Inside the Numbers: NBA Pacific Division

By: Kevin LaFrancis

Long known as the division of champions, the Pacific produces competitive teams year after year. Since its inception at the beginning of the 1970-1971 season, 23 out of the 42 Western Conference champions and 14 different NBA title winners came from the Pacific. Despite its history of success, the perennial dominance of the division is unlikely to continue this year. Here’s my take on the Pacific division.
Golden State Warriors (Record: 8-6)

Stephen Curry has emerged as a star with Golden State this season. (Getty Images)

Stephen Curry’s career is in a golden state right now. Just over 4 years ago, he suited up as a relatively unknown player for the Davidson Wildcats, a 10 seed in the 2008 NCAA tourney. He drew little interest from NBA scouts despite posting great scoring numbers because they doubted he could succeed against taller, quicker, and overall better defenders. They imagined that his lack of size at the shooting guard position (He’s 6’3’’ now, 6’2’’ at the time) would limit his ability to get shots off against professional defenders. Against Gonzaga’s Stephen Gray and Wisconsin’s Morris Cain, Curry appeared shorter than John McEnroe’s temper. However, he used his low center of gravity to his advantage. He scored 40 points in the opening round win over Gonzaga, 30 points in the 2nd round win over Georgetown, and 33 against Wisconsin in the Regional Semifinal win. After staying for his junior season, the Warriors gave Curry a chance by selecting him 7th overall in the 2009 NBA draft. Instantly taking advantage of the opportunity, Curry played fantastic in his first season and finished second in the rookie of the year voting. Golden State realized it could build a team around him.

Now, Curry (18.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.5 apg) leads the Warriors in points and has the 2nd most assists of any shooting guard in the league. He uses his teammates help, like David Lee’s screens, extremely well to get open. Lee, a power forward, also benefits from Curry becoming open. Lee often cuts back door or pops out after setting picks, leading to easy baskets. Only 10 other players in the league besides Lee (16.4 ppg, 10.9 rpg) are averaging a double-double this year. With defensive star Festus Ezeli as well as Andrew Bogut’s presence (once he returns from his ankle injury), the Warriors will most likely squeeze into the playoffs.

*Before Season Grade: C
*Current Grade: B-
End of Regular Season Projection: 3rd in Division, 8th in Conference

File:Los Angeles Clippers logo.svgLos Angeles Clippers (Record: 8-6)

Blake Griffin must take the next step offensively in order to lead the Clips to the promised land. (NBAE/Getty)

Often uninvolved over the course of its brief history in the conversation of Western Conference contenders, the Los Angeles Clippers are finally generating excitement like its city-sharing rival. Before the Lakers massive trade at the start of the season, it appeared that the Clippers would leapfrog the Lakers as the most enjoyable team to watch in L.A. Despite the Lakers’ acquisitions, the Clippers still look like a contender in the Western Conference. Blake Griffin dunks over whatever stands in between him and the rim: players, free throw lines, even cars (a genius marketing idea by Kia by the way).

After a knee injury sidelined him in his first year as a professional, critics questioned whether Griffin would be another high profile draft bust like Greg Oden. Griffin overcame his injury and now looks to become the next great big man in the NBA. Griffin, who averages 16.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, still needs to develop post moves and an outside shot before being considered elite. His teammate, Chris Paul, is on this level at the point guard position. Paul (16.1 ppg, 9.5 apg, 2.8 spg) is 2nd in the NBA in steals and assists. He regularly fits the ball into seemingly closed passing lanes. Paul’s distribution leads to a balanced team offensive attack. Four other Clippers average double figures in scoring. Jamal Crawford (18.0 ppg) leads the team in points, but has not started a single game for the team this season. Fellow veteran Caron Butler (10.5 ppg), enforcer DeAndre Jordan (10.0 ppg), and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe (10.1 ppg) all contribute to the 8th best team offense in the league. Due to the variety of options, the team has a chance to make a deep run in the postseason.

*Before Season Grade: B+
*Current Grade: B-
End of Regular Season Projection: 2nd in Division, 5th in Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (Record: 7-8)

Jerry Buss had better hope that Mike D'Antoni leads the Lakers to the NBA Finals. (NBAE/Getty Images)

The Lakers front office axed head coach Mike Brown just five games into the season. It was a quicker reaction to fire than matches and gasoline. The management panicked more than a 1929 stockbroker. Following two blockbuster agreements with Orlando and Phoenix, the Lakers acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The starting five for Los Angeles appeared unbeatable. Then, games started. The team went winless in the preseason. The team started the regular season 1-4. Fans did not understand why the mighty Lakers were taking on water. Management decided to point the finger at Brown, and made the move to Mike D’Antoni.

