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The NBA season is now underway with preseason games already started. With the official start of the season right around the corner, this time is critical for teams to finalize their rosters and figure out the best player combinations. Come opening day Oct. 29, every game will matter, especially in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division. In what might be the most competitive division in the league, all teams know they can’t take a night off.
All teams have seen incredible change over the off-season, leaving a sense of mystery as to who will dominate and who will fall behind. It should be an exciting race, basketball fans.
At the top of the Sacramento Kings website is the saying “1985-Forever”. After uncertainty as to the Kings’ future in Sacramento, the team is staying for the long run with new ownership, marking a new era in the Capital City.
The Kings aren’t a team that will be in contention for an NBA championship this season, but as a rebuilding year, Sacramento will be looking for growth and improvement, and lots of it. The team has compiled some solid pieces that should at the very least make the Kings competitive on a nightly basis.
“We really have the pieces in place to be a special team,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “The goal is to make the playoffs. If everything comes together, if we play consistently and give it all we got, I think we can compete for one of those spots in the Western Conference.”
Anchoring the franchise is center DeMarcus Cousins. The third-year player was just given a four-year, $62 million contract extension, showing the Kings’ faith that Cousins is their franchise player. Sacramento needs Cousins to step up as the team’s leader and be a consistent, dominant big man. Last season, Cousins averaged 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds, but struggled with maturity. If Cousins can step up, he could change the path of the Kings in a very positive way.
General Manager Pete D’Alessandro’s biggest offseason move was shipping off Tyreke Evans, which is a perfect symbol of the changing culture in Sacramento. No longer will the Kings be a selfish team, but will focus instead on selflessness and defense.
Even without Evans, the Kings are deep at point guard. Competing for the starting role are Greivis Vasquez and Thomas. Vasquez is a pass-first point guard, ranking third in the NBA last season in assists at 9.0 per game. Thomas, on the other hand, is a quick fire cracker who, at just 5’9’’, can get underneath the defense. The opposing styles of the two should bode well for the Kings, giving the team plenty of choice for different situations.
“Greivis is not the quickest of guards, but he’s big in size and can post up and use his body. Also, he can look over the defense and distribute the ball,” forward Jason Thompson said. “And Isaiah obviously isn’t the tallest guy there but has a huge heart and brings a lot of energy. He can really shoot the three-ball too.”
Starting at the shooting guard position will be Marcus Thornton, a natural scorer. Also available is rookie Ben McLemore, a terrific shooter from Kansas. Malone also has a few options at the small forward shot with veteran John Salmons and Luc Mbah a Moute. Both are great defenders,and Salmons brings veteran leadership, entering his 12th NBA season.
“John is a talented player. He’s been around the league a long time and he’s a versatile guy,” Malone said. “And bringing a guy like [Luc] into our culture is a huge bonus because of all the things he stands for: professionalism, hard work, defense and high character.”
Possibly the deepest position for Sacramento is the power forward spot, with Thompson, Carl Landry and Patrick Patterson all viable options for the Kings. Thompson, the athletic, long big man, averaged 10.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.
“I don’t know that there’s any other NBA team that has the depth that we have at the power forward,” Malone said. “They all bring something different to the table, but those are three players that deserve to be on the floor.”
While Sacramento didn’t sign a marquee player to send them to be a shoe-in for the playoffs, the improvement for the Kings is evident. With so much unknown as to how everything will come together, the Kings could make some noise and show a glimmer of hope that they might return to their glory days.
Los Angeles Clippers
Entering the NBA playoffs last season, it seemed L.A. had all the pieces to go far. But despite the incredible offensive firepower, the squad flopped when it mattered, falling to Memphis in the first round.
Five months later, the Clippers still have a roster full of talent, keeping all core players intact. A different style though, will be on display as L.A. brought in a new head coach, Doc Rivers. Rivers will bring a more fluid, balanced offense to the Clippers as well as an emphasis on defense.
Therefore, “lob city” is no more in L.A., but that shouldn’t matter. This should be a fun team to watch with two of the most exciting players in the league. Point guard Chris Paul is the first, averaging 16.9 points and 9.7 assists last season, second best in the league.
Power forward Blake Griffin can fly high, throwing down monstrous dunks. Last season, he averaged 18 points and 8.3 rebounds as the go-to player for the Clippers. Playing next to Griffin is Jordan, the Clippers defensive presence with 1.4 blocks per game last season.
The additions of J.J. Reddick and Darren Collison to solidify the shooting guard spot along with role players Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, the Clippers have compiled a roster that’s ready to win games.
Last year, the LA team in red, white and blue won its first division title and earned 50 wins for the first time in its 44-year history. This year, the Clippers absolutely have the pieces to outright win it again.
Los Angeles Lakers
One thing will determine the Los Angeles Lakers’ success this year: injuries. The team is full of aging veterans, who together could be great, but have to remain on the floor.
The Lakers lost many key players in the offseason, including Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Earl Clark, leaving plenty of pressure on three big players for L.A.
Kobe Bryant, one of best players in the game, is still out after rupturing his Achilles tendon at the end of last season. He’s not expected for the season opener, but when he returns, he’ll be back to prove himself after people questioned whether the injury would end his career. Last season, the “Black Mamba” averaged 27.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting.
The Lakers will always be dangerous with Bryant on the floor, but he is showing the very beginning signs of slowing down and needs to make sure he doesn’t come back too soon.
Point guard Steve Nash only played in 50 games last year., but at 39, still has the ability to be great, averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists last season.
And then there’s forward Pau Gasol, who is probably thrilled Howard is gone. The two didn’t mix well, and Gasol will finally own that big man role. As a result, the Lakers should expect an increase from his 13.7 points per game last year.
One problem for the Lakers this season will be depth. They brought in Jordan Farmar and Chris Kaman, but their bench isn’t nearly as strong as it has been in years past.
Overall, the Lakers could make the playoffs, but everything will have to go right.
Golden State Warriors
The darlings of last year’s NBA playoffs return even stronger this year.
To start, the team picked up veteran Andre Iguodala, an athletic small forward who can bring it on the defensive end as well as score, averaging 1.7 steals and 13.0 points per game last season. He adds a defensive presence to a team that is typically very offensive-minded.
Of course, the most important player on the roster is Stephen Curry, who averaged 22.9 points and 6.9 assists last season. He shot just over 45 percent from behind the arc, setting an NBA record of 272 made threes.
Combined with Klay Thompson, the duo scored 483 threes, more than any other twosome in NBA history.
The focus on the three-point shot leaves plenty of space inside for both Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Lee averaged 18.5 points per game, second on the team last season, as well as 11.2 rebounds. Along with Iguodala, they should be able to go inside or out.
What kept the Warriors from moving deeper in the playoffs last year was their inability to finish games. Now, the team has another year of experience under their belt and has added a few veterans, leaving the team extremely dangerous down the stretch of the season.
Every division needs its cellar dweller. In the Pacific Division, Phoenix is that team.
Last year, the Suns finished at the bottom of Western conference at 25-57. Although the team hired a new head coach in NBA legend Jeff Hornacek, the team is still without any stars for him to work with.
The team acquired guards Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green, but lost Michael Beasley and second-leading scorer Luis Scola.
The team will rely on point guard Goran Dragic to lead the team, which he did last year with 14.7 points and 7.4 assists per game.
A version of this article appeared on page six of Oct. 9th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Kristen Henneman of the Daily Nexus.