NBA 2023 Pacific Division Preview

Integrating Paul, A better well-rounded Lakers, Health with the Clippers, How will it work with the Suns & the season after the jump from Sacramento

Simply Ballin
15 min readOct 12, 2023

The NBA season is almost here. It’s that time of year when it’s so close that you just can’t wait for it to start because it’s been far too long now without NBA basketball.

So, for the next week or so, here are the division previews. In each preview, I’ll be going through some of the main questions for each team and discussing what’s in store in the upcoming season.

Today, we’re going through the Pacific division.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors’ off-season was rather unexpected. I don’t know how many people could’ve predicted that we’re going to see Chris Paul and Stephen Curry be on the court together — imagine saying that in 2015.

But they needed some changes, some improvements. That was clear in the playoffs where they went to a game seven against the Sacramento Kings and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six in the second round.

The big change was getting Paul but that’s about it. Everything else remains the same. Some other new players are rookie Brandin Podziemkski, Cory Joseph, Rudy Gay, and Dario Saric.

Is that enough to get them back to the finals?

  • What does adding Paul look like?
  • How big of a change is this going to be for everyone?
  • Can their defense bounce back?
  • Is there enough juice from everyone for another run?

When you think about the Warriors’ offense, you think about the constant movement, the cutting, post-split actions, and the fast pace. Well, when you think about Paul, it’s the complete opposite.

The Warriors had the lowest average dribble per touch with 2.02 and the lowest average second per touch with 2.72. Paul’s stats for that was 4.79 and 5.59. For comparison, Curry is 4.18 and 4.39.

The offensive pace for the Warriors with Curry on was 13.48. The offensive pace for the Phoenix Suns with Paul on was 15.09. That’s the difference between the fastest team in the league(Sacramento Kings led the league with 13.76) and the 26th slowest team. That’s a significant change.

I don’t expect either side to completely tailor to the other. There’s likely to be some balance between playing fast and playing methodically with slowing down the pace.

In addition to pace, their play types and how they go about their half-court offense will also have to change. The Warriors were 28th in pick-and-roll frequency with Curry having at 30%. Do you know what Paul’s is? 56%, which leads the league. Expect there to be a lot more PnRs.

But that can still all work. The reason they don’t have this offense is because everyone is suited for that type of offense, especially when it’s led by their best player. They never had a point guard like Paul who is a master at the PnR game. I do think their offense has the potential to be significantly better because of this added versatility. They’re able to switch through how they play on offense.

Though that is dependent on Paul himself. He also needs to buy into their system, which is probably going to be tougher than it’s said. Since 2014, Paul’s average time with the ball in his hands is 50% of the time. Even his lowest in 2020 was 39%. That would be Curry’s highest by 2% since Steve Kerr arrived.

Again that could work with this team and players only if Paul is himself, but that’s going to be tough to predict.

He has already seen a decline in the things that he does well. His passing stats have, specifically he had an F grade in passing creation quality(drop off from A- last year). His work as a PnR guy also dropped, scoring 0.912 PPP(60th %ile), down from 0.993(83rd) the year before. That’s mostly due to his shot falling off in the mid-range and that matters when he’s arguably the worst guard at generating rim pressure.

This could backfire on the Warriors and I also wouldn’t be surprised if their ceiling with him isn’t that great.

Because there are still other issues with this team. As noted with Paul, he’s not getting to the rim, so who’s going to do that? But as many questions as they can have on offense, it’s the defensive end that has the biggest question mark.

In 2022 when they won a title, they were 17th on offense and had the best defense. This year, their offense went to 8th but dropped to 17th on defense. This was the worst defense they had relative to average since 2013(not counting 2020). The year they won, they had a defense of 5.1 points better than average — that’s the best in the whole Kerr era.

Pre-Kevin Durant Warriors and even during it, they had elite defense that was regularly 4 points better than average(you also add an offense that was over 6 points better too. But now, the offense has slipped significantly and they have to make up on defense… and that also has slipped now too. And I’m not sure if they addressed that.

The Warriors have a lot of things that hinge on things that may not happen. Whether that’s the defense picking up again, Paul staying healthy and effective, and the offensive changes being effective.

But at the same time, with the main trio on — Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson — they were plus 8.0 in 1089 minutes. That was also plus 4.9 in 249 minutes in the playoffs. It’s tough to bet against a core that has had more success than anyone else since 2015, especially when they still have Curry who is somehow still a top-3 player, and Green who is a top-3 defender. You add Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins and I can see myself buying into them.

Overall, there are a lot of questions with this team on both ends of the floor. In a vacuum, I can see myself being lower on them but they have Curry. At this point, that’s enough for me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Los Angeles Clippers

As it is in each season with the Clippers, health has been their main issue. It’s tough to see what the team is capable of when there isn’t a big enough sample to get a feel of anything. There’s only so much you can take away from a couple of series.

Sure, they may not have had much success when they were playing in the bubble, blowing a 3–1 lead but that was so many years ago and since then, they have yet to be fully healthy in any of the seasons.

A lot of the talk surrounding the Clippers seems to be all about the potential and how things could work. We have a good idea of why and how could work but until that happens, it’s all on paper.

  • Will they trade for James Harden or make any other moves?
  • Can both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George stay healthy?
  • Can they improve on the defensive end?

Before the season starts, there’s one big question. Will they end up trading for Harden? They have been rumored to get Jrue Holiday when he was on the move and now it seems they’re back on Harden.

I would’ve loved a Holiday with the Clippers. I also like Harden there too. There’s been talks about getting a point guard for ages(and now they seem to have settled on Russell Westbrook).

I think that makes sense from looking at the type of ball handlers they had since 2020 — Reggie Jackson, Lou Williams, Rajon Rondo, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, and Westbrook.

Having an actual ball handler who is a threat to get to the rim, can effectively handle the ball, be a threat from 3, and be a good passer is needed when the two best players are wing players that you’d want to be doing damage elsewhere.

That could work with Harden. And with what they would give up for him, that would make them better and improve their ceiling.

But we don’t know if that’s going to happen or how likely it is, so the assumption is that they will go into the season with this current roster.

And with that lies the second big question. Will we finally see both Leonard and George on the court together for more than half the season?

This year, they played in 38 games — the Clippers were plus 3.5 in 1849 minutes. That number goes up to plus 8.0 in 996 minutes with both on.

We have past evidence that when they’re healthy and on the court together, they’re elite:

  • 2023 regular season: plus 8 in 996 min
  • 2021 regular season: plus 17 in 1028 min
  • 2021 playoffs: plus 1 in 363 min
  • 2020 regular season: plus 13 in 891 min
  • 2020 playoffs: plus 2 in 385 min

Though it’s kind of concerning to see their net rating be significantly lower in the playoffs. But again, this could just be a small sample size. This year was the fewest games that they played together(regular season and playoffs combined)

  • 2020: 40
  • 2021: 54
  • 2023: 38

Maybe this is the year it finally falls right because if they can be healthy, I do think they have the chance to make the finals. Leonard is that good. George is another top-20 caliber player. They have plenty of good pieces around them.

But I do have one concern. Can they improve on defense? For the season, they were 18th. Since January 1st, they were 22nd. Post All-Star break, they were 20th. Their defense got worse and worse as the year went on.

Good teams don’t let that happen. You can’t have a bottom-10 defense and go far in the playoffs. This could be a blip, as this was the worst defense relative to average that they had since 2020 and they’ve been great in all three previous seasons.

Overall, there’s not much to say about the Clippers until we see that they actually are healthy. They’ve kept the team the same. Whatever questions they had or still have can only be addressed once we see a fully healthy Leonard and George.

Los Angeles Lakers

I have to give credit to the Lakers. They did one hell of a job turning this team around. After winning a championship, they had an unfortunate couple of seasons.

