The Turbulent Pacific

Kurt —  September 29, 2006

As of next Tuesday, it is no longer the off-season — the Lakers open training camp. No trip to Hawaii for camp this year, which means new Laker Vladimir Radmanovic will not have a deep bronze tan when the season starts (instead he’ll stick with the Casper white look). How do you feel as the season opens? Optimistic? Unimpressed? Nervous? In the coming weeks we’ll be discussing all that plenty.

But first, along with camps opening comes the avalanche of preseason prognostications. Some of those have the Lakers doing well, and there will be plenty to come on this site (and a couple sites I’m affiliated with — information on those coming soon).

One of those predictions was from a blogger who knows his stuff, Tom over Sactown Royalty, who recently did a Pacific Division preview for the entertaining site The Big Lead. We can discuss the wisdom of doing previews by division when it’s conference standings that matter, but what I’d rather talk about his predicted order of finish:

1. Phoenix
2. Sacramento
3. LA Lakers
4. LA Clippers
5. Golden State

My thought, he’s got at least 2/5ths of that right. I think Phoenix is at the top — and if Amare is Amare by the end of the season they are a threat to snatch that trophy from Miami. I think Golden State is going to get better as the season wears on but in the deep West that will not be enough.

But the middle three, well that’s harder to predict. Each team has lots of questions.

How much better does Eric Musselman and a full season of Ron Artest make Sacramento? Or, do they even get a full season of Artest, who may need to promote that new album? Long-time readers here know I like Musselman — last time he took over a team they improved by 17 games over the season before. He’s not going to have that big an impact here (Sacramento isn’t going to finish with 61 wins) in part because he’s taking over for a good coach (as opposed to Golden State in 2002, when he took over for a legendary player but questionable coach). I think they are better than they were a year ago, but how much?

How much better does more Shaun Livingston make the Clippers? Can he stay healthy for a season? There aren’t a lot of other changes on the Clippers — and you know they are going to be good, but it is Livingston that could be the difference between a four-seed Clippers and a seven seed team. If he gets more time, if he can do consistently what he’s done in flashes, if he can stay healthy the Clippers become more dynamic. Especially since Sam Cassell is not getting any younger. But for all his skill there are questions about Livingston.

How much better will the Lakers be in the second year of the triangle? How much does Radmanovic improve the offense? Can they defend the high pick and roll? Phil Jackson’s teams tend to be better in their second season in the triangle, but how much growth will you really see? On Monday we’ll be discussing that more, but the questions are out there.

I think it’s hard to tell exactly how those three will finish, although if forced to guess I’d say the same order as last season (Clippers, Lakers, Kings). How healthy those teams — as well as many others in the West such as Houston, Memphis, Denver — will be a big key in how the seedings shake out, none of those teams can afford to lose many games from key players.

That’s a lot of “ifs” for everyone heading into the season. Which should make it interesting to watch.