With less than a week away, the NBA writers here @tjrsports have decided to provide our own prognostication on the upcoming season. Seeing as how there are three writers, we thought it would be best to break up amongst ourselves two divisions to preview before we begin down this magical road which commences with the NBA Finals in June. Luckily, I have drawn both the Pacific Division and the Northwest Division, the latter of which I will begin to preview here shortly.
To lay it out before I begin, my theory on previews consist of talking about the potential and future of each team accordingly, while giving a prediction of each team’s record for this season. I will commence with what I feel is the worst team and finish with who I think takes home the crown of being its’ divisional champion. Before wasting any more of your precious time, let’s jump into the debate of how the Northwest Division stacks up this season.
Utah Jazz (Last season: 43-39)
Roster additions: Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Trey Burke
Roster losses: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye, DeMarre Carroll, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson and Mo Williams
If you only gauged how a team is setting itself up to perform by solely staring at additions and losses, then the Utah Jazz would potentially be the front runner for the most inept team heading into the upcoming season.
Just stare at what one team who was only one win away or loss away from making the playoffs decided to part ways with during the offseason. Three starters, along with key reserve players like Mo Williams, are gone and the Jazz’ solution to losing all these pieces were to add names like Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins to their lineup.
With no potential insight into the Jazz front office and how they want to position themselves for the upcoming season, one would have to question the kind of team they have decided to put on the court this year. Most teams in the NBA recognize the disaster that is competing at a monotonous level, swaying on the edge of the playoffs each year with no potential chance to compete for a championship, so the architect for establishing or creating a roster susceptible to this point are starting to change course in the league.
The Jazz have recognized what they needed to do in order to compete for long term success in a conference loaded with supreme talent and multiple teams who believe they have a chance to compete for a championship. Utah has decided to build around its’ young core of Gordon Hayward, Enis Kanter and Derrick Favors and possibly find out what the future might have in store for this group of guys.
All three of these guys have shown signs of promise during stretches last season, but the ability of the Jazz to compete in games this season hinges upon Hayward’s ascension from above average role player to a more prominent role in the offense. His shooting from beyond the arc continues to improve, a trait most scouts and executives believed would occur, and Hayward has essentially been handed the keys to the Jazz’s car on that side of the floor. His ball handling needs some improvement, and being the featured offensive player will allow Hayward the chance to have the ball in his hands more often than he did last season.
The Utah Jazz are expectedly a few years away from being able to compete from a playoff spot, but what is key to their future is not where they finish this season. They need to focus on how to assemble the right pieces and coaching tools around their core of players under 27 years old. It will be a long season for Jazz’ fans this year, but if all else fails they can expect this young group of guys laden with old veteran presence to compete hard every night. Record: 25-57, 5th in Northwest
Denver Nuggets (Last season: 57-35)
Roster additions: Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson
Roster losses: Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos
The Denver Nuggets 2012-2013 campaign was a combination of a tenacity to get up and down the floor as much as humanly possible, a home-court advantage which played into said offensive philosophy by head coach George Karl and an understanding of what it meant to play together as a team which lacked a superstar.
Will history repeat itself once again this season, or is this version of the Denver Nuggets destined for a trip to next year’s lottery?
With George Karl out and Brian Shaw in, the philosophical differences in contrasting styles will surely become noticeable once their season begins. Let’s not get this confused: I have been a staunch supporter of Brian Shaw becoming a head coach in the NBA for a few years now and actually believed he would have been a great hire for the Lakers had they not hired Mike D’Antoni. What could have been a great hire for the Lakers has turned into a confusing hire for the team currently put together in Denver.
Shaw has always been under the mindset of slowing down the game and allowing opponents to play to their weaknesses on both sides of the court, allowing a Shaw coached team the opportunity to slow the pace of the game down and beat a team by playing smart, efficient basketball. Shaw has preached during the preseason about changing the speed of the offense and converting his team to a more prototypical half-court offense which allows the point guard to make keen decisions in navigating how controlled everyone on the court must be to increase the consistency of working as a team.
