NBA

Brightest Future in the NBA’s Pacific Division?

An in-depth look at every team in the NBA’s Pacific Division with an eye towards the future and who has the most potential beyond this season.

Jesse Blancarte profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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The Pacific Division has been dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers for a long time. The Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns have also experienced sustained periods of success over the last decade. But now it is the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors who lead the Pacific, which goes to show that nothing lasts forever, even when it comes to the Lakers and Clippers.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at each of these teams and assess who has the brightest future.

Los Angeles Clippers (57-24, 3rd in the Western Conference, 1st in the Pacific Division.)

Coach: Doc Rivers
Cornerstones: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan
Assets: 2014 1st round pick, Reggie Bullock.

The Clipper’s ascension to the top of the Pacific started a few years ago when they unexpectedly won the 2010 NBA Lottery and selected Blake Griffin with the first pick in the draft. Griffin joined a team that featured young players like Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, and veterans like Chris Kaman and Baron Davis. But from day one Griffin was the new foundation for the Clippers and everything was built around him.

Then, in December 2011, the Clippers landed Chris Paul in dramatic fashion after David Stern cancelled a deal that would have placed Paul with the Lakers. Stern, acting as de facto owner of the league owned New Orleans Hornets, said his decision was for “basketball reasons.” This trade seismically shifted the power dynamic in Los Angeles, and is the main reason why the Clippers are now atop the Pacific division.

How Things Went This Season

The Clippers entered this offseason looking to make a run to the NBA Finals. To do this, they hired former Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. The team sent their 2015 first round pick to the Celtics, who agreed to release Rivers from his contract and take over the Clippers. In addition, the Clippers signed point guard Darren Collison, center Byron Mullens, forward Antawn Jamison, and resigned small forward Matt Barnes. The Clippers also acquired Jared Dudley from Phoenix and J.J. Redick from Milwaukee via trade, sending Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to Phoenix and a second round pick to Milwaukee. The team also added young sharpshooter Reggie Bullock from North Carolina with the 25th pick in the draft.

The Clippers set a franchise record on April 15, beating the Denver Nuggets and winnings its 57th game of the season. They managed this by fielding one of the league’s most potent offenses and steadily improving on defense all season long. The Clippers currently have the highest rated offense in the league, scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions, and the 7th best defense, giving up 101.9 points per 100 possessions. This combination is good for a 7.5 point differential, second best in the NBA behind the ageless San Antonio Spurs.

Credit goes to Doc Rivers and his staff for making some key changes that have paid off this season for the Clippers. First, Rivers instituted his strong-side defense, which has improved as the players have adjusted, and has turned the Clippers into the best team at guarding the three-point line. Also, from day one Rivers has instilled confidence in Jordan, which has resulted in a career year for the young center.

Most importantly, Griffin has taken the next step in his development. After Paul separated his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks on January 3, Griffin stepped into the lead role and has not taken a back seat since. He is shooting with more confidence, hitting free throws, running fast breaks, creating scoring opportunities for teammates, and is engaged defensively.

Looking Ahead

The Clippers are structured to win this year and for the foreseeable future. Griffin and Paul both are locked up until 2017-2018, when both players will have a player option to opt out of their contracts. Jordan is signed through next season, at which point the Clippers will try to extend him. In addition, J.J. Redick is locked in until 2016-2017. The Clippers have a team option on 6th man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford for 2015-2016, which the team will likely exercise. Also, Rivers signed a three year contract with the team that will run through 2015-2016 as well. With these five players, and Rivers, who will likely be around until at least 2015-2016, the Clippers look to be atop the Pacific Division for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, with a first round pick in this year’s draft, and youngster Reggie Bullock developing, the Clippers have a few assets in their back pocket. Look for the Clippers to bring Bullock along slowly. The Clippers will also continue to benefit from the free agent market as they have this season with players like Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Glen Davis, who all signed for substantially less for a chance to play on a contending team.

Golden State Warriors (50-31, 6th in the Western Conference, 2nd in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Mark Jackson
Cornerstones: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala
Assets: Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green

The Golden State Warriors entered this season with high expectations after advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals last year.

How Things Went This Season

The Warriors made a big move this offseason, acquiring defensive ace Andre Iguodala. With the addition of Iguodala and Andrew Bogut anchoring the defense, the Warriors have touted the league’s third highest rated defense, which allows only 99.9 points per 100 possessions. But with explosive players like Curry and Thompson on the team, and a top rated defense in place, the Warriors should arguably be first in the Pacific, even ahead of the Clippers.

The problem is that the Warriors are rated as the 12th best offense in the league, scoring 105.3 points per 100 possessions. This is above league average, but with a talent like Stephen Curry running the show, and players like Klay Thompson, David Lee, and Iguodala, it’s fair to expect this team to at least be a top-10 offensive team. Part of the issue is that for the better part of the season, the Warriors bench has failed to contribute as much as other top teams. The Warriors recognized this and made trades for players like Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford. These were both underrated acquisitions, but the Warriors still are not as efficient as they could be.

In spite of this, the Warriors have a chance to make a run this postseason. They will likely face the Clippers in the first round and will have to be at their best to advance without Bogut, who sustained a broken rib this past week and is out indefinitely. It will be a tough series, but if Curry and Thompson get hot from the perimeter, they might be able to get past the Clippers.

Looking Ahead

The Warriors, much like the Clippers, are designed to win now and in the immediate future. Players like Bogut, Iguodala, and Curry are locked in until 2016-2017. Also, Thompson will likely sign a new contract with the Warriors this offseason that will lock him up for anywhere between the next three-to-five years. The Warriors also have a team option on Harrison Barnes for next season at $3,873,398. Though Barnes has had a disappointing season, he can bounce back and be a major piece for this team moving forward. Lee is signed through 2015-2016 and may very well resign with the Warriors. However, his next contract will be for less, as he is set to make $15,493,680 next season.

While the roster is set to win now and in the future, the coaching situation is less stable. Mark Jackson has led the Warriors to winning seasons since taking over. However, recent reports indicate that the front office has not yet committed to Jackson long-term.

The most recent issues pertain to Jackson’s assistants. Brian Scalabrine was recently demoted by Jacksons to the Warriors’ D-League affiliate team in Santa Cruz, and lead assistant Darren Erman was dismissed from the team for a “violation of the organization’s policy.” Jackson’s future with the Warriors depends in large part on how the team fares in the playoffs. If the Warriors cannot advance past the Clippers, expect Jackson to be placed on the hot seat.

In spite of the unstable coaching situation, this roster is good enough to compete with the Clippers this season, and for the foreseeable future. Bob Meyers, the general manager of the Warriors, has done a good job of assembling a roster of young talent, and solid veterans. Curry is a top talent, and with players like Thompson around him, this team is set to compete for many years to come.

Phoenix Suns (47-34, 9th western conference, 3rd in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Cornerstones: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe
Assets: Three 2014 first round picks, Alex Len

Throughout the mid-2000s the Phoenix Suns were atop the Pacific Division with the Los Angeles Lakers. Their past success stemmed in large part from former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced-offense, which has caught on throughout the league. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire ran the system perfectly, and the Suns managed to surround these two with shooters and other versatile players. However, Stoudemire eventually left for New York, and Nash was eventually traded to the Lakers. Thus, the Suns finally started to rebuild from the ground up this past offseason.

How Things Went This Season

The Suns have been the surprise team of the season. This past offseason the Suns hired rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, and drafted Alex Len with the fifth pick in the draft, along with Archie Goodwin (29). The Suns then traded Jared Dudley to the Clippers for Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe, and then traded Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, and a 2014 first round pick (lottery protected). The Suns then traded Marcin Gortat, Malcom Lee, Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown to the Washington Wizards for Emeka Okafor and a protected 2014 first-round pick. The Suns also picked up the fourth-year options on Markieff and Marcus Morris and used the stretch provision to waive Michael Beasley.

The Suns clearly were all in on rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. With a rookie head coach, and few veteran players, no one expected Phoenix to be in the playoff hunt this season. Nevertheless, the Suns exceeded all expectations and were only eliminated from playoff contention on April 15, when they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Looking Ahead

The Suns thrived this season behind the excellent play of Most Improved Player candidate Goran Dragic and budding star Eric Bledsoe. With Dragic and Bledsoe sharing the backcourt, the Suns featured the league’s eighth best offense, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Beyond Dragic and Bledsoe, players like Gerald Green had career years. Green has made the fourth most three pointers in the league (currently 202) on 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

It’s a shame that Suns will did not make the playoffs this season. If the Suns were the in the Eastern Conference, they would be ranked 5th and set to play the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Fortunately for the Suns, they have a pile of draft picks to add more players, and potentially trade.

Dragic (player option), Len (team option), the Morris twins (qualifying offers), and Plumlee (team option) are likely to be with the team through 2015-2016. The Suns will look to sign Bledsoe to a long term deal this offseason, but it remains to be seen at what price. Other teams looking for a long term fit at point guard may offer Bledsoe a max free agent offer sheet, which the Suns will have the right to match.

The Suns will also look to keep players like P.J. Tucker (qualifying offer), Green (signed for next season), and Frye (player option). After next season however, these players may become too expensive for the Suns to keep. The Suns will also consider packaging draft picks and players for an established star, like they tried to earlier this season with Pau Gasol. The Suns could even make a substantial free agent offer to free agents like Luol Deng, who would add veteran stability to the young roster.

The Suns are in a favorable position right now. They unloaded veteran players and turned them into future assets. They acquired players like Green and Plumlee, who had career years, and hired a young coach who could win Coach of the Year. With a roster that almost made the playoffs in the deep Western Conference and with more flexibility than just about any team moving forward, the Suns are ahead of schedule on their rebuild. This is a team to keep an eye on this offseason and could compete with the Clippers and Warriors in the near future for Pacific Division supremacy.

Sacramento Kings (28-53, 13th in the Western Conference, 4th in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Michael Malone
Cornerstones: DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay
Assets: Ben McLemore, 2014 first round pick

The Sacramento Kings have been at the bottom of the Pacific Division for the past few seasons and are looking to turn that around under new owner Vivek Ranadivé. The Kings hired Michael Malone who is trying to develop young players like DeMarcus Cousins, and create a winning culture in Sacramento.

How Things Went This Season

It has been a disappointing season for the Kings. During the offseason, and throughout the season, the Kings made moves to add young talent and veterans to create a more balanced roster.

Last offseason the Kings selected Ben McLemore with the seventh pick and Ray McCallum with the 36th pick. They then traded Tyreke Evans to New Orleans Pelicans for Greivis Vasquez and two second-round picks. The Kings then signed Carl Landry to a four-year, $26 million contract. In November, they traded Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Derrick Williams and in December, the Kings traded John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors for Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy. In February, the Kings traded Marcus Thornton to the Brooklyn Nets for Jason Terry and Reggie Evans.

Looking Ahead

While the flurry of moves did not pan out this season, there is still hope for a better future in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins, in spite of his maturity issues, is a top center in the NBA. In each of his last three games, Cousins has scored over 30 points and hauled in over 10 rebounds. Though his shooting percentage from the field needs to improve, and he needs to control his on court emotions, he is one of the most skilled big-men in the NBA, and is a major asset for the Kings.

Ben Mclemore is another asset moving forward despite his underwhelming rookie season. At times throughout this season Mclemore has displayed elite athleticism and the smooth jump shot that scouts raved about entering the draft. Like the majority of rookies, Mclemore has been inconsistent and hesitant at times. His shooting percentages, 37.3 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc, need to improve dramatically, but the talent is there.

One of the biggest questions marks heading into the offseason is whether Rudy Gay will exercise his player option for the last year of his contract (worth $19,317,326), or look to sign a new, long-term deal. Gay has improved his play since arriving in Sacramento and he has indicated that he would like to stay with the team moving forward. If the Kings can sign him for a reasonable rate, they should sign lock him in for the next few seasons.

