2021-22 Pacific Division Preview
This legitimately may be the most talented division in the entire league. While every division covered in Basketball Insiders’ divisional series thus far has one or two teams that are poised for the lottery, each of the teams in the Pacific Divison has serious playoff aspirations. Without further ado, let’s break down this talented group of teams.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Despite the phenomenal Phoenix Suns Finals run last season, there’s little doubt that the Lakers enter the season as not only the favorites to win the division but also potential favorites to win the championship. After a disappointing season marred by injury, the Lakers made a big move in acquiring All-Star and former MVP Russell Westbrook in a five-team trade that saw the departures of Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma.
While the fit with Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis may seem a bit awkward at first, anytime you put three of the best players in the league together, it’s likely to work out. Don’t forget that Westbrook’s heroics helped launch the Washington Wizards into the postseason last year.
The Lakers completely overhauled their roster even further after the trade. Los Angeles decided it was reunion time for several players, bringing back Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo and Kent Bazemore for second or third stints with the team. The Lakers also re-signed Talen Horton-Tucker.
From there the Lakers brought in some outside help, a nice blend of young talent with potential, such as Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Sekou Doumbouya and Austin Reaves, and a collection of veterans that James likely wanted to play with in DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony. The only players remaining from last year’s iteration of the Lakers are Horton-Tucker, James and Davis.
Some of these moves are far likelier to stick than others. Ellington, Bazemore, Monk and Nunn in particular stand out as strong additions that can score the ball and stretch the floor — those are going to be the guys that the “big three” need around them. The Anthony and Ariza moves also work well, giving the Lakers some scoring at the four and three.
However, bringing back older veterans like Rondo, Howard and Jordan might not prove to be fruitful. Rondo and Howard were fine last season but their last strong stints came in LA’s title run in 2019-20. While LA is certainly aiming that those two will get back to that, Howard and Rondo will both turn 36 during the season.
Jordan on the other hand became completely unplayable in Brooklyn. There’s a reason the Nets dumped him in a salary move despite his connections with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. There doesn’t seem to be a winning possession in which Jordan is on the floor.
In all, the new blend of young talent, star power and old faces will likely be enough to vault the Lakers back to the top of the conference. Look for the Lakers to be title favorites.
Tristan’s prediction: 60-22, No. 1-No. 3 seed range
2. Phoenix Suns
As of now, the grade of Phoenix’s offseason is incomplete. The franchise hasn’t yet extended franchise staples DeAndre Ayton or Mikal Bridges. Failing to do so would lead to a failing grade and succeeding in extending both would do the exact opposite. Extensions aside, Phoenix largely ran back the same roster as last season’s Finals team.
The Suns didn’t add any players in the draft or unrestricted free agency and only signed JaVale McGee and Elfrid Payton in free agency. Both players are good flyers for the franchise, with McGee set to take the backup center role held by Dario Saric last season, who will miss most or all of this year with an injury. Payton was a net negative for the New York Knicks last year but the Suns already have success with reclamation point guards as seen in crucial guard Cameron Payne.
Outside of that, the Suns added Chandler Hutchinson to a two-way deal, one of the most experienced two-way players in the league. Hutchinson still has a high upside but Phoenix will almost certainly keep him with the team as much as possible — the franchise doesn’t seem to care much for development through the G League.
The best move the Suns made all offseason was by exchanging Jevon Carter for Landry Shamet. Carter fell out of Monty Williams’ favor last season and never crawled back into the rotation. Shamet, on the other hand, is an extremely deadly marksman that can get hot quickly. He’ll make an impact.
For the most part, Phoenix ran it back. It’s a dangerous route to take with a possible regression on the horizon for Chris Paul and the uncertainty surrounding the team’s pending extensions. However, expect Phoenix to be right in the thick of the playoff picture, despite other Western Conference teams posing more of a threat this season.
Tristan’s prediction: 54-28, No. 3-No. 5 seed range
3. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have more fluctuation in their expected order of finish than any other team in the league, depending on who you ask. After the last two seasons have been plagued with injuries and misery, the Warriors are finally (hopefully) getting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the court together for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals. The last time Thompson played in the NBA, Russell Westbrook was on the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jimmy Butler was in Philadelphia, Anthony Davis was in New Orleans, Kawhi Leonard was in Toronto and Mike Budenholzer was ending his first season as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
While the last two seasons haven’t been ideal, it’s given the Warriors plenty of excellent complementary pieces to use around the big three of yesteryear. Jordan Poole is a contender for Most Improved Player or Sixth Man of the Year after his tremendous growth last season and over the offseason. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Kevon Looney all have defined roles and have established themselves as keepers.
