This summer, an incredible amount of player movement occurred within the Pacific Division. At the time of posting, a total of 29 players had moved off of West Coast rosters, and a total of 27 had moved on to them. Is that an incredible amount? Maybe this happens every year.
The shifting around was especially noticeable as the impact of the sheer volume was compounded by the mega-wattage of the names involved. An iconic point guard. A larger-than-life center. The husband from some TV show. A world-renowned concert pianist. A grown man named P.J. It was the sort of offseason personnel whirlwind hoops fans scarcely dare to dream of.
But, for all the movement, what exactly changed? Not a whole lot, as it turns out. As it was last year, the division is still a two-team race, with the pair at the top strides and strides advanced beyond the three at the bottom. The best team from last year is still the best; the second-best team is still the second-best. The team that lost its point guard may be in for a fall; the one that aced the draft may be on the rise. And Boogie’s crew? Well, they’ll be fun to watch, at least.
The following is a team-by-team rundown of the division, complete with depth charts courtesy of ESPN.com and projected records courtesy of ourselves.
Los Angeles Lakers
2012 Record: 41-25 (1st in Division, 3rd in Conference)
2012 Playoffs: Lost NBA Western Conference Semifinals (1-4) versus Oklahoma City Thunder
Won NBA Western Conference First Round (4-3) versus Denver Nuggets
2013 Projected Record: 58-24
2012 Castoffs: Matt Barnes, Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, Ramon Sessions
2012 Free Agents: Troy Murphy
Unsigned Draftees: Darius Johnson-Odom, Reeves Nelson, Robert Sacre, Greg Somogyi
The Los Angeles Lakers finished the 2011 season with a record of 57-25, good for second-best in the Conference and fourth-best in the league. They capped off their impressive run by being eliminated with extreme prejudice from the second round of the playoffs, losing in a clean sweep to the eventual Champion Dallas Mavericks.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers went 41-25, earning a three-seed in the playoffs with a record that was now only sixth-best in the league. Once again, their playoff run carried them to the Conference Semifinals. Once again, they bowed out unceremoniously, falling in five to the eventual Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now locked in a constitution-quaking staring contest with mortality, the Lakers dug deep and responded with about the most Laker-like move imaginable. By acquiring two mega-watt superstars who are actually in the entertainment industry, the team reasserted itself as one of the NBA’s most dominating forces.
In an admirable show of shit-stirring bravado, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently dismissed the Lakers’ offseason work, saying (via ESPNDallas.com’s Tim McMahon):
The Lakers have done this before. Gary Payton and Karl Malone and Kobe and Shaq were all together, and it didn’t work. It takes great chemistry. … It takes guys wanting to be there. I don’t know if all their guys want to be there.
Good show, Cubes, though we have a hard time imagining any team powered by The Great Steve Nash suffering from chemistry issues. Instead, we at the Houdini will cling white-knuckled to the hope that Nash’s back is once and for all shot to Hell, that Dwight Howard isn’t really that much better than Andrew Bynum, and that the Lakers’ lack of legitimate depth beyond doting grandfather Antawn Jamison spells a third-straight second-round exit from the playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers
2012 Record: 40-26 (2nd in Division, 5th in Conference)
2012 Playoffs: Lost NBA Western Conference Semifinals (0-4) versus San Antonio Spurs
Won NBA Western Conference First Round (4-3) versus Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Projected Record: 50-32
2012 Castoffs: Reggie Evans, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Mo Williams, Nick Young
2012 Free Agents: Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons
The Los Angeles Clippers haven’t had two consecutive seasons of winning basketball since the mid-‘70’s, when they weren’t even the Los Angeles Clippers. They were the Buffalo Braves then, and they had a guard named Ernie DiGregorio, who always reminds us of that part in Dirty Harry when Callahan’s got a bee in his bonnet because he doesn’t want to pair up with Chico Gonzalez, and he asks his boss if he can work with Frank DiGiorgio instead, and his boss says, real emphatically, “no way.” What kind of monkeyshines did those two troublemakers get into the last time they worked together? How come they have to be kept separated at all costs? Come on, man, we gots to know.
This season, the Clips should put a decisive end to their sustained futility streak. Their 2012 campaign was the best in the franchise’s miserable history, as they put up their highest-ever winning percentage (.606) and advanced to the playoffs for only the fifth time since their 1978 move to California. Though they would be swept out of the Conference Semifinals by a San Antonio Spurs squad that looked nigh-unbeatable in mid-May, L.A. had announced itself as a legitimate player in the West and, right up until their housemates’ acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, a possible (if not probable) contender for Hottest Ticket in Town.
Over the summer, the Clippers performed the neat trick of executing a significant roster overhaul while returning the same starting five from last season’s Christmas opener. Seven reserves were shipped out and six new ones were brought in. The turnover should result in a net gain for the team; last season, the departing group put up an average PER of 10.2, while the in-comers scored out at 11.7.
That number includes the 9.2 stinkbomb that prospective bench lynchpin Lamar Odom foisted upon the Dallas Mavericks. One year removed from winning the Sixth Man of the Year award with 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in a 19.4-PER effort for the Los Angeles Lakers, Odom turned in what was easily the worst season of his career, averaging 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in only 20.5 minutes per game. By all accounts, Odom was disinterested and out of shape, stung by the Lakers’ attempt to trade him for Chris Paul after a summer spent dealing with the compound effects of two personal tragedies suffered within a span of days.
If Odom’s Dallas detour turns out to have been more a lost year than a harbinger of decline, than the Clippers and their top shelf point guard, highlight-factory power forward, and fridge full of Tough Juice look set to make another hard run at the Conference Semis, and maybe even beyond.
Golden State Warriors
2012 Record: 23-43 (4th in Division, 13th in Conference)
2012 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013 Projected Record: 33-49
2012 Castoffs: Mickell Gladness, Nate Robinson, Chris Wright, Dorell Wright
2012 Free Agents: Dominic McGuire, Mikki Moore
Unsigned Draftees: Ognjen Kuzmic
There’s been a little bit of sleeper buzz floating around the Golden State Warriors this year, thanks largely to what was, by many accounts, a huge splash made in the 2012 Draft. To be honest, we don’t know a damn thing about college basketball, so we look to the experts at NBADraft.net, who tell us that seventh overall pick Harrison Barnes is “fluid, confident and reliable in catch and shoot situations” and has the “ability to spot up and knock down shots [that] will likely give him a long and prosperous NBA career.”
Nigerian big man Festus Ezeli, meanwhile, has “a strong, NBA frame and a monstrous wingspan that hovers around the 7’4 mark” and an “ability to protect the rim, which he does extremely well thanks to [his] combination of agility, strength and length.” Draymond Green also sounds like quite a catch. As “the ultimate ‘Glue Guy,’ [his] strongest asset is his ability to contribute across the board” with his “reliable mid-range jumper” and “vision, passing and ability to facilitate out of the post [that makes] it difficult for off-ball defenders to keep their eyes on their man and the ball at the same time.” Other adjectives used were “terrific,” “aggressive,” “unselfish,” and, our personal favorite, “slippery.”
Perhaps just as much, though, the Warriors have stirred interest through a series of acquisitions that began last season with the much-maligned trade of fan-favorite Monta Ellis for Australian center Andrew Bogut. Though he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, averaging 53 games per season from his sophmore run on, the seven-year veteran has produced more win shares (30.3) than any Warriors center since Joe Barry Carroll tallied 30.7 from 1981-’88. Paired with 29-year-old power forward David Lee, Bogut gives Golden State a bona fide front court presence for the first time since…???
The Warriors continued their veteran supplementation program into the offseason, flipping swingman Dorell Wright for point guard Jarrett Jack in a three-team deal, and signing free agent power forward Carl Landry. Jack had just completed the best of his seven seasons, putting up career highs in points (16.5), assists (6.7), and rebounds (4.1) per 36 minutes while holding down the starter’s gig for the hapless New Orleans Hornets. Landry, despite being limited to 41 games by a sprained MCL, also turned in a productive season for the Hornets, averaging 18.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per 36, the second- and third-highest rates of his career.
