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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Pacific Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Pacific Division

With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a look at where each team in the Pacific Division stands. We’ll break down what to like, what to be concerned about, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings. (If you've missed them, read our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division and Central Division.)

And for deeper thoughts on the Pacific Division, you can listen to the latest episode of The Dunker Spot.

Golden State Warriors

WHAT TO LIKE: YOUNG WING STABLE

It may be an odd place to start with the Warriors, but I'm ready to watch this group spread their wings.

Andrew Wiggins is one of the best two-way wings in basketball; not many people saw that coming based on the Minnesota stretch of his career. This ecosystem allows him to be the best, most decisive version of himself, and I'm excited to see him with another year of off-ball seasoning.

Jordan Poole exploded as a secondary playmaker last season. He's a crafty driver with some of the best footwork among young players in the league, and an unconscious pull-up shooter when he gets going. He's absolutely getting paid, whether it be before the season or when he hits the restricted-free-agent market next summer.

Jonathan Kuminga drives with force and has already shown value as a screen-and-diver. The Warriors gave him plenty of creation reps over the summer. Moses Moody has "gap-filler" written all over him, and that might slightly understate the palette of skills he has.

The Warriors are in a good place. 

OTHER LIKES

- I mean, if you don't enjoy watching Steph Curry play basketball, I don't know what to tell you.

- Last season, Draymond Green was the easy selection for Defensive Player of the Year before missing two months due to injury. I can't wait to watch him quarterback the defense this year, especially in light of his contract year... and everything else, I guess.

- Another year of Kevon Looney being reliable at virtually everything the Warriors ask him to do. One might say he's an unsung hero.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: FRONTCOURT DEPTH

Well, the, ahem, "altercation" certainly adds some sauce to this one.

Aside from that, I did have questions about Green's scoring moving forward. Teams sagging off Green isn't a new development by any stretch, but it did feel like defenses were more liberal about ignoring Green. The bouts of tentativeness popped up more than you would like. He may not need to turn into a knockdown shooter, but he has to be more willing and efficient as a downhill scorer.

As for the literal depth, this feels like the come-to-Jesus year for James Wiseman. Injuries have derailed his career to this point. It would be lovely if he can provide a consistent vertical threat; Wiseman has only set 283 on-ball picks for Curry or Poole in his career — a small sample with positive signs (1.05 points per possession on direct plays), according to Second Spectrum.

There's more to Wiseman, including a shifty face-up game that he seems comfortable with. I just don't know how far along he is defensively, and what kind of freedom he'll be given to explore it. Here's hoping Wiseman stays healthy so we get a real sense of how he factors into the Warriors' long-term vision.

OTHER CONCERNS

- It's preseason so it may not matter, but I'm at least keeping an eye on Klay Thompson's general lack of availability.

- They're the champs, man. There isn't much to quibble about.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Curry-Poole-Thompson-Wiggins-Green

The lineup made its debut during the postseason to mostly great success: they outscored opponents by 42 points in their 105 minutes together. We have to see how they hold up defensively; a 111.9 defensive rating in those minutes isn't great, and teams will try to poke at Curry's size (a bad idea until proven otherwise) or Poole (a good idea until proven otherwise) to get good looks.

Of course, the offense may be so good that it doesn't matter.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

Having Curry on the floor gives you a baseline of excellence offensively. Having Green on the floor gives you a baseline of excellence defensively. A full year of Thompson, another year in the system for Wiggins, Poole, and the other young wings all scream "this team is going to be even better this year." 

What an absurd thought: the team that just won the title could be better than they were last season.

WORST CASE: No. 5 Seed

It's worth wondering just how much maintanence will be involved with the Curry-Thompson-Green triumvirate. They'll be 35, 33 and 33, respectively, when the postseason rolls around; I wouldn't be shocked to see some rest days thrown in throughout the year. Considering how much of last year's bench depth will be replaced by their rookie-scale guys, it wouldn't shock me to see them get a little more leash at the expense of regular-season wins.

