2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Pacific Divison
With the regular season set to tip off on Oct. 19, let’s take a look at where each team in the Pacific Division stands. We’ll break down what’s to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.
Golden State Warriors
WHAT TO LIKE: STEPHEN CURRY
Curry's 2019-20 campaign wasn't a memorable one; how could it be with only five games played?
It was easy to be excited about his return the following season, though there were questions about what Curry would look like with the iteration of the Warriors he'd be leading. What would that level of usage look like combined with the dip in shot creation and shooting alongside him?
Well, it looked pretty darn good.
Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points while shooting 42.1% from deep on nearly 13 freakin' attempts. He faced his usual bevy of traps and hedges, and even saw some of those extended beyond half-court. It almost didn't matter.
We've never seen a player stretch the limits of a defense quite like Curry.
- Draymond Green is still a destroyer of worlds on defense, ladies and gentlemen.
- Fingers and toes crossed, but we're actually going to get to see Klay Thompson this season. I'm ready to watch those "Whoa, Klay has 17 within the first four minutes of the quarter" surges again.
- I like taking the flier on Otto Porter Jr. If he's able to stay relatively healthy, he gives the Dubs a major shooting punch at the forward spot that they lacked last season.
- There exists a world in which
Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Green will be on the floor
together again. The last time we saw it (2018-19), that grouping
had a plus-26.5 net rating, per PBP Stats. Even if you
filter out the minutes in which Kevin Durant rounded out the
lineup, it logged a plus-21.5 net rating. That blend of shooting,
defense and general IQ is tough to deal with.
- There's something there with Jordan Poole.
He's smooth with the rock, a solid shooter and a growing finisher. I like him more as a secondary ball-handler than someone that should lead the second unit, mostly because I'm a bit iffy on the play/decision-making right now.
- MOAR Juan Toscano-Anderson, please. The guy's good.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: HEALTH RISKS
The core pieces — Curry, Thompson and Green — are all north of 30 years old with varying levels of health concerns.
Curry turns 34 in March, hasn't necessarily been a beacon of good health and typically gets beat up off the ball. Thompson hasn't played in two seasons, and there's no telling when he'll return for good.
Green has been the most available of the three, but has spent the last seven seasons punching well above his weight defensively. It's fair to be concerned about wear and tear with him.
Porter could be a steal at his price point, but there's a reason he's on the Warriors at that number. He has only appeared in 98 games over the past three seasons.
Porter obviously isn't as important to the Warriors' ceiling as the other three, but four guys projected to be in the rotation — three of them being the top players on the roster — garner concern for availability. That makes me a bit uneasy with their projection.
- I would like for Mr. Green to take and make more shots, please. It doesn't even have to be the three-ball — I'm okay with dubbing his 2015-16 campaign as a borderline all-time-outlier season. It was wild watching him pass up some of the shots he did last season.
- Zach Lowe and others have made this point, but add me to the list of people a bit worried about James Wiseman's playing time. I'd bank on Kevon Looney starting, with Green seeing a good bit of time at the 5 for obvious reasons. There will pockets of time for Wiseman to fill; I just hope he has grown, and is given more room to work through youthful mistakes. There's an interesting two-way piece in there.
- I may just be worried about the non-Poole youth in general in terms of playing time. I have no idea how much rope Steve Kerr plans to give Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Curry-Thompson-Wiggins-Porter-Green
This is likely the shoot-iest version of the "Death Lineup" the Warriors can get to. Green is the only guy you could afford to help off of, and he'll be screening and handling the ball enough to make his shooting woes pretty insignificant.
BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed
The case is simple: All-World Curry, at least 80% of the Thompson we know and love when he returns, additional scoring from Andrew Wiggins and Poole, and a strong defensive infrastructure headlined by Green. If the core pieces can stay healthy, they'll be able to rack up regular-season wins.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
There's just so much up in the air in regards to availability. It's a "duh" thing to say, but any extended absence from Curry could tank the offense — and the team's upside.
