Possibly the league’s most talented division is yet again poised to compete as the best team in the West. What could hinder them?
The Pacific Division may be the best grouping in all of basketball at the moment. The Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, and Suns seem to be a staple in the playoffs for years to come. Four of the five teams advanced to the playoffs and the odd team out was of course the Sacramento Kings. Yes, they continue to fall short every season, in fact, they haven’t seen the playoff hardwood in 15 years. That is tied for the longest in NBA history, but this year could be a different story.
Who am I kidding, it probably won’t but nonetheless, the Pacific Division contains the reigning Western Conference champions along with three others holding championship expectations. I know I joke about the Kings, but they also could very well sneak into a play-in spot in the tournament. They have a talented young core, a head coach in a “prove it” type year, and they only missed last year’s playoffs by two games.
It is a stacked division but none are bereft of concerns. Last year’s myriad of injuries are expected to be an anomaly due to the shortened off-season, but the schedule is back on track and teams hope to be much healthier this season. I will leave injuries off the issues of each team this week because everyone has those concerns, but in this division, injury concerns loom larger. It is packed with elite talent but older elite talent. Every team is certainly aware of this notion so look for that beloved “load management” phrase under the ticker throughout the season.
Los Angeles Lakers
Will the supporting cast be reliable come playoff time?
The regular season is an afterthought to this team. Yes, they will compete hard for playoff position but they are talented enough to struggle during the regular season and still win the Western Conference. The supporting cast can scuffle throughout the year but it doesn’t matter because LeBron, AD, and Russ are going to win them 50+ games if healthy.
The postseason is a whole different ball game as we know. Yes, the role players are a seasoned group but are they a reliable one? Rondo and Dwight can be counted upon but how about Melo? Malik Monk? Kendrick Nunn? Talen Horton-Tucker?
Melo is a playoff-proven performer but his consistency abandoned him. He played well in spots in last year’s playoff and then would disappear the following game. The young guys like Monk, Nunn, and Tucker will have the ingratiate them into a fold of new talent. They are gifted players, but this offense will go through their big 3, so their opportunities could be sporadic.
There are some great players who made a living towards the end of their career hitting big shots in big moments. Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, and Steve Kerr to name a few. They all defined their role and excelled when the moment presented itself. This postseason, the Lakers will call upon their role players to hit momentum shots and their championship expectations depend on it. It may be one shot, it could be ten shots throughout a series, but will they execute when it is needed? That’s their greatest mystery of this upcoming season.
Golden State Warriors
Can Klay pick up where he left off?
It could be debated, but Klay Thompson could be a top-five shooter all-time. Prior to his string of injuries, he appeared in five straight All-Star games, and never dipped below 20 PPG or 40% shooting from three. In fact, he’s never declined to below 40% from three in his whole career.
The guy is a certified sniper and when healthy, aided one of basketball’s best dynasties. With that being said, we haven’t seen him on the court since 2018-2019. A torn ACL followed by a torn Achillies proved to be a long, arduous road to his return and who knows what he will look like after two full years of rehab.
If he is the old Klay, then this is a championship contender without question. We know they have the greatest shooting backcourt ever paired with Draymond Green, but they also have Andrew Wiggins and three of the top-15 picks in the last two drafts. Great offense beats good defense any day of the week and this team could be the NBA’s representation of that this year.
They are bound to be one of the top offenses, but their young talent offers them some athleticism on the defensive end as well. The disparity in expected wins if Klay is producing versus if he is not is vast in my opinion. If he returns to form, it provides a much wider margin for error in the young guys. If he is not, that young supporting cast will have to make up for the absence in production.
Was it a fluke?
Phoenix fans will hate me for asking this, but let’s be honest you’re thinking it too. The franchise rebirths itself from the absolute depth of the standings into the West’s top team in one year. It’s a miraculous story and one that I envy considering my team has never been the West’s top team, but it has me a bit skeptical.
Now I don’t doubt this will be a playoff team for years to come, but will it be one that nearly reaches a title on multiple occasions? I don’t know. What I do know is their talent, depth, and coaching should not be in question. They have all the pieces to make another championship run, but then again so do six other teams in the west.
Deandre Ayton was one of the most significant factors in that playoff run. He played historically fantastic at times and conquered the MVP in four games. Then he ran into the Bucks and as the series went on, he began to fade under the shadow of Giannis’s dominance. Are we ready to declare him an All-Star?
I’m not there yet. This is a massive year for Ayton. He needs to prove he can consistently perform at an elite level throughout the regular and postseason. Not only him, but Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson also need to bring consistent production for them to win. They are talented and play team-oriented basketball which is why they’re one of my favorites to watch, but there are different levels of elite talent and they are not at the top of the list.
Can collective production consistently overcome Hall of Fame, elite talent? The Suns proved it could last year, but can they do it again?
Los Angeles Clippers
Who is the third piece?
We know Leonard and George will carry the team offensively during the postseason, but who is going to be that third guy they can count on night in night out? Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson proved to be a shining light last year. Without those two, they don’t sniff a chance at beating the Utah Jazz or compete with the Suns.
The issue with them right now, is they don’t have a guy you can pencil 17-20 a night out of that third spot. Now it isn’t an absolute necessity, but counting solely on Leonard and George has not worked for them since their arrival, and a third piece would give them the added production to make it out of the west.
They have a nice set of role players that will help them search for a top seed, but when the baskets start to get more difficult in the postseason, will Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Marcus Morris Sr., and Zubac be reliable? They certainly have the talent and experience to do so, but basketball is a prove-it league. If you do it once, you have to do it again. If you do it twice, you have to do it a third time, and so on.
I’ve mentioned this word a lot because it is the pillar to success in sports. As far as the Kings go, they are and have been one of the worst at stacking good performances on top of the other. Be that as it may, I genuinely think this could be the year they end their 15-year playoff drought. If they can just channel their success and maintain steady execution, they could end up in the play-in spot.
It’s a lot to ask of a young, inexperienced core but they have the ability to complete the task. De’Aaron Fox raised eyebrows with his consistent, elite play last season and Buddy Hield is a firecracker. You don’t always know when he is going to go off, but he will at some point. Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes are underrated, winning players who play with great effort which is always a necessity to a successful team.
The largest wild card of this team is Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell. Haliburton is a real nice piece with near All-Star potential. He averaged 13 PPG on 41% shooting from behind the arc and was a contender for rookie of the year. If he continues to improve, the Kings will have a stout backcourt.
On the other hand, Davion Mitchell is the largest reason I believe in this team. I don’t think the Kings have had a player like this in a while. A guy who can shoot, get to the cup, but also execute with great energy and effort on the defensive end. This is a franchise-changing type of player and he arrives at a great time to change the franchise.