My season previews continue to march along. This time I stop at the Northwest Division of the Western Conference, home to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Denver Nuggets.
Portland Trail Blazers (57)
The Portland Trail Blazers once again look prime for another competitive season in the Western Conference. The dynamic point guard/power forward duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge should be even better this season which means that the Trail Blazers themselves should be better. In addition, due to the injury of Kevin Durant and the impending fall of the Thunder in the regular season standings, I expect the Trail Blazers to step up and win the Northwest Division.
The only real knock on the Trail Blazers is that they didn't add anybody of significance to their roster. They lost point guard Mo Williams to the Timberwolves and added center Chris Kaman. Kaman still has some gas left in the tank and should be able to give them around 10 points and 6 rebounds per game off the bench, which is solid production for a reserve, but nothing to write home about.
One player who might be worth keeping an eye on is Allen Crabbe, a second year shooting guard out of the University of California, Berkeley, which is where I go to school. Crabbe was an early second round pick in the 2013 draft and figures to be a key member of this team in the future. If Crabbe has a breakout year of sorts, that would be a huge boost to this Trail Blazers team.
The Trail Blazers have the making of a team that should win the Northwest Division and clinch home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They might even clinch the #2 seed. Does that mean I think they threaten to reach the NBA Finals?
Perhaps, but the playoffs is a different ball game. I expect the Thunder to be lurking with a healthy Kevin Durant come playoff time and I would have to pick the Thunder as more likely to come out of the West even if the Trail Blazers had home court advantage over them. Plus, the Spurs are a vastly superior team to the Trail Blazers at this point.
But with that all being said, that doesn't mean the Trail Blazers won't be dangerous and it doesn't mean they aren't contenders. If I am picking a team to win a division, then I have to consider that team a "contender".
Oklahoma City Thunder (54)
The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a significant blow when they found out that Kevin Durant would miss the first 8-12 weeks of the regular season with a Jones fracture to his foot. However, the injury to Durant doesn't mean that the Thunder are heading to the cellar or out of the championship picture.
The main reason why is because they have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to carry the load until Kevin Durant gets back. Westbrook and Ibaka couldn't carry the load for the full season, but they can do it through Christmastime.
The biggest question mark I have about this Thunder team is their head coach Scott Brooks. I'm still not convinced he's the guy to lead them to the promised land. The team has been wise to keep him unless they can get a really good replacement for him, but at some point the team does have to consider going in a different direction if they cannot win a championship.
As good as the Spurs are, the Thunder should be able to compete with them and take them out just by looking at their players. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are arguably the two best players in the entire Western Conference. That means that they should be favored to win every playoff series they have in the Western Conference playoffs.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich out-coached Scott Brooks in the Western Conference Finals last year and that made the difference in the series. The Thunder obviously cannot go out and get Gregg Popovich, but they can go out and try to find a different coach to help close that gap. Avery Johnson, George Karl, Jerry Sloan, and Doug Collins are all available coaches who I think would take up the chance to coach this team if asked. Lastly, I as I mentioned in my preview of the Trail Blazers, I don't think the Thunder win the Northwest division, but I still think they are the biggest threat to the Spurs in the Western Conference.
Denver Nuggets (41)
The Denver Nuggets should be improved with the return of JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari, but even with them healthy, they will struggle to crack .500. The biggest problem for the Nuggets is that the Western Conference is really deep and they still lack a real definitive star. Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and Arron Afflalo are all on the cusp of being the kind of star that the Nuggets need, but I'm not sure any of those three guys gets there this season.
Arron Afflalo is coming off his best season with the Magic, averaging 18.2 points per game; Ty Lawson is coming off his best season with the Nuggets, averaging 17.6 points and 8.8 assists per game; and Kenneth Faried is also coming off his best season with the Nuggets, averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
The main thing to understand about this Nuggets team is that they are building themselves into a team that will be able to compete in the playoffs, but they won't get there this season. The key thing for their head coach Brian Shaw to do is get them to continue to play unselfishly and as a team. They have the depth and the breadth of talent to give a lot of teams trouble, but they lack a legitimate superstar to take over games in the clutch. If Lawson, Afflalo, or Faried can become a legitimate superstar this season, the Nuggets may be looking at winning around 50 games. But at the moment, I see them as a .500 team.
Minnesota Timberwolves (36)
The Minnesota Timberwolves are in for a really interesting and exciting season. They traded Kevin Love to the Cavaliers and got back Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and Anthony Bennett who all should form a nice young core to build around for the future. In addition, they drafted Zach LaVine out of UCLA and Glen Robinson III out of Michigan while also picking up Mo Williams. The team itself looks to be promising and certainly capable of entertaining fans across the NBA.
The most important player on this team in my opinion is Gorgui Dieng since he has the potential to make the Timberwolves forget about Kevin Love for good. As a big man he can score, rebound, and play defense which is Kevin Love's biggest weakness. If he can come close to scoring and rebounding like Kevin Love while also playing fantastic defense, Dieng will be an upgrade from Love in the post.
The other really important player on this team is Ricky Rubio who is reportedly on the cusp of a 4 year, $52M extension. If he gets that extension, he better produce. He can pass the ball and defend really well, but his shot is still terrible. If he isn't able to score with more regularity and improve his shot, he could end of hurting the Timberwolves and their overall growth as opposed to helping them.
Overall, I like this Timberwolves team. They have a solid pass first point guard in Ricky Rubio, a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins, a really nice shooting guard in Kevin Martin, a solid front court with Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic, and some nice reserves. The problem they have is similar to the Nuggets: The West is really really tough and they are young.
However, unlike the Nuggets, the Timberwolves have good reason to believe they have a future superstar on their hands in Andrew Wiggins. They just need to be patient and let him develop without expecting too much from him right away.
Utah Jazz (30)
The Utah Jazz are also in for an interesting season, but I'm not sure I would call it "exciting". They have a lot of young pieces with Trey Burke at point guard, Dante Exum as a combo guard, Alec Burks at shooting guard, Gordon Hayward at small forward, and Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter in the paint.
All of these players are expected to be really good in the future, but right now they are still a work in progress. The concern for the Jazz is that we've been saying this for the last three years, and it's time that these young guys step up. Namely Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks.
The Jazz front office is doing all they can to put together a competitive team, but now it's time for the players to show that they are worth the investment. Hayward especially has a lot of pressure on him since he signed a lucrative max contract this summer to stay with the team. The Jazz didn't pay him that money to be a role player. They paid him that money to be a leader and a star on this team.
Similar expectations are also on Derrick Favors, who many have compared to a young Karl Malone. So far, he isn't looking like the second coming of the Mailman. He looks like the second coming of Joe Smith, only worse. Smith at least had a couple of really productive seasons in the NBA before becoming an average NBA power forward. Favors is yet to have one.
The good news about Favors is that he keeps getting better. He averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds last season which was an upgrade from the year before in which he averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Still, he hasn't yet backed up the hype. He needs to take an even bigger jump this season and average around 18 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Utah's rookie head coach Quin Snyder will have his work cut out for him and have his label as a "player development" coach put to the test. He has a lot of interesting pieces to work with, but it isn't at all clear how they should fit together. Look for the Jazz to be improved from last season, but nothing close to being a playoff team.
---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord