Friday, October 17, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part V - Pacific Division

A quick aside before preceding: these previews are meant to be quick introductions to each team for the year. There will obviously be a lot of information left out, and there is always more to say about each team and each player. If you're interested in reading more about a particular team, I would highly recommend checking out the corresponding team blog in the links on the right. I have only linked to the best of the best, and each one is thoughtful, informed, and passionate.


Pacific Division

L.A. Lakers
They're basically taking the team that coasted through the second half of last season, taking out Ronny Turiaf, and adding a healthy Andrew Bynum. What's not to like, right?

Internal improvement has been a huge boost for the young Lakers over the last couple of years, but this might be the year where we find out how much of the improvement was for real and how much was just a one-year anomaly. Bynum is discussed more than enough, so here we'll look at Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Vladimir Radmanovic (aka the "pale ones").

Luke Walton had a bit of a breakthrough in 2006-2007, but came down to earth a bit last year. Last year's results were definitely affected by the combination of Walton's being slowed by injury and his minutes getting yanked around due to the suddenly deep small forward rotation (he played 33 minutes per game in 06-07, and just 23 minutes per game last year). With the return of Bynum pushing Gasol to the four and possibly meaning more minutes for Odom and Bryant at the three, Walton's minutes will probably be just as limited this year as they were last (although there has been chatter of playing Walton at guard recently), so Walton will need to figure out if he can stay effective in limited time. If he can 39% from 3, as he did in 06-07 (actually 38.7%), then he could effectively play some minutes at the guard spot. However, he hasn't shot over 33% in any of his other years in the league before or since 2006-2007.

Jordan Farmar gets a lot of credit for the work he puts into improving his game, and it showed last year as he improved in just about every statistical area. Given his age and experience level, I'd guess he shows even more improvement this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get 25 minutes per game and shoot 39% from three.

Sasha Vujacic is a curious case. He just finished his fourth year in the league, and commentators have acted as though his excellent year last year (shooting 43.7% from three and averaging 8.8 points a game in 17.8 minutes) came out of nowhere. If that were the case, we'd have to prepare for a bit of a regression to the mean (maybe his 3-pt% would come back down to his career average of 38%). But if you look a little at his career numbers, you'll notice that he's actually been steadily improving every single year he's been in the league. Shooting close to 44% from three again might be a stretch, but I don't think he'll fall below 40%. Vujacic, much like Farmar and Kobe Bryant, is known for putting in a lot of offseason work, and he's also only 24 years old, so his improvement shouldn't be too shocking. I think a lot of the improvement he's shown, though, also has to do with Phil Jackson reining him in and strictly limiting his role. Sasha has always thought of himself as a point guard, but last year he seemed to really take to Jackson's desired role for him of a spot-up shooter in the offense, somehow managing to put up close to 4 three pointers a game in under 18 minutes. This team is currently too good to really let him experiment as a ballhandler and distributor, so he'll probably stay in his limited role and fill it expertly.

Last year Vladimir Radmanovic played like the player that the Lakers thought they were getting two years ago. His career numbers are somewhere in between his miserable 06-07 outing and his much improved 07-08 outing, and I'd guess his performance sinks back towards his career averages a bit, but not all the way back to his snowboarding year. 38% from three and 42% overall from the field seem like reasonable expectations.

Outlook: If this team were coached by someone other than Phil Jackson, it would be hard to predict less than 65 wins for this team. However, with Jackson at the helm we can expect to see some nights with big minutes for Coby Karl or D.J. Mbenga, or with Lamar Odom or Luke Walton playing point guard, or something along those lines. And, in any case, this team's success will be measure by their performance in the playoffs, and expectations have them going to the finals.

Players to keep tabs on: The UCLA grads will both be looking for breakout years

Jordan Farmar, as discussed above, should continue to improve in this, his pivotal third year. This year is important for two reasons: a 34-year old Derek Fisher will probably play fewer regular season minutes, and Farmar will be playing for a contract extension next offseason.

More than Farmar, though, the player who comes in with the most x-factorness is Trevor Ariza. His style and abilities fit in immediately with the up-tempo second unit when he came over from Orlando last year, and he might be in line for more minutes and opportunities this year. There was talk early in the pre-season of him starting, but he's not the sort of three-point shooter that's needed to play alongside Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum. Also, as maybe the best (behind Kobe) perimeter defender on the team, his ability might be more useful as part of the second unit, when the long arms of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol aren't around to cover up perimeter lapses on defense. Either way, expect him to have a career year, and to show up in a lot of highlight reels.

