Greetings! In a bit of a break from the pure coverage of Atlanta sports, we’ve decided to fire up a genuine NBA preview for the 2013-2014 season. For the next 10 days or so, there will be previews of all 6 divisions unveiled, and that preview series will conclude with some playoff predictions, awards, and more. Today, the Northwest division grabs the spotlight, so here we go!
- Oklahoma City Thunder (53-29) - In fairness to the Zombie Sonics (their given name in this space), their record and place among the West’s elite would be significantly better if not for the lingering injury concerns of Russell Westbrook. Their point guard and 2nd-best player (one of the best 12 players in the league) will miss 4-6 weeks of regular season time with the knee that cost him last year’s playoffs, and that’s a major concern. Alas, OKC is still blessed with Kevin Durant, and that alone is enough to propel them to the division title. Durant is the consensus #2 player in the entire NBA (behind Lebron James), and his 51/42/91 shooting percentages from 2012-13 place him among the best and most efficient scorers of all-time. The Zombies will be turning to Reggie Jackson in place of Westbrook, and there will be an increased role for the young point guard from BC even after Westbrook returns, as Kevin Martin has moved on and the unproven Jeremy Lamb is penciled-in for shooting guard minutes. Up front, Serge Ibaka is strong, but I’d like to see a lot more of Nick Collison than a return of Kendrick Perkins to prominent minutes. All in all, Oklahoma City is a talented team, but a 53-win projection puts considerable faith in Westbrook returning to full health and explosion sooner rather than later.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36) – Well, this is a new one. I don’t know if the T-Wolves are the consensus pick for this spot in the standings, but for me, it was a bit of a no-brainer. Kevin Love is back and healthy, and the last time we saw Love at full strength, he averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game in 2011-2012. In short, he’s a monster. In the backcourt, Ricky Rubio is one of my man-crushes and his court vision is second-to-none in today’s NBA. Rubio is also a plus-defender at the point guard spot, which should take some focus off of the defensive limitations of his new backcourt mate in Kevin Martin. I love the fit of those 2 players together, and with Love and the newly re-signed Nikola Pekovic up front, this is a loaded roster. The key to Minnesota making a “leap” could be Derrick Williams, though, and the jury is still firmly out on the former #2 overall pick. Indications are that Williams will be playing to his own strengths this season, and gone are the days where he was penciled-in next to Love in a permanent role. Depth is suddenly a strength for Minnesota as well, as Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer, and Alexey Shved provide multiple options on the perimeter in addition to Williams and Martin. I love this team, and if everything comes together (combined with health), 46 wins will be too low.
- Denver Nuggets (42-40) – After a 57-win campaign, this projection seems shockingly low, but when you look at the roster, I don’t believe that I’m on a limb here. Andre Iguodala isn’t walking through the door (copyright, Rick Pitino) in Denver, and 2nd-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is nowhere close to returning to the court. The cupboard is far from bare, however, as Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried headline what is still a talented group, but with no “star” and a sudden lack of depth, things could get hairy. I love the energy that Lawson and Faried provide, but new coach Brian Shaw isn’t going to run like George Karl did, and while that helps the defense (for sure), it may hamper their numbers and production. JaVale McGee is back, this time as the starting center, and the spotlight is even brighter on the 25-year-old big man to finally make a leap of sorts. Forgive me if I don’t believe that any leap is coming, though, and there is also a massive hole on the perimeter in the absence of “Gallo” and Iguodala. I don’t see the Nuggets fully imploding, but this is no longer a guaranteed playoff team.
- Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) – I almost feel bad for the Blazers. Their injury luck has a track record of being miserable, and this year started in that same vein, with rookie lottery pick CJ McCollum breaking his foot before the season even began. Fortunately for Portland, they’ve established depth (wait, depth in Portland?!) at the point guard spot with the signing of Mo Williams, and that should mitigate the damage. It’s hard not to like the “core” of the Blazers, as they can trot out All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and 2nd-year stud PG Damian Lillard every night. Aldridge averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds per game last season despite some injury issues, while Lillard appeared in all 82 games (averaging nearly 39 minutes per contest) and averaged 19 points as a rookie. The talent is definitely there in Portland, and with the always-interesting Nic Batum flanked by JJ Hickson (who was quietly good last year) and Wes Matthews, the roster is there. In 2012-13, the bench was a flaming disaster, but the aforementioned Williams combining with Thomas Robinson (who I absolutely love), Robin Lopez, and Dorell Wright, this is a legitimate roster again. If injury luck rebounds (and it almost has to), Portland could challenge for the playoffs.
- Utah Jazz (25-57) – Yikes. Remember when the Jazz were fixtures in the NBA playoffs? It seems like a lifetime ago at this point, and Utah has made a calculated attempt to “bottom out” this season. Gone are Al Jefferson (to Charlotte) and Paul Millsap (who the Hawks gladly snapped up), and they didn’t get anything in return for either of their stud big men. Instead, Utah is building around guys like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter up front, with rookie Trey Burke and young wing Alec Burks on the perimeter. Unfortunately, the team’s lottery pick from 2013, the aforementioned Trey Burke from Michigan, broke his finger in training camp, and he’s expected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season (at minimum). It almost doesn’t matter as far as on-court performance for Utah, and the Jazz are clearly in tank mode with a reasonable effort to develop their young talent. Guys like Gordon Heyward and the Kanter/Favors duo will make them semi-competitive, but it’s clear they aren’t trying to win many games in 2013-2014.
There you have it! Check back with us for part 2, when we glance at the Pacific division of the Western Conference.