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Around the NBA: Pacific Division

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A look around the Pacific, which has four teams optimistic about the season and the Lakers.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Bryant, Kobe, Shooting Guard;
Look on my RINGZ, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Los Angeles Lakers

Bigs - Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, Robert Sacre

Wings - Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry

Guards - Jeremy Lin, Jordan Clarkson, Wayne Ellington, Ronnie Price, Steve Nash

The league's premiere franchise, the Lakers inspire glee, pity, and everything in between from the fans of the other 29 teams. The team's ownership has passed to the quite probably incompetent, squabbling, dysfunctional children. Their best player is 36 and has missed nearly two whole seasons due to injury. Their coach seemingly lacks a grasp of basic mathematics and recent basketball history. Their big offseason acquisition was Carlos Boozer. Their highly touted rookie broke his leg in their first game. Things could get ugly very quickly in Los Angeles, and it's an open question of how desirable a free agency destination the franchise will remain if it remains a basket case. It's conventional wisdom that things will probably work out for the Lakers - they'll win the lottery, convince a star to join, and regain their status as a contender. That future does not seem as certain as it once was, however.

The team's fortunes this year depend on the identities of their best players and the lineups run out by Byron Scott. The Lakers do have the personnel  for a fun, low rent, scrappy rerun of the Jeremy Lin Knicks. Ed Davis was a fantastic under the radar pickup. He has posted good numbers in limited minutes over the past couple seasons, and would have been a phenomenal offensive center in D'Antoni's system. A Lin-Davis pick and roll surrounded by skilled shooters, like Ryan Kelly, NIck Young, and Kobe could be startlingly effective. They are similar to the Knicks though, in that there are so many toxic lineup combinations it will be almost impossible to avoid them all.

Sacramento Kings

Bigs - DeMarcus Cousins, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams, Reggie Evans, Ryan Hollins

Wings - Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Omri Casspi

Guards - Darren Collison, Ramon Sessions, Ray McCallum

I found the draft day documentary about the Sacramento Kings fascinating, and not in a way that flattered the organization. To borrow the hoariest of cliches, the Kings clearly used statistics the way an escaped monkey uses a lamppost; as an entertaining distraction, but not as a source of illumination. Well, maybe it is not fair to lump the entire Kings front office in the same boat. Beleaguered General Manager Pete D'Alessandro showed an interest in the possibilities of statistical draft models, but as the documentary went on, it seemed that decision making power rested with the team's owner, Vivek Ranadive, and his new best friends Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond. Why that happened, I can only speculate (fame, glamor, and charisma all likely play a part), but the Kings ended up picking the player with the most superficial similarities to team adviser Mullin instead of the player(s) recommended by the analysts they consulted.

The Kings have started the season 4-1 and are garnering some early season playoff hype. DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Darren Collison are all playing much better than at any point in their careers and Carl Landry and Omri Casspi have added stability to the bench. As a great American poet once stated, "Don't believe the hype." The Kings have defeated a terrible looking Nuggets squad twice and the Clippers and Blazers on nights when Cousins and Gay posted career games. Unless Cousins and Gay play at this level all season, it's difficult to imagine the Kings beating many more good teams. It's also difficult to imagine them winning much more than 30-35 games with a guard rotation of Collison, Sessions, McLemore, Stauskas, and McCallum, which seems comparable to last year's Bucks guard rotation.

Phoenix Suns

Bigs - Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee, Alex Len, Anthony Tolliver, Shavlik Randolph

Wings - Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, Gerald Green, T.J. Warren, Zoran Dragic

Guards - Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Ennis, Archie Goodwin

The conventional narrative is that everything went right for the Suns last season en route to a 48-34 mark. Nearly every player on the roster posted a career year and Eric Bledsoe was the only member of their top 8 to miss more than 6 games. Those career years may not be impossible to replicate, because of the core's youth. Anthony Tolliver and Shavlik Randolph are the Suns only players over 30 and last season's health may also be replicable if you believe that the Suns trainers are indeed warlocks, having gained their powers from the ritual sacrifice of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals. If Bledsoe remains healthy for the entire season, the Suns could be even better.

Their fate depends on the success of the Frye for Isaiah Thomas free agent swap. Thomas is younger, more productive by almost measure, and signed a cheaper deal. The question is fit. Will Markieff Morris and Anthony Tolliver let the Suns guards operate with the same amount of space? Will the defense survive the loss of a mobile, aware 7 footer who could fill each big slot competently? Will opposing coaches find a way to exploit the three point guard lineup? Will that lineup shred opposing defenses? If the answers to those questions are "yes", the Suns could force their way into the Warriors-Mavericks-Grizzlies-Rockets tier in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture.

Golden State Warriors

Bigs - Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic

Wings - Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush

Guards - Stephen Curry, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Justin Holiday, Nemanja Nedovic

If healthy, the Warriors should be a championship contender. I'm not sure that any team besides the Spurs and a healthy Thunder, quickly becoming a rarer sight than a Spanish unicorn circa 2010, have a more talented eight man rotation. The main questions surround the team's coaching, scheme, rotations, and health. In theory, the Warriors have every component of a championship team. They have three elite defenders in Bogut, Iguodala, and Green, who can defend 1-5 when needed. They have an elite ballhandler and perimeter scorer in Stephen Curry. They have an elite perimeter shooter, an excellent backup point guard, and three players who can create off the dribble (Curry, Iggy, Livingston). They have excellent passers at almost every position, plus athleticism at almost every position, and players who can abuse mismatches in the post.

The Warriors were an elite defensive team last year, but were undone by an injury to Andrew Bogut, horrific bench lineups, and an offense that was somehow only 12th in the league despite so many weapons. Andre Iguodala is coming off the bench this year, which should bring more talent to the bench units that got killed last season. The early results are promising, as the Warriors have rolled to a 4-0 record and look improved on both sides of the ball. The challenge will be surviving any injuries that force the likes of Ezeli, Barbosa, Rush, and Holiday into major minutes.

Los Angeles Clippers

Bigs - Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Hawes, Glen Davis, Ekpe Udoh

Wings - Matt Barnes, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Hedo Turkoglu, Reggie Bullock

Guards - Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Jordan Farmar, CJ Wilcox, Jared Cunningham

There seem to be fewer questions surrounding the Clippers than around most teams. They've started slowly, but there shouldn't be any reasons to panic. We know Chris Paul is great. We know Blake is great. We know DeAndre Jordan is good. We know they are thin on the wing and don't have an elite wing defender like Andre Iguodala, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Allen, Jimmy Butler, or a motivated LeBron James. Recent NBA history shows how difficult it is to win a championship without the likes of Leonard, James, Marion, or Artest to defend the other team's top option. It's still possible for the Clippers to win a championship with that deficiency, but the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors, Bulls, and even Cavs probably have a higher ceiling should everything break well for them.

The Clippers have largely failed to assemble a bench that would give them an advantage in the playoffs. Spencer Hawes is undoubtedly an upgrade over Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens, and Farmar, Douglas-Roberts, and Udoh have all had periods of effectiveness in previous seasons. On the other hand, they aren't expecting much from Bullock and Wilcox, their last two first round picks, and Jamal Crawford might be the most dependable member of their bench. Crawford and Barnes both turn 35 this year and a drop off from either would leave the Clippers with a skeletal wing rotation. Having traded away their first rounder to dump Jared Dudley's contract, Los Angeles now has few assets left to fortify their rotation while Chris Paul remains in his prime.