The Northwest division looