Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Pacific Division: Stuck between LeBron & a hard place

Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Pacific Division: Stuck between LeBron & a hard place

Illustration for article titled Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Pacific Division: Stuck between LeBron & a hard place
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The Pacific division title (if that means anything to anyone anymore) has been passed around by Clippers, Warriors, and Lakers for over a decade. The last time the Suns won the division, it wasn’t hip for Steve Nash to put his long hair in a man bun. And the Kings? Well, I wish I could remember the 2002 Western Conference Finals and the ‘03 division championship team, but I didn’t start following basketball until I was around 9.

(Ed. note: Good grief, do I suddenly feel old — Rich O’Malley)

Sacramento hasn’t just been inept for a matter of years. No, no. What they’ve done is truly historic. They’re closing in on a generation of irrelevance.

I mean, even the Knicks made an Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013.

But, in fairness, winning the Pacific is hard. The division hosts some of the biggest superstars in basketball like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, and Paul George, to name a few. There’s also a ton of young talent. Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Deandre Ayton and the rookie, James Wiseman are (or will be) fantastic players.

I can name more important players, but there’s really one that matters in this division — LeBron. His championship team improved in the offseason. Yes, the Lakers are better than your favorite team… again. Get used to it, because if there’s a path to the Pacific, it’s paved in purple and gold.

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Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers

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COVID Response: The Lakers official championship parade was postponed due to COVID-19. It didn’t matter – LA already had an unofficial parade the night the Lakers won. Thousands of Angelenos flocked to the Staples Center when the Lakers captured their 17th title. The Lakers and Dodgers wins were separated by two weeks. The local fan celebrations worried health officials.

Staying Away: The Lakers will not host host fans in LA “until further notice.” With stay-at-home orders re-emerging in the Los Angeles area, the Lakers are not expected to host fans this season.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Did the 2020 champions really get … better in the offseason? I think so. The Lakers added two time All-NBA player, Marc Gasol, 2020’s sixth man of the year, Montrezl Harrell, and 2020’s sixth man of the year runner up, Dennis Schröder. LA also signed veteran Wesley Matthews and Alfonzo McKinnie.

Where’d He Go? The Lakers had to give up a few names for new talent to come in, so LA dumped some of their vets. JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green are all out. At least Howard finally got his ring!

What To Expect: The Lakers improved their championship roster from last year and I think they’re better suited to win more regular season games in 2021. LeBron James and Anthony Davis can put up 25 a night, and the offseason acquisitions will only deepen this roster. If all goes well, expect another title run in LA. The expectations should be that high.

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Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers

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COVID Response: Lou Williams told reporters that he, “probably could’ve made a better quality decision,” after going to Magic City, an Atlanta strip club, to get wings while he was on an excused absence outside the Orlando bubble. Williams was forced to quarantine for 10 days after the visit.

Staying Away: In case you forgot, the Clippers play in the same building as the Lakers. Both teams are not expected to host fans this season.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Well, he’s been here, but Ty Lue is taking the reigns as head coach. Last year, Lue served as an assistant under Doc Rivers. The 2016 NBA champion had a 60 percent winning percentage when he was the lead man in Cleveland. The Clippers also signed Serge Ibaka, a defensive stud, and Luke Kennard, who should make an impact off the bench.

Where’d He Go? Doc Rivers was fired after seven seasons with the Clippers. His teams never finished worse than second place in the division and he made the playoffs six out of seven years. But Doc could never get past the second round of the playoffs. Last year’s sixth man of the year, Montrezl Harrell, signed with the Lakers in free agency.

What To Expect: Last season ended in disappointment, to put it mildly. LA blew a 3-1 lead to Denver in the second round. Any team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George should have championship expectations. But will they even get back there? I don’t know. Let’s take baby steps first. Maybe this is the year the Clippers make their first Western Conference finals appearance in franchise history.

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Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors

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COVID Response: The Warriors were supposed to play the first NBA game without fans back in March, but the season was postponed before tip off. Days later, Golden State GM Bob Myers said the organization would not test asymptomatic players or staff members. At the time testing was in short supply, and athletes and celebrities alike were under scrutiny for hoarding tests.