Reasons to watch: (I was going to put up a short rambling paragraph about how enlightening it is to just watch Kobe Bryant, and specifically his feet, for an entire game, with and without the ball. But these videos are more important, at the moment):

Phoenix Suns
I don't really have a good grasp of what we're looking at here. There's still a lot of talent here, but this obviously isn't the Suns of the last several years. The starting lineup looks to be the same as what we saw at the end of last year, but all indications are they'll be relying more than before on the bench, particularly rookies Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez as well as free-agent signee Matt Barnes, in addition to old faces Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa. This increased reliance on the bench should temporarily ease the annual fears of the ages of Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal, and Grant Hill (and while we're talking about age, I should add in: did you realize Raja Bell is 32 years old?).

The introduction of Robin Lopez might have the biggest effect on playing style here. At this stage in his career, Shaq won't be playing 35-40 minutes per game, even if he weren't in foul trouble (which he often will be). Last year, in a pinch, Amare Stoudemire could still slide over to the center position and bring in Diaw as the 4. Now, Stoudemire might stay at the 4 with Lopez coming in off the bench. By all accounts, Lopez will be a solid defender and excellent rebounder, as well as an efficient low-usage scorer, a la Joakim Noah. However, I'm not sure that he has the skill necessary to set up outside and keep defenders out of the lane as Stoudemire and Diaw do (nor can he be an offensive focus in the post the way Shaq can), so his presence could lead to an offense that is less Nash-dependent when they're in the game together. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though it leads to some questions.

Defensively, I'm tentatively curious. Terry Porter comes in with a recently defensive reputation based on his playing career and his association with the Pistons the last couple of years. In his only head-coaching experience, his Bucks teams had above average offenses and lousy defenses, but that had a lot to do with the players available there. Then again, outside of Raja Bell, none of the Suns starters is really known for his defense, and Stoudemire and Nash are specifically known for their complete lack of defense. Any defensive improvement will probably come from the new additions off the bench.

Honestly, I'm willing to watch and see what happens. Also, I'm curious to see what Amare Stoudemire adds to his game -- his efficient mid-range game was pretty surprising to see last year.

One issue I would like to preemptively guard against: please do not buy in when the slower pace leads to lower scores, leading to commentators saying the Suns defense has "improved." If the defense does improve, we should discuss that. But as it is, D'antoni's Suns, before the Marion trade, were consistently right around league-average in terms of defensive efficiency. That's not elite, but it's not as horrible as some would have you believe -- the fast pace they played led to lots of points being scored, but per possession they were about average. If the pace slows down this year, it won't automatically mean that the defense is better.

Outlook: They should still make the playoffs, with between 44-49 wins, but anything beyond the first round seems dubious.

Players to keep tabs on: I'm looking for a bounceback year for Matt Barnes here. He's no Shawn Marion, but he can run the floor, hit the corner three, and defend a few positions. As long as Dragic can be an effective passer in that second unit, Barnes should have no trouble fitting in offensively and defensively.

Reasons to watch: As a scorer, Amare Stoudemire is about as dominant as it gets. Just don't watch him on defense . . ..

Golden State Warriors
I wrote at length a couple of months ago about Monta Ellis in the context of the upcoming season, and then he went and fell off a moped.

Big picture, I claimed that his accident (and Monta's originally lying about it) wouldn't be a problem, but that was before I had realized that Warriors ownership was a tad insane and petty, and now the accident has cost Monta around $3 million. Hmmph.

Anyways, I think Corey Maggette will do well in this context, and the team will be better than one might imagine given that they lost Jason Richardson and Baron Davis in consecutive offseasons and will now be without Monta Ellis for a chunk of this season. There is still a bit of a question mark at point guard (as of this writing, undrafted rookie will be the starter on opening night), but I see them getting it figured out.

Outlook: 38-45 wins, I suppose? Having Steven Jackson at the two instead of Monta (Ellis is supposed to play the point when healthy) could help quite a bit defensively. Meanwhile, on offense, while the loss of Baron Davis hurts, I see Corey Maggette finding lots of opportunities to score lots of points.