The new acquisitions enhance the Warriors’ starting line, bolster their second unit, and shift them towards some semblance of a defensive identity. While these are all good things, the team’s success this coming season will likely hinge on the health of Bogut and star point guard Stephen Curry. While Bogut’s injuries have been of the decidedly freakish variety – more a super-long string of wrong place/wrong time misfortune than Mr. Glass syndrome – Curry’s recurring ankle troubles (seven-plus sprains since 2009 and two surgeries since 2011) have been a bit more concerning in that they suggest something structurally amiss.
With the black cloud of uncertainty shrouding the team’s two central figures, it’s hard for us to buy into the sleeper buzz. Here’s to hoping that good health and the leaps-and-bounds ascension of some precocious youngsters proves us wrong.
2012 Record: 22-44 (5th in Division, 14th in Conference)
2012 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013 Projected Record: 30-52
2012 Castoffs: Donte Greene, Hassan Whiteside
2012 Free Agents: Terrence Williams
In 2009, the Houston Rockets opened their Conference Semifinal matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers with a split of the first two games. A red-hot 20-8 finish to their regular season, fueled by strong play from healthy-for-a-change franchise cornerstone Yao Ming, sophmore forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry, and the loose screw formerly known as Ron Artest, had earned them a fifth seed and marked them as sneaky postseason troublemakers. In Game 3, however, a brick wall emerged at the head of their spirited run as Yao, who had been Houston’s most productive player from the regular season’s opening tip onward, limped off the court and into the tunnel before the final buzzer sounded on a 108-94 loss. He had endured a hairline fracture in his left foot. His career was effectively over.
And so, facing a two-to-one deficit against the team sporting the best record in the Conference, the Rockets turned to second-year point guard Aaron Brooks. In February, Houston had shipped out Rafer Alston in a three-team deal that brought back Kyle Lowry, creating a vacancy in the starting lineup that Brooks had been slotted into. He had performed capably in the role, averaging 12.9 points and 3.6 assists over the season’s final 28 games while flashing glimpses of the volume scorer lurking within his six-foot frame. Over the first two games of the Rockets’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, he had dropped 50 points on a combined 19-29 from the floor, including 9-13 from beyond the arc.
In Game 4 against the Lakers, he would explode for a career-high 34 points, driving the Rockets to a 99-87 victory. Though Los Angeles would respond with a haymaker in Game 5, unloading a 118-78 crush job in front of their home crowd, Houston would deal back equilization in Game 6. Once again, the charge was led by Aaron Brooks, whose team-high 26 points spurred the Rockets to a 95-80 victory.
The Lakers would ultimately prevail in the series, emerging from what had amounted to a brief thorny patch on the road to their fifteenth title. The Rockets, meanwhile, would set about preparing for the 2010 season with something of a bonus in their back pockets: they’d found themselves in possession of a burgeoning second-tier star and newly-minted folk hero.
Brooks’ rise continued into his third season, as he took home the Most Improved Player award behind a league-leading 209 three-pointers made and per-game averages of 19.6 points and 5.3 assists. Unfortunately, the Rockets failed to compensate for the Yao-sized hole beneath the basket and missed the playoffs, finishing ninth in the conference with a 42-40 record.
His steady production would continue into the opening stretch of the 2010 season, as he tallied 16.4 points on 43 percent from the field and 39 percent from downtown through the Rockets’ first five games. Then came the intercession of that cruel and heinous whore called Fate, who flicked her fickle finger at poor Aaron’s ankle, spraining it to the bejeezus belt and costing him six weeks of action. When he returned, he found that Kyle Lowry had not only taken his job, but had actually stuffed and mounted it to his wall.
Brooks’ production suffered as he struggled to work himself back into rhythm on limited minutes. From December 19 through February 23, he had fallen off to 22.9 minutes and 10.8 points per game, with shooting percentages of 33 percent from the field and 26 percent from three. His frustration with the reduced role came to a head when, during a February 5 game against the Memphis Grizzlies, he walked directly from the court to the locker room after being subbed out with 6:45 left to play. The incident earned him a one-game suspension from the team. Three weeks later, he was traded to the Phoenix Suns for Goran Dragic.