Of course, the most important part of the Warriors’ offseason revolves around the selection of rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, alongside the development of James Wiseman. The Warriors are hoping that Thompson, Curry and Green can one day pass the reins down to Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman and it’s an interesting strategy with plenty of merits. The Warriors have the on-paper talent to compete now but are spending equal time to develop their young talent.
Outside of returners and rookies, the Warriors also added Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter in free agency, two players that can help tremendously. No move was better for team chemistry though than reuniting with former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
It will be interesting to see how this team comes together. If everything falls perfectly into place, it could be back to contention for the Warriors. Andrew Wiggins could be a key factor in that. If the wheels fall off or the injury bug strikes again, it could be back to the lottery for Golden State.
Tristan’s prediction: 46-36, No. 4-No. 10 seed range
4. Sacramento Kings
The Kings’ offseason approach makes little sense. In the draft, Sacramento added to its glut of young guards by selecting Davion Mitchell. Mitchell is a great player, a strong defensive presence and Summer League Co-MVP. However, he’s old for a rookie and his upside is more limited than some other rookies. It doesn’t help that Sacramento already has two strong, young guards in De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. In order for the three to play together, Sacramento is going to have to utilize a three-point-guard lineup, something that’s hard to maneuver for good coaches, and the jury is still out on Luke Walton.
After that, the Kings shipped off a perfectly good backup guard in Delon Wright to acquire Tristan Thompson, someone who averaged 7.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on a mere 51.8 percent from the floor. Sacramento’s other free agency moves included re-signing Maurice Harkless and reuniting with Alex Len. The best free-agency move the Kings made was re-signing big man Richaun Holmes to a four-year, $46.5 million contract extension.
In all, the Kings are an awkward fit on and off the court. Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley II, both expected to see huge minutes this season, haven’t been so subtle about the fact that neither wants to be there. The bench is another huge question mark.
The Kings will do what they’ve done for the last few seasons. Remain competitive enough to remain in the playoff picture bolstered by their good young players in Fox, Haliburton and now, Mitchell, but likely fall short in the end. It would be fulfilling to see the Kings get over the hump and into the postseason, even the Play-In Tournament, but until the question marks on the roster are answered in totality and this roster feels more complete, it’s hard to picture that scenario.
Tristan’s prediction: 38-44, No. 9-No. 13 seed range
5. Los Angeles Clippers
It’s a shame that Kawhi Leonard will likely miss the entire season with an injury. If not, there’s little doubt that the Clippers would be right next to the Suns and Lakers in terms of being outright contenders. The Clippers did make several improvements around the margins that would likely have been able to push them over the age if Leonard was healthy.
In particular, free-agent addition Justise Winslow provides some intrigue and the ability to play as a ball-handler, wing or even small-ball center. Trading for Eric Bledsoe was also a great move and, if he can regain his prior form, will be an integral piece to this team’s contention in the future.
Further, it’s honestly not hard to envision a scenario in which Paul George becomes an outright MVP candidate.
The Clippers also did very well for themselves in the draft despite the lack of draft capital. Brandon Boston Jr. and Keon Johnson were both thought to be potential lottery picks at varying points in the pre-draft process, with Johnson, in particular, getting looks as high as No. 8 overall to the Orlando Magic. Jason Preston, despite his injury, is another guy who should be able to make a name for himself early. He helped himself in the pre-draft process and at the combine.
Despite the positive signs of roster building this team has seen, as well as re-signing impressive veterans Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson, it will be an uphill battle for this team to make the playoffs. It will take an MVP year from George, as well as serious growth from the roster’s younger players. This roster is reminiscent of the team’s 2017-18 iteration when the Clips went 42-40 and missed the playoffs with no true All-Star all season.
Just like that year, the Western Conference is full of eager young teams scrapping to make the playoffs. Nothing is a given and no matter how competitive or fun the Clippers may be, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the Play-In Tournament spots.
Tristan’s prediction: 36-46, No. 8-No. 12 seed range
Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the final edition of our divisional breakdown, where we will be looking at the Northwest Division.
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