Since 2008, the Pacific Division has run like a Swiss watch: the L.A. Lakers are great, the Phoenix Suns are good and the L.A. Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings are completely awful. Things are going to be different in the Pacific this year.
Oh, don't worry: the Kings and Warriors will still likely be completely awful. But the Clippers have risen up, the Lakers are slipping and the Suns' magic is on the verge of running out.
As we preview the division using a worn gimmick, let's first look at the good news. Well, let's call it "good" news.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Clippers pulled off the NBA's biggest trade since, I'd reckon, 2007 in picking up a 26-year-old Chris Paul. (Let me justify that sentence: Pau Gasol wasn't close to an MVP candidate when he was traded in 2008, and the LeBron James sign-and-trade was more a hostage ransom than a consensual swap. I'd argue that CP3-to-L.A. could be more important than Kevin Garnett-to-Boston, but the Clips need to do something first.) While the Clippers mortgaged a good part of the franchise's future, taking the sure thing in CP3 over the promise of tomorrow is probably smart. I mean, when have the Clippers ever had good fortune with young players? They did Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and he who will be selected with Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round pick favors by trading them away from the cursed franchise.
The best thing about the CP3 trade is that it comes on the heels of the NBA's worst trade since 2008: the Clippers' awful Baron Davis-Mo Williams swap last February. In that trade, L.A. gave up its own unprotected lottery pick to save $11 million in cap space over two seasons. That unprotected pick became Kyrie Irving; meanwhile, Cleveland dropped Davis via the amnesty clause, meaning it basically stole Irving from the Clippers. (The 2008 trade that rates as the worst in recent years: Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo. Yes, a GM got taken to school by Kevin McHale.)
The best, best thing about the CP3 trade is that without some seriously shady interference by the NBA commissioner, the point guard would have ended up bolstering the Lakers and keeping the Clippers pressed down in submission. GM Neil Olshey will never get full credit for this one: the most powerful man in the sport had to buck fate and the course of things to get L.A. its MVP candidate.
The Pacific's other additions, save one, have been less alluring. The Clippers also picked up Chauncey Billups via an amnesty auction that Adrian Wojnarowski almost immediately raised red flags over, and Caron Butler via a bloated contract that common sense almost immediately raised red flags over. The Suns drafted the lesser Morris twin (Markieff) when the better Morris twin was still on the board and ganked Shannon Brown from the Lakers (congratulations! you won a brand new Shann-- nevermind) and somehow decided to also add Ronnie Price and Sebastian Telfair, who would be All-Stars in the D-League, actually, so ... good job. (The guard drop-off in Phoenix is amazing. You have two-time MVP Steve Nash and the solid Jared Dudley ... and then you have Telfair, Price and Brown. Yeesh.
The Warriors added Kwame Brown -- we'll save him for the Airing of Grievances -- and draft pick Klay Thompson, whose claims to fames include being the son of Mychal Thompson and handling his marijuana arrest really maturely. (It's hilarious that he managed to turn getting busted for possession into a positive character note in the draft run-up. This league can be really ridiculous sometimes.) Sacramento brought in Chuck Hayes, who becomes the first King in modern history to not have an overwhelming urge to shoot the ball the second he touches it. The Kings also brought back John Salmons -- they really missed the 17-65 season they had last time he was with the team -- and "won" Travis Outlaw on the amnesty auction. (Given that Kings boss Geoff Petrie has always had shades of Billy Knight, it makes sense that Petrie would bid almost 50 percent of Outlaw's contract. Were Knight still working, he would have bid the whole damn thing.)
The Kings also drafted Jimmer Fredette, an unassailable decision that you will respect and fear.
THE AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
The Kings have high hopes for the Tyreke Evans-DeMarcus Cousins tandem. Soak that in for a minute: the Kings have high hopes for the Tyreke Evans-DeMarcus Cousins tandem. You may recall that Cousins socked teammate Donte Greene in a locker room fight last season because Greene passed the ball to Evans, not Cousins, on a critical possession. Within months of joining forces, Evans and Cousins were causing locker room brawls over shots. Now Marcus Thornton (whose nickname, Baby Buckets, is adapted from Ricky Davis), Travis Outlaw ("I shoot jumpers like layups"), J.J. Hickson (the self-proclaimed best power forward in the NBA, who is likely the fourth best PF on this team), Jimmer Fredette and John "dribble-dribble-dribble-dribble-cock head-shoot" Salmons are all on the team. This sounds like a great idea.