Players to keep tabs on: Brandan Wright played really well in limited time last year, and I expect to see a lot more of him this year. If he can get on the floor for 20 minutes a game, the Warriors as a team will really benefit.

Reasons to watch: Brandan Wright!

Sacramento Kings
Kevin Martin might be the best perimeter scorer in the league. That sounds absurd, right? But, with his ability to shoot from the outside, get to the rim and finish strong, get to the free throw line, move off the ball, and use off-ball screens, I'm not sure there's any guard in the league who can score as much as efficiently as Martin. Statistically, his closest comparison might end up in the Hall of Fame. Last year, there were only two players who made more than 1.5 three pointers per game and 7.5 free throws per game -- Kobe Bryant (1.8 threes, and 7.6 free throws) and Kevin Martin (1.8 threes, and 8.2 free throws), and Martin accomplished the feat much more efficiently. Stylistically, he's pretty unique -- he has an odd shot that looks like it takes a long time to get off but that he is able to shoot from anywhere at anytime without trouble, and he can get into the air and finish strong in ways that seem surprising given his skinny frame.

This year, for the first time in his career, Martin will be the center of the offense whenever he's on the floor. He's already shown that he can handle the increased usage and still score efficiently, now we should expect him to compete for the scoring title (he finished 6th in the league last year in points per game).

Outlook: Offensively, this team should be solid. We've discussed Martin, but the rest of the perimeter is also reliable offensively -- Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia, and John Salmons (not to mention that Bobby Brown and Quincy Douby both looked solid in summer league play). The frontcourt is also stocked with decent players who can rebound, pass, and score. Where this team will struggle, though, is on the defensive end. They were 25th in the league on defense last year, and there's no reason to expect them to be any better this year without Ron Artest. A competent if not elite offense plus a bottom five defense should be enough to get them about 34 wins and a lottery pick.

Players to keep tabs on: John Salmons had a career year last year, but given his age (28) it's probable that this was more of an anomaly than a sign of permanent improvement. Further, he played significantly better as a starter than he did as a reserve. Unfortunately, playing behind Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia means he'll have to figure out how to play effectively off the bench, or he's due for a bit of a letdown year. In his favor, though, he was at his best last year when he had the ball in his hands and was allowed the leeway to create his own shot (he wasn't as effective off the ball). With Artest gone, he should get plenty more opportunities to do that.

Reasons to watch: I don't know if he'll get many minutes, but I'm really curious to see Mr. Donte Greene play.

Los Angeles Clippers
The biggest issue for the Clippers this year will probably be depth. As mentioned here before, both Baron Davis and Marcus Camby have a history of missing some games during the season, and things get pretty thin behind them.

When they are healthy, though, this team might be somewhat intriguing. In recent years, one of the biggest problems for the Clippers has been creating high-percentage shots on offense. This was especially the case last year with Elton Brand out, as Los Angeles ended up with the worst effective field goal percentage in the league. While the loss of Corey Maggette hurts in this department, Baron Davis is easily the best point guard they've had in the Dunleavy era (sorry Shaun Livingston!), and he should help to create some easy opportunities for a team of otherwise inefficient shooters. Defensively, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby should get plenty of blocked shots while covering up for lapses by Al Thornton and the Davises, allowing the latter to gamble for steals. The end result of all of this should be a pretty solid defensive unit.

Outlook: 38 wins, I suppose. One curiosity to keep an eye on is Eric Gordon -- before last year he was considered a potential top three draft pick. He played through a wrist injury last year and, since his most developed skill is his jump shooting, this hurt his stock and he slid to the Clippers. We should see soon enough if the Clippers ended up with a steal in the draft, finding the prolific perimeter scorer that they've needed for many years, or not. At just 6'3", if he can't score like Ben Gordon then there could be trouble . . ..

Players to keep tabs on: Al Thornton had a solid rookie year and is developing as a scorer. With Corey Maggette out of the way and Marcus Camby aboard at the 4, Thornton will hopefully flourish in his natural position at small forward. There is a bit of a problem, though -- Thornton's year was solid for a rookie, with the assumption that there will be a lot of improvement going forward, perhaps through improving his three point shooting. However, Thornton was a very old rookie, and turns 25 this December, so there's not necessarily as much potential for improvement as we might expect from a second year player.

Reasons to watch: This team has changed so much since last year, that it will be interesting just to check out how all the pieces come together. Also, you never know when Baron Davis will decide to dunk on someone's face.

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