NBA Season Preview: Pacific Division (9/30/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

The Pacific Division is the most lopsided division in the NBA. Simultaneously, the division houses two of the top six teams and three of the bottom ten teams in the league from last season. Sending Kobe Bryant into retirement with their worst record in franchise history, the 23-time division champion Los Angeles Lakers watched the defending champion Golden State Warriors ascend the record books to the most wins in regular season history. Speaking of the Warriors…

Division Winner – Golden State Warriors

This is the Warriors' league. Their loss in the NBA Finals a distant memory, the remodeled Warriors dynasty has another MVP and all eyes focused on their pursuit of a second championship. Even with bigger goals in mind, the Warriors should cruise to a third consecutive division championship. There really is nothing much left to say about the top draw in the business and their absurd collection of talent until they roll the ball out on October 25. Hell, some websites have dedicated an entire week of preseason coverage to them. As such, we will share the spotlight with the other four teams and leave Golden State out of the rest of the division preview.

All-Pacific Division Team (sans-Warriors)

G – Chris Paul | Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA, and has been for a long time. Ever since making his first All-NBA team in 2008, the only other point guard to make an All-NBA team and an All-Defensive team in the same season is Rajon Rondo in 2012. Paul has accomplished that feat eight times and six years running. With the rule changes and encouragement of offense paving the way for the emergence of wondrous offensive point guards like Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, and Russell Westbrook, CP3 remains amongst the few men capable of guarding the position at an elite level. You will not see Chris Paul hidden on the weakest offensive player on the opposing team. If we take ESPN's word for it, due to his elite defense Paul actually finished ahead of the league MVP, Steph Curry, in ESPN's RPM – finishing number one amongst point guards in defensive RPM.

Forgotten also in the shadow of the Warriors historical regular season was Paul's brilliance on the offensive side of the ball, shouldering the largest burden of his career at age 30. Without Blake Griffin for 47 games, Paul carried the Clippers to 53 wins, leading the league in assist percentage for the fourth consecutive season and posting his highest point per game total in four years along the way. I believe one of the main reasons Paul has managed to fight off father time is his mastery of the pull up jump shot going to his right. The video below highlights his ability to snake back to his right for his go-to rhythm pull ups that should serve him even as the ageist doubters continue to prophesize his downturn.

G – Eric Bledsoe | Phoenix Suns

Bledsoe has been in tough spot after tough spot since joining the Suns in 2013. With the emergence of the Clippers and the Warriors, it was easy to overlook Phoenix under first time head coach Jeff Hornacek, yet they won 48 games narrowly missing the playoffs, despite injuries costing Bledsoe half the season. The following season, Phoenix signed Isiah Thomas, throwing a wrench in the point guard chemistry from the previous year leading to multiple trades and a disappointing follow-up to their surprise season – causing Phoenix to fade from the national spotlight. Finally, last season, Bledsoe's career year was cut short by a torn meniscus after just 31 games. Bledsoe was able to maintain above-average efficiency with a career high usage rate while also posting career best assist and turnover percentages, even flashing improved three-point accuracy on nearly six attempts per 100 possessions.

Healthy, slimmed down, and soon to be 27, Bledsoe should be in the prime of his career and will need to be as the veteran leader of the young startup Suns. While his injury history is a bit worrisome, there are few point guards in the league who can bring the noise on defense like Bledsoe. Even on a down year defensively for Bledsoe last season, he ranked top five amongst starting point guards in steal rate while posting an absurd 1.5 % block rate (numbers only John Wall can match, but he's got three inches on him). Much like two years ago, the backcourt is a bit crowded with emerging second year sharpshooter Devin Booker, 25-year-old enigma Brandon Knight, rookie Tyler Ulis, and don't forget the returning old-timer Leandro Barbosa. Bledsoe is clearly the cream of the crop amongst the bunch, but could find himself on the move if the Suns struggle and/or decide to push the youngsters. If healthy, Bledsoe could fetch a nice return as many teams need defensive disruptors capable of playing with and without the ball.