Los Angeles Clippers

WHAT TO LIKE: KAWHI LEONARD'S RETURN

The last time we saw Kawhi play basketball, he was destroying worlds in the postseason. It doesn't get much better than 30.4 points (on 65/39/88 splits), 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals and nearly a block per contest. 

There will be rust to knock off after missing a full season, but there's no reason to believe he won't return as one of the NBA's best strength-based drivers, pull-up shooters and mid-post bullies. 

OTHER LIKES

- John Wall is also making a return to basketball, and we're going to see him on a good team for the first time since... well? Anyone? Bueller? I'm excited to see how he slots in.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: HEALTH

It's a boring answer, and one you can't project, but this is probably number one, two and three on the list.

This is the deepest roster in the NBA; it is patently absurd that someone as talented as Amir Coffey is, like, the 12th man in the rotation. They should be able to weather regular-season storms. 

This team isn't making a title run without Leonard and George operating at full tilt. Both wings have a recent history of either missing massive chunks of time or playing through ailments. 

Beyond them, Wall has to stay upright. Nic Batum, who's been tasked with every defensive assignment you can think of over the past two seasons, has to stay upright. Fingers crossed.

OTHER CONCERNS

- Keep an eye on the point-guard depth. Reggie Jackson has been important to the Clippers since he's been there; he'll have to prove he can consistently make good decisions to help the Clippers reach their ceiling. Wall is knocking off his own rust and trtying to slot into a new ecosystem. I'm optimistic, but it certainly isn't a slam dunk that this works.

- I appreciate how many small-ball units the Clippers can throw out, but they will need size. Ivica Zubac is a good starting center; behind him on the depth chart is... Moses Brown? He's looked solid during the preseason, but I still have questions about him defensively.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Wall-George-Leonard-Batum-Covington

Of the 37 different small-ball units the Clippers could utitlize, this is probably my favorite version. The combination of shooting, connective playmaking, perimeter defense and weakside roaming is the stuff of dreams. 

BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed

Even baking in some maintanence for Kawhi, the Clippers' offense should be much better than it was last season. It's easy to envision a top-10 finish in both offensive and defensive efficiency if this group stays healthy.

WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed

We have to see just how much Kawhi plays, and the point-guard play is worth keeping tabs on this year. WIth so many lineup combinations to work through, the Clippers could prioritize finding postseason answers and maintaining good health over pumping out regular-season wins. 

Los Angeles Lakers

WHAT TO LIKE: LEBRON JAMES AND ANTHONY DAVIS

We can start with this stat.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed 26 and 42 games, respectively, last season. Davis was never really himself on either end of the floor, while LeBron was an offensive marvel that showed some slippage on the non-glamour end.

The Lakers are a different team when these two are on the floor. Their two-man pairing is nearly impossible to deal with. Tossing the ball to Davis or James at the elbow while the other receives a Flex screen from a guard is one of the most lethal actions in basketball.

Hopefully we're able to see more of them this year.

OTHER LIKES

- We haven't seen a "real" game yet, but the early returns suggest that new head coach Darvin Ham has gotten buy-in from his players. They've showcased heightened intensity defensively, and there seems to be a clear emphasis on cutting off the ball. We'll see how it holds, of course, but those are the glimpses you want to see early.

- If the Lakers are back to their "pack the paint, get stops and run" mantra from the title year, I'm in on some of their free-agent pieces. Damian Jones should fit like a glove in the frontcourt, and Lonnie Walker should be a fun transition threat to keep tabs on this year.

- I'm here for a more aggressive, confident Austin Reeves. He showed some good things during his rookie campaign; if the jumper improves enough, he'll alleviate some of the wing concerns I have.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: RUSSELL WESTBROOK

Well, it surely didn't go well last year.

