Division Preview: Clips set to stay on top

Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers might have 23 Pacific Division titles since the NBA created the league classification at the start of the 1970-71 season. And true, the Los Angeles Clippers have only one, coming last season. However, in the “What have you done for me lately?” sports world we live in, the Lakers’ “Showtime” history won’t give them a leg up on the lads from Lob City this year.

The story of the five-team Pacific Division for 2013-14 is one of the haves (Clippers and Golden State Warriors picked to finish second and sixth, respectively, in ESPN.com’s Summer Forecast of the Western Conference), the have-nots (the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns were picked 14th and 15th in the West in the same survey) and the Lakers, who fall somewhere in between.

With the Clippers coming off the most successful regular season in franchise history and adding Doc Rivers to the fold, the boys in red, white and blue are primed to back up their first Pacific Division title with another one, continuing the trend over the past decade of teams getting hot in the division and staying that way (the Lakers won five straight division titles from 2007-2012 and the Suns won three straight before that from 2004-07).

ESPNLosAngeles.com broke down each of five teams’ prospects heading into this season, including a take from both an anonymous Western Conference scout for the teams’ on-court plans and from an anonymous Western Conference front-office executive looking at the direction each franchise is headed.


2012-13 record: 45-37

If absorbing Dwight Howard’s departure wasn’t enough for the Lakers to digest, the best three players remaining on the roster -- Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol -- all enter the new season with serious health questions. How will Bryant respond to Achilles surgery as a 35-year-old? Will Nash, at 39, be able to keep his body on the floor through the rigors of an 82-game season? Is there anything left in those 33-year-old knees belonging to Gasol? And is Mike D'Antoni the right man to try to keep it all together? Still, the Lakers trudged ahead without Howard, making a couple of high-talent, low-budget pickups while maintaining their coveted cap space for the summer of 2014.

Players Added

Rookies: Ryan Kelly, Elias Harris (undrafted free agent)

Free Agents: Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman, Robert Sacre (re-signed), Nick Young

Players Lost

Free Agents: Earl Clark, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison

Waived: Metta World Peace (amnesty)

Scout’s take:

-- "They’re going to be back playing more of Mike D’Antoni’s style, which is a lot of early offense, playing the pick-and-roll, playing to Steve Nash’s strengths. You got a guy in Jordan Farmar who is going to be able to play in that style. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he can play point guard. Nick Young is an athlete, a guy that can get up and down the court and can really score coming off the bench. Wes Johnson is a guy who can space the floor for them, hopefully."

-- "I don’t expect them to be a strong defensive team. They’ve got a lot of older, veteran guys. I just don’t know that that’s the strength of Coach D’Antoni. I think he’s a tremendous offensive coach and I know his philosophy is, ‘Well, if we outscore the opposing team then we’ve played good enough defense.’ He’s basically said that in the past."

-- "I do expect the Lakers to be competitive again. I think they’re a playoff-caliber team. I don’t know if they’re going to be one of the top-tier teams in the West."

-- "I do expect Kobe to be back playing at a high level. I know there’s uncertainty with the Achilles' heel. Just with his talent and his drive, I expect him to be back at a high level. I would almost worry about him pushing it too far, too fast. I think they’re going to try to force him to come back kind of slow. Don’t try to take on the world right away.

"Kobe, to me, is going to thrive off of his smarts and his experiences. He’s always been one of those guys that’s just been like a sponge. I think that’s what separates him from the average player or even a very good player. I think this is just another challenge for him. He’s like [Michael] Jordan in that way where he’ll almost make up motivation, make up something to help get him motivated.

"I would not be surprised for him to be back at an All-Star level. I don’t know if it’s going to be next season, it could be, but I could definitely see him being back as an All-Star because that’s just in his DNA."

Exec’s take:

-- “It’s kind of a year where I’m sure they don’t know what’s going to happen and the rest of the league doesn’t either. A big part of it is where is Kobe going to be at? If there’s a guy you don’t want to doubt, it’s him. If he’s anywhere near 100 percent, you can’t count those guys out to be in the playoff hunt at the very least."

