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Most Important Players: Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz breaks down the most important player for each team in the Pacific.

David Yapkowitz



Our latest series at Basketball Insiders on the most important player for each NBA team wraps up this week with the Pacific Division. The Pacific Division is home to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and a bunch of other teams with some question marks.

Can the Los Angeles Clippers bounce back from the loss of Chris Paul and still be a threat in the playoffs? Will the great offseason and draft that the Sacramento Kings had on paper translate into the regular season once games begin? Can Lonzo Ball impact the Los Angeles Lakers as much as some seem to think he will? Will the Phoenix Suns’ collection of young talent show on court improvement from seasons past?

In any case, each team in the Pacific Division has one key player on the team that will be crucial to whatever success they wish to have this upcoming season. Here’s a look at who those players are.

Golden State Warriors – Klay Thompson

You could probably put Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, or Draymond Green at this spot and it wouldn’t be wrong at all. That’s part of what makes the Warriors so lethal — they have so many different guys who can hurt opponents in so many different ways. Curry and Durant are MVP caliber guys who will give you MVP level production night in and night out. Green is the glue that anchors the Warriors defense. But Thompson just might be their most important player.

An All-NBA and All-Star caliber player in his own right, Thompson had to make some sacrifices with the addition of Durant. Despite that, he still managed to put up 22.3 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting from the field, and 41.4 percent from the three-point line. He’s become so good at moving without the ball and he has such a quick stroke that even a second of separation from his defender is enough time for him to bury a jumper. When Thompson is on, which is pretty much every game, the Warriors are that much more difficult to defend.

Thompson’s contract with the Warriors runs for another two years, and he’s made comments recently about potentially taking a discount to remain with the team. He doesn’t need many shots to be effective and he’s arguably the Warriors best perimeter defender. If the Warriors hope to win back to back titles, Thompson will most definitely play a major role.

Los Angeles Clippers – DeAndre Jordan

Yes, the Clippers were able to retain potential MVP candidate and franchise cornerstone Blake Griffin in free agency, but the one player who their success depends on might just be DeAndre Jordan. Jordan definitely benefitted from playing alongside Paul, as do most players who play with an elite playmaker like that. But he’s improved his offensive game in his own right. He’s also developed into one of the top interior defenders and rebounders in the league.

This past season, Jordan tied a career-high in points per game with 12.7. He excels in the pick and roll and with a potential playmaker like Milos Teodosic feeding him the ball, not to mention Griffin, who is a solid playmaker in his own right, Jordan’s offensive production might not see much of a drop-off if any at all. His ability to attack the glass often results in second-chance opportunities for the team. On the defensive end, however, is where he’ll earn his money. Even if he’s not blocking shots, his mere presence in the paint is sometimes enough to deter opponents.

If the Clippers hope to keep pace in the Western Conference and not experience too much of a drop-off following the loss of Paul, they’ll need close to All-Star production from Jordan. He was a first-time All-Star this past season and is right in the prime of his career. One area where he might be able to take his game to another level is passing out of the post. He’s often swarmed by defenders looking to keep him off the offensive glass, and he might be able to create open looks for the Clippers shooters.

Los Angeles Lakers – Lonzo Ball

The Lakers have not had a rookie with as much hype as Lonzo Ball since they obtained Kobe Bryant back in 1996. Even then, Bryant was a relative unknown that suffered through growing pains and bench duty before he developed into the superstar that helped lead the franchise to five titles. Ball most likely will be thrown to the wolves from the get-go and probably be under the national media microscope for his entire rookie year.

With that said, the Lakers have not had a potential playmaker in the mold of Ball since Magic Johnson donned the purple and gold. In his lone college season, Ball transformed the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse. While not as flashy as Johnson was, Ball has excellent court vision and playmaking instincts that he’s already shown in both summer league and preseason so far.

It’s probably safe to say that Ball will have the basketball in his hands quite a bit this upcoming season. He might not put up gaudy scoring numbers, but he will make everyone around him better. Since he isn’t such an explosive scorer yet, he might get passed over when it comes time for Rookie of the Year voting, but his impact on the Lakers will surely be felt. If the Lakers hope to use this season as a means to potentially attract max-level players next summer, Ball’s presence will definitely play a factor in that.

Phoenix Suns – Devin Booker

The list of players who have scored 70 or more points in an NBA game is incredibly small. There’s Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor, and after this past season, Devin Booker. At age 20, Booker is one of the youngest players in the league but is also a player with some of the biggest potential.

In only his second season, Booker led the Suns in scoring with 22.8 points per game. Working on his all-around game, however, Booker’s 3.4 assists per game were third on the team behind only Eric Bledsoe (6.3) and Tyler Ulis (3.7), both of whom were the Suns’ primary point guards. He’s already putting his name in the conversation as one of the league’s most gifted and explosive scorers, and there are still several levels he could realistically reach.

A potential franchise cornerstone, as Booker continues to improve his all-around skill set, he’ll start getting more and more recognition as one of the top players in the league. It’s not impossible that the Suns compete for a playoff spot this season, just highly improbable given the number of talented teams in the Western Conference. But if they do surprise a few teams, and if/when they’re ready to take that next leap as a team, Booker will almost assuredly be leading the way.

Sacramento Kings – George Hill

This past summer, George Hill was one of the most sought-after free agent point guards. A veteran with lots of playoff experience, Hill would help nearly every team in the league. He ended up taking a deal with the Kings, a team that has been plagued with misfortune and hasn’t sniffed the postseason in over a decade. Following a very solid draft and offseason, the Kings are hoping that this season can be the beginning of a turnaround with Hill leading the way.

Although he suffered through some nagging injuries last season, when he did play, Hill had a big impact on the Utah Jazz offense. His 16.9 points per game were a career-high. He shot 47.7 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from three-point range. He’s also always been one of the better defensive point guards in the league. But perhaps the biggest impact he’ll have for the Kings this upcoming season is his veteran leadership, particularly when it comes to rookie DeAaron Fox.

Hill will most likely begin the season as the starting point guard, and depending on Fox’s play, might stay there for the duration of the season. What he’ll provide for Fox, however, is invaluable. Fox will be learning from one of the best in the business and it’ll have a big impact on his career going forward. It’s not likely that the Kings contend for anything this season, but whatever they’re hoping to accomplish, Hill is a great player to have.

It’s obvious that the Warriors are miles and miles ahead of every other team in the division. But the rest of the pack still have nice collections of talent that will probably be worth watching and paying attention to as the season progresses. The players mentioned here will definitely be ones to look out for and will play an important role in wherever their teams ultimately land.


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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors

The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.

Moke Hamilton



The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.

Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.

Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.

Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.

Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.

Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.

Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.

There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.

At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.

We may be seeing that now.

En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have.  In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.

As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.

Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.

We’ll find out in short order.

* * * * * *

As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.

Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.

On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.

A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?

With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.

Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.

While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.

For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.

Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.

Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.

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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers



After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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