The other big question is what will happen with Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has exceeded all expectations and proven to be a valuable player for the Kings. However, at 5’9 Thomas gives up considerable size to most opposing point guards. The Kings undoubtedly want to keep Thomas, but it will have to be at a price that makes sense for the franchise.

Overall, the Kings have quality talent on the roster. However, there are veteran contracts that are taking up too much cap space, such as Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, and Travis Outlaw. Look for the Kings to try and unload these contracts, and continue adding young pieces around Cousins, Thomas, Mclemore, and Gay. This includes the Kings’ top-10 pick in the upcoming draft, which includes some very talented prospects. The future looks bright for the Kings, but it will take a few seasons before they can compete for Pacific division supremacy.

Los Angeles Lakers (26-55, 14th in the Western Conference, 5th in the Pacific Division)

Coach: Mike D’Antoni
Cornerstones: Kobe Bryant
Best Assets: 2014 first round pick, Ryan Kelly

The Los Angeles Lakers are one of, if not the league’s marquee franchises. However, this has been a rough season for the franchise and its fans. In fact, this season is the first and only time in NBA history that the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics failed to make the playoffs in the same year.

How Things Went This Season

The Lakers entered this season with cautious optimism, in spite of losing center Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets. Kobe Bryant indicated that he may be healthy enough to play opening night, and Steve Nash had spent the entire offseason rehabbing as well. In addition, the team had signed young players that had underachieved for other teams, and were looking for a fresh start. Things did not work out however. Bryant missed opening night and only played six games all season. It was the worst season in franchise history, with one of the worst defeats coming at the hands of the Clippers, who won by 48 points. Unfortunately, there were only a few bright spots, such as Kendal Marshall, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young and Ryan Kelly.

The Lakers selected Ryan Kelly with the 48th pick in the draft, signed Jordan Farmar to a one-year, minimum contract for $1.1 million, waived Metta World Peace with their one-time amnesty provision, and then signed Nick Young to a two-year, minimum contract at $2.3 million (second season player option). The Lakers then signed Chris Kaman to a one-year, $3,183,000 contract, and Wesley Johnson to a one-year, $916k minimum contract. They also signed Xavier Henry to a one-year, non-guaranteed $916k minimum contract.

The biggest move of the season came in November when they signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. Bryant had not returned from his injury yet, but the Lakers wanted to show their commitment to their star. Then in February, the Lakers traded Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.

These roster moves did not lead to much success unfortunately. The Lakers have the second fastest pace in the league, but are rated 21st in terms of offensive efficiency. Even worst, the defense has allowed opposing teams to score 108.1 points per 100 possessions, third worst in the league. Beyond the offensive and defensive issues, the Lakers have been devastated by injuries.

Looking Ahead

The Lakers have roughly $34,226,243 in guaranteed player salary next season. This comes mostly from Bryant and Nash’s contracts. When the Lakers announced Bryant’s contract, the immediate reaction was surprise. Everyone thought Kobe was going to take a major discount so the Lakers could sign two max free agents, like LeBron and Carmelo. Instead, the Lakers now have room for only one max free agent, and little else. The contract seems to indicate that the Lakers realize that they are at least two years away from truly contending, and are going to ride out Kobe’s last two years in the league. Despite the Lakers and Kobe publically stating that they are planning on contending next year, the reality is that there simply is not enough flexibility to make that happen. While you can never count out the Lakers, the immediate future does not look bright.

The Lakers do have a top-10 pick coming up this offseason, and if that pick pans out, it can turn things around for the Lakers quickly. Also, if a player like Kevin Love becomes available, expect the Lakers to offer a package based around the pick.

Current players like Young, Meeks, Hill, Marshall, and Henry have proven that they are worth keeping around, but there is no real core to build around. Every other team in the Pacific has star players, or potential star players to build around except the Lakers. However, as bleak as things may seem now, the Lakers always bounce back quickly. Unfortunately, the next time the Lakers are contending for top spot in the Pacific, it likely won’t include Kobe Bryant.

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Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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