LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers directs his teammates against the Boston Celtics on December 27, 2012 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

A look at the Pacific Division
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I realize that NBA divisions don’t matter, but they’re a good way to group teams into separate posts.

Here, I’ll be listing teams in order of my projected standings, as well as give one bold prediction for each squad beyond that.

Pacific Division
JaVale McGee could be a useful player for the Warriors

(1) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

JaVale McGee plays meaningful minutes in the Finals.

Clearly, the Warriors are stacked this year, and it goes beyond Kevin Durant. They also brought vets like Zaza Pachulia and David West and will integrate some young players as well. I have a feeling that Patrick McCaw can be a baby Andre Igudoala, and Kevon Looney can provide an additional spark as well (if healthy).

As has been documented, the only flaw on the team right now is rim protection. LeBron James took advantage of that last season (particularly when Bogut wasn’t on the court) and sliced them up. Given that, their flier on JaVale McGee doesn’t seem so crazy after all. There are reports that McGee may not make the roster, but for their sakes, they should keep him in their back pocket. McGee has his limitations, but his attributes could allow him to play spot minutes in particular matchups and help get the Warriors that second title.

(2) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clips challenge the Warriors for the #1 seed.

In the long run, I expect Golden State to get better and better and eventually run away with the title, but there’s bound to be somewhat of a learning curve there, particularly in the way they work in the iso-heavy Kevin Durant into their offense, and in how they figure out their frontcourt rotation.

Meanwhile, with the majority of their roster back, the Clippers should be ready to jump out to a hot start. The SF spot has long been their Achilles heel, but I hope Doc Rivers realizes that he should be playing Wesley Johnson or Alan Anderson there. Both are decent defenders and shooters who would be an upgrade over L.R. Mbah a Moute, Paul Pierce, or Jeff Green from last year.

I could see the Clippers hanging around with the Warriors in the standings for around half the season, before ultimately falling back into a #2 seed battle with San Antonio.

(3) SACRAMENTO KINGS

The team finally trades DeMarcus Cousins.

There are only so many coaches, GMs, and role players that you can cycle through before realizing that your franchise player may be the reason that your franchise isn’t winning.

Don’t get me wrong — DeMarcus Cousins is a good player who would thrive on other teams. But the situation is toxic in Sacramento, and that goes beyond the off-the-court dramatics. Right now, Cousins has been handed the keys to this kingdom and has all the offense funneled his way, for better or worse. As a result, he puts up great raw stats (26.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg) and gets away with some sloppy play (45.1 FG% for a big man, 3.8 turnovers per game).

Hopefully, new coach Dave Joerger can rejigger this offense to be more balanced (even without a stud PG on the roster) to help Cousins’ efficiency. But I fear that Cousins will need a new situation in order to accept that new role.

Given his upside and his team-friendly contract, his trade value should be high, and the Kings could take advantage now before it’s too late. They also have some solid depth at the center spot if he departs, including the underrated Kosta Koufos, and promising young Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere.

(4) PHOENIX SUNS

Tyler Ulis works his way into the starting lineup by year’s end.

The Suns have plenty of guards already, and two in particular in well-paid Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. However, neither one has the passing ability and natural PG instincts like Ulis does.

If the team struggles this season (as they presumably will), Earl Watson will have to experiment and juggle his rotation, and I think he may stumble upon Ulis as his PG as his best bet to win games. Provided he can stay healthy, Ulis can run an offense well, particularly with his Kentucky buddy Devin Booker on the other side of the court. Sometimes, skill wins over size, as we see with Boston’s Isaiah Thomas or Russell Wilson or Drew Brees in the NFL.

Obviously, at 5’9″, Ulis has his challenges, especially on the defensive end. I’m not worried about his on-the-ball defense so much as him getting caught in pick-and-rolls and switches. Still, young teams like Phoenix tend to forgive defensive issues (even Booker had terrible advanced stats on that end).

(5) LOS ANGELES LAKERS

The Lakers show glimpses of being the next OKC.

Presumably, this season will be a bumpy one in terms of wins and losses, but I’m extremely high on the potential of their 1-2 punch in D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram.

I don’t think the Ingram – Kevin Durant comparisons are insane, given his length and shooting potential. Still, that comp should come with some muted expectations early on. Remember, Kevin Durant didn’t light it up on Day 1; he may have averaged 20.3 points as a rookie, but only shot 43% from the field, including a hard-to-believe 28.8% from three. Ingram should be even more raw and more ineffective as a rookie, but I believe he’ll flash glimpses of All-Star potential by the end of the year.

On the other hand, D’Angelo Russell should be ready for his first moment in the spotlight (or at least, his first basketball-related moment in the spotlight). Last year, he’d been saddled with Byron Scott as a coach, and forced to sit and watch the trainwreck that was the Kobe Bryant retirement tour. With some extra leash and some extra time with the ball in his hands, Russell should explode as a scorer. He may not be Russell Westbrook, but he could be a James Harden type — a crafty guard with shooting range.

Even if the Lakers only win 20-25 games this year, I expect that their fans will go into the off-season extremely happy with what they’ve seen, as the Russell-Ingram combo confirms itself as the best young 1-2 punch this side of Minnesota.

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