Northwest Division Preview

Kevin Durant’s Thunder are the favorite to win a competitive Northwest division.

Denver Nuggets

If your team were to win almost 60% of it’s games in any league you’d probably be pretty happy. You’d probably make tweaks to get over the hump and count on some internal growth to move the team forward. That would not be the method the Denver Nuggets have chosen. After a 57-25 season the Nuggets suffered their 4th straight first round defeat and their 9th first round playoff exit in the last 10 years. George Karl – gone, exec of the year Msai Ujiri? gone, team VIP and expected replacement to Ujiri Pete D’Alessandro? Gone. Andre Iguodola, arguably the best player, Gone. If ever there was an example of what happens when you’re mid pack in the NBA the Nuggets house cleaning was a brutal reminder that in the NBA if you’re not at the top you’re likely not getting their without an extreme makeover. Brian Shaw enters the mix as a highly touted head coach but in a star based league moving away from Karl’s team based approach will mean the Nuggets need talent in order to take a next step. Ty Lawson will man the point and will be counted on to distribute while improving on his shooting from a year ago. Lawson is solid if nothing else and gives the Nuggets a somewhat professional look in running the floor. Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and Andre Miller are capable with some ability to contribute at the 2 as well. Lawson very much looked like a potential next step player in the playoffs so will get the opportunity to show that he can perform. Foye, Miller, Robinson, and Evan Fournier will play the 2 in rotation along with Lawson slotting over. The variable nature of this backcourt will be a strength and a weakness depending on how well Shaw can handle the rotation and sets. The swingmen will be Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler with Kenneth Faried, JJ Hickson, and JaVale McGee in rotation up front depending on the lineup size. Expect J.J. Hickson to have a positive impact on the team’s rebounding and to see some small ball rotations where Chandler plays an untraditional 4 as well. The biggest obstacle the Nuggets will face is that fundamentally they’re a team of nice complimentary pieces that all lack a significant piece of game. The guards are solid but there’s no guarantee that any of these guys could knock down 20 points for more than 2 weeks at a time. In the front court there’s little defensive presence and JaVale McGee is a risk as the team’s lone true big. The Nuggets are a team that big men can dominate and teams with good backcourt shooters can torch. I can see Denver making the playoffs in the bottom part of the bracket but not much more. This is a dangerous type of NBA team where within 2 years they could be a decent 4 or 5 seed or they could have to continue deleting pieces and go into a full rebuild. There’s not much room for an in between and little chance this team contends in 2013/14 or for the next 2 seasons. (Michael Bedard)

Brian Shaw finally gets his head coaching chance in Denver.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves have a ton of talent but never seem to be able to stay healthy. They have one of the best power forwards and an up coming point guard that should have them in the Western Conference playoff race. Kevin Love is a double-double machine who commands double teams in the post. Ricky Rubio is a pass first point guard who has amazing ball handling skills and makes highlight assists. Nikola Pekovic is a nice compliment to Love in the middle and provides a scoring threat and defensive presence. Minnesota signed Kevin Martin to be their shooting guard and three point threat on the perimeter. Derrick Williams, Shabazz Muhammad and J.J. Barea all can provide a scoring punch off the bench. Health is a big question mark, but if they can stay upright the T-Wolves could compete for the 7th or 8th spot. (Scott Boutcher)

Kevin Love is a double-double threat every night, but he must stay healthy for the Timberwolves to compete for a playoff spot.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Before losing to the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals Oklahoma City had a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.  Since then it’s been mostly down hill.  The team lost four straight games to close out that season and last year the top seeded Thunder failed to win a playoff series after Russel Westbrook went down with a knee injury.  Westbrook is still hurt and expected back with the first six weeks of the season but the questions remain.  First where will the Thunder be when he returns and also how effective will he be upon his return to the court.  Kevin Durant has been a dominant scorer the last few seasons and were he not playing in last era as Lebron, we could be discussing him as the best player in the league.  He will need to keep up the scoring while his sidekick gets healthy.  The Thunder should return to the playoffs but may not be deep enough to compete for a title. (Glenn Coyle)

Russell Westbrook’s impact will be missed for the first six weeks.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers are one of those teams that seem to be turning the corner and have a decent chance to make the playoffs this season. They finished 33-49 last season and 11th in the West under Head Coach Terry Stotts. Their biggest problem came from the bench as it averaged just 17.3 points a game, the lowest in the league. They bolstered their bench in the offseason acquiring C.J. McCollum from Lehigh, EJ Singler from Oregon and Allen Crabbe from California. They also acquired Thomas Robinson via trade as well as Mo Williams and Robin Lopez through free agency. Meyers Leonard and Will Barton, last year’s draft picks are still developing as well, but it would appear that their bench should be significantly better this season and Portland hopes with this current roster, that it should be enough to be a playoff team in the West. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are among the top players in the NBA.  Portland’s weakness comes in that they lost J.J. Hickson, who averaged more than 10 rebounds a game and they were 24th in rebounding as it was, and replaced him with a weaker player in Robin Lopez. Another problem is that guys like Lillard, McCollum and Mo Williams all like shooting a lot and if other players feel they’re not getting enough shots, that could be a distraction. They need their bench to play better and their young guys to develop. If that happens, I believe Portland will make the playoffs this year–probably as a 7 seed or so. (Dan Sohler)

C.J. Mccollum needs to make an impact at shooting guard after returning from a broken foot.

Utah Jazz

The Jazz are clearly in rebuilding mode, but they are adding some nice pieces. Two of their young front court guys will get to shine after Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson left in free agency. Enes Kanter will man the middle and can be an offensive threat and a decent defender. Derrick Favors has a lot to prove after signing a four-year contract extension in the off season. The Jazz traded for the 9th pick to acquire what they hope is their future point guard. Trey Burke was an outstanding scorer at Michigan and should be able to score and run an offense at the next level. They have Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and former first round pick Marvin Williams to help the young guys grow and learn the game. The Jazz have some pieces but are still a few years from competing for the playoffs. (Scott Boutcher)

With Jefferson and Millsap leaving in free agency, Derrick Favors is the go to guy down low.

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