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Lakers should win a competitive Pacific Division

We take a look at how the division will play out

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Pacific Division has a case for being the best division in the NBA. They could have four of the top six teams in the Western Conference, with the Lakers and Suns competing for the number one seed. The Warriors could once again find themselves in contention, assuming good health and some luck. The Clippers will be without Kawhi Leonard but Paul George could easily have an MVP-type regular season. The Kings are, well, the Kings and will probably be bringing up the rear.

Team Overview

Tier 1: The class of the division

Los Angeles Lakers Over/Under 52.5 Wins.

Russell Westbrook is likely to raise the team’s floor during the regular season and lower their ceiling come playoff time. His fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis is likely to be one of the league’s most talked about storylines. On paper, the fit in the half-court will be shaky at best. Then again, the Lakers have proved that talent can overcome fit issues. As LeBron ages and Anthony Davis deals with his inevitable nagging injuries, expect Russell to put up some incredible counting stats. But it’s what he does in the second round of the playoffs that will determine whether LeBron can win his fifth ring.

Phoenix Suns: Over/Under 51.5 wins.

If Chris Paul takes a step back, the Suns could easily drop down to the next tier. Devin Booker has continued to improve his game, but time will tell if he is ready to be the best player on a championship team. With DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges in line for contract extensions, this team may soon challenge the Warriors and Nets for biggest payroll in the league. Though he’s a notoriously “cost-efficient” owner, one has to wonder if Robert Sarver will pay the price to keep this team together. They have the talent to win a bunch of regular season games but how they fare in the postseason likely determines whether Sarver feels he is getting the proper return on his investment.

Tier 2: The Middle Class

Golden State Warriors: Over/Under 48.5 Wins.

On paper, it’s difficult to gauge how much better this year’s team is in comparison to last season’s. The addition of Jonathan Kaminga and Moses Moody is great for the team’s long-term outlook but it’s unlikely they will be ready to play meaningful minutes in year one. The team was undoubtedly better with James Wiseman off the court. If he can gain the trust of Steve Kerr and (more importantly) that of the team’s veterans, he has an outside shot at playing significant minutes. At this stage in Draymond’s career, asking him to man the center position during the regular season may be too tall a task. The question is how Klay Thompson’s return will impact the team’s ceiling. Anything short of old Klay may not be enough to turn this team into a contender.

Los Angeles Clippers: Over/Under 45.5 Wins.

There is a path to a top four seed for this team. Paul George could play like an MVP candidate. Reggie Jackson could build on his stellar postseason run and carry that confidence into the regular season. Nic Batum could take on the task of defending the opponent’s best player on one end while shooting 40 percent from three on the other. They still have one of the league’s best defenses even without Kawhi Leonard. If all those things come together, Leonard might think about joining this team in time to play in the postseason. If they are closer to a .500 team, it is all but certain we wont see Kawhi until next season.

Tier 3: The bottom of the barrel

Sacramento Kings: Over/Under 36.5 Wins.

By keeping Luke Walton in place, Monte McNair may have handcuffed himself to the much-maligned coach. The Kings have talented players but it may take a different head coach and a different front office to help that talent come together in a way that will result in more wins. The biggest problem is the team’s inability to play NBA-level defense. Is it the scheme or a lack of effort by the players? In truth it’s probably a combination, and the person responsible for both of those things is head coach Luke Walton. He should be considered the favorite to be the first coach fired.

Players to Watch

  1. DeAndre Ayton - Ayton was able to capitalize on some favorable matchups early in the postseason. Unfortunately for him and for the Suns, he wasn’t able to have the same impact once the quality of players opposite him improved. It was recently reported that Ayton and the Suns broke off contract negotiations for the time being. Perhaps Sarver is being cheap or maybe the organization isn’t sold on Ayton as a max player.
  2. Tyrese Haliburton - The second-year guard was likely the steal of last year’s draft. His versatility (he can play and defend both guard positions) could make DeAaron Fox expendable. Given his stellar play and contract, the team will likely prioritize moving Fox should they decide to shake things up. A Haliburton/Mitchell backcourt could be the first step towards building a competent defense in Sacramento.
  3. Malik Monk - Monk never materialized into the type of scorer/shooter the Hornets envisioned when they drafted him. The team let him walk and Monk bet that a stint on a team like the Lakers could help change the narrative around him. Considering he signed for the minimum, Monk has a chance to be this offseason’s best signing. We mentioned the Westbrook/LeBron/AD fit might cramp the team’s spacing. Monk being able to play passable defense while shooting 40 percent from three could do wonders for the Lakers.

Prediction

Russell Westbrook’s night-to-night intensity will be enough to snag a division title for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns could and should do their best to load manage Chris Paul in hopes of having him healthy for the postseason. While the Pacific division is home to some of the league’s best teams, it’s also home to some of the oldest. Health will ultimately determine how this division shakes out.

Division Award Winners

Divisions do not award these; however, it is interesting to consider who would win each of the major post-season awards if they were boiled down to just this division.

Most Valuable Player - Stephen Curry. If the Warriors take a leap into contender status, it will be because of Curry’s continued brilliance. The Warriors didn’t win enough games for him to win the award last season but a repeat of last year could be enough.

Defensive Player of The Year - Draymond Green. Again, if the Warriors take a step forward, it will take a Herculean effort from the team’s vets.

Sixth Man of the Year - Tyrese Haliburton. He currently has the fifth best odds to win the award and with good reason. Haliburton is the Kings’ future and their best chance at taking a step towards relevance.

Most Improved Player - Malik Monk. Monk flashed just enough last season to convince the Lakers he was worth the gamble. He doesn’t have to do much to provide a great ROI and could have a breakout season.

Rookie of the Year - Davion Mitchell. His ability to live inside his opponent’s jersey will force Luke Walton to find ways to keep him on the court. Any semblance of an offensive game should be enough to make him the division’s best rookie.