By Cub Buenning

Time to hit the coast! Not that all of these teams can truly be considered coast cities, at least they are all in the Pacific Time Zone (I guess Phoenix just part of the year. SIDE TOPIC-What the hell is it with Arizona denying daylight savings…. That would mess me up. I need that time back.) This division has seen all of its teams be really good at some point in this decade. Yes, even the Clippers made it to the second round of the playoffs in ’05-06. But where do these team stand as the season tips? Other than Phoenix, this is quite possibly the most mixed-bag of a division in the entire league. The looming specter of the potential Kobe deal has left more than one team in this division a bit uncertain. Either way, this is still the easiest division to handicap, as the Suns are the cream of this crop.

The teams appear as they should finish.

PHOENIX (61-21) Lost in Western Conference Finals to San Antonio

This team was one “JYD-esque” shoulder-block away from doing to Cleveland, what the Spurs ultimately did. Not so much the action, of course, but the ensuing stupidity (by players and league office) that caused two of the Suns top players to miss actual time on the court. Yes, the Suns are another team that has been mentioned in the Kobe bonanza, and quite realistic, what with the Matrix’s bizarre sense of self-worth, if not for their competitive closeness. This team is basically the same, other than the signing of Grant Hill, and just needs more time. That s–t from last year will stick. They now have historical basis for grudges, beefs, and enemies. The continued development of Leandro Barbosa only makes Steve Nash’s game that tricky to keep up with. As Nash ages, his game will benefit from playing day-in and day-out with the Blur.

Amare looks to be almost completely back to optimal health (when playing). You know Boris Diaw and Raja Bell will do their thing within Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

I will keep it within the 82-game schedule (I PICK THE SUNS TO WIN IT ALL, like I did before last season) and think that they can again top the 60-win plateau.

SACRAMENTO (33-49)

Go ahead, say it, “The Kings in 2nd place?” I may be way off with this one, but I kinda like what is going on up in SacTown. Mike Bibby, when back in the line-up, is going to be solid from the point position and score when needed (which isn’t going to be as often.) Brad Miller is sure to rebound from his below-average season of a year ago and barring a trade, the possibility of having Ron Artest’s services will only make them tougher on both ends of the court. The addition of Mikki Moore will not only bolster the backline, but his and Miller’s ability to hit the perimeter jumper should open up the lanes for drives.

I love Kevin Martin as a scorer, love him. He should be up around the 25-point clip this year, as the shots should come early and often.

The idea of a first-year coach might also ignite this mix of young and old talent. They would stand to win more if Reggie Theus went back to the curl, but…..
The Kings also have potentially the best home court advantage in the league at ARCO. Go there sometime; it’s ridiculous even when they’re bad.

GOLDEN STATE (42-40)

Last year’s post-season darlings are sure to return to their mediocre, if not exciting, regular season ways. Looking past my biases (my boy Silas is an assistant) this team still needs more time. Despite the experience of Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis, the remainder of the group is a bit green. I love the potential of Andris Biedrins. I saw multiple games last year when he was borderline nasty. Scoring from the inside and out, blocking shots, grabbing boards. This kid is legit.

One of my other favorites on this team is Matt Barnes. A D-League vet (holla D-League, where was my call?!?!) Barnes does a little of, no wait, a lot of everything. He flies around the court with an intensity that is unmatched and he can score in bunches off the bench for Coach Don Nelson. Monta Ellis is another nice piece, but again, he represents this team’s youthful vitality. You want to get behind them and cheer for them, but I just don’t expect another repeat of last season’s win over Dallas. I can’t figure out if they are even a playoff team. This West is a fool.

I am going to put them in for right now, as there are some other teams (Portland, New Orleans, even… GULP! Memphis) in similar spots that I like, but am just not feeling quite yet.

LA CLIPPERS (40-42)

Despite an erratic regular season, this group still almost snuck into the post-season, but start things this year WAY behind the 8-ball. The loss of Elton Brand is colossal, as he is their only true “in his prime” guy. While I love what Sam Cassell and Cat Mobley bring, they are a bad fit with the depleted roster. For those of you that don’t get to see much Western Conference ball, this dude Brand is 20 and 10 every night! He’s as reliable as Tim Duncan, no joke. His loss cannot be overstated.

Chris Kaman is another piece who can add a lot (he was great on their team from two years ago) but with out the help of Brand, he is going to be feeding off guys like rookie Al Thornton (who is ultimately going to be a great pro, by the way.)

Side note: I wish we got to see Shawn Livingston play basketball.

I am going to look at this team to ultimately finish in a similar manner to last year. I think too much of Elton Brand to think they can have extended and consistent success with out him in the line-up.

LA LAKERS (32-50)

Should this train wreck wrapped in a cute package be given the benefit of the doubt when accessing their chances for this season? I think not. Whether Kobe Bryant remains in Purple and Gold is still irrelevant to the team’s fortunes. I wrote this often last year, that Kobe is still about all this team has. He was amazing at times last year, and they still barely won 30 games? Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player in the world right now. He just has Brad Sellers alongside him instead of Scottie.

Derek Fisher, the Remix is a great pick-up, but with the likes of Kwame, Lamar, Bynum, VladRad, and Walton serving as the supporting cast, the team just flat out can’t hang in this conference.

Side shout out to Coby Karl, he of the Lakers’ 15-man roster. Big ups to the Boise State grad for the personal hurdles he has destroyed, on his way to making an NBA roster.

This team won’t win more than 35-38 games.

The big daddy is the Southwest Division. Mavericks, Rockets, and Spurs! Oh MY!