F – Luol Deng | Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers were woefully lacking a small forward last season, which might have had something to do with their historically disastrous 2016 season. Fortunately, the Lakers recognized this weakness and acquired veteran Luol Deng in free agency, along with drafting Brandon Ingram number two overall. Deng is the perfect sort of veteran to fill a need temporarily and ease the burden on Ingram before he's ready to take over the starting role. Deng is the definition of a true professional, spending the majority of his career hounding the likes of LeBron James and Carmello Anthony on defense while developing into a respectable shooter on the other end. Even at age 31, Deng remains an above average starting small forward in this league, finishing in the top 10 in ESPN's RPM among small forwards in each of the last three seasons.

Several trends from his time in Miami are encouraging for the Lakers as they hope to rebound from Kobe's farewell tour. First, Deng has revamped his shooting profile since his youthful days in Chicago. Gone are the midrange jump shots in favor of three-pointers and shots near the rim – the efficiency shots. In Deng's first six seasons, less than 20 % percent of his field goal attempts were from three-point range and well over 40 % of his attempts came from the midrange, where he's never been terribly effective. Last season in Miami, 34.4 % of his attempts were from three, which he converted at a coincidental 34.4 % clip, and only about 20 % of his shots came from midrange. The other revelation from Miami was an ability to slide to the power forward position effectively. After Bosh was shut down at the All-Star break, Deng took over full-time duty at the four and flourished. At small forward, his athleticism and shooting will soon become unpalatable, but at power forward they once again become great weapons versus big men on the offensive end. Defensively, his team defense instincts and length helped him compete in the post and on the boards. The Lakers are a bit jammed up on the frontline, but having Deng opens up the possibility to play small with Ingram on the floor without sacrificing too much on either end.

F – Blake Griffin | Los Angeles Clippers

2015-16 was a lost season for Blake Griffin. Injuries and off-court drama put the kaybash on the encore to his marvelous 2015 playoff performance – 25.5 PPG, 6.1 APG, 12.7 RPG in 14 games. An All-Star since he stepped into the NBA in 2010, Griffin has grown tremendously from a player reliant upon exceptional athleticism into a skilled playmaker. Not a moment too soon either, as he already appears to be out of his athletic prime (potentially due to injuries). Much like Luol Deng, Griffin has dramatically changed his shot profile. Formerly a guy who shot nearly 70 % of his shots within ten feet of the hoop with nearly 20 % coming in the form of dunks, Griffin is now primarily a midrange shooter from the 16 to 22-foot range. Last year only about 43 % of his shots came inside ten feet and his dunks were down to 6.3 % of his attempts. Unfortunately, this transition is still a work in progress as Griffin shoots sub-40 % from midrange, dragging his true shooting percentage below the league average. I'm sure Clippers fans are reaching the breaking point of watching Griffin take and brick open pick and pop 18-foot jumpers the defense gives him.

The most important development in Griffin's game, however, is his creation skills with the ball in his hands. Over the past two seasons, his assist rate has grown to over 26 % - rivaled only by Draymond Green at the power forward position. However, Griffin has also mastered the other side of playmaking that has eluded Green: taking care of the ball. Despite a rising usage rate and more responsibility as a playmaker, Griffin has kept his turnover rate under 11 %, which would be top five for a point guard. Whether running a fastbreak or operating a pick and roll, Griffin has shown ball handling and passing skills unrivaled amongst his peers. Griffin's playmaking skills have become such a huge part of his game, it is raising compatibility issues between himself and Chris Paul, perhaps the best ball-dominant playmaking wizard in the league. The Clippers would perhaps be better served letting Griffin run the offense when Paul exits the game, a strategy Coach Rivers has been hesitant to employ.

C – DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings

You might be asking yourself how could the 1st Team All-NBA Center not be 1st Team in his own division. Well, first of all, let me add to the list of things I am not: a voter for All-NBA teams. Therefore, I do not have to agree with the collective wisdom of the media at-large. Secondly, this is a preseason team for the upcoming season, which, as you might have gathered, is looking to shake out a bit differently than last season. Finally, Cousins missed the first team by only 40 points after receiving just seven fewer 1st place votes. That being said, this was the toughest position to call. Both DeMarcus Cousins and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan have legitimate claim to the top spot. Based purely on the catch-all metrics they were neck and neck last season - Jordan ranked ahead of Cousins in BPM on and vice versa in ESPN's RPM.

