We’re about a week into the 2020-21 regular season and, while it’s still early, there’s been a number of interesting developments across the league. And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking those developments into account as we set out to rank each team within their respective divisions. Yes, most teams have only played between 4-5 games, but we can make some seriously educated guesses as to how the rest of their season’s might shape up.
We’ve already taken a look at the Eastern Conference — the Atlantic, Central and Southeast Divisions — and now we’ll turn our attention to the Western Conference and, more specifically, the Pacific Division.
Golden State Warriors (2-2)
How the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t too long ago that the Golden State Warriors were automatically penciled in as the West’s representative in the NBA Finals. Then Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry got hurt, and the Warriors found themselves in the lottery for the first time since 2012.
Despite those setbacks, the team looked healthy and, with James Wiseman in tow, like they were ready to jump right back into the playoff mix. But it wasn’t to be — Thompson suffered a season-ending injury just before the season began. Meanwhile, Draymond Green has yet to play due to a sore foot and Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. have not made near the impact on the court the team hoped they would. Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick, has shown flashes of his talent, but he’s still a rookie adjusting to the NBA game with no summer league and no real preseason or training camp.
Obviously there’s still plenty of time for Warriors to turn this around. With Green’s return, if the team can jell and find a flow on offense, they could even make a run at the postseason. But, as of right now, that would not appear to be in the cards — the Western Conference is too good, with too many teams already vying for a playoff spot.
Sacramento Kings (3-1)
The Sacramento Kings are in an interesting spot. They currently hold the NBA’s longest active streak of missing the playoffs at 14 seasons. They mishandled Bogdan Bogdanovic’s free agency and he ended up leaving for nothing.
But, they did manage to make a huge, long-term move this offseason as they signed De’Aaron Fox to a max contract extension. As their franchise face and a borderline All-Star, it was imperative the Kings’ brass avoid a similar scenario to Bogdanovic’s at all costs. And, this season, Fox has rewarded them for that effort with some outstanding play which, in turn, has fueled a strong start to the season for Sacramento.
In four games, Fox has averaged 20.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, a block and a steal per game. Meanwhile, he’s upped his three-point and free throw percentage by more than 10 points each, as he’s shot 40 percent and 80.8 percent, respectively, to start the season. That strong play (and continued growth) is exactly what the Kings wanted to see from their rising star and, if he can keep on track throughout the season, the Kings may very well find themselves in the postseason hunt as the season winds down.
Of course, there’s more reasons for optimism beyond Fox. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento’s most recent lottery pick, has looked solid in the early goings. Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes, both of whom missed time last season due to injury, appear healthy and more than ready to contribute. In Bagley’s case, it could be his make or break season as he looks to prove himself worthy of being the No. 2 overall pick back in 2018.
Now, with that said, the Kings are still a major question mark. They could easily end up slipping behind the Warriors in the division, or — and this is what management can only hope for — they could just as easily find themselves neck and neck with the Phoenix Suns as one of the West’s newest competitors.
Phoenix Suns (3-1)
The Suns made arguably the best move this offseason, bringing in multi-time All-Star Chris Paul. Last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul showed he was still capable of elite level play and now, for Phoenix, he’ll look to do the same. Not only should Paul make the game so much easier for the Suns two young building blocks, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but he’ll improve the team’s ability to close out games in the fourth quarter and should bring an attitude to the locker room that it has sorely lacked in recent years.
In addition to Paul, both Booker and Ayton looked poised to continue their upward trajectory. Booker has come out firing on all cylinders while Ayton, who put on a strong performance in the NBA Bubble back in July and August, is still getting warmed. Whatever Paul may bring, the Suns’ postseason dreams sit primarily with these two — if they struggle, it this season may not be the franchise turnaround everyone expected after they went 8-0 down in Orlando.
A welcome development for the Suns so far has been the play of Cameron Johnson. A year ago, some questioned his high selection in the draft, which he followed up with a decent, but not great, rookie season. That said, Johnson’s been on fire to start the 2020-21 season, especially from three-point range.
Alongside Paul, the team also added veterans Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twuan Moore, among others. Crowder was instrumental in the Miami HEAT’s NBA Finals bid last season, while Galloway and Moore should help create plenty of space for the offense to operate.
Los Angeles Clippers (3-1)
The Los Angeles Clippers have a lot to prove. A proverbial favorite to win the title last season, Los Angeles flamed out against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, despite the fact that, at one point, they held a commanding 3-1 series lead. Paul George has since been signed to a max-extension, but Kawhi Leonard could hit free agency as early as the coming summer, should he decline his player option.
It’s entirely possible that this season represents the Clippers best and, more importantly, last shot to win a championship with their current group. And, that said, it hasn’t been the best start to the season.
After an impressive 2-0 start against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nuggets, the Clippers suffered their worst loss as a franchise, a 124-73 drubbing by the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, Leonard took an inadvertent elbow to the face, from his own teammate, mind you, and has yet to play since — not exactly what want to see in an all-0ut bid to win a title.
Still, the majority of Los Angeles’ offseason acquisitions have been positive. Namely, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard have all looked like solid adds, while each of them has added a new dimension to the offense and defense that they just didn’t have last year.
And, despite those early season mishaps, the Clippers still present the biggest challenge to the Lakers coming out of the West again. Their defense remains a strength, while Tyronn Lue has moved away from the isolation heavy offense Doc Rivers ran last season. And, save for the Dallas game, it has done the trick. If they can keep it up on that end, and get Leonard back on the floor, Los Angeles may very well prove the favorite everyone expected them to be a season ago.
Los Angeles Lakers (2-2)
Somehow, the 29 other teams let the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers get even better. Not only did they upgrade the frontcourt, replacing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrel (also hurting the Clippers in the process), but the backcourt additions of Dennis Schroeder and Wes Matthews should give the lineup a bit more energy than Danny Green and Rajon Rondo were able to bring, even if Matthews hasn’t gotten going yet.
In the early going, Gasol’s playmaking at the center position has enabled LeBron James to play even more off ball. Meanwhile, Harrell has picked up where he left off before the bubble as one of the NBA’s top reserves. Schroder’s offensive punch is something the Lakers severely lacked at either guard spot, while he has been the same, if not better, defensively than what they got from the position a season ago.
Health would seem the only major obstacle that could keep Los Angeles from another Finals berth. Anthony Davis tweaked his ankle in their Christmas Day win over the Mavericks and later sat out of their contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves and looked limited against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Laker loss. James, while he has yet to miss any time, has also looked slightly hobbled with an ankle injury.
Still, as of now, the Pacific is the Lakers to lose. Barring something drastic, expect them to once again make a deep run into the postseason.
The Pacific Division is home to arguably the two best teams in the NBA in the Lakers and Clippers. Meanwhile, the Suns and Kings are much improved, both looking to climb back into the postseason for the first time in a long time. And, despite their tough start, it’s still far too early to write off the Warriors, as well. The West is going to be tough this year and the Pacific is going to be a good reflection of that.
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