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A season ago, the Pacific Division was able to send just two of its teams to the playoffs, but one of them went all the way to the Finals. And while that's not likely to change this season -- at least the part about the two playoff teams -- each club definitely has its share of intriguing story lines.
Let's start off in Los Angeles, where the Lakers' playoff run last season took place with one of the team's key components on the sidelines. There are always many stories in Laker-land, but a lot of the team's fans seem to be most interested in this one: With the return of Andrew Bynum, do the Lakers have a shot to win 70 games?
Despite the recent flood of positive Andrew Bynum stories hitting the L.A. papers lately (seriously, his P.R. machine is working overtime), I'm not convinced that his addition to the lineup automatically makes the Lakers unstoppable. There's the whole thing about figuring out how to co-exist with Pau Gasol, and how Lamar Odom will perform (likely) playing further away from the basket. When you add in the fact that even if the team was capable of winning 70 games, there's really no motivation to do so, unless someone else is on the same ridiculous pace and it would mean home court advantage.
The Lakers aren't out to prove themselves to be one of the greatest teams of all time, as the Chicago Bulls were in the year they won their fourth NBA title with Michael Jordan and company. All they want to do is get back to the Finals, hopefully with a stronger chance to win the whole thing than they had last season. And when you consider how tough the Western Conference is, compared to the watered-down East where the dominant Celtics won 67 games a season ago, I'd say it's pretty much not going to happen. Doesn't mean the Lakers won't be really fun to watch though along the way.
Across the Staples Center hallway, we have the city's other NBA team, the Los Angeles Clippers. (Seems a bit more regal when you say it like that, I think, than simply, "the Clippers.") After another season was derailed by injuries, the team has undergone wholesale changes during the summer, and not necessarily for the better. Franchise cornerstones Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are gone, and have been replaced by Baron Davis and Marcus Camby.
On paper, the Clippers' starting lineup appears to be fairly formidable, as well as an entertaining bunch to watch. Baron and Cat Mobley in the backcourt, with a front line of Camby, Chris Kaman, and Al Thornton. Problem is, those guys can't all play 48 minutes a night, and there is virtually no help for this team coming off the bench. So: Will Baron Davis be durable enough -- and interested enough -- to give the Clippers a shot at the playoffs?
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Turning our attention now to BD's former team, the Golden State Warriors, they may have only the following as their rallying cry this season: Hey, at least we'll win more games than Baron Davis does. Because looking at their roster, they probably should. Or maybe it's should have. After the super-scary, low-speed moped accident (and lies surrounding it) sidelined the player that was going to be taking Davis' starting spot running the point, the team will likely need a strong second half of the season to make up for Monta Ellis' three months on the bench.
The good news for the Warriors (or at least for their fans) is that the team should be entertaining as ever to watch. Newcomers Corey Maggette and Ronny Turiaf should be perfect fits to play in Nellie's uptempo system, and Kelenna Azubuike and Marco Bellinelli should also do an excellent job of lighting it up. The Golden State Warriors: Where scoring (but not much winning) happens.
Another place where scoring happens is in Sacramento, but there it's mostly done by one player. The Kings' Kevin Martin has very quietly become one of the best (and certainly most efficient) offensive weapons in the game, but playing in Sac-town for a team that lately has found itself out of the playoff picture, not many people have noticed. But that might start to change this season, as Martin might be the most famous King left on the roster (next to Brad Miller of course).
Mike Bibby and Ron Artest were the big names on the team a year ago, but they weren't the biggest producers. The team's point, rebound, and assist leaders from last season (Martin, Miller, and Beno Udrih) all return, and if coach Reggie Theus can get anything out of Spencer Hawes or either of his two rookie bigs, the Kings could -- could -- be right there battling for the West's final playoff spot at season's end.
The last team to discuss in our divisional preview here might just be the most intriguing of the bunch. The Phoenix Suns ruined their chances last season by trading for Shaquille O'Neal so late in the year. But now, with a full season together and under a new head coach, the Suns could very well be headed for a run deep into the post-season.
Think about it: Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire are a more mature, more dangerous version of Chris Paul and David West. The Hornets' time is the (possibly immediate) future; Nash and Amare's time might be right now. Shaq looks to be in excellent condition to start the season, similar to that of his title run with the Heat in 2006. And with rookie Robin Lopez (sideshow Rob, for the uninitiated) there to spell him during the regular season, he might be fresh and ready to contribute to one more championship run in the Desert.
Sure, I still worry about the team's perimeter defense and lack of three-point shooters. But Terry Porter promises to implement defensive strategies on a daily basis, as well as more patient offensive sets to take advantage of the team's personnel strengths. The Suns might enter this season as the team in the division with the most question marks; they also are the team with the most upside.