• Alec Liebsch

Burning Questions: Pacific Division

It’s crazy to think the 2020-21 season is right around the corner. Rosters are mostly set as the dust settles in free agency, and the league just released its schedule for the first half of the season.

With the new season comes a flurry of new stories to be written. Star power didn’t change hands as drastically this offseason as it did last, but plenty of teams reshaped themselves in preparation for the new year. They all have questions that need to be answered, either early in the season or at some point in their playoff pursuits.

Now we take a look at the Pacific, arguably the best division in basketball for the upcoming season.

Golden State Warriors: How much does Stephen Curry have left?

It's fair to say that Stephen Curry's best days are behind him, but only because his best days were so damn good. The two-time Most Valuable Player and three-time Champion had one of the best peaks in league history at the end of the 2010s, blending scoring volume and efficiency in ways that no guards before him ever had.

But Curry will turn 33 this season, and has not played an official game since last October. He was so dominant during the Warriors' dynasty that it didn't even feel like he was trying half the time. Having Kevin Durant for three years and Klay Thompson for five can lighten your load quite a bit, but Curry was still the alpha.

Now he has to be the omega too. Thompson won't play a minute this season thanks to a torn Achilles, and Durant is a member of the Brooklyn Nets. Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre will only be able to do so much. Curry is going to have to do some of the heaviest lifting of his career this season; how high can that model fly?

Los Angeles Clippers: Was last season a fluke?

Everything about last year's Clippers team screamed "championship contender." The starting lineup was really good, posting a plus-9.6 net rating, and then it got even better by swapping Maurice Harkless out for Marcus Morris. That quintet blitzed teams to the tune of a plus-22.1 net rating. They had the elite talent in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and a supporting cast that made sense.

But they just couldn't put it together in The Bubble. Reports surfaced of conditioning issues as they ramped up for a playoff run, and before that they barely even played together. Their most used lineup logged just over 210 minutes; the Denver Nuggets' regulars more than tripled that. That cohesion definitely mattered when the Nuggets climbed back from a 3-1 deficit, shocked the world and beat the Clippers.

With Leonard able to hit free agency as soon as next summer, this may be their last chance at a championship for a long time. Serge Ibaka was a vital mean towards that end, as he can space the floor and protect the rim—two things Montrezl Harrell was not known for.

The Clippers are really good. The label of a "second round exit" is knocking them down a peg in the league's landscape, and though it's not holistic given their roster, it is the reality. This LA team has a lot to prove.

Los Angeles Lakers: When does Anthony Davis become the best player?

The other LA team had the best of both worlds last year: it was dominant in the regular season and playoffs, finishing with the best record in the West and only losing 5 times during their championship run.

And during that run, the dyad of LeBron James and Anthony Davis alternated headline performances. James was the better overall player, but Davis had plenty of nights as The Man. And as The King ages, The Brow inches closer to his prime. The transition of power should be seamless, and it should come soon.

The front office is making Davis' life a lot easier too. Trading for Dennis Schröder gives the Lakers options: Davis can either be attached to James' minutes and maximize their partnership, or he can be Schröder's pick-and-roll pal in the non-James time to keep the bench unit from plummeting. Marc Gasol is a functional upgrade over JaVale McGee simply by being a better passer and spacer, and Montrezl Harrell takes the dirty work out of Davis' hands. The defending champs got markedly better, and are the favorites to win it all once more.

Phoenix Suns: Can Chris Paul do it again?

What a difference a year can make. After the Houston Rockets needed to attach draft picks to swap Paul for Russell Westbrook in 2019, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to flip Paul for useful players in 2020. Phoenix paid a pretty penny for the Point God: Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first round pick.

Paul's new team will need him a lot more than OKC did. The Suns have been in the league's gutter for too long, and their undefeated run in The Bubble was the catalyst for a new mandate: playoffs or bust.

There's a lot going their way. Devin Booker is the best player Paul has played with since James Harden, and Paul is the best point guard Booker's ever played with—even at age 35. Making their lives easier is a strong group of role players both young and old; every Mikal Bridges is supported by a Jae Crowder, and they all make a lot of sense around two high-usage guards.

A healthy Chris Paul, even at this stage of his career, jockeys with top-30 player territory. His natural fit with Booker and DeAndre Ayton should be enough to get them in the playoff bracket; a serious leap from either of them could reach the conference finals. It's just a matter of Paul staying healthy.

Sacramento Kings: Who's co-starring with De'Aaron Fox?

Sacramento's best player just got a lot more expensive. Starting next season, Fox begins a five-year max contract worth $163 million. The speedy point guard is probably worth it; he's far from the issue in Sac-town.

No, the Kings' issue is with everyone else. They have nothing to show from the last three offseasons in terms of legitimate franchise-raising moves. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are solid players on undesirable contracts, Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph aren't even solid, and Bogdan Bogdanovic is in Atlanta. Fox is the only proven contributor who is actually worth what he's paid.

The franchise should be counting its blessings with Haliburton. He was a surprising slide on draft day, expected to go mid-lottery but falling all the way to 12 where the Kings poached him. He racked up 25 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, seven steals and a plus-19 plus-minus in 86 preseason minutes. Preseason numbers tell very little of the future, but Haliburton's line up with his pre-draft strengths: a playmaker on both ends who isn't the first option for either, but very good in a secondary role. He will make the Kings better.

But unless Marvin Bagley III gets demonstrably better in a shortened offseason Fox and (possibly) Haliburton are all the Kings have.