Pretty much every worst-case scenario came through in regards to Westbrook's fit. Defenses ignored Westbrook on the perimeter (though it's worth keeping an eye on his corner shooting); his finishing dropped, which made the pull-up shooting struggles feel worse. There wasn't much work done with him as a screener, on or off the ball. 

After a summer of trade rumors, Westbrook is still here. A large portion of the Lakers' success this season will be contigent on how well Westbrook fits in on both ends of the floor.

OTHER CONCERNS

- How much good health can we expect from the James-Davis duo? LeBron has played more minutes than anyone in NBA history at this point, and Davis already had to miss time this preseason with back maintenence. 

- There isn't a ton of two-way talent on the roster, which could make lineup combinations a bit of an adventure.

- I do wish they had a little more shooting on this roster. If anyone can navigate in tight quarters, it's LeBron, but the goal should've been to make life as easy as possible.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Westbrook-Nunn-Beverley-James-Davis

Ideally, the best version of the Lakers will include LeBron and Davis up front with Westbrook also providing creation. From there, it's about finding the right blend of shooting and defense to surround those three. 

Both Pat Beverley and Kendrick Nunn are reliable shooters. Nunn has... a lot to prove defensively, even more so following his injury layoff. Beverley has been a menace at the point of attack for his entire career. Color me intrigued.

BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed

Get 65+ games out of LeBron and Davis, and you should have the foundation of a solid team. A bounce-back season from Davis can raise the ceiling of this group. The early returns from preseason, if you care about that, indicate that this team is going to give a crap defensively. If they're able to set a tone there, get stops and run enough in transition, they can rack up wins.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

Getting 65+ games from the LeBron-Davis duo could be a tough ask. The shooting talent of the roster is underwhelming, and they feel a bit short on two-way wings. There isn't much margin for error with this group; any injury or fit concerns within their main core could spell trouble for the Lakers.

Phoenix Suns

WHAT TO LIKE: THE OFFENSE

There may not be an offense in the league that I enjoy more when they're humming. Chris Paul directing traffic and sprinkling in pull-ups with ease. Devin Booker's off-ball mastery and bleep-you jumpers over the outstretched arms of defenders. Then, there's the schematic goodness, highlighted by multiple variations of Spain pick-and-roll and a rolodex of play calls out of HORNS. With Cam Johnson entering the starting lineup, the offense may have even more juice than it had last year.

OTHER LIKES

- Speaking of the wings, I'm here for giving Mikal Bridges and Johnson more on-ball responsibilities. If the Dallas series highlighted anything offensively, it's that more is needed around the Paul-Booker pairing. Someone has to be able to tilt defenses.

- Another year of Bridges hounding dudes over screens, getting rearview contests and wrecking havoc when he's off the ball. He's one of the best defenders in the league.

- I'm glad Deandre Ayton is back. I hope he feels the same way, eventually.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: RIM PRESSURE

The Suns were one of the NBA's best offenses almost entirely behind mid-range mastery. They made threes at a top-10 clip, but took them at a bottom-10 rate. A large portion of that issue came down to the rim; this team didn't generate many paint touches, which meant a low share of shots at the rim (21.4%, 29th) and free throw attempts (19.9, 27th).

Paul isn't solving that issue; the postseason was evidence of that. Booker can't do it by himself. Getting growth from Ayton, Bridges and Johnson as self-creators could go a long way to making the team's shot profile more balanced.

OTHER CONCERNS

- Uh, we can be honest and say that the vibes have been very weird in Phoenix the last few months. I hope they're able to rally together — at least through January 15.

- I can't say I love the backup guard situation. They need Cam Payne to pop again, or they quickly need to make a move for a guard that can shoulder some of the creation burden.

- With Jae Crowder getting traded at some point, there's a "big/power wing defender" void to fill. I like Torrey Craig; I just don't know if he provides nearly enough offensively to make defenses care about him. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Paul-Booker-Bridges-Johnson-Ayton

This is going to be your starting lineup when healthy. We've only gotten a small sample — 66 minutes last season — but they won those minutes by 50 points.

I'd wager this is going to be one of the most productive groups in the league.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

It's easy to forget because of how the season ended (and the offseason weirdness that ensued), but the Suns absolutely blitzed the league during the 2021-22 regular season. The offense is schematic goodness, and there isn't much reason to believe the defense will drop below top-10 levels with good help. They won't be 64-wins good, but they could still be a regular-season buzzsaw with reasonable health.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

To be clear, I think the Suns would firmly land at 7th in the Western Conference standings. I don't see the Suns missing the playoffs. However, there is a one-injury-away vibe to this team in light of their backcourt depth. Any injury or age-related regression from Paul would shrink the Suns' margin for error. Add in the collective strength of the conference, and it's easy to see how they could slide.

Sacramento Kings

WHAT TO LIKE: FOX-SABONIS DUO

What do you get when you combine one of the best screeners and big-man passers in the league with one of the league's fastest guards?

You get an elite pairing, at least in theory. 

The early returns of the De'Aaron Fox-Domantas Sabonis duo were good. The Kings generated nearly 1.13 points per possession on trips featuring a Fox-Sabonis ball screen, an elite number among duos with at least 200 picks, per Second Spectrum.

Chemistry should grow with more reps, and the usage should vary. More handoffs, more post splits. Maybe even some inverted ball screens sprinkled in. 

OTHER LIKES

- I'm ready to see Davion Mitchell work off Sabonis as well. More than anything, I'm excited to watch Mitchell hound dudes at the point of attack again. What a relentless defender.

- I'm all in on the Keegan Murray pick already. He shoots and spaces well, can cut off of Sabonis and has enough on-ball juice to beat tilted defenses. This might be premature, but I think the Kings nailed this one.

- I'm here for KZ Okpala as a rotation piece — even a spot-starter. The shooting really worries me, but the hope is the cutting and defensive versatility is enough to make him a neutral or slight positive in his minutes.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: DEFENSE

Hiring Mike Brown as head coach is a step in the right direction. He has a reputation for instilling defensive principles and generating buy-in. Adding length over the offseason — drafting Murray, taking a flyer on Okpala — signals that they're trying.

I just have no idea what their base scheme is going to be. They don't have the personnel to switch. We've seen enough of Sabonis in a drop to know that isn't tenable. It'll likely be something aggressive — either asking their bigs to get to the level before dropping back, or leaning into hedging. 

OTHER CONCERNS

- To that point, what is the lineup balance going to look like with this group? Can you get enough spacing around the Fox-Sabonis duo without saying bleep-it to the other end? I have my doubts.

- On the Fox front: I'm keeping tabs on his decision-making this year. It feels like he hasn't quite found the balance between tapping into his now-competent pull-up middy and keeping pressure on the rim. 

- What's going to happen with Richaun Holmes? He's good, but it also seems clear that he and Sabonis can't really work in the same lineup. It may be worth exploring what you can get for Holmes; if the Kings can add to the wing room, I'd probably make a move.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Fox-Mitchell-Murray-Barnes-Sabonis

We haven't gotten much of a sample of the Fox-Mitchell-Barnes-Sabonis quartet — 66 minutes, per PBP Stats — so I'm curious to see how that group can mesh. Having a fifth like Murray should make life easier for everyone though. And in theory, the Mitchell-Murray-Barnes trio should give you enough defensive ability to flank Fox and Sabonis in whatever scheme they wind up running.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament

This could be a top-10 offense if they get the half-court blend right. If Mike Brown is able to coax a semblance of competency out of this group on defense, a 9th- or 10th-seed run shouldn't surprise folks.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West

It's hard to call this a worst-case scenario in light of what this year's draft class projects to be. It would stink to have the postseason drought continue, especially considering the trade for Sabonis last season. To make that kind of timeline-accelerating move only to miss out on postseason play again... wouldn't be ideal.

Check out our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division and Central Division.

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