This week, Basketball Insiders’ staff will be ranking the teams in each of the NBA’s divisions, starting with the Pacific today. While this is generally the time of year when folks tend to get up in arms about perceived slights and misjudgments about their team or new acquisitions, the reality is that all anyone can at this point is establish a predictive pecking order based on the limited information that is available.
Anytime the defending conference champions somehow turn around and land the summer’s prize free-agent addition, that makes deciding the division’s top team a bit easier. However, it also forces other front offices to adjust their approach for the near future as they compete with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. While some teams within the division are trying to finally break through and at least reach the next plateau along the general NBA ladder of success, others are showing great promise on the horizon and seem to have the potential to speed their development process along somewhat sooner than expected if certain players produce. Here is our look at the Pacific Division:
#5 – Los Angeles Lakers (17-65 last season)
Key Additions: Brandon Ingram (yet to sign), Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac, hired head coach Luke Walton and staff
Key Subtractions: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Robert Sacre (unsigned), Ryan Kelly (unsigned), parted ways with former head coach Byron Scott and staff
Fans of the team may not like to see them in this spot once again as we head into the season, but it will be important to remember what newly hired head coach Luke Walton told Shaquille O’Neal on The Big Podcast With Shaq just a few weeks ago: “The expectations, to me, aren’t going to be wins and losses, right now at least. It’s about having an edge when you play. It’s about competing every single time on offense and defense. It’s about playing the right way.”
Walton was speaking as much to an understandably rabid fan base as he was to his players with that message. He went on to specify more direct goals for certain players and about setting a new foundation for the future, but he also knows that has to happen in conjunction with folks being able to limit expectations on the team’s winning percentage for another season or two. For example, say everything goes well and the Lakers win as many as 12-15 additional games in 2016-17 – a feat that would be remarkable. That would still put their win total in the high 20s or low 30s in a conference that isn’t getting any easier to compete within. Walton knows that even with all the promise and intrigue of a young core that features the last two No. 2 picks of the NBA draft in Brandon Ingram (2016) and D’Angelo Russell (2015) to go along with the recently re-signed Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., it is going to take some time to not only teach and implement his preferred style of play and overall basketball philosophy, but to also continue preparing such an inexperienced mix for what it truly means to be a successful professional at this level.
They’re headed in the right direction, so after a few seasons of essentially having to “hope” for losses due to the protected draft picks, you might as well allow yourself to enjoy the process of watching a young and talented core develop without the burden of unrealistic expectations.
#4 – Phoenix Suns (23-59 last season)
Key Additions: Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, removed interim tag from head coach Earl Watson
Key Subtractions: Mirza Teletovic, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price, Chase Budinger
Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight might be the veteran leaders of the team, but there’s at least a chance second-year guard Devin Booker eventually proves to be the team’s best player if he takes the next step in his development and improves upon what was an impressive rookie season. Bledsoe and Knight should still be main contributors if healthy, but the Suns appear poised to focus on a core that could potentially center around Booker, Bender, Chriss and even the reportedly (finally) healthy Alex Len as much as either of those veterans. In fact, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets, the Suns have one of the more intriguing young cores in the Western Conference.
As is always the case – but particularly with Phoenix’s roster – player health and availability could significantly impact how quickly fans in the ‘Valley of the Sun’ start to see tangible results. Still, they should have plenty to be excited about along the way as Booker, Bender and Chriss continue to adjust to life in the NBA.
It should also be interesting to see whether Coach Watson elects to lean on three-guard sets or is ultimately forced to make a decision with one of the vets currently slotted to play ahead of Booker. Barbosa’s addition and return to the organization is another positive, but if Booker starts well, the Suns could be in a situation where a trade to free up space while ideally shoring up another roster concern could be necessary sooner rather than later. In the event that happens and general manager Ryan McDonough tests the market on his veteran backcourt, Knight’s current contract happens to run a year beyond Bledsoe’s (through 2019-20).
#3 – Sacramento Kings (33-49 last season)
Key Additions: Arron Afflalo, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Cousins, Bogdan Bogdanovic (draft rights), hired head coach Dave Joerger and staff
Key Subtractions: Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy, parted ways with former head coach George Karl and staff
Feel free to stop us if this phrase sounds familiar for the Sacramento Kings: franchise player DeMarcus Cousins is set to begin next season with a new head coach and system…
Of course it does, because this is now the sixth head coach that the Team USA center will have played for in his seven years in the league. Regardless of the reasons or which side has been at fault, it is time for the league’s best center to be a part of something successful beyond his Olympic endeavors. Coach Joerger has a short, but somewhat proven track record at this level and is generally well-received by his players from all accounts. The time has come for Cousins to turn some of his personal dominance into more overall success for his team.
