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2006 NBA Pacific Division Preview

By Drew Mangione of Doc's Sports Picks

PACIFIC DIVISION

The Pacific is home to one of the best point guards in the NBA. Ok, two. While Steve Nash gets all the accolades, Sam Cassell is the proven winner. Remember, Nash didn't play this well until his marriage to Mike D'Antoni. Sam the Egyptian Alien has won with good and bad coaches, and with franchises that had a less-than-stellar track record just prior to his arrival.

Cassell has played full seasons with five different teams, winning two championships with the Rockets to start his career, single-handedly leading the hapless Nets to the eight seed, quarterbacking the Bucks and Timberwolves to division titles, and of course, what could be the most amazing, he led the Clippers to the second round last year. He deserves mention with Nash, Kidd and Billups, but this division is full of over- and underrated players or coaches.

D'Antoni got a raw deal in Denver, trying to turn around an 11-71 team in one lockout-shortened season. This guy can coach and has proven in just two seasons that he can make adjustments and succeed with any talent. On the overrated front is Kobe's supposed defensive prowess and will to win. Without any real additions, the Lakers and poser Jordan can expect another 42- to 44-win season. In Sacramento, a good point guard in Mike Bibby gets to spend a whole season with the offensive black hole and soon-to-explode-again star that is Ron Artest, while 90 minutes to the southwest, Don Nelson's challenge is to bring home more wins than social security checks.

Here's a breakdown of each team in the division:

PHOENIX SUNS
2005 Record: 54-28 (1st Division, 3rd Conference)
2006 Title odds: 5/1
2006 Wins O/U: 55
2006 Wins Projection: Over
Key Additions: Marcus Banks, PG; Jumaine Jones, SF; Amare Stoudamire (injury)
Key Losses: Tim Thomas, SF; Eddie House, SG; Brian Grant, PF
Outlook: Everyone knows about two-time MVP Steve Nash and his top-notch head coach, but what might be overlooked about last year was the emergence of Boris Diaw, a former first-round pick from France who turned out to be more than equal value in the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade with Atlanta. His 3-point accuracy isn't as high, but the versatile 24-year-old forward gave the Suns 13 points, 6 assists and almost 7 rebounds per night. Marcus Banks will give a certain Canadian floor general with a new hairdo some rest. Oh, and did I mention that the best young big man in the game is due to return from injury?
Bottom line: The Suns are a top contender this year with its balanced attack that can run the break and pound it inside in the half-court. One more thing, Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell, and Shawn Marion play D and that can be contagious.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS 2005 Record: 47-35 (2nd Division, 5th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 22/1
2006 Wins O/U: 47
2006 Wins Projection: Over
Key Additions: Tim Thomas, SF; Aaron Williams, F/C; Lamond Murray, SF; Paul Davis (r), C
Key Losses: Vladimir Radmanovic, SF; Walter McCarty, F
Outlook: Sam Cassell is running the show and the depth on the Clippers front line is like the U.S. Navy, not some weak group of fleet schooners as the team name implies. Elton Brand can play the low block, hit the mid-range jumper and shut down his opponent-a triple threat that is a key ingredient to winning games. The team's only question mark is guard play. Not the starters who are veteran leaders, but off the bench. Shaun Livingston has yet to live up to his billing, leaving Quinton Ross and Daniel Ewing to give the starters some rest.
Bottom line: If Livingston battles for Sixth Man of the Year (along with a high-value contract extension), then 55 wins is within reach. Cassell will need some rest (he'll turn 37 on Nov. 18) if the team wants to make noise in the playoffs.

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LOS ANGELES LAKERS
2005 Record: 45-37 (3rd Division, 6th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 75/1
2006 Wins O/U: 42.5
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Vladimir Radmanovic, SF; Jordan Farmar (r), G; Maurice Evans, SF; J.R. Pinnock, G; Shammond Williams, PG
Key Losses: Devean George, SF
Outlook: This year we'll see if Kobe is as good as the pundits say he is. We'll also see if Shoulders Phil Jackson can win with only one superstar because the rest of this squad leaves a lot to be desired. Lamar Odom was supposed to be a 20-10-5 guy, but has settled at 15-9-5. Ultimate bust Kwame Brown (No. 1) and mid-level exception bust Vlad Radmanovic (No. 12) get to play together, five years after both were picked ahead of Richard Jefferson (No. 13) and Zach Randolph (No. 19). Don't forget they have Chris Mihm, who went No. 7 overall the year before.
Bottom line: So the moral of the story is that if these guys actually played to their projected ability, look out! But it's unlikely, and Kobe will be running amok alone.

SACRAMENTO KINGS
2005 Record: 44-38 (4th Division, 8th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 43/1
2006 Wins O/U: 44
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Maurice Taylor, F; John Salmons, SG; Loren Woods, C; Quincy Douby (r), SG
Key Losses: Bonzi Wells, SG
Outlook: It's not IF, it's WHEN. When will Ron Artest self destruct? This kid is about as tough a defensive player any of us will ever see and his offense is remarkable in that I never thought the "old man back down" and set shot could be effective at the highest level. But his playing ability aside, he needs help and seems unwilling to consider getting it. I've never seen someone so honestly confused by simple things, yet disingenuous when apologizing. The only question is will it be some second rate singing trio he wants to promote, or an on the court incident? Let's hope he doesn't corrupt Francisco Garcia, who may be the only one to benefit if Artest misses time now that Bonzi has moved on.
Bottom line: Betting on this team is a risky proposition, but 44 wins seems like a tall order even if Artest plays 82 games. The post may be the key to winning, but both Artest and Brad Miller take too long in the post to play on the same team.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
2005 Record: 34-48 (5th Division, 12th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 75/1
2006 Wins O/U: 35
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Patrick O'Bryant (r), C; Devin Brown, SF; Keith McLeod, PG; Dajuan Wagner, SG;
Key Losses: Derek Fisher, PG; Will Bynum, PG
Outlook: So the team with the 9th worst defense in the league hires a coach whose career has never been predicated on defense. But maybe this isn't about now. Maybe it's about the next coach. After all, Jeff VanGundy and Avery Johnson made it to the NBA Finals pretty soon after replacing Don Nelson. Chris Mullin has put together a talented squad here with Jason Richardson, Baron Davis and Troy Murphy, but this team looks better on paper than on the hardwood.
Bottom line: This team needs the intangibles, but they're not going to get them until defense and hustle are put ahead of offense and style. Will Nelson do that? Well, he's proposed playing Murphy ('05-06: 10 rpg, .35 bpg) at center, so what do you think?

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