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: #7 Phoenix Suns

Offseason Movement: The Suns signed Matt Barnes to a one-year contract. Barnes had a nice season for the Warriors two years ago (averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds), but fell out of favor in Golden State and saw his minutes cut. He’s a decent three-point shooter (37% in ’06-’07) and is otherwise an energy guy with a pretty good handle. The team drafted Robin Lopez, the more defensive-minded of the Lopez twins from Stanford. (You know, Sideshow Bob.) He may be the future at center once Shaq hangs ‘em up.
Keep Your Eye On: Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq’s scoring numbers have been in a freefall since the ’04-’05 season. At that point in his career, he was averaging 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. In 28 games with the Suns, he averaged 12.9 points and 10.6 boards. Clearly, Shaq can still rebound when he wants to. He shot 61% from the field with the Suns, but his blocks have slipped from 2.3 four seasons ago to 1.2 last season. If he is committed mentally and physically, there’s no reason that he can’t play 60-70 games at a 15/10 clip. If the Suns can get to the playoffs with everyone healthy, they’ll be a factor. If Shaq is out of shape and the knees start to bother him, the Suns season is pretty much over.
The Big Question: Will trading away Marion ultimately pay off?
GM Steve Kerr took a big risk last season when he traded Shawn Marion to the Heat for Shaq. Two years ago, the Suns were a couple of bench-clearing infractions away from upending the eventual-champion Spurs. The franchise could have kept that group together, but Marion was an offseason headache and Kerr ultimately decided to take a couple of aspirin last year. We’ll never know what would have happened had he kept that group together, but it did seem like the window was closing as the Marion drama affected the team’s chemistry.
Outlook: Cautiously optimistic. If we’re talking about getting to the Finals, the Suns are one of those teams that needs everything to break the right way. The team should benefit from a half-season and a training camp with Shaq, and if he, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire can all stay relatively healthy, the team has the juice to go a long way in the West. But Nash is 34 and Shaq is 36, so chances are one will miss significant time, and that can’t overlap with the playoffs. The Suns have spent the last few years giving away most of their draft picks, so they are pretty much “all in” this season. If they don’t make a serious run, Kerr might decide to blow the team up and start over with Stoudemire as his centerpiece.

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