As close of a call as it was between these two, they couldn't be more different in terms of the roles they are asked to play. As a tremendous athlete with incredible size but little by way of touch outside dunking distance, Jordan is asked to be a super role player – anchor the defense, protect the rim, clean the glass, sprint the floor, set hard screens on and off the ball, roll to the rim hard, dunk the ball when opportunity presents itself. The things that Jordan is not asked to do are the things that Cousins excels at as a traditional scoring big – primarily posting up to score and distribute. The difference in usage rate tells the story pretty clearly. Jordan's usage was 15 % last season while Cousins posted a league-high 35.4 %. It is like comparing apples and oranges given their roles and skill sets. Look at it this way: last season, 16 percent of Cousins' field goal attempts were threes whereas 49 percent of Jordan's attempts were dunks.

The strongest argument for Jordan is that his success in his role has translated into success on the court for the Clippers. He is the perfect kind of player with the perfect attitude for that team, but I don't think you can hold the Kings lack of success against Cousins, especially given the ownership/management/coaching/roster turmoil he's experienced. For me, it ultimately comes down to putting the ball in the net. Jordan's woes at the free throw line are worthy of rule-changes and a serious issue representative of the major weakness in his game. Cousins on the other is not only a 72 % free throw shooter, but has worked to expand his range to the three-point line. Jordan is just about maximizing what he's capable of on the court. Cousins on the other hand is still growing. The video below displays the possibilities still ahead for the Sacramento workhorse.

Best of the Rest

6th ManOmri Casspi | Sacramento Kings

Now in his second stint with the team that drafted him, the Israeli born forward is settling in nicely to his role as a rangy four man. After bouncing around the league a bit, Casspi has found a home as a sharpshooter and attacker of closeouts. He has shot over 40 percent from deep in each of his two seasons since returning to the Kings and has all but eliminated the long two-pointer from his arsenal. He is also a pretty good rebounder making him an ideal candidate to be a small ball four man if Coach Joerger wants to mix things up, a luxury he was rarely afforded in Memphis. If you still need some convincing, check out Casspi trading outrageous three pointers with Steph Curry mid-game in Oracle last year. How can you not love this guy?

Player to Watch – The Pretty Good Five | Los Angeles Lakers

We said farewell to Kobe and his roughly twenty shots per game last season along with much maligned head coach Byron Scott, so it is finally time to see what all these young guys in Los Angeles can do. There are no more scapegoats, nothing holding them back. New coach Luke Walton has a reputation as a relatable guy with young players, so I am eager to see how the five young guns handle the responsibility of winning basketball games. The five young players I am referring to are D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, rookie Brandon Ingram, and Summer League superstar Larry Nance Jr – each 24 years of age and under. Singing Deng and Timofey Mozgov puts team-first role players in place to assist these five in taking over the team. They have a lot to prove before they can get close to the Fab Five, but if they show signs of growth and compete this year, maybe we can call them The Pretty, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good Five.

Key Offseason AcquisitionBrandon Bass | Los Angeles Clippers

As the number one contender for the division title, the Clippers have to be focused on trying to overcome the Warriors – something they have dramatically failed at the past two seasons. With limited cap flexibility, the Clippers are left to sort through the Doc Rivers Player Tree each year for cheap veterans. Former Doc Rivers coached Celtics player Brandon Bass is trading locker rooms in the Staples Center and adds a layer of flexibility off the bench the Clippers have been missing from its frontcourt for years. Bass is a high-motor role player who can come off the bench and guard up from centers down through larger small forwards like LeBron James. He can't handle those matchups for an entire game, but as an excellent midrange shooter and ferocious finisher at the rim, Bass is the versatile two-way big man the Clippers have been missing off the bench since Lamar Odom retired in 2013. It is entirely possible that Bass is past the point in his career where his peak skills could have fit this role as many Clippers signings have done in the past, but I believe Bass will be a critical piece of a revamped bench in Los Angeles.