Things, I fear, are worse at Golden State. So hungry for the playoffs are Mark Jackson, the bloated front office and new owner Joe Lacob that the team, in its quest to upgrade the center position, signed Kwame Brown and failed to use amnesty on the albatross that is Andris Biedrins. The Warriors could have taken their Dead Weight Center Salary down to $0. Instead, it's at $16 million this season, and $18 million over the next two seasons. And this is supposed to get the Warriors to the playoffs. Defense continues to be a problem, and somehow I don't think "hand down, man down" is going to be the magic potion. Instead of picking up a useful defender in the draft, the Warriors added another two-guard to the team's Horn Of Plenty Of Two-Guards with Klay; the team will continue to ride the Stephen Curry-Monta Ellis backcourt until someone decides that Monta is worth more than a consolation package in the trade dealings. (So, forever.) Golden State's playoff hopes essentially ride on Biedrins being good (get down on your knees and pray, y'all) or Ekpe Udoh developing incredibly quickly after a stirring 8 and 6 per 36 minutes rookie campaign. Gooood luck.
The Suns continue to waste the twilight of Nash's career; on what planet do Phoenix's yawning moves help take a team that missed the playoffs last season over the top? What, is Robin Lopez going to burst with production? Is Marcin Gortat thisclose to becoming the new Amar'e? The Suns made some brutal decisions in the summer of 2010 (trading for Hedo Turkoglu, giving Josh Childress loads of money without realizing that Alvin Gentry had no intention of giving Josh Childress any burn on a team with Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, letting Amar'e walk), and Lon Babby apparently has little intention of fixing them before Nash falls apart. Thanks for nothing, man.
The Clippers' second highest-paid player is DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers' second highest-paid player is DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers' second highest-paid player is DeAndre Jordan. Here's a math problem: if you have one Kwame Brown circa 2005, you add $16 million, a couple rebounds and a block per game and you fast-forward six years, what do you end up with? You end up with DeAndre Jordan as your second highest-paid player.
Then there are the Lakers. You could actually build a list of the top 10 most unfortunate things about the Lakers' offseason ... heck, you could have a killer top three based on just the last 10 days! First, Stern killed GM Mitch Kupchak's coup de grace as other teams -- including the team that swept the Lakers out of the playoffs last season -- bitched in the background. Then, because Lamar Odom was so offended that the Lakers think that he is not as good as Chris freaking Paul (how dare they!), L.A. had to give him to the Mavericks for absolutely nothing. (Because Kupchak made that deal, for a solid day everyone assumed it was the prelude to a masterpiece deal. If any other GM had done it, the NBA would have imploded from laughter. So what I'm asking is: when do we get to implode from laughter? That other shoe isn't dropping, right?) Finally, Kobe Bryant is getting a divorce because, according to TMZ, his teammates blabbed to their wives about his infidelity, and those wives in turn blabbed to Vanessa Bryant, who in turn took half of all of Kobe's possessions. Surely, this will be a positive step for the Lakers, as Kobe feels a greater sense of trust and camaraderie with his teammates.
(In case you needed proof that life is a giant circle: Kobe snitched on Shaq back in Eagle, and now the rest of the Lakers have Kobe'd Kobe. The easy solution to all of this is for basketball players to stop getting married. Forget an age minimum or dress code. David Stern could solve a lot of the league's issues by banning all married players. Maybe make exceptions for Monta Ellis and J.J. Barea.)
We forgot to mention that Pau Gasol is seemingly embracing the idea of leaving L.A. at some point -- he sounded more excited than unnerved when the trade rumors popped up -- and that the Lakers replaced Phil Jackson with ... Mike Brown. They also picked up Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy (30 percent of the league's white population) and are chasing Baron Davis, who was such a success the last time he played in L.A. Helluvan offseason, Lakers!
It will be miraculous if ...
Mark Jackson gets a single Coach of the Year nomination from someone not named Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy.
Paul Westphal is the Kings' head coach this time next year.
A respected basketball person publicly commends the Kwame Brown contract.
DeAndre Jordan averages more than 12 points per game.
Chris Paul doesn't win the MVP, should the Clippers challenge for a top seed in the West.
Blake Griffin comes close to repeating as Dunk Champ.
DeMarcus Cousins survives the season without one ejection.
Jimmer Fredette averages fewer than 20 points per game.
Jerry West does not decrease the population of Golden State's front office via brute force.
Kobe Bryant says something nice about Mike Brown.
Mark Jackson says something nice about Andris Biedrins.
Stephen Curry takes a photo that isn't embarrassing.
Metta World Peace's jersey doesn't look completely hilarious every single time its shown on TV.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. L.A. Clippers*
2. L.A. Lakers*
3. Phoenix Suns
4. Golden State Warriors
5. Sacramento Kings
Division MVP: Chris Paul
Division ROY: Jimmer Fredette, duh
Division DPOY: Uhhh ... Chuck Hayes?
All-Stars: Kobe, CP3, Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Steve Nash, one of Stephen Curry OR Monta Ellis OR Tyreke Evans.
First Mike Brown-Kobe Bryant Blow-Up: December 25
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. This week is Festivus Week: the Atlantic Division will be up on Tuesday, followed by the Northwest and Central on Wednesday, the Southwest on Thursday and the Southeast on Friday. See the archives.