in his rookie season. The numbers are impressive, but Thompson (who, if he repeats his success, will need a legitmate nickname: fielding suggestions at @unSOPable23) needs more than one season under his belt to establish himself as a prime time player.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Stephen Curry. This is his first full season without Monta Ellis manning the other guard position. Curry must prove to the Warriors that they made the correct decision in keeping him and shipping off Ellis. He must show them that he can stay healthy and be their point guard of the future, because if Curry can succeed the Warriors can be scary good in the future with Bogut, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Blake Griffin. It kind of should be Kobe, but I’m putting it on Griffin instead. The third-year dunk savant and Dwyane Wade clone (in-game style) floored us in 2011. How could we not be wowed? He had David Robinson’s athleticism, Dominique Wilkins’s dunk velocity, D. Wade’s balls-to-the-wall
intensity. He was breaking the Clippers curse one violent, furious highlight at a time. And then he got the perfect table setter in Chris Paul and the expectations were suddenly ratcheted up (because that’s what we do). Except
instead of improving on his gaudy stats (22 and 12 as a rookie), it seemed like he plateaued or even regressed in his sophomore campaign—to be fair, his PER and overall efficiency improved. Now, thanks to ESPN and Subway, he’s one of the new faces of the league. In 2012-13, he’s got a lot to prove as a player, a Clipper and a face guy for the league.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Blake Griffin. His talent is undeniable, but he appears to be in real peril of becoming a talented player who is defined more by what he can’t do, than what he can do. If Griffin is to become a truly elite player in talent as well as impact, this season he’ll have to figure out how to utilize his strengths without overexposing his weaknesses. Determined to prove he could hit from the outside last season; roughly a third of his shot attempts were mid-range jumpers, a shot he made just 36.1% of the time. Being a multi-faceted pick-and-roll threat, using his athleticism to keep opponents out of the paint, playing through frustration with the referees, knocking down free throws; now is the time for Griffin to put it all together.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Andrew Bogut. As a Bucks fan I was devastated to see Bogut get traded, especially for the package they took back. What I learned watching Bogut the past few seasons was just how underappreciated he is. Outside of Dwight I am not sure there is a better defensive center in the league. Unfortunately due to freak injuries to his elbow and ankle and playing in Milwaukee on some bad Bucks’ teams, people don’t appreciate the big Aussies abilities. If he can can stay healthy than Bogut should be able to use his immense defensive skills and knowledge of opponents’ offenses to help the Warriors compete for a playoff spot and put himself where he belongs, among the league’s elite centers.
4. Who is the most likely to be moved in the Pacific Division?
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Alvin Gentry. I think Gentry is a decent NBA coach, but the Suns are not going to be good enough for him to make it through this season. Phoneix reached in the draft to acquire Kendall Marshall, a player whose future I love, but his ability to have a huge impact this year is a long shot. Other than the promise of Marshall, there isn’t a lot to like about the Suns current roster. Luis Scola is a solid player, but shouldn’t be counted on as a team’s top option. I’m not buying Wes Johnson, and players like Michael Beasly are simply difficult to count on for an extended period of time. Gentry’s departure will be more the product of a weak roster than his ability to coach.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Tyreke Evans. He has been on the block for over a year now. Not because of talent, in my opinion he still has plenty. He just hasn’t been a good fit for the Kings. This year will finally be the year Evans gets traded.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Tyreke Evans. Given the leadership issues in Sacramento (Cousins vs. Evans vs. Keith Smart); if the team doesn’t make early strides or Evans struggles to integrate into the team identity, he could be moved for a better fitting replacement. A potential relocation by the franchise could paralyze any player personnel moves, but given the developmental stages of the teams in the division (Lakers and Clippers mostly settled, Phoenix and Golden State revising/restructuring), the Kings seem the most likely to make a significant move.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Tyreke Evans. It has taken just two seasons for Evans to almost completely erase the positives he generated as Rookie of the Year. Instead of being defined by his physical dominance and versatility, he’s now defined by turnovers and blind devotion to the fantasy of an outside jumpshot. He’s a piece with some value and a piece that doesn’t fit. He’s no longer the face of the franchise, which means when the going gets rough for the Kings this season, and it will get rough, moving Evans will be the easiest way to create change.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - The Maloof brothers. This pick is more hope than anything else. The fans in Sacramento deserve better than what these punchlines have done to them in the past few years, and at a certain point David Stern has to step in. The city found a way to create a more than fair arena proposal but that wasn’t good enough for the Maloofs, who just want to use the team to recover some of the money they lost in their casinos. Hopefully things are figured out soon and the Maloofs sell the team to someone willing to keep the team in Sacramento; whether they are forced to by the NBA or not I could care less.
Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Chris Paul. The Clippers would be crazy to move him, but Chris Paul is still a superstar on an expiring contract. Paul will get more questions about July 1 than any other player, and the Clippers will field an equal number of offers from teams who want to rent the best point guard in the league. Paul has kept quiet about his plans, but he won’t be able to control what people say. The circus is coming to town.
5. What will be the order of finish in the Pacific Division?
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. GSW 4. SAC 5. PHX
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. PHX 4. SAC 5. GSW
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. GSW 4. PHX 5. SAC
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. GSW 4. PHX 5. SAC
Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. SAC 4. GSW 5. PHX
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - 1. LAL 2. LAC 3. SAC 4. GSW 5. PHX