-- "I think they’re trying to get through with a team that can probably be competitive this year and see where they’re at health-wise, and then next year they obviously got a ton of flexibility to kind of re-mold that franchise.

-- "Dwight being gone, it hurts you from a talent standpoint, but it might help from a chemistry standpoint -- just from the outside looking in. If you have Nash and Pau both healthy and Kobe is anywhere near 100 percent, I think they’ll see more rhythm with that offense."

-- "I think Nick Young will be a good addition off the bench for them, if they bring him off the bench, give them some punch."

-- "I don’t know if they have the depth to contend for a top five or six seed in the West, and if Kobe is not anywhere near 100 percent, I think it could be a challenging year for them."

-- "They'll see where they're at. At this point I don’t think they want to think about that possibility [of stripping down the team] right now. I don’t think that’s how they think. Their aspirations are a lot higher than most teams every year, and I’m sure they want to see where Kobe’s at come Jan. 1 and see where the team’s at. If they get to the point where it’s the trade deadline and they can tell their team’s not going anywhere, I’m sure they’ll at least consider something with Pau or any other pieces they might be able to move for a longer-term piece."

-- "I think all of this comes back to where Kobe’s at -- healthwise, mentally -- because I think they’re going to factor in how he views what’s the short term and long term with them because he’s been such a statue of that franchise for so long. I think it will be something that they feel their way out as the season goes along on that."

Lakers 2013-14 prediction: 44-38


2012-13 record: 56-26

Whereas the Lakers kept their coach and lost their star free agent, it was vice versa for their Staples Center cohabitants. The Clippers parted ways with Vinny Del Negro in favor of Doc Rivers, one of four active coaches to have won a ring while manning the sidelines in the league (joining Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle), and in turn, kept Chris Paul. Throw in a roster shake-up to add depth by trading away a special young piece in Eric Bledsoe to get shooters in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley (to make an omelette you have to break some eggs) and the additions of vets such as Darren Collison and Antawn Jamison and there is no questioning the fact that the Clippers' cupboards are bare no longer.

Players Added

Rookies: Reggie Bullock

Free Agents: Matt Barnes (re-signed), Darren Collison, Ryan Hollins (re-signed), Byron Mullens, Chris Paul (re-signed), Antawn Jamison

Trades: Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick

Players Lost

Free Agents: Chauncey Billups, Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom (unsigned)

Trades: Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler

Retired: Grant Hill

Scout’s take:

-- “What Doc brings is a championship pedigree. Guys know that he led a team to a championship. He has an ability to bring teams together. It’s kind of like a CEO of a company where you see a guy has great leadership qualities. Doc is a guy that people want to play for, they like playing for him, they want to do well not only for themselves, but for Doc."

-- "I think they’ll be better as a team defensively, not just against pick-and-roll, but interior defense. Blake [Griffin] has got to be a guy who will be a little bit more committed on the defensive end. DeAndre [Jordan] as well. DeAndre’s a guy that’s a shot-blocker. He should be a really dominant defensive rebounder. To me, he should be in the top five, top 10 rebounders every year. I just think that’s one of those things that Doc will challenge D.J. to do."

-- "It was an interesting thing when Chris Paul came in, because when Chris Paul came in, he almost took ownership of the team away from Blake in a way. It’s going to be interesting to see how that dynamic works out, because to me, it was Blake’s team in the first place … I think there were definitely some issues last year. They had kind of a personality clash there and I think that’s one of the things that Doc will work on mending and sorting out. That was kind of Phil Jackson’s strength, too, to get people with all sorts of diversity to play together. I think Doc does that, too."

-- "When they added Dudley and J.J. Redick, they got guys who can shoot the 3 and spread the floor. I think Dudley is a great teammate, a real professional guy. The same for Redick."

∙ "To me they’re going to be one of the top four to five teams in the West again. I don’t put them in the top three. I think they’re right in there in that four to six category."

Exec’s take:

-- “I like that they kept some continuity with their team. They had some moments last year when they were probably among the two to three best teams in the league and then they just ran into a tough matchup. Memphis was a tough team for anybody to go up against, and they just didn’t match up as well against them as they might have against some other teams."

-- "Keeping Chris Paul is obviously the most important thing they did this summer. I think Doc will bring a defensive mindset to that team. Whether they have guys that are defensive-minded players, they got a few, but he’s going to have to really get that whole team to buy into that. I think that’s kind of what will get them over the hump, ultimately."

-- "Adding some shooting on the perimeter, both those guys -- J.J. and Jared -- can really catch and shoot. Defensively they’ll be serviceable."

-- "I think the one area where they might have some weakness is on their bench and in the interior. They don’t really have that Reggie Evans/Kenyon Martin-type physical enforcer. B.J. Mullens is obviously a great stretch 5 who will give them a new dimension kind of that they haven’t had. I think where they could be in trouble is if Blake or DeAndre goes down for a significant amount of time; I think that’s where they get exposed a little bit. But they can play Matt Barnes at some 4 and probably cover up a little there."

Clippers 2013-14 prediction: 60-22


2012-13 record: 28-54

The Kings stayed in Sacramento after the Seattle bid fell through, but there was still plenty of change this offseason. Enter a new coach, Mike Malone, who has never been a head coach before, and a general manager, Pete D'Alessandro, who has never been a GM before. Yes, the the Kings' new ownership group, led by Vivek Ranadive, is certainly willing to try new things, but will it be more of the same mediocrity out of this squad if DeMarcus Cousins doesn't make the leap to consistent star status?

Players Added

Rookies: Ben McLemore, Ray McCallum

Free Agents: Carl Landry

Trades: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Greivis Vasquez

Players Lost

Free Agents: Toney Douglas

Trades: Tyreke Evans

Scout’s take:

-- “I think [Malone] is going to really emphasize defense. I think there’s going to be a change in the style. The way [the Kings] played the last couple of years, Keith [Smart] wanted to really get up and down the court and push the ball, emphasize transition offense and also mismatches, isolations. They played a style of basketball similar to the way Nellie [Don Nelson] has always played."

-- "Mike Malone is saying all the right things."

-- "DeMarcus is going to really have to make strides and really improve because he’s a tremendously gifted player. I’ve seen him do things with a basketball that the Kings guards aren’t able to do -- just seeing him off the court doing little ballhandling drills. He’s always been a guy that can get the bounce off the dribble. He can pass the ball. He can really shoot. He can shoot with range. The question is, ‘Does he come early? Does he stay late? How invested is he in the team’s success?’ All those questions come into play. It’s really a labor of love and patience and endurance in dealing with DeMarcus. He’s got a world of potential. I think it would be a great thing to see if he can lead the team to success.

"DeMarcus will be a challenge for Mike Malone and it will be interesting to watch what transpires. There was a lot of discipline being leveled with DeMarcus and every time it seemed like he got past a previous issue, it would be one step forward and two steps back."

"Every night it’s one thing or another [with Cousins], always coming back at the officials, ‘I should have got a foul on that play! Why didn’t you call a foul?!’ Instead of getting back on defense and anchoring the defense."

"When you watch the opposing team’s game plan and it’s like you see every time, ‘You know what? We’re going to run this team because their center doesn’t get back on defense, so we want our center to run the floor and we want to run off every turnover.’ And you could see, that’s what they were doing at the start of the game especially, that was a problem. Indiana had it in their scouting report against Sacramento. They had it up on their white board in the locker room and they even talked about it in the newspaper. Even Frank [Vogel] said it. He said we want to run against this guy [Cousins] who is always moaning and complaining to the officials."

"He showed signs of growing last year, but it was still a work in progress. It was interesting, I think the last game of the season DeMarcus showed what he’s capable of doing when he puts his mind to it. He had a great game [36 points, 22 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists in a 112-108 loss to the Clippers]. He doesn’t have to do that every night, but just being more consistent and getting back and anchoring the defense, he can do that. But he has to do it in practice, too. It’s going to be up to DeMarcus how good he can be, and I’m looking forward to seeing him keep improving."

-- "They struggled a bit in the summer league. What was interesting was one game they got blown out by about 40 and [Malone] went right into the locker room and let them know this is not the way we’re going to play and said, ‘You guys didn’t have any fight in you! When you fell behind by 20 there was no fight to get back in the game. It was almost like you laid down and accepted it and that’s just not the way it’s going to be.’"

-- "I like the moves they made with [Luc Richard] Mbah a Moute and Greivis Vasquez is a guy who is a really solid competitor. He’s not the greatest athlete, but he’s got good size and he’s improved every year. So, you like that too. He’s a hard worker. They’ve got some pieces."

-- "I expect the Kings to make strides, be better than last year. I don’t know that they’re going to make that jump to the playoff level just yet."

-- "The big thing for me is: Where is the leadership going to come from?"

Exec’s take:

-- “The key component to that organization right now -- Coach Malone and DeMarcus -- if they hit it off and connect, because it’s been so hard for the previous coaches to reach DeMarcus. Maybe he’s just one of those kids where it’s just not going to happen. Maybe he’s one of those kids where he’s going to be 33-34 before it happens. He’s got just a load of talent, that if he can get on board and behind a coach with his teammates behind him, then he’s got all the talent in the world to carry a franchise into the playoffs.

"I think DeMarcus is so hard-headed. I think Chuck Hayes was a great signing for them [last season] because Chuck is a great locker room guy, he’s got playoff experience, he’s a smart, smart player, and I don’t think they had any luck there with Chuck reaching him. I think DeMarcus is a hard guy for teammates to reach, for coaches to reach, for anybody to reach right now. I’m sure the Kings are rolling the dice, hoping that there’s another step in his maturity that will allow him to kind of take that next step forward because the talent is there. There’s no doubt that he has all the talent in the world to be like an All-Star center on that level, it’s just how do you connect with the guy? Coach [John] Calipari did as good as anybody when they were at Kentucky, and I’m sure he would tell you that they had some battles as well. Some guys take longer than others to figure things out. I know the rest of the league is hoping that DeMarcus doesn’t figure it out because if he does, he’s a scary, scary talent.

-- "I think the pieces around [Cousins] right now, I think it’s kind of a work in progress. I think [GM] Pete [D'Alessandro] has done a good job. He hired a very smart coach. He got a very good player [McLemore] to fall to them in the draft, who for me, is a very good complementary wing. I don’t know if he has the ball skills yet to be like a premier scorer but that could develop down the road because he’s a fantastic catch-and-shoot guy right now."

-- "Losing Tyreke, that shot creator, that’s a valuable asset to have in the NBA. Losing that will be a loss for them that they’re going to have to replace that component."

-- "I think Coach Malone is so good with the X’s and O’s that he’ll adjust to his personnel, but I think they’re definitely a work in progress, and I think it all factors into the DeMarcus-Mike Malone relationship as to whether that thing starts to show taking a step upward, or just kind of stagnating as is, and maybe they just decide, ‘Hey, this just isn’t working, we just got to move on with a different player or a different coach.’ Whatever they decide, but I think they’re at a point where you take that next step or you have to re-adjust what you’re thinking long term."

Kings 2013-14 prediction: 32-50


2012-13 record: 47-35

After a surprise playoff run, the Warriors reloaded in the offseason with a key member of USA Basketball's reigning gold medal team, and didn't have to part with much to do so. If Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes all continue to improve at the same time, while Andre Iguodala infuses some much-needed defensive intensity to the lineup, backed by two skilled bigs (if they can stay healthy) in David Lee and Andrew Bogut, then Golden State might have the most balanced roster of any team in the division.

Players Added

Rookies: Nemanja Nedovic

Free Agents: Toney Douglas, Jermaine O'Neal, Marreese Speights

Trades: Andre Iguodala, Kevin Murphy

Players Lost

Free Agents: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Trades: Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush

Scout’s take:

-- “They can do some serious damage if they continue on that same track."

-- "As Hubie Brown used to say, ‘Shooting makes up for a multitude of sins,’ and they definitely have some great shooters."

-- "They want guys to come in that are going to be professional and really committed to being professional and showing up on time and putting the work in."

