NBA preview: Pacific

NBA preview: Pacific
By Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 17, 2005

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
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A few weeks ago, a Pacific Division crown looked like a sure thing for the Suns. But with Amare Stoudemire's unexpected knee surgery keeping the superstar on the sidelines for at least four months, the division is suddenly up for grabs.

With four talented teams all residing in the state of California, the Suns' road to the postseason now looks like Interstate 405 during rush hour. There's traffic everywhere and it's difficult to know when it will clear.

Any one of the five teams in the division is talented enough to win the Pacific, yet none is without questions that need to be answered. Here's how I see the Pacific playing out.

1. Phoenix Suns
Best-case scenario: The Suns overcome the absence of Amare Stoudemire by running and gunning their way past opponents again. They get great play from newcomers Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell and James Jones, and Stoudemire returns late in the season to push them to the division title.

Worst-case scenario: Phoenix's vaunted pick and roll is no longer so lethal without Stoudemire, and the Suns struggle in the half court. Opponents slow down the fast break and force Phoenix into a style with which it is not comfortable. Stoudemire's rehab takes longer than expected, and the Suns falls out of the playoff picture altogether.

Outlook: Mike D'Antoni believes his team can still score 110 points a night, even without Stoudemire. With Steve Nash at the helm and Bell, Jones, Shawn Marion and Jimmy Jackson around him, that's a distinct possibility. The Suns should be able to keep their heads above water until Stoudemire returns, at which point they can make a push toward the division title.

2. Sacramento Kings
Best-case scenario: Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells fit right in, Mike Bibby finally becomes an All-Star and Peja Stojakovic returns to the form that made him one of the league's most feared players two seasons ago. The Kings use their Arco Arena advantage to win the vast majority of their home games, and they ease past the Suns to win the division.

Worst-case scenario: Rahim's knee – which kept New Jersey from signing him – fails him, Wells still can't find happiness and the Kings rely too much on the jump shot, as they did last season. Without a great defense to fall back on, Sacramento fades back into the pack.

Outlook: This is a very well-coached, skilled basketball team. The Kings will win a lot of games, and if they get help from a relatively untested bench, they could win the division.

3. Los Angeles Lakers
Best-case scenario: Phil Jackson restores stability, Kobe Bryant enjoys an MVP-type season and Lamar Odom becomes the Lakers' version of Scottie Pippen – a point forward facilitating the offense. Kwame Brown emerges as a front-court force and the Lakers take the Pacific.

Worst-case scenario: Bryant suffers through an injury-plagued season, Odom isn't comfortable in the triangle offense and the Lakers' lack of a point guard stifles them at both ends of the floor. Brown still doesn't figure it out and he's a non-factor up front. L.A. misses the playoffs for the second season in a row.

Outlook: The Lakers will be much improved over last season, but they're thin up front and at the point guard spot. Jackson will bring them together, however, and Kobe and Odom are good enough together to make this a playoff club. If the rest of the division falters, which is a distinct possibility, the Lakers could sneak in and win the Pacific.

4. Golden State Warriors
Best-case scenario: Baron Davis stays healthy all season, the Warriors race past opponents with their run-and-gun attack and Golden State returns to the postseason for the first time in 12 years.

Worst-case scenario: Davis' injury troubles continue, and Golden State's talented corps of wing players struggles to mesh without him. The Warriors limp to another losing season.

Outlook: Golden State was a very good team at the end of last season. If Davis stays healthy, it's not inconceivable to see this club make a run not only for the playoffs, but also for the division title. Still, that's a big "if," and the Warriors need to convince themselves – and everyone else – that they're ready to make the jump.

5. Los Angeles Clippers
Best-case scenario: Shawn Livingston becomes a star at the point, Elton Brand dominates the paint and the Clippers' plethora of shooters complements the two of them. The Clips become the best team in L.A., and they earn a berth in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Worst-case scenario: Sam Cassell, Corey Maggette and Cuttino Mobley can't figure out a way to share the ball, Livingston can't stay healthy and coach Mike Dunleavy can't figure out how to get so many offensive-minded people to play together. The Clippers shoot their way to a place with which they're quite familiar – the lottery.

Outlook: Last season, the Clippers were among the NBA's leaders in assists. If Dunleavy can achieve his goal of having his team make the extra pass consistently, this could be a dangerous team. But that's a lofty undertaking with this crew. The Clippers will have their moments, but there aren't enough shots to go around to keep everyone happy.

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Oct 17, 2005 7:40 pm, EDT

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