Los Angeles Clippers
WHAT TO LIKE: OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER
There's no Kawhi Leonard for the foreseeable future, which sucks.
But man, there's still a lot here.
There's plenty of shot-creation between Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Luke Kennard. There should be rim pressure from old friend and newbie Eric Bledsoe (as a driver) and Ivica Zubac (roll threat). There's shooting literally everywhere else. The Clippers should still have one of the better offenses in the league.
- To the offense point, head coach Ty Lue should be able to scheme around things to help mitigate the loss of Kawhi. He's one of the best in the business on that end.
- I'm excited to see what comes next for Terance Mann. Smart cutter, hard driver, knocked down triples at a solid clip last season on modest volume.
- A healthy Serge Ibaka! A pick-and-pop threat would further open up things offensively. He's not the shot-blocker he once was, but he is sound positionally and gives them a bit more scheme versatility than Zubac offers.
- I can't quit Justise Winslow. I hope he's able to find a niche as a jumbo playmaker off the bench. He did next to nothing offensively during his stint in Memphis, but the defense is still real.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: NO KAWHI LEONARD
You could make an easy title-contention case for the Clippers if Kawhi was available, but his absence knocks the team down a tier. His recovery would push his return into 2022, and that's before getting into how slowly he/his team prefers to navigate his injuries (for good reason!). I could be off — and this isn't sourced — but I don't expect to see him play this season.
- I wonder what the ball movement is going to look like with no Kawhi. He's the team's most methodical player and has a tendency to pound it a bit. He's also their best player, and consistently drew extra attention in order to open up shots for others. It wouldn't shock me if the team plays a little faster in the half-court but the shot quality drops.
- Beyond George, the Clippers' best perimeter defenders are players that don't draw hard close-outs. Lineup constructions are going to be interesting.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Jackson-George-Batum-Morris-Ibaka
This group only played two (2) minutes last season. They did post a cartoonish net rating in those minutes, but we're not citing a two-minute sample. That would be (plus-41.7) absolutely ridiculous.
I like the potential of this unit, though. Everyone on the floor can shoot, and there's plenty of switchability 2-through-5. Even if you switch Jackson, there's enough IQ on the floor to "scram" him out of mismatches, and enough length to blitz whoever is trying to abuse the potential size mismatch.
BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed
It would take an MVP-caliber season from George, but there is enough depth and shooting around him to rack up a bunch of regular-season wins.
WORST CASE: Play-in Tournament
The Clippers underwhelmed a bit defensively last season, which sounds wild considering they finished No. 8 in defensive rating (110.6). I would expect that number to be higher (meaning their rating would be worse) without Kawhi. The middle of the Western playoff race should be staunch; it wouldn't shock me to see them battling it out around seventh or eighth.
Los Angeles Lakers
WHAT TO LIKE: STAR POWER
LeBron James and Anthony Davis make up, at the absolute worst, the second-best duo in the NBA. They just added Russell Westbrook — a ferocious rim-attacker and dime generator — to the group.
In theory, you have arguably the best offensive engine in NBA history (LeBron), a former MVP that can take the creation burden off of him (Westbrook) and a big man that can do just about anything he decides to (Davis).
That's... going to be tough to deal with.
- With the Westbrook addition, we should finally see a neutral or positive net rating for non-LeBron lineups, which, man, it's about darn time.
- LeBron and Carmelo Anthony being on the same team is a fun story.
- The Lakers took a few bites out of the apple in terms of non-LeBron shot-creators. I like the fliers on Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn. Both can get busy off the bounce.
- Wayne Ellington should be a godsend for a roster lacking true movement shooting threats. He's an artist in off-screen actions. I love the suddenness of his movements, the unconventional paths he takes and the smoothness he operates with when pumping an eager defender out of his shoes.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: PERIMETER DEFENSE
Losing Alex Caruso, one of the best point-of-attack defenders in the league, is tough; as is losing Dennis Schroder, who was also good at the point-of-attack (even if he had lapses when filling other roles). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was probably the Lakers' best off-ball tracker. Kyle Kuzma turned himself into a fine multi-positional defender.