-- "I thought something that was interesting this summer was that they lost Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to free agency. Steph Curry was the best player on the team, but those two guys were like the heart and soul. Every night, game-in and game-out, you would get a really good effort from those two guys especially. Every night off the bench those guys were catalysts. They played hard. Every night they played with consistency and with kind of a passion. I think they’re really going to feel the loss of those two guys."

-- "I like the addition of Toney Douglas. I also like the addition of Jermaine O’Neal. Marreese Speights is a guy who can really shoot the ball from midrange -- the elbows and short corners and maybe out to about college 3 -- he’s a really solid stretch big."

-- "Iguodala will certainly help them with defense. I think they thought that was kind of a weakness last year. Although Harrison Barnes is a tremendous rookie, I think they felt like they needed to upgrade that position. They certainly did."

-- "When you have guys that are shooters like that, you’re dangerous every game. You can beat any team. You can be in every game with the shooting that they have."

-- "I like [Festus] Ezeli a lot. He’s a quality big. They’re going to have a nice, deep little bench there."

-- "It will be interesting to see, knowing how competitive Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are -- I know they’re going to miss those guys."

-- "I don’t expect Andrew Bogut to play all 82 games. I think that would be amazing if he did. But, he’s a really high-quality center and those guys are hard to get."

Exec’s take:

-- “I think trading for Iguodala was kind of a bold move. Obviously he fits in with the way they play. He gives them another pretty high-level wing player. Between Harrison, Klay [Thompson] and him, you got three guys that are all starting-caliber wings in our league that they can utilize. How they mix and match those guys, it will be kind of interesting to see how they do that. Can they keep all three of those guys happy? It will probably be an issue they’ll have to face at some point this year."

-- "I think Steph will probably take another step in his growth this year. Just the confidence he likely gained in the playoff run last year is going to only catapult him into another elite-caliber level player."

-- "I think they’ll miss Landry and Jack off the bench. Both those guys made big shots for them in the playoffs, provided some stability from an experience standpoint."

-- "For me, I think the key thing for them is if they can keep Bogut healthy. He’s such an anchor defensively and he’s so good around those shooters. He passes the ball so well and he’s a big body and gets those guys open for shots. The more they have him on the court this year, I think the more deadly they’re going to be."

-- "I think at the end of the day it’s them and the Clippers in that division would be No. 1 and No. 2. I think if Golden State remains healthy with Bogut they’ll be in the top five in the West when it’s all said and done."

-- "Age-wise, they all kind of line up. Obviously they added Jermaine O’Neal, but their core guys are in that Denver Nuggets kind of mold that they had there for a couple years -- where they’re all fairly young and athletic -- and I think they’ll stick with that group for a couple years and see what they can do."

-- "I know they looked around in moving David Lee and if the opportunity was there I’m sure they would try to pull the trigger on something with him, but I think he’s a pretty good fit with them as is and I don’t think they’re in any need to do anything major to that team. Obviously moving for Iguodala was a pretty major move, and I think they’ll probably play that out, see how it plays out with that group."

-- "I think [general manager] Bob Myers has done a fabulous job there in Golden State getting that thing turned around."

Warriors 2013-14 prediction: 52-30


2012-13 record: 25-57

It's not just new uniforms for the Suns this season. Like Sacramento, they have first timers as their coach (Jeff Hornacek) and GM (Ryan McDonough) as well. Phoenix carefully planned its transition period, hoping it plucked an underutilized star in the making in Eric Bledsoe the way that Houston got James Harden a year ago, while also keeping its eyes squarely on the draft, where the Suns took a chance on Alex Len and hope to have a chance to draft a franchise-changing talent such as Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker in next year's lottery.

Players Added

Rookies: Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, Alex Oriakhi

Trades: Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Gerald Green, Malcolm Lee, Miles Plumlee

Players Lost

Free Agents: Wesley Johnson, Jermaine O'Neal

Trades: Jared Dudley, Luis Scola

Waived: Hamed Haddadi

Scout’s take:

-- “They want to play an up-tempo style. They’re going to play at a very fast pace. A lot of fastbreak basketball. I think they’re going to play a style that [Hornacek] enjoyed playing as a player. When he played with Utah, he had a great point guard in John Stockton and power forward in Karl Malone, but when he played at Utah they were always one of the top scoring teams and top assist teams. They ran the floor. Karl Malone ran the floor, Stockton would push the ball up, but their wings would cross under the basket. They really ran the floor. We all want to run, well, Utah ran. If you didn’t run and cross under the basket as a player, you weren’t going to play for Jerry Sloan."