While some might question or even snicker at the idea of having Barnes in that locker room, Joerger had him in Memphis and obviously feels comfortable enough with him as a potential influence for the younger players. Barnes, along with some of the other vet additions, can really look to insulate Cousins from having to shoulder so much of the leadership burden at times. Adding Afflalo as another option as a wing defender should help, but they could really use a year of him shooting in the low-to-mid 40s from beyond the arc as he’s done at times in the past.
Drafting two more frontcourt players was a bit perplexing, but that doesn’t mean Papagiannis and Labissiere aren’t each intriguing projects. The Kings were actually closer to the postseason than they were to the cellar in 2015-16 and seem to have a better fit in terms of their roster and style of play moving forward, so don’t be shocked to see them continue to inch toward that .500 mark this season if general team health permits.
#2 – Los Angeles Clippers (53-29 last season)
Key Additions: Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Brice Johnson, David Michineau, Diamond Stone
Key Subtractions: Jeff Green, Cole Aldrich
Even though the Clippers didn’t have much flexibility or cap room once they re-signed their own preferred free agents (Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute), the front office did a solid job of acquiring some bargain veterans like Speights, Felton, Anderson and Bass and guys they were targeting in the draft.
As far as the prospects go, Johnson gives them another athletic big man who can run the floor and finish at the rim and has decent touch on his shot from the mid range. He also managed to shoot 78.3 percent from the charity stripe (4.6 attempts per game) as a senior for North Carolina last season. Stone and Michineau may still be projects even if they were to make the regular season roster, but each have at least shown potential. Doc Rivers has particularly mentioned Michineau’s defense and possible ability to play both backcourt positions, while Stone was one of the draft’s more intriguing (yet clearly unpolished) young bigs.
The real questions that remain about this team will be whether they are at least relatively healthy as a collective unit when the playoffs come around and whether Coach Rivers can find the right blend of rest and roster management throughout the year to help with the concern. For as much as the Warriors deserve the spotlight for the team they’ve managed to put together, there have to be at least some within and around this organization – the fans aside – who feel as though their time to put everything together and play to their full potential.
Will the re-signed Mbah a Moute finally be the right piece at the small forward position with this crew? The Clippers have been looking for a viable option at that position for years and while the 6’8 veteran is long and rangy enough to defend scoring wings, he is hardly the three-point shooter (career 30.2 percent on .6 attempts) they’d like to have in order to create a more balanced floor for their talented scorers. Felton gives the team a veteran floor general behind Chris Paul, Anderson strengthens what looks to be talented second unit, and the combination of Speights and Bass add depth in the frontcourt depth. Speights, in particular, seems like an important addition with his ability to space the floor alongside either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan.
While the constant ring-count referencing and hyper-critical eye that we currently consume NBA basketball with may be a bit unfair or unrealistic to players at times, it isn’t beyond the scope of reason to expect more from the Clippers at some point. Although some might naturally place the San Antonio Spurs into that “best of the rest” category in the Western Conference, you’d hope to see a group as talented and multifaceted as Paul, Griffin, Jordan and J.J. Redick finally compete in a Conference Finals series and perhaps beyond.
#1 – Golden State Warriors (73-9 last season)
Key Additions: Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee (non-guaranteed), Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw
Key Subtractions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli
No need to bury the lead with this one, as adding Durant to such a talented blend of players still sounds about as crazy as it did back in early July. While there’s an absolute responsibility to remind you of all the other roster and rotation changes and how that could and almost certainly will impact team comfort and chemistry in the early going, there’s no point in denying the reality of the situation: Once they settle in and make the necessary adjustments, this team will be good. Scary good.
We shouldn’t expect them to really challenge last season’s record-setting regular season pace given all the necessary adjustments, but this unit does still have the chance to be historically great if Coach Steve Kerr and Co. can make the parts fit and players are truly willing to embrace the addition of such a great talent into their mix. It may sound somewhat silly to all of us rushing to crown them the paper champs, but chemistry is about as significant in the NBA as any other professional sport. The good news is, they have the type of culture and locker room that appears to be perfect for such a shift. If we’re being completely honest, Barnes, Ezeli and Speights were far less effective as the playoffs wore on during last year’s run to the Finals.
Although they aren’t likely to push for a regular season record in 2016-17, especially with the inevitable target that will remain on their collective backs on a nightly basis, look for these Warriors to really hit their stride over that final 35 games and into the postseason next spring. If team health permits, this will continue to be the most exciting stretch of professional basketball Oakland (and the surrounding area) has ever seen. Neither games nor titles are won on paper or during the summer months, but be prepared for at least a playoff-like atmosphere on a fairly routine basis this season whether the Warriors are playing at home or on the road.
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