After finishing off the season as Steve Nash’s backup, Brooks dropped out of sight, signing with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Guangdong Southern Tigers when last season’s lockout hit. His team-leading 22.3 points per game powered the club to a first-place finish in the standings and a trip to the CBA Finals, where they lost in five games to Stephon Marbury’s Beijing Ducks.
In 2012, the Sacramento Kings finished with the fifth-worst record (22-44) in the NBA. Their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 109.8 was the second-worst in the league. Their offensive rating of 103.8 was tenth-worst. Their effective field goal percentage of .472? Fourth-worst.
To address these issues, the Kings did…well, not a ton. They basically made five moves:
- They drafted a double-double machine who the wags tell us was “one of the most NBA-ready players” available. That was a good one.
- They traded a future draft pick for a 25-year-old backup forward.
- They waived a bench guy.
- They elected not to re-up with two others.
- They gave a two-year contract to an undersized free agent point guard making his return to the NBA after a year in the Middle Kingdom.
So, that’s one significant addition (#1), one intriguing one (#5), and three lateral moves. We’d like to believe that the Kings have a Thunder-like long-term plan to acquire raw, gifted, young players who they spend years nurturing and developing, facilitating their collective growth from a scrappy group of cowlicked whippersnappers into the nightly performers of a first-rate hoops concierto. Something tells us, though, that the fat cats in the Power Balance Pavilion’s executive suite see their youngsters, ex-backups, and guys who disappeared from the league for a year as little more than cheap labor, which they’ll content themselves to rolling with until they can get one or two minor issues straightened out. In the meantime…
Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie once said that “rock and roll should be populated with outcasts, weirdos, freaks, and magicians.” In those terms, the 2013 Kings are one of the most rock and roll teams in recent memory. Along with their once-marginalized and expatriated new hire, they’ve got a 5’9” starting point guard, a 6’6” backup center, a star-in-the-lurking swingman who awes as much with his raw ability as he maddens with his poor shot selection, and a Mormon shooting wiz from Glens Falls with Mailman-lite pythons and a smile like the sun.
The ringleader of this ragtag bunch of loose-cannon chuckers is the supremely talented, eternally misunderstood DeMarcus Cousins. One of the most exciting young centers in the league, Cousins is a terrific post scorer with a deadly mid-range game and a voracious rebounding appetite. Last season – his second as a pro – he put up per-game averages of 18.1 points and 11.0 rebounds, finishing third in the Association in offensive rebound percent (14.2), and sixth in double-doubles (36).
Young, gifted, and unpredictable, Cousins brims with personality and reckless confidence, embodying the spirit of his team to a T. They won’t be winners – no one really expects the reconvening of a sub-.400 team without the winds of major adjustment in their sails to amount to a real forward stride, do they? – but they should be fun to watch.
2012 Record: 33-33 (3rd in Division, 10th in Conference)
2012 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013 Projected Record: 28-54
2012 Castoffs: Josh Childress, Grant Hill, Robin Lopez, Steve Nash, Ronnie Price, Michael Redd, Hakim Warrick
2012 Free Agents: None
And so the long, slow deflation of what was once the NBA’s most exciting team is now complete. With the summer departure of iconic point guard Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns have shed the last, frayed remnants of the nitrous-powered, run-and-gun Big Top that left fans giddy and breathless nightly with their volume scoring and firework sizzle. In four seasons with Nash at the wheel and Mike D’Antoni on dispatch, the Suns led the league in points per game, field goal percentage, and total field goals made three times. During that span, they won the third-most games of any team in the league, made it as far as the Western Conference Finals twice, and put up the highest effective field goal percentage (.543) by a mile. They dropped our jaws, quickened our pulses, and fired our imaginations. Showtime hadn’t died with the Forum, it had just split for the desert, laid low, and waited for its time to come back around.