∙ "When Jeff was in Phoenix, they played at a high tempo, too. They were fun to watch. If you remember K.J. [Kevin Johnson] and Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle, those guys got up and down the court. They played at a fast pace."

-- "That’s the way he wants to play. They got a lot of young guys. They’re building for the future. They’re creating a lot of cap space to operate in the next few years. They’ve been stockpiling draft picks, which is kind of the philosophy of their new general manager."

-- "I think it will be a really interesting year for Eric Bledsoe. He was a very, very good backup, a tremendous defensive player. Learned a lot playing alongside and with Chris Paul. Kind of a set shot 3-point shooter, really good athlete. I’m really interested to see just how effective a starting point guard he can be. It’s not the easiest transition to make from backup to starting point guard in this league. I’m not saying he can’t do it, but I’ll be interested to see if he can make that progression to be a top-tier point guard. I look at him as more than a role player, but at the same time, I don’t see him being one of the top-caliber point guards in this league. He’s still young, too. To me, he’s not going to beat [Goran] Dragic out at the point guard spot. He may end up starting alongside him."

-- "I think [Len] is a good pickup for them. A very high-quality center. Everybody talks about him having a real professional attitude, a great work ethic, and he’s real coachable. He’s got size, coordination -- a guy that can run the floor."

-- "They definitely made that transition from a playoff team to a rebuild, and I think they’re going to be a competitive team. I think they’re going to really like playing for Hornacek. Hornacek was a guy who was always like a coach on the floor and he was a great teammate. I think they’ll be fun to watch. I think it was a good move for Phoenix to hire him."

-- "They’re going to go out and play hard every night, I expect that to be the case. Hornacek, to me, was always one of the great competitors who got the most out of his own abilities. If I was asked to recommend a coach to play for, I would say that Hornacek is the guy I would recommend to you. I think you would enjoy it -- not only enjoy it, but grow as a player. He was a very cerebral player, very smart player. They’re going to be competitive, they’re going to be fun to watch. It’s just that right now when you stack them up against the other teams in the West especially, it’s going to be a struggle for them."

Exec’s take:

-- “Short term this is probably going to be a really challenging year for them. I really like what Ryan [McDonough] has done in shuffling the deck with that young backcourt. I like Archie Goodwin, I think he was a good pick for them in the late first [round]. I think Bledsoe obviously is a guy on the bubble of breaking out and being a really, really big-time player in our league. Whether he can be a full-time point guard will be the question mark that they have to figure out."

-- "Alex Len, finding a starting center is a challenging thing to do, and I think Alex has that potential."

-- "They have a lot of holes to fill, but they have a lot of tools to do it with long term with draft picks, and they’re going to have some [cap] room to spend. I think Ryan has gone through it in Boston and has experience rebuilding a team, and I think he’ll do a great job down there. But it’s going to take some time for them. I think it’s going to be a challenging year for them and I think they’re aware of that. Sometimes you got to do that to get where you want to go, and I think they made the right decision with the path they’re taking."

-- "The one dynamic that works in favor of the organization in that situation is you have a coach that’s going to be learning in his first time in that position; you have a lot of young players who are still learning both their role in the league and their role on the team. Where, if you have an experienced coach that comes in, the experienced coaches want veteran players because they want to win. Their frustration grows a lot quicker with a young team with an experienced coach than it does with a new coach who is himself learning his way. So, I think having Jeff on the bench . . . he’s got a great demeanor as far as working with young players, which is very important. He’s got patience and he’s a teacher and has a lot of other qualities that fit with that roster."

-- "Their fans are going to have to be patient. I know their ownership and management showed in making a statement that they’re going to be patient. It’s painful to go through, but if you make the right decisions with your personnel and the coach develops, the payoff can be rewarding at the end of the day."

Suns 2013-14 prediction: 20-62