Okay, moving on to the Western Conference, which has enjoyed dominance in the past few years, first let's tackle...the Pacific Division!
Sacramento Kings. Remember the good ol' days? When it looked like my Timberwolves and the Kings would be meeting in the playoffs for years to come? Bibby and Jackson providing a 1-2 punch at PG, Vlade and later Brad Miller holding down the C position, Peja shooting lights out, Webber hobbling around, even Keon Clark providing matchup problems. And let's not forget Gerald Wallace was once with this squad. Well, Sacramento has also fallen from grace, and doesn't look to be improving anytime soon.
This year's Kings haven't done much in terms of personnel, so they're hoping their existing players can regain the form they've had in previous years. Bibby, Miller, and Ron Artest provide the backbone of this team, and undersized SG Kevin Martin has developed into quite a scoring threat. Abdur-Rahim still has a couple more years in him at the PF slot, making this team's front 5 look pretty good on paper. Unfortunately, they drafted a mediocre, unathletic freshman big man in Spencer Hawes. He should improve by going up against a vet like Brad Miller everyday in practice, but I don't see him contributing for a few years. This team really should've addressed their upcoming need at SF when Ron-Ron wears out his welcome or signs with the Knicks. This team will probably compete with the Clips for dead last in a weak division.
Los Angeles Clippers. Good thing I waited on this one - their superstar Elton Brand just did some damage to his Achilles and it doesn't sound too good. Promising 6'7" PG Shaun Livingston will probably miss the entire season after one of the most horrific injuries I have ever seen. Seriously, do NOT look for footage of it, it's sick. This is a fairly well-rounded team overall, but not having those two guys really hurts. Sam Cassell and Cat Mobley provide some veteran grit, C Chris Kaman is coming back from an off-year, and Corey Maggette can muscle his way to the basket and pour in some points.
The Clips also did well in the offseason, taking F Al Thornton with their pick and signing veteran PG Brevin Knight. Either way, this team needs to get healthy to compete, and Cassell isn't looking to just provide leadership for the young guys - he's a gamer who wants to win. I wouldn't be surprised if he wants out when this team starts to tank - playoff teams need a leader of his caliber, and I could see him as a Celtic or Cavalier by midseason.
Los Angles Lakers. The Kobe show rolls on, and he's been working through the media to demand a trade. Apparently he shines brighter than all the lights in LA, but I can't see the Lakers giving up on him - he sells too many tickets. He's actually got a half-decent supporting cast, with Lamar Odom's versatility and Luke Walton's, ummm...passing? Seriously though, I actually like Luke. They've added a couple of PGs - playoff vet Derek Fisher and rookie Javaris Crittenton, a flashy PG who will need time to develop before he can contribute.
This team is built on Kobe, and I do see them getting better next year, provided that Andrew Bynum continues to progress and bench guys like Turiaf and Radmonovic can provide a spark. This team will definitely make the playoffs and will likely get bounced in the first round, but you can never count Kobe out.
Golden State Warriors. I've always been a fan of Nellie ball. To me, the most exciting part of basketball is watching how mismatches are exploited, and Don Nelson shares this philosophy with me. None of this slow-tempo stuff where we watch slow centers post up and outmuscle each other in the paint. Nellie ball's more of a streetball mentality - pick on the defender who has the least ability to guard a certain player. It also allows for the best players to be on the floor playing together - when you've got Monta Ellis and Baron Davis out there at the same time, at least one of them will always be quicker to the hoop than their defender.
The Warriors should continue to have success this year, after knocking off #1 seed Dallas in the playoffs last year. Andris Biedrins should continue to thrive as a big man in this system, and Mickael Pietrus and Stephen Jackson can spread out the floor and are the type of players who thrive on mismatches. I didn't really like the move of trading Richardson for a big like Brandan Wright, though Wright should play better than he really is within this system. Expect to see this team in the playoffs once again - they're a tough matchup for any team and have some breakout potential this year.
Phoenix Suns. I don't know what to say about this team that hasn't already been said a million times. Steve Nash is one of the best PGs I've ever seen, he makes players around him better, and his supporting cast continues improve, adding Grant Hill this offseason. They've also got the fastest guy in the league (Barbosa), a KG-lite in Shawn Marion, and a beast in the low block (Amare). Surround them with versatile guys who have the drive to win (Diaw, Bell), and I expect them to win this division once again.
You can't argue with results, but Phoenix's front office is a little confusing - they're constantly trying to cut salary, but at the same time they give up their draft picks for almost nothing. Players on rookie contracts generally are the cheapest in the league, and they're all playing for that "next big deal". They even traded PF Kurt Thomas plus TWO first-round picks to the Sonics in exchange for a future second-round pick. Their philosophy is clearly not rookie-friendly, although I like the pickup of senior Alando Tucker from Wisconsin - he's the type of scoring SG that could help them. Last year they also signed perennial bust Marcus Banks to a 5-year deal, which may come back to haunt them later.