Most Missed PlayerRajon Rondo | Sacramento Kings

Outside of the Warriors, the Kings probably had the most significant subtractions from their roster this offseason in this division – they lost starting point guard Rajon Rondo and backup wing Marco Belinelli. For me, Rajon Rondo's fit in Sacramento did not seem ideal. His on/off metrics show the team performed better with him off the court. Also, his ball dominance and lack of shooting really hurt Rudy Gay's playmaking ability – he posted a near career low assist rate way down from his career high the previous season. However, Rondo remains a starting caliber point guard in this league and the Kings failed to replace him. Darren Collison will naturally step back into the starting role he held two seasons ago, but, not only is he a fringe starting point guard but he is also staring at a suspension from an offseason domestic violence charge. If he misses time, which is likely, the Kings are left without a starting point guard. They took a flier on Ty Lawson who was not quite himself last season and although Garrett Temple may be able to matchup defensively with point guards, he is not a viable primary ball handler at this stage of his career. I think the Kings were wise to move on from Rondo, but did not do enough to replace him, so they will miss him, especially early in the year.

Play of the Division – Los Angeles Clippers

This might be my favorite play in the whole NBA. After seeing the Clippers run this play the first time I named it simply “THE PLAY,” emphasis necessary. What makes this play so magical is the precise timing required for it to work and the small opening it provides if executed properly. Other plays may be more effective or more easily executed, but the challenge of this play for the offense is what makes it so awesome (at least in my twisted thoughts).

The play typically begins with the same layout: Jordan on the right elbow, Griffin on the left elbow, JJ Redick on the left wing, and the other wing player, Jamal Crawford in the first clip, in the right corner. The action begins with a pass from the point guard, Chris Paul, to Jordan. On the catch, Griffin sets a screen for Redick who is running hard into a hand-off from Jordan. While that is happening, Crawford comes sprinting across the lane to set a back screen for Griffin. Also, after entering the ball, Paul cuts down the middle of the lane to follow Crawford with a second back screen for Griffin. When they are really humming, Griffin will feign as though he is no longer involved in the play before exploding off both screens. As the second screener, Paul must be paying attention to whether the opponent is switching or not in order to set the most effective screen. When the timing is right, Redick takes one or two dribbles – attempting to draw Jordan's man towards him, even slightly – before dropping a pass to Griffin under the hoop for a layup. Most of the time, this passing window from Redick to Griffin is very narrow and the defense is recovering frantically, meaning there is no time to waste and a high likelihood for Griffin to get fouled as you see in the first clip.

In the second iteration, they run a little secondary motion as a setup to disguise the play. As you might imagine, the Clippers have run this play with enough success to be on the other teams' radars. So they have to come up with creative ways to start in order to throw the opponent off the scent. In the second clip, the motion distorts the traditional starting positions, another camouflage technique. Nevertheless, the realest form of “THE PLAY” is the first clip against Portland and it is spectacular.

Stat of the Division – 97.85

That number represents the pace of the Pacific Division last season, the fastest in the league. You can interpret that as the number of possessions to expect in a typical 48-minute game, or in quite simply, this division likes to run. Over the past five seasons, the Pacific Division put three or four teams in the top ten in pace each season. The intrigue of this stat comes from a fantasy perspective. When it comes to the traditional counting stats used in fantasy basketball, faster pace equals more fantasy production opportunities. The Warriors, Clippers, and Suns will certainly look to push the pace at an above average rate. With Warriors alumni Luke Walton coaching and the young horses ready to run, expect the Lakers to push the pace as well. Sacramento led the league in pace last year, but I would expect that to drop with Coach Joerger at the helm – a slower game suits Cousins better anyway. Fantasy owners be on the lookout for players in this division.

Bold Prediction – DeMarcus Cousins will be 1st Team All-NBA and finish top-five in MVP

I suppose predicting Cousins, who has already made multiple 2nd Team All-NBA teams to jump up to the top tier in his seventh season at age 26 is not a tremendous leap of faith. But, considering Cousins has yet to finish in the top ten of MVP voting, I think I'm being quite bold. For this to happen, not only will Cousins have to continue to improve his skills and on-court demeanor but there must be relative tranquility in Sacramento this year – a big supposition given recent history. I believe in Coach Joerger to bring the best out of Boogie and I believe in the Olympic boost that has dramatically assisted the likes of Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried in the past. We've only just begun to see what is possible for DeMarcus Cousins in this league. Pacific Division and potential opponents of trade partners beware.