2009 NBA Preview: Pacific Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis. Be sure to check back over the course of the next couple of weeks for previews of each division.

Los Angeles Lakers (1)
The biggest obstacle for the Lakers this season is Ron Artest. This may sound odd, but the franchise is rolling the dice that Ron-Ron can behave for another season. They gave up on the quietly improving Trevor Ariza and made a big move to add the unruly Artest to the roster. This is risky, especially for a team coming off an impressive title run. Why fiddle with your chemistry like that? Well, GM Mitch Kupchak is well aware that the Lakers aren’t getting by on chemistry. They are a group of very talented players, held together loosely by Phil Jackson’s thoughtful approach and Kobe Bryant’s will to win. In other words, chemistry may not matter to the Lakers, because it’s a by-product of winning. (For most teams, it’s the other way around.) There’s no doubt that Artest brings a lot to the table, but he’s the biggest change from last season, so if the Lakers take a step back, he’ll probably get the blame. Meanwhile, it appears that the big lineup question surrounds the Lamar Odom/Andrew Bynum quandary, but the truth is that Bynum’s game has not developed enough to demand that he be on the floor in crunch time. Odom can shoot (albeit, only a little) and is a terrific ball handler/passer, so Jackson knows that he can better space the court than Bynum can. When both Bynum and Pau Gasol are on the floor, the lane gets clogged and Kobe can’t find driving lanes, so look for Odom to get the edge in minutes again this year. But back to Artest — assuming he accepts a reduction in his offensive role, the Lakers are the odds-on favorites to once again represent the West in the Finals.

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2008 NBA Team-by-Team Preview

Ron Artest is a Rocket, Jermaine O’Neal is a Raptor and Mo Williams is a Cavalier. Richard Jefferson is a Buck and Corey Maggette is a Warrior. Baron Davis signed up to play with Elton Brand in L.A., but Brand bolted for Philly to play with AI2 instead. And Andrew Bynum is back from injury, trying to figure out how to co-exist with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. There, you’re all caught up on most of the big summer news from the NBA.

Want more? We’ve got you covered. Our team-by-team preview breaks down each franchise’s offseason movement and outlook, along with a player (or situation) to keep your eye on. We also ask “The Big Question” that is haunting each team as it enters the season.

For the last two weeks, We’ve been previewing each team from #30 to #1, posting three team previews per business day, starting with the league’s bottom feeders – we’re looking at you, Thunder – and finishing up with the cream of the crop. So who will be #1? The Lakers? The Celtics? Or will there be a surprise at the top of our preseason power rankings?

Click here to see the entire preview.

2008 NBA Preview: #1 Los Angeles Lakers

Offseason Movement: The Lakers re-signed Sasha Vujacic and signed Chinese guard Sun Yue. They probably overspent on Vujacic (three years, $15 million) but had to compete with European teams for his services. Vujacic had a great year shooting the ball, but didn’t play particularly well in the Finals, especially on defense.
Keep Your Eye On: Lamar Odom
It’s not clear how Odom is going to fit in with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the Laker front line. It’s going to be tough for Kobe Bryant to find any room to drive when the three big men are on the court at the same time, so the most likely scenario has Odom or Bynum coming off the bench. It’s going to take some time Bynum and Gasol to get used to playing with each other, and if Odom is the one coming off the bench, he’ll have to adjust to a sixth man role. The good news is that if things aren’t working by the trade deadline, they can probably unload Odom for a good player that is a better fit.
The Big Question: Is Bynum’s return enough to get the Lakers over the hump?
Conventional wisdom states that if you take a team that lost in the Finals the previous season and add an up-and-coming seven-foot center to the rotation, then the team will inevitably be better. While that’s certainly a distinct possibility, there’s no guarantee that Bynum will jive with the rest of the rotation. Just because the Lakers are better on paper, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to once again run the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoffs. A lot of things had to go right for the Lakers to make the Finals last year, and a lot of things have to go right for them to make a second straight trip.
Outlook: Despite some training camp kinks that need to be worked out, there is no team in the league with more talent top to bottom. They also have one of the best coaches in the league, so the Lakers are the odds-on favorite to with the title, and rightfully so. Still, there are a number of roadblocks they’ll have to overcome. First, Phil Jackson must find a way to use Gasol, Bynum and Odom to the best of their abilities without limiting what Kobe can do on the drive. Second, Kobe must stay healthy, which means the problem he has with his shooting hand can’t bother him too much and those knees have to stay relatively pain-free. And lastly, they must show better toughness if they meet the Celtics again in the Finals. Bynum brings a lot to the table, but he’s not going to make this team tough by himself. The Celtics were hungrier than the Lakers last season, but now the roles are reversed. If Jackson can get Odom, Bynum and Gasol to play together well, or if the Lakers can trade Odom for a better fit, they should make it to the Finals again. There is just too much talent here; they should be able to figure it out.

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