Will the Lakers be okay? Of course. It’s a long season. They already have begun to right the ship. At the start of the year, the team lacked chemistry and unity. The team had numerous variables to figure out. Every individual has needed time to figure out his respective role. Steve Nash injured his lower leg and still has not returned. While the players still are far away from where they need to be, they are steadily improving. Kobe will make sure his teammates are ready for the playoffs. Kobe leads the league in scoring (27.7 ppg) and leads the team in assists (4.9 apg). Dwight Howard fills up the stat sheet nightly (17.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg). Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol both average over 13 points per game. The defense isn’t bad either. All four of these players are the best defenders at their positions in the division. Even though they have not spent much time playing together, the team is 9th in the league in defense. Once these players have a full season of experience playing with one another, they will be far better than they are now. Unfortunately, one season together will not quite be enough to win the Western Conference.

*Before Season Grade: A-
*Current Grade: B-
End of Regular Season Projection: 1st in Division, 3rd in Conference

Phoenix Suns (Record: 7-9)

No one is going to confuse Goran Dragic with Steve Nash. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Phoenix Suns front office looks to be making room for the next franchise player and a big budget future. The Suns cleared cap room this offseason by sending Steve Nash off to the Lakers for four draft picks. They also have marketable talent ready to move. Nine players on the roster will have expired contracts by the end of the 2013-2014 season. Marcin Gortat, one of the few effective centers in the game, is a tradable asset that has high value on the market. Shannon Brown, a point guard who handles the ball well, could help a team become deeper in the backcourt. Although the team does not have a clear number one option, it has a lot of decent players. Phoenix uses its depth to oust opponents. The team ranks third in the league in bench points allowed (28.9 ppg) and fourth in the league in bench rebounds allowed (12.5 rpg).

Ten different Suns have averaged over 17 minutes a game this season. Because of the amount of players with a similar talent level, Phoenix’s players do not mesh well. Instead of focusing on beating the opponents, these players appear to be focused on getting more playing time. The Suns rank 2nd to last in team defense because each player guards his man too tight. As a result, the team does not help out. Phoenix gives up a lot of back door cuts and second chance opportunities. Offensively, Goran Dragic, a point guard from Yugoslavia, scores 16.2 points per game. Dragic has shot 53.5% on 2-point field goals this season. Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, and Gortat add multiple dimensions to the 7th best offense in the game. Until any transactions are made, Phoenix looks like it will not reach postseason play. Will the Suns look to acquire Chris Paul or Andre Iguodala at the end of this season? Will they build a team on draft picks? The future is a mystery for Phoenix because of its immense financial flexibility.

*Before Season Grade: C-
*Current Grade: C
End of Regular Season Projection: 4th in Division, 12th in Conference

Sacramento Kings (Record: 4-10)

DeMarcus Cousins, attitude and all, has been one of the few bright spots for the Kings on the court. (Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee)

A lot can change in a decade. Ten years ago, teams feared the Kings. Sacramento went 61-21 and won the Pacific by 3 games. The franchise has not won the division since. To make matters worse, the Kings have finished last in the Pacific in each of the previous five seasons. Long removed from the Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby days of yore, Sacramento is still looking to rebuild this franchise from the ashes. The team has found its player of the future at the center position. Demarcus Cousins gives the Kings 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Cousins is out of shape, misses too many easy shots, and often is a lazy defender. However, the pros outweigh the cons. The team needs scoring, period, and Cousins is a player that has the capability to put up big numbers.

Tyreke Evans, Sacramento’s starting point guard, needs to use his height to his advantage. At 6’6’’, Evans can see over his defenders easily. He should be able to see passing lanes and cutters that others cannot, but only averages 3.8 assists per game. Other than Marcus Thornton, the team’s starting shooting guard, the rest of the individuals on the roster do not help win games. Unlike some successful franchises, the team as a whole does not mask individual talent.  The team statistics are not attractive either. Sacramento is 20th in points allowed, 19th in points scored, and 5th worst in the league in opponents rebounding. The only areas where Sacramento succeeds are winning the turnover battle and drawing more fouls than opponents. Cousins gives the Kings a foundation, but the rest of the team is still as dreadful as before.

*Before Season Grade: D
*Current Grade: D-
End of Regular Season Projection: 5th in Division, 15th in Conference


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