NBA preview: Pacific

NBA preview: Pacific
by Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 25, 2004

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
When Shaquille O'Neal left the Lakers in June, nobody rejoiced more than the other four teams in the Pacific Division. (Well, maybe Pat Riley … and Kobe Bryant.)

Instead of having to worry about guarding the world's most dominant player four times a year, coaches in the Pacific Division can now concentrate on preparing their own teams to capture a very winnable division.

The Lakers are surely weaker, but the Kings may be sliding as well. The Suns have new hope after a couple of major offseason acquisitions, but they're a work in progress. As for the Clippers and Warriors, the rebuilding continues (as always).

Even without Shaq, we'll give the Lakers a very tenuous nod to win the division crown.

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    1. Los Angeles Lakers
    It's Kobe's team now. He'll love Rudy Tomjanovich's offense, which will provide as many shots per game as he wants. The question is how much help he'll receive.

    Lamar Odom is a gifted but undersized power forward who will force matchup nightmares for defenses. But he needs the ball in his hands a lot, so he and Kobe will have to learn to share.

    Those two will need shooters surrounding them, so Chucky Atkins can play a major role as a shooting guard. Brian Cook has gained confidence in his shot and can step out to the three-point line, a development that will really open up the floor for Kobe and Odom. Chris Mihm and Brian Grant are being counted on for defense and rebounding, and a host of small forwards will compete for the starting 3 spot.

    They're not the Lakers of old, but they still have Kobe.

    2. Phoenix Suns
    Steve Nash brings some much-needed guidance for a young, athletic team, and he will run Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. Quentin Richardson, the Suns' other addition in the offseason, will give Phoenix some pop off the bench.

    Joe Johnson looks like an emerging star, and again Shawn Marion will be one of the league's top rebounders at small forward.

    The key for this team is the development of Amare Stoudamire. He must eventually learn to defend the post and pass out of the double-team if this team is to win the division.

    3. Sacramento Kings
    The Kings are still talented and undoubtedly have the best shooting team in the Pacific.

    Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic are deadly from the perimeter, and they'll have Brad Miller passing them the ball from the high post, a place where Vlade Divac used to set up shop.

    Chris Webber, however, is a shell of his former self physically, and his lack of mobility hurts this team at both ends of the floor. With the end-of-the-season feud between Webber and Stojakovic still simmering, the Kings may struggle to find the chemistry that has been so important to their success.

    4. Los Angeles Clippers
    Elton Brand might finish his career as the Ernie Banks of the NBA. He's a wonderful guy who could end up with Hall of Fame credentials but no playoff appearances.

    Brand and Corey Maggette are the only Clippers who are signed to long-term deals, and in the meantime, the franchise continues to spin its wheels. The list of players this team has lost to free agency and trades in the past few years is stunning: Andre Miller, Richardson, Darius Miles, Odom and others. As a result, Brand and Maggette won't have much help this season.

    It'll be another long year for the Clips.

    5. Golden State Warriors
    This is another franchise fighting to break a long cycle of ineptitude.

    Chris Mullin has taken over the general manager duties, and his first order of business was to hire Stanford's Mike Montgomery to coach the team. Unfortunately for Montgomery, Mullin wasn't able to provide him with much talent.

    The team will again rely on youngsters Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jason Richardson, but neither are difference-making players. Derek Fisher brings experience and maturity, and he'll help this club, as will veteran center Dale Davis.

    It's difficult to win in the NBA without at least one star player, though, and the Warriors don't have any.

    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 25, 2004 1:10 pm, EDT

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