Crystal Ballin': NBA Pacific Division

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Yesterday we had the overview; today we have the predictions. The Pacific Division appears to be no better than a two-team race, with a third team potentially in the mix, and the last two teams, well, finishing in last. Let's start things off in the cellar and work our way up, shall we?

The Los Angeles Clippers (again, regal) are going to have a tough go of it due to the enormous drop off in talent they have between their starting lineup and the players coming off the bench. In fact, if you want a visual of said drop off, go watch this, and pretend the guy jumping off the building is falling in the space between the talent of the Clippers' starting players and that of their bench players. And the parachute not opening represents the gigantic FAIL that the Clippers can expect this season anytime the bench takes the floor to try and hold onto a lead. It's not going to be pretty, folks.

Up north where the Golden State Warriors play, it won't be pretty either, at least for the first few months of the season. That's because their best player (apologies, Mr. Maggette) decided to engage in low-speed moped riding during the off-season (this still amazes me ... the moped = injury part), which will lead to his absence from the lineup, and an unavoidably bad start for the Warriors.

I don't expect the team to finish the season as bad as the Clippers, because Monta is scheduled to return sometime near the All-Star break. They'll win some games in the second half, pick up some late-season momentum, and give their fans some hope for the following season. But that's about all we can expect from the Warriors this year: a March-April surge that will keep them from finishing in the division's cellar.

Now, as we look to the Sacramento Kings, things start to get a bit more interesting. Sac-to has a budding star in Kevin Martin, a veteran, versatile big in Brad Miller, and a couple more quality starters in Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia. Mikki Moore, the fifth starter, is definitely serviceable. This team won 38 games in the West a season ago, and with the distractions named Mike Bibby and Ron Artest compeltely out of the picture, could the Kings make a run at the eight seed? I think they can, but a lot would have to go right for them.

Kevin Martin would have to officially make the leap, and finish in the top three or four in the league in scoring. Portland would have to continue to have its potential unrealized, and the Suns and the Mavericks would have to continue the slide that they began after those big trades last season. I'm not saying it will happen, but I wouldn't exactly be shocked if the Kings were able to sneak into the playoffs, either.

Speaking of the Suns, do I think they're poised to continue to move further away from the status they held of "title contender" just a couple of short seasons ago? No. No I do not. But enough of my thoughts; let's hear what Mark McLane of Black Jesus Disciples has to say:

With a new coach, new philosophy, and an aging roster, this year's Suns team has more questions than answers. Past expectations are suddenly tempered, as the most common thought is a second place finish in the division behind the hated Lakers, and a first round playoff exit.

While Shaq's health, Nash's durability, and the ability of the team to, you know, actually play some defense, is up in the air, the Suns should have no problem putting the ball in the basket. They may have lost Mike D'Antoni and his score at all costs philosophy, but the team still has the best shooter in the league in Steve Nash, and the most efficient player today in Amare Stoudemire.

Coach Porter's personnel isn't known for their defensive prowess, but if he can get this team anywhere near his goal of top 5 in defense, the Suns could easily surprise. This is not to say a championship is on the horizon, but this transition year won't be nearly as bumpy as some fear.

I agree, and I see this year as one where the Suns could very well surprise a lot of teams by going a round or two deep into the playoffs. But I also agree with the part about the second place finish, behind of course, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Last season was almost like playing with house money for the Lakers. No one expected them to make it to the Finals, and hell, few even expected Kobe Bryant to be a member of the team at the end of the season. But the development of Andrew Bynum early had the Lakers playing at the top of the Conference, and his injury forced their GM to go out and make the trade that brought Pau Gasol to town, which gave Kobe the low post help that he needed to take the team to the Finals.

Once they got there of course, the Celtics showed what it takes to be a true champion: contributions from just about all of your players, plus some physical, intimidating defense. With the Lakers beginning the season with both Bynum and Gasol on the floor, how much better might they be? Kurt from Forum Blue And Gold gives us his take:

There's no doubt the Lakers are going to be good. When your biggest question in training camp is how to fit in a 14 and 10 guy who can post you up or play out on the wing (Lamar Odom), things are looking up. By the way, some are questioning how well Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum will mesh on offense, but I don't foresee a big problem there. Bynum will be on the block on the strong side, where he is a beast. And if you watched the Olympics - where he played the four and his brother Marc played the five - you know that Pau is very adept at the four.

The real truth of this year's Lakers is this: They will go as far as their defense will take them. They will be one of the most efficient offenses in the league, but can they stop anybody? A lot of Lakers fans (and I'm among them) think the return of a healthy Bynum solves a lot of these problems, as having a 7-foot shot blocker in the paint will do. But that only helps if the perimeter defense funnels penetration to the help, and if the rotations are crisp. That has been spotty with the Lakers the past couple of seasons. It can't be if a title is the goal.

But with Kobe as the leader and Phil Jackson as the coach, you have to think these issues will be resolved through guile and sheer will by the time the playoffs roll around. Or, if you're a Laker fan at least you do.

Defense wins championships for sure, but if the Lakers' offense does what it's supposed to and the team steadily improves its defense over the course of the season, at a bare minimum they should have no trouble winning the division.

Prediction Roundup:

1. Lakers
2. Suns
3. Kings
4. Warriors
5. Clippers

Most Important Player(s) to their teams' divisional success: Andrew Bynum and Shaquille O'Neal
Division's Top Rookie: Robin Lopez

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