But, under George Karl, the Nuggets wanted to push the ball as much as possible, making opponents weary of getting back on defense as opposed to crashing the offensive glass against a team whose biggest weakness last season, as well as heading into this season, will be to control rebounding and the paint over a sustainable period of time. When you have players like Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and newly acquired Nate Robinson, being able to control their play on the court will be viewed as unforeseen and inadequate for this kind of roster.
I have always been under the NBA philosophy that you create or maintain an offensive and defensive system that will allow you to maximize your team’s potential throughout the season. Shaw’s offensive strategy, coupled with a lack of rebounding and low post presence on both ends of the court, could spell trouble in the Mile High city this season. Record: 37-45, 4th in Northwest
Minnesota Timberwolves (Last season: 31-51)
Roster additions: Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Ronny Turiaf
Roster losses: Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour, Brandon Roy, Greg Stiemsma
Not only do the Timberwolves get to live in one of the NBA’s coldest cities, but they also boast the two-time winner of the “White Guy” award in Kevin Love!
All kidding aside, frankly they were the only team in the NBA last season that could theoretically assemble a five man unit sans a black star and still be sufficient enough to warrant five white guys being on the floor together. But, this year’s team by all prognostications, if healthy, has built a roster who will be able to hold serve on a night in and night out basis regardless of which players are on the court.
What we first must recognize is this season solely rests on the shoulders, legs, arms and any other humanly body part staying healthy on both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Love, aforementioned as being the best NBA star at maximizing his limited natural ability, should be chomping at the bit to prove why his name should be regarded amongst his peers as one of the most gifted players to grace a basketball court this season.
Kevin Love is one of the best players to watch when he can maintain his health because of the way he plays the game. Starting at power forward, Love is unique in that he can find ways to either beat his defender from the outside with a variety of step backs and in your face knockdown three pointers or by using his given physical traits to work the low post and score from the inside. He has said in the past that he has crafted his game by studying Kevin McHale, who is hailed as one of the greatest low post players of all time. Love is the guy who needs to be on the court for 40 minutes a game and prove why, if healthy, has the potential to be an All Star caliber type player for years to come.
Coupled with Love, Ricky Rubio is set out on a mission as well to prove why he is one of the game’s top point guards and deserves to be mentioned in the class of a Chris Paul, Derrick Rose or Kyrie Irving. I’m not saying he is on their level yet, but what Rubio can do with the basketball in his hands is unlike anything we have seen in quite some time. His vision along with a high basketball IQ allows Rubio to see the game from a different perspective and he plays his game accordingly. His senses allow him to find the mismatch on the court or to find the open cutter at all possible times.
We have yet to mention some of the incumbents from last season, such as stud center Nikola Pekovic or the crafty point guard J.J. Barea, who along with newbies like Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer will find a home in head coach Rick Adelman’s offensive schemes. If this team can stay healthy, I can envision a trip to the playoffs for the Minnesota Timberwolves, which would be their first appearance since a man by the name of Kevin Garnett left town. Record: 44-38, 3rd in Northwest
Portland Trail Blazers (Last season: 33-49)
Roster additions: Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson
Roster losses: J.J. Hickson, Nolan Smith, Eric Maynor
In my opinion, there are only a select handful of home crowds who I would say “get it” in terms of inclusion, are fun to watch and whose significance can play a part in impacting the outcome of a basketball game.
With the roster currently assembled, I would expect nothing less of this crowd supporting one of the deeper teams in the league this year in the Portland Trail Blazers.
Just because a team is deep does not promise success, but the Trail Blazers have added and infused help across all areas of their basketball team and I expect these additions to provide a spark to a team already loaded with young talent.
Damian Lillard, now entering his second year, will be expected to replicate the outstanding numbers he had as a rookie last season and I can’t picture a scenario where that doesn’t happen. Fans in Portland had high hopes for Lillard last year and he surely did not disappoint. We know the league is starting to transform into a friendlier atmosphere for quicker, but smaller, guards to navigate through and have no trouble finding space to either create shots for themselves or for their teammates. The maturation of Lillard in season two will hinge upon his ability to create more looks and navigate his team in ways that he couldn’t last year. Lillard also has to improve upon his defense; because for all the scoring he is able to produce it renders itself useless if you can’t stop your opponent on the other end as well.
Whereas the growth of Lillard will be a key factor in how the Blazers season ends up, you also have your stalwart, LaMarcus Aldridge, returning in what is a huge year for him both statistically and contractually. Aldridge possesses a different kind of skill set for a player of his stature and has continued to improve or bring something new to the table each season. Aldridge is very nimble for a guy his size and his ability to both dribble out of double teams and improvement of playing with his back to the basket allows him to see the court more freely, thus allowing him to make quick decisions in regards to shooting or passing the basketball. Aldridge has carried the weight of the franchise on his shoulders for seven years, and this year will prove to be no different. If he can continue to stay healthy, then the Trail Blazers will find themselves in great position come playoff time. Record: 45-37, 2nd in Northwest
Oklahoma City Thunder (Last season: 60-22)
Roster additions: Steven Adams, Ryan Gomes
Roster losses: Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer, DeAndre Liggins
With so many question marks surrounding this team heading into the season, the real question remains where will this team find significant scoring beyond Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who is still sidelined by a torn meniscus and isn’t expected back any time before Christmas.
By choosing not to rehash the past and how inconceivable it still seems for the Thunder to have traded one of the top 15 players in the league in James Harden, but there is a real reason why you keep and covet those assets who can prove to be invaluable when the time is right. Westbrook’s injury opened the door for the rest of the Thunder roster surrounding Kevin Durant to step up and prove their value to the team. Only they didn’t prove much at all, barely surviving a defensively challenged and learning Houston Rockets team before being completely embarrassed and ousted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the playoffs last year.
Expected to replace Westbrook’s position in the time being is Reggie Jackson, who at times showed moments of true brilliance but also showed a lacked of maturity and inability to run the point guard position at an efficient rate. Yes, his ascension into the lineup came at an inconvenient time but his inconsistencies in controlling the ball and finding teammates at the right time is something for all Thunder players and fans to worry about heading into the first two months of the season. Not only that, but where are the Thunder planning on finding scoring beyond Durant this season? We have already touched on Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha has a hard time creating his own shot and only works best offensively when surrounded by players who can stretch the floor, allowing him to wander around the three point line aimlessly. Kendrick Perkins has always been challenged offensively, unless he is the one telling you so, and cannot find a way to consistently contribute to anything worth mentioning. Of all the starters, Serge Ibaka was expected to pick up some of the slack in Westbrook’s absence but his scoring average fluttered around the same numbers, regardless of Westbrook being out and having a more prominent role in the lineup. Ibaka has changed the dynamic of his game over the past two seasons, now insisting on becoming a more polished player with the ability to step out and knock down jumpers. The only problem with this concept reverts back to spacing, and the Thunder’s lack of creating sustainable space for their lone jump shooters creates problems for a guy like Ibaka who should not be allowed to cover any length of the court while maintaining his dribble.
Regardless of what has been mentioned, this team will come and go as the train of Kevin Durant sees fit. Durant’s game has started to undertake that of the game of his main counterpart, LeBron James. They are two totally different types of players, but the way Durant has begun going about scoring is reminiscent of the way James plays his game. If needed, Durant can create his own shot at will and can find a way to make any space on the court his to be found. Durant is one of those rare players who possesses all the tools you come to love from your superstar. He does his best to include his teammates as best he can, but needs to find the inner, controlled rage that separates the great ones from the best ones. If this team has any chance to make noise this postseason, it will only be because Durant has decided to play like a man possessed on achieving victory at any cost. Record: 53-29, 1st in Northwest