Replacing those guys with Westbrook (depends on the quarter), Monk (meh), Ellington (bad), Nunn (bad), Anthony (bad) and Trevor Ariza (surprisingly solid, if not overtasked, in Miami)... let's just say they've gotten worse overall.
- The roster balance is a bit funky to me. It's clear the Lakers emphasized making life easier on the LeBron offensively. Shot-creators were added. Shooters were added. But in order to get those guys on the court, you're going to take a hit defensively, which puts more of a burden on LeBron (and Davis, for that matter) to clean up messes on the back line. I'm curious to see how Frank Vogel strikes that balance.
- A lot of vets and flier-worthy guys were added in the wing/forward room, which makes me a bit curious to see how it affects Talen Horton-Tucker's playing time. He's going to be in the rotation unless the shot disappears completely, but it would be nice if he had a cleaner path to minutes.
- Reportedly alienating Marc Gasol for Andre Drummond, only to add DeAndre Jordan in the offseason is just a funny sequence of events to me.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Westbrook-Ellington-Ariza-LeBron-Davis
I'm not sure if this ends up being the permanent starting lineup, but I'd like to see them test it out. Ellington's ability to space and stress defenses with movement would help open things up offensively. Ariza would be the "tough assignment guy" that allows LeBron to fill the roamer role.
Oh, hey, there's also Davis at the 5.
BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed
The top-end talent is so overwhelming. LeBron was a top-3 MVP guy as recently as... hold on ... [checks notes] ... last season. You add Westbrook's scoring and playmaking and get a bounce-back season from Davis, and the Lakers may be able to snatch the top spot while working out rotation kinks.
WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed
A slip in defense — it's hard not to envision a slip with the perimeter talent downgrading — plus some late-game awkwardness could hurt the regular-season win total.
There's also the matter of health. LeBron missed a chunk of time, and he has to age at some point. Davis hits the floor more than the dance team. We'll see if they can stay upright.
WHAT TO LIKE: PICK-AND-ROLL ATTACK
The Suns have the most versatile pick-and-roll attack in the league. I promise I'm not just saying this because they run multiple variations of Spain pick-and-rolls.
But seriously though, look at this.
Chris Paul can still dissect defenses at a high level. Devin Booker can score at all three levels, and has flashed not just reactive passing chops, but some manipulation as well. Cam Payne, a surprise fringe-Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season, can get busy in ball screens.
That talent is married with scheme. Head coach Monty Williams and his staff have counters upon counters upon counters in their ball-screen arsenal, often setting up in the same alignment on consecutive half-court possessions before throwing in some misdirection.
For a more detailed look, I'd highly recommend this piece.
- Deandre Ayton took major strides on both ends of the floor last season, and it culminated in a tremendous postseason showing for him. An Ayton that plays with consistent force is one of the best bigs in the NBA.
- I could watch Mikal Bridges slither around ball-screens all day. He's truly one of the best wing defenders in the league, and I have no idea how he missed out on an All-Defensive team last season.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: PENNY-PINCHING
Ayton was arguably the second-best player during a surprise Finals run. He is 23 years old.
Bridges is one of the best two-way wings in the league. He is 25 years old.
Please pay them.
This is not difficult.
Why am I even wasting article space on something that should be this simple?
You just went to the dern Finals.
Pay your young talent, or someone else will. And you'll be worse off for it. And your fans will be worse off for it. And my Twitter experience with your fans will be worse off for it, because I'll have to talk about how much of a screw-up it was.
- It's similar to the Wiseman thing in Golden State, but I wonder what Jalen Smith's path to playing time is. Ayton is *allegedly* a cornerstone for you. JaVale McGee is there for vertical spacing. Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky both have cases for rotation minutes. It's a lot.
- The lack of rim pressure is a bit troublesome for me. Paul can't really get there without screen help, and he's going to be another year older. Booker tends to be pull-up heavy. Adding McGee as a vertical spacer should help, as should internal improvement from Bridges (close-out attacker) and Ayton (please do your homework early on those seals). I'd expect this to be a bottom-third rim attempt and free throw attempt team, though.
- Without an unforseen leap form someone like Cam Johnson, this group feels a wing defender short. They might miss Torrey Craig in spots throughout the season.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Payne-Booker-Johnson-Saric-McGee
The Payne-Booker-Johnson-Saric quartet was virtually neutral in 144 minutes last season. The most frequent fifth was Bridges, but I want to see how McGee fits alongside this group. Giving Payne or Booker a dive man while the others space around it should help keep the pick-and-roll train rolling.
BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed
This was a top-10 offense and defense all of last season despite working out kinks early in the season. There should be more continuity, a "let's prove this wasn't a fluke" air around the team and plenty of room for internal improvement from the younger pieces.
WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed
There's always the risk of Paul going down, especially at this stage of his career. An extended absence leading to more Payne (and potentially Elfrid Payton) minutes could certainly cause a slip in the standings. And with the perimeter nature of this team, I'd be wary of what a dip in three-point percentage may do.
WHAT TO LIKE: TRANSITION ATTACK
De'Aaron Fox is the Human Turbo Button, able to create fastbreak opportunities out of thin air. He can take matters into his own hand, find cutters or kick out to shooters while scrambling defenses fail to contain him.
With Fox running the show, his teammates become more dangerous. Tyrese Haliburton can knock down spot-ups. Buddy Hield, for however long he'll be in Sacramento, can knock down shots from a variety of platforms. Richaun Holmes can fill the middle and catch lobs, as can Marvin Bagley.
The Kings are at their best when they're able to push the pace.
- On Haliburton, it was a pleasant surprise to see how far his pull-up jumper came along from college. There were questions about his ability to shoot off movement coming into the league; he answered them pretty loudly with shots like this.
- Harrison Barnes is the second-best player on this team. I would assume that's not a hot take, but it's worth noting anyway. Multi-positional defense, spot-up shooting, close-out attacking. He even showcased some passing chops. That dude's solid all-around.
- Good on Holmes for securing the bag. He's a ferocious rim-runner who complements that with an intermediate game — hello, push shot! — that honestly doesn't make sense for a guy his size.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: PERIMETER DEFENSE
Are Barnes, rookie Davion Mitchell and Mo Harkless the best perimeter defenders the Kings have? That seems a bit problematic to me.
Fox can defend when locked in, though his effort waxes and wanes depending on how much he's tasked with on the other end. That isn't a problem unique to him, but I'd like to see more from him on a per-possession basis.
I think the Kings are going to struggle quite a bit with defending premier wing talent.
- On defense, I pray they don't switch as easily as they did last season. Holmes had no business defending point guards 28 feet from the basket as often as he did, and that continuously threw the rest of the defense out of sorts trying to cover for it. The personnel is what it is; at least help them out with some scheme tweaks.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Fox-Mitchell-Haliburton-Barnes-Holmes
I'm intrigued by this unit for a couple of reasons.
1) I'm not sure how long Hield is actually going to be a King.
2) The Kings clearly love Mitchell. If his defense is real, he'll be able to guard up a position.
That sets the table for the Kings to get their three best ball-handlers on the floor at once, spread the floor and pressure the rim at a solid clip. A locked-in Fox can defend at the point of attack, and there's enough tenacity and/or IQ at the other positions to hold their own.
I'd like to see it.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
The Kings weren't that far off from play-in territory last season, and finished the year on a relatively high note (6-4 in their last 10 games). A step from Fox and Haliburton, and any sort of team-wide improvement defensively, could put them in range for extra games.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the West
If that defensive improvement doesn't come, we could be looking at more of the same. A lot of shootouts, a lot of losses due to a failure to get timely stops.