D’Antoni’s departure following the 2008 season triggered the slow dismantling of his freewheeling band of high-flyers and assassins. Though they would make one more deep playoff run in 2010, falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in six in the Conference Finals, the magic had dissipated. Shawn Marion had already been traded away; Raja Bell and Boris Diaw would follow one year after. When Amare Stoudemire left for the bright lights and mega millions offered by the New York Knicks and Leandro Barbosa was flipped for Hedo Turkoglu, Nash and the Suns were left to roll with a hodgepodge of creaky-jointed vets (Grant Hill, Hedo, later on, Vince Carter) and low-ceilinged youngish guys (Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Robin Lopez). The attendant slide in the standings was expected, and a little sad to watch. Since 2010, Phoenix has gone 73-75 and missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than 20 years.
Today, the Suns are in full-on rebuild mode. According to ESPN.com’s records, they’re on the books for $49.8M in payroll this season, less than even the $57.9M that the notoriously cheapskate Sacramento Kings are slated to pay out. That money’s due to a roster dramatically changed from the one that let the Nash Era go out with a whimper (a 110-106 home loss to the Spurs in the last game of the season). In fact, no other team in the division has seen more turnover (seven out, six in) from 2012’s final-game roster to 2013’s opening day edition.
If you’re looking for a euphemism to describe the new-look Suns, intriguing might best fit the bill. Nash will be replaced by Slovenian guard Goran Dragic, who returned to Phoenix via free agency 17 months after being traded to Houston for Aaron Brooks. Dragic had spent the first two-plus years of his career backing up Nash at fewer than 20 minutes a go, showing flashes of playmaking brilliance as he navigated the developmental ups and downs concomitant with his transition from Euroleague to the NBA. In Houston, his game flourished, as he met increased responsibility (28 of 66 games started in 2012, 26.5 minutes per) with across-the-board improvement. Last season, Dragic put up career highs in true shooting percentage (.567), as well as points (15.9), assists (7.2), and steals (1.7) per 36 minutes, in an 18.0 PER campaign.
At his side will be 32-year-old Argentinian Luis Scola, a deft post scorer and former Houston teammate, who was amnestied by the Rockets as part of their failed pursuit of Dwight Howard. Though career lows in rebounds per 36 (2.1 offensive, 7.5 total) and true shooting percentage (.526) contributed to a career-worst 15.4 PER season, Scola knows how to play basketball and will provide the veteran leadership that Jermaine O’Neal forgot under his couch when he moved out of Indiana half a decade ago.
The new guy brigade also includes world traveler P.J. “Funnybunny” Tucker, and former Timberwolves Wesley Johnson (developing) and Michael Beasley (mercurial). While poor shot selection has suppressed his potential on the court as a spate of personal conduct “issues” have tarnished his reputation off it, the 23-year-old Beasley remains a tremendously skilled scorer still very much in the early stages of his career. Per Glenn Rivers, Ph.D (via Eric Freeman, via the Star Tribune):
I think one day he may lead the league in scoring…He has a Carmelo ability to score the ball. He’s a matchup problem every night. He’s tough for 3s to guard because of his size. He’s too quick for 4s. And he can shoot. Obviously that’s the key. He has quickness and a shot at that size. That makes him tough to guard.
Entering his third pro season, Johnson has yet to live up the expectations typically foisted upon a top-five draft pick. Of the 247 players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game in a minimum of 50 games played over the past two seasons, Wes finished 228th in true shooting percentage (.486) and 237th in PER (9.3), leading the word “bust” to be the most commonly-appended qualifier to Google searches on his name. Should his potential remain unfulfilled in his age-25 season, the Suns have versatility on the wing with team vet Jared Dudley and dunk machine Shannon Brown in the mix.
Though the 2013 Suns are short on name value and, henceforth, “sexiness,” they’ve got a stable of nicknames that should be the envy of the league. Sure, Dragic, Gortat, and O’Neal are no match for Stoudemire, Marion, and Nash, but we’ll take “The Dragon,” “The Polish Hammer,” and “Jermaine the Main Vein” over “STAT,” “The Matrix,” and “Steve” any day.
 Or something to that affect.
 The San Antonio Spurs came in second with a mark of .507, .036 percentage points lower than the Suns’. No other team on the list was separated from the one immediately before or after it by more than .004.