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2018-19 NBA: Pacific Division Preview

Image licensed from USA Today Sports

Phoenix Suns

They were the worst team in the Western Conference and the NBA in general, winning just 21 games last season. It continues a string of three years where they’ve won just 24 games or less, but perhaps they can finally turn things around with a new era beginning under head coach Igor Kokoskov. With the first pick in the draft, they picked up center Deandre Ayton from Arizona, joining a roster of promising young talent.

While there’s potential, don’t expect things to turn around in a blink of an eye. They were one of the least-accurate teams in the league last season, hitting just 44.1 percent of their shots (third-worst) and were dead-last in three-point shooting (33.4 percent). Defensively, they allowed a whopping 113.3 points per game and were very close to a negative double-digit point differential. As you’d expect, that put them at the bottom of the league.

This proved to be a longer and more excruciating rebuilding project than expected, and this team is nowhere near contending for a title yet. Bovada has them at +40000 odds to win the title this season. But there should at least be signs of improvement and the potential to win at least 30 games. There will also be more clarity on who the core players will be on the team, but we know at least a few who will be here long-term.

Forward TJ Warren, who started in the most games of any player on the team last season (65), signed a contract extension with the Suns already. He averaged 19.6 points per game last season, significantly higher than his first full season starting. Their main attraction, Devin Booker, who led the team in average points (24.9), minutes (34.5), assists (4.7), and free throw percentage (87.8%) last season, will also be staying with them.

Even if you haven’t seen a lot of Phoenix games over the years, Booker is almost worth the price of admission alone. He signed a five-year, $158 million contract extension back in July. It’s a no-brainer to keep the talented shooting guard, and they were very open in how they were building around the budding star. It’s a shame that he’s had to be on so many awful teams in his first three seasons, but things should be at least be trending upward.

 

Sacramento Kings

Since the Suns have a few rising newcomers on their team, the team that has even higher odds to win the title this season is Sacramento, currently listed at +50000 at Bovada. They had just 27 wins last season, which has been a slight regression for the team in recent years. They were able to finally climb to third place in the Pacific division with how bad the Lakers have been, but they slipped back to fourth and couldn’t hit over 30 wins for a third straight year.

Ultimately, last season was just another year in what’s been over a decade of terrible basketball in Sacramento. Since making their eighth-straight playoff appearance back in the 2005-06 season, they’ve never been able to hit the 40-win mark since and their best most recent season was a 38-44 campaign back in 2007-08.

What went south for the team and why have they been so consistently awful? It never worked with center DeMarcus Cousins, who spent nearly seven seasons with the team before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. While there’s no doubting his talent, and he averaged 22.7 points per game or more in his final four seasons with the team, nothing clicked around him.

While he has the reputation of a hothead, the bigger issues have been everything else. They’ve failed on their lottery picks, Cousins saw five coaching changes during his time with the team, and various pieces in the front office have changed -- including the owners. There was also a period where the team could have moved to a different city.

In exchange for Cousins, the Kings received Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and Langston Galloway. The latter two are already gone while Hield has shown promise, but he’s still not a consistent starter. Looking forward, the team needs some of their young players to step up, or they will continue to fail. New draft pick Marvin Bagley III from Duke, the second-overall pick in the draft, will join younger players like Willie Cauley-Stein, De’Aaron Fox, and Justin Jackson.

Veteran Zach Randolph remains on the team and led the squad with 14.5 points per game last season, but if the team becomes early sellers, he’ll likely be the first one out the door. Cauley-Stein has shown the most potential of the younger talent with a 50.2 field goal percentage and is a volume shooter (attempts 10.4 two-point FGs per game). One player that needs to step up is Jackson, who had just 6.7 points per game in 68 appearances.

 

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been a long time in the dumpster for a historic franchise like the Lakers, but things will finally be heading in a much different direction beginning this season. After a handful of strikeouts, the team was finally able to score a prized star acquisition, and they received the best player in the league, LeBron James. Perhaps the only negative you can spin on this is LA receiving him at the twilight of his career, but he instantly makes them a title contender.

Heading into this season, they have the fourth-highest odds at +1000 according to Bovada, only behind Golden State, Boston, and Houston. It’s hard to really judge them from their statistics over the last few seasons with so many personnel changes. While they’re keeping a few of their young stars, a number of them have left to add immediate veterans and role players to help structure a team that can win now.

Gone are Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, Larry Nance, and Jordan Clarkson. Randle is easily the most significant loss, averaging 16.1 points and eight rebounds per game, but they obviously got a lot in return to make up for it. Chemistry was getting better for the team as the season went on, and they finally finished above 14th in the Western Conference, but still failed to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

The expected starting five will feature James alongside Brandon Ingram and JaVale McGee in the frontcourt. Ingram is expected to play an important role with James, and he was one of the top three scorers on the team (16.1 ppg) last season with Kyle Kuzma -- the latter will now come off the bench. Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remain in the backcourt, with Ball looking to take the next step after a decent rookie campaign. He finished with a team-high 7.2 assists per game and despite early scoring woes, finished with 10.2 points on average.

Other newcomers include Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson which will add some depth to the team. Stephenson famously rattled James in their postseason meetings against each other, but will be on the same side this time around. Rondo has become a journeyman after his time with Boston as the Lakers are his fifth different team in that amount of years.

Drama will undoubtedly ensue in the upcoming season. Are they vastly overrated with the talent that surrounds LeBron? Will there be any issues between the star player and head coach Luke Walton, similar to other situations he’s had in stops at Cleveland and Miami? It should be a very interesting season for the new-look Lakers, one that likely won’t see them get to the promised land immediately, but their playoff drought should surely be over.

 

Los Angeles Clippers

With LeBron bringing star power back to the Lakers, it looks like the other Los Angeles team is finally out of the spotlight. They’ve tormented their rivals with numerous blowouts in recent years, but their playoff window has probably closed after failing to make the postseason for the first time in six years last season. They finished 10th in the Western Conference with a 42-40 record.

In general, it was a somewhat successful, but still underwhelming run for the team that finished fifth or higher in the Western Conference. They actually are continuing the streak of being second or higher in the Pacific division, but that’s mainly due to the strength of the other divisions last year. In those six playoff appearances, they got out of the first round three times, but never reached the Western Conference Finals.

Following the losses of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, center DeAndre Jordan finally left is long tenure with the club. He averaged a double-double in his last four seasons and is hoping to find new success in the final stages of his career with the Dallas Mavericks. The Clippers also lost Austin Rivers, ending the father-and-son duo with Doc Rivers being the team’s head coach, and received Marcin Gortat from the Washington Wizards.

Gortat, who is entering his 12th season in the NBA, will be on his fourth different team. He saw his numbers diminish in his fifth season with the Wizards last year, only finishing with 8.2 points per game after playing and starting in all 82 games. It was his lowest number since his time at Orlando from 2007 to 2011, where he wasn’t a regular starter.

With another superstar departure and the team regressing a season ago, It’s not looking like it will be a promising season coming up for the Clippers. They are currently listed at Bovada with a value of +250000, which checks in around teams like Dallas, Miami, Detroit, and Charlotte -- they may have a good enough record to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, but they obviously are on the other side.

 

Golden State Warriors

Once again, Golden State comes in as the NBA’s favorites to win the title with -195 odds at Bovada. The talented, superstar-heavy basketball squad continues to load up with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins. On a pure talent level, this team should glide through the regular season and finish at the top of the Western Conference regardless of how tough it should be with Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and surging teams like Utah and the LA Lakers.

That being said, Cousins does have a history of being an absolute pain to teams. He’s not the only reason why Sacramento failed in the past decade, but he certainly didn’t help them return to prominence. With the number of egos that are building on the Warriors squad with how much they’ve won, there’s a chance that things could fall apart. After all, they weren’t as impressive a season ago but did just enough to reach the playoffs and dominated from there.

To be clear, not “as impressive” is set by their lofty standards. They had 24 regular season losses -- they had 39 combined losses when adding up the three seasons prior. It was still good enough to reach second in a very competitive Western Conference, and they ended up taking their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance -- they’re 3-1 on the league’s biggest stage.

Similar to how people like trying to call out how the New England Patriots’ run is finally over, people are anticipating the end of the miraculous run. True, it’s doubtful that NBA teams can have decade-long dynasties due to the nature of the game, but the Warriors should be as strong as ever. They led the league in points scored (113.5 ppg) and three-point shooting (39.1%) and made over half their shots all season (50.3%). They didn’t rail far behind Houston and Toronto with a plus-6 average point differential.

The usual suspects remain on the team, and with the addition of Cousins, they have the most dangerous all-around offense in the league. Last season, Stephen Curry led the team with 26.4 points and 4.2 three-point makes per game and distributed the ball well with 6.1 assists on average. Kevin Durant averaged the same amount as Curry, and Klay Thompson is darn near forgotten on the team these days, yet averaged 20 points per game!

With the team re-signing Durant and extending the contract of head coach Steve Kerr in the offseason, things are setting up well for the Warriors to continue their dominance. For the first time, they could end up having a legitimate contender in the same division assuming LeBron can help beef up the Lakers in the near future, but their biggest opponents in the way of the title are preseason-contending favorites, Boston and Houston.

 

 

Brian Spaen

Blogging journeyman and sports handicapper. His passion for statistics, analyzing team reports, and watching multiple hours of sports daily gives him an edge for picking who will beat the spread. Also writes about technology and video games. Hobbies include enjoying life in the big city, spending way too much time on YouTube, and discovering new craft beer and whisky.

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