The 2011-12 NBA season will be unlike any other in recent memory thanks to the lockout. The schedule and preseason will be compressed which helps teams that are young, deep and have continuity from last year. The Pacific Division of the Western Conference has a little bit of everything from that recipe but it's spread out through the five teams which makes it difficult to see even the Clippers or Lakers getting through the regular season without their share of bumps in the road.
The Clippers are back, baby! And by "back" we mean they are somewhere they've never been before. With Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups in the backcourt and Blake Griffin, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan up front, this is one of the best starting fives in the West. It's not yet clear if they will try and flip Mo Williams or use him off the bench and they certainly could stand to add some depth at the shooting guard and center positions. I expect we'll see a few more moves before this roster is set.
Depth issues aside, as long as CP3 and Blake stay healthy, the Clippers will be a very good team. They might take a bit of time to adjust to playing together, but Paul, Billups, Butler and Griffin provide plenty of leadership and competitive fire.
Prediction: 42-24, 1st place Pacific Division
The Lakers are still the Lakers except they have lost one of their three great bigs when they salary-dumped Lamar Odom to the Mavericks. Maybe they will still be able to get Dwight Howard, but if not, there's no way this version of the Lakers is better than the team that got beat by Dallas in the playoffs last year. But even if the Lakers aren't "better", they still have Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and the giant enigma known as Andrew Bynum.
The Lakers will likely struggle a bit adjusting to their new coach, Mike Brown, and as an older team without a lot of depth will find this compressed schedule difficult.
Prediction: 40-26, 2nd place Pacific Division
The Phoenix Suns still have Steve Nash running the show which should get them out to a faster start than some other teams who've had more turnover. The Suns are deep at every position and have the potential to do better than most assume. The addition of Shannon Brown, a healthy, revitalized Robin Lopez and rookie Markieff Morris will give this team a boost over the unit that finish last season. The Suns still lack star power which limits their upside but they may do well in regular season if they can get a bit lucky.
The biggest issue for Phoenix will be how Nash and Grant Hill handle the grueling schedule and with that, how their backups play.
Prediction: 37-29, 3rd place Pacific Division
The Kings finished last season looking dangerous and have upgraded their roster for this year with the additions of Jimmer Fredette and Travis Outlaw. Sacramento has a bevy of talented players up and down their roster led by potential stars in DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans. They almost have too much depth in a lot of places with guys like Jason Thompson and J.J. Hickson at power forward, John Salmons and Francisco Garcia at small forward, and Jimmer, Evans and Marcus Thorton in the back court.
This Kings team is young, deep and will play fast which will help them deal with the schedule. They will put points in a hurry and can ride the hot hand. Defense will be an issue and biggest challenge for coach Paul Westphal will be team chemistry and leadership.
Prediction: 27-39, 4th place Pacific Division
The Warriors enter the season with a new coach (Mark Jackson) and new ownership. They are a franchise in transition and while talented, will struggle to find enough wins against the deep Western Conference. Golden State is led by Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and David Lee and they've added front court defensive depth with Kwame Brown and a full year of a healthy Ekpe Udoh.
The struggle for the Warriors will back court defense and continuity as their first-time coach goes the process of learning on the job.
Prediction: 23-43, 5th place Pacific Division