Staying Away (until the billionaire owner’s human-testing experiment begins … really): The Warriors have yet to make an announcement regarding fans but the team has reportedly submitted a plan to open the Chase Center at 50 percent capacity. Five zero. That’s not a typo. Team owner and billionaire venture capitalist, Joe Lacob, told Ramona Shelburne that the organization is ready to spend $30 million to test every fan before every game. Lacob wants to use the rapid PCR tests NBA players used in the bubble.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Because of their historically shitty, injury-plagued season, the Warriors got the No. 2 pick in the draft. With it, they selected center James Wiseman, a perfect fit for the small ball team. Golden State also picked up Kelly Oubre to step in for Klay Thompson. The 31 year-old Kent Bazemore will also return to the Bay after spending his first two seasons with the Warriors.

Where’d He Go? Well he didn’t leave the team, but the Warriors received devastating news when they learned Klay Thompson would miss his second straight season due to injury. It goes without saying, but it will be much more difficult for Golden State to return to The Finals without their five time All-Star.

What To Expect: Expectations should shift after losing Thompson. But don’t throw in the towel yet, Dub Nation. The good news is you have a formative roster with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and a highly touted rookie. I still think you’re a playoff team. But, then again, maybe I’m just used to seeing you there.

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Sacramento Kings

Sacramento Kings

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COVID Response: The California State Assembly couldn’t safely gather in the Capitol this year due to COVID-19. So where did the legislature convene to swear in the new group of elected officials? The Kings arena. It’s practically the only space in town big enough for a COVID-safe, large, indoor event.

Staying Away: Early in December, Sacramento announced they would not host fans for the start of the 2021 season. The team cited “state and local public health guidelines” for their decision.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Kings hired a new GM, Monte McNair, in the offseason. He drafted Tyrese Haliburton at No. 12. He also signed Hassan Whiteside.

Where’d He Go? McNair also let Bogdan Bogdanovic walk to Atlanta without matching the Hawks offer sheet. Sheesh. Kent Bazemore also agreed to a one year deal with the Warriors.

What To Expect: Sacramento is a fun and interesting team without high expectations… again. De’Aaron Fox just signed his max deal, Marvin Bagley III is healthy, Buddy Hield will get his starting gig back, and Harrison Barnes is still… good? So could this be the year Sacramento snaps the NBA’s longest active playoff drought (14 years in case you’re one of the many who hadn’t noticed)? I don’t think so.

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Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns

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COVID Response: Chris Paul recently spoke to USA Today for a story about vaccinations in the NBA. “We’ll address [the COVID vaccine] when it comes as far as a union and players,” the President of the NBA Players Association said. “But when it comes to all different types of vaccines, a lot of that stuff is personal.”

Staying Away: Because of “increased transmission of COVID-19 in Arizona” the Suns have stated that they will not start the season with fans in the stands.

“We will monitor the best available date and science and continue consulting with health care professionals and public officials to help us determine when it is prudent to bring fans back to the arena,” said Suns President and CEO, Jason Rowley.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Chris Paul … heard of him? The veteran guard was traded to Phoenix last month. He’ll join the backcourt with Devin Booker and get to play under Monty Williams for the second time in his career. Phoenix also picked up eight year vet Jae Crowder in November.

Where’d He Go? You have to give up something for Chris Paul, right? Right. The Suns traded Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, a 2022 pick and other players for CP3.

What To Expect: Can Chris Paul help bring another young, underrated team to the postseason for the second straight year? I don’t see why not. Besides the Lakers, you could argue that the Suns have the best momentum coming out of the bubble. Sure, they didn’t make the playoffs, but Devin Booker balled out, and helped Phoenix go 8-0 in Disney World. Plus, don’t forget about Deandre Ayton, who averaged a double double last year. This Suns team may be able to break the NBA’s second longest active playoff drought (10 years).

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