That 2021 was a mess. 2022 was even worse with them not making the playoffs. 2023 was looking to be more of the same until they made significant moves to turn their season around.

I remember at one point there were conversations about the New Orleans Pelicans potentially getting a high pick because of their swap. There was a time when the Pelicans had a chance to end up with a number one overall pick.

The Lakers started the season 2–10. They never were .500 on March 24th. Right until the deadline they had a 25–31 record. They were bad and they wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

That all changed with a few moves here and there. Acquiring D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Rui Hachimura was enough to turn their season around.

Post-trade deadline, they had the seventh-best net rating with plus 5.2 in that span. Eventually, they were able to make the conference finals — though that was an easy sweep. But not bad for a team that was six games under .500 in February.

But with more time with this group, other off-season additions, and some growth from players, is that enough to be even better?

  • Is this the best all-around team since the championship?
  • Will age finally catch up with James?
  • How will every other piece look?
  • Can they be a top-5 defense?

I do like this team a lot. They have many, many good pieces that round this team up. Also, an interesting tidbit, outside of Gabe Vincent who’s 6’3, everyone else in the rotation is quite tall for their position. You have both Russell and Reaves at 6’4 as a guard. Hachimura, Christian Wood, Vanderbilt, and Taurean Prince are all at 6’7 or taller.

But because of so many pieces, I wonder how that will work practically. What’s Wood going to look like? Is he playing most of the minutes with Anthony Davis? Is he their backup big?

Who’s going to be the starting point guard? Will Vincent work as a starter or with Russell?

Will Vanderbilt have a bigger role even if he continues to be a non-shooting threat?

Will we see Reaves take a bigger role? Post deadline, Reaves averaged almost 20 points per 75 possessions on 66% eFG and 74% TS with 41% of his 2s being assisted and 73% of his 3s. These numbers remain the same, except with fewer assisted shots without James.

So many fun questions with everyone.

But one question I have that may make this well-rounded team less special is how about James? It feels weird to think that James is kind of the biggest question mark here, but he is going to be 39 years old entering his 21st season. There’s not a single player in the history of the sport to be this dominant at this stage of someone’s career.

He’s already shown signs of decline. He’s shown that he can be gassed in the playoffs. All of his splits are disgusting in the fourth quarter. This isn’t the same James anymore. Obviously, the IQ and his feel will never change, but there are signs that he just can’t do what he’s always done. There’s a reason why he’s shooting more or why more of his shots are assisted.

I definitely don’t think he’s capable of performing at a high level consistently throughout the season and being fresh for the playoffs. Something has got to give. I still won’t bet against James in any given series, but I think we have reached a point where he’s not capable of reaching the extra gear whenever the team needs it.

Finally, that could matter less if they continue to be the best defense. Post-deadline, that’s what they were. And in the playoffs, Davis stepped up to be one of the best defensive players. That all could happen again, and if they’re led by their defense, I can see them be a dangerous team come playoff time.

Phoenix Suns

And I thought we were done with assembling multiple guys making huge money. I was a fan of the trade for Kevin Durant at the deadline. The picks didn’t matter to me and trading both Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for a player like Durant will mean getting better.

But then they decided to go even crazier in the off-season by trading for Bradley Beal. And then swapped Deandre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkic. And then got a whole bunch of different players for their bench.

Whew. That was a lot of moves in a span of a few months.

Are all those moves worth it though? After losing to the Nuggets in a not-so-close series, is this all enough to make them better?

  • How will all of the new pieces work together?
  • Are Beal and Nurkic enough to raise their ceiling?
  • Are they still too mid-rangey?
  • What about their defense?

The first question is figuring out how all of this will work. You’re putting three players that are all kind of similar to one another in what they do and their skills.

Here are some stats compared to other on-ball players:

All are very similar, particularly with their on-ball percentage, their rim pressure, and how they get their points. This isn’t a conversation about that there’s only one ball type of thing. This is more who’s doing what. According to BBall-Index, all have been put into either a slasher or a shot creator role.

These aren’t ball handlers or passers. There’s a reason why all of them have done better with a point guard.

Who even is the point guard? Are they all just taking turns handling the ball? Outside of Durant, those passing grades aren’t really good.

That’s where I don’t see what the difference maker is with Beal. What is he providing that the Suns clearly needed in the Nuggets series?

That also leads to the second point which is about their shot distribution. We know they’re going to be relying a lot on jump shots from the mid-range and have very little rim pressure — but that matters a lot. Rim pressure does matter a lot.

And it’s funny that with both Booker and Durant on, against the Nuggets, they shot 57% from 2pt and 37% from 3. They had a 56% eFG. They hit their shots. They were shooting 51% and 54% in the mid-range.

They shot exceptionally well from all the hooper spots and still had a 115.1 offense and were minus 9.8. That’s tough to either replicate or get better at. The only way to get better is to change what they were doing.

Then there’s the whole swapping Ayton for Nurkic. Not sure how to feel about that. Ayton is a better player on both ends and I think come playoff time, that’s going to hurt having Nurkic.

Their defense was an issue in the playoffs and will that even be better? Back in Golden State, Durant was doing a good job on that end but this is going to be a 35-year-old. Sure, Booker has improved on defense but he’s not a game changer.

Overall, they clearly have the talent. I also think depth issues are overrated. But they still have quite a few questions when it comes to making this work on offense in the first place. And changing the offense to not be relying on the mid-range so much. Finally, I saw what the defensive ceiling could be.

Sacramento Kings

Who predicted this from the Kings? When they made the trade for Domantas Sabonis last year, they only had 15 games with him and they still did poorly after the deadline. Now, it was obvious that they were going to improve with a full season with him, but like this?

This was a significant leap across the board. And somehow, they turned into the most efficient in the league. Though it wasn’t one of the best offenses ever surprisingly. When it came to relative to average, their offense would’ve only ranked 60th.

Regardless, they have blossomed into one of the best offenses in the league. But there are questions when it comes to that continuing and other issues they may have that need to be addressed to put them in the upper tier of teams.

  • Can they continue with this elite offense?
  • What jumps can we see from De’Aaron Fox and Sabonis?
  • What kind of improvements are there on defense?
  • What’s the year after the jump looking like?

Their offense felt awfully familiar. If you were watching the Miami Heat in 2020, you may have noticed that this was basically that. A lot of movement, cutting, great spacing, dribble-handoffs, a perimeter player getting to the rim, and historic shooting.

I don’t think there’s going to be much of a drop-off similar to what happened with the Heat. They have plenty of high-volume shooters that have a history of being shooters. Plus, I do think they’re more suited offensively than the Heat were back then too, so it won’t be easily scouted against.

With both Sabonis and Fox, they had a 123.7 offense in 1643 minutes with 37% from 3. They didn’t have wild 3-point noise. They were just great everywhere. They shot almost 60% from 2! They got to the rim, got to the paint, low long mid-range attempts but efficient. No area was inefficient.

As good as they were all-around with their scheme and shooting, all of it started with those two. Here are their stats compared to on-ball players:

Those are pretty elite numbers, especially when it’s as a duo that can complement one another. There are some clear limitations — the shooting, the passing not being as elite, and mid-range for Sabonis.

They are still both young enough to think that they’re still getting better and if that happens, then the the team’s offensive ceiling goes up even higher.

Though that’s just the offense. They were 25th on defense. That’s not good. That’s nowhere near good enough if they want to make a deep playoff run. Their leap on offense is what allowed them to have success in the regular season, but they need more on the other end. And that will be the key question if they want to have more success deeper in the playoffs.

But I wonder if that’s even possible with this current group. They did bring back pretty much the same group, so there’s only so much improvement that they can have on that end. They made that jump last year. They won’t be the unknown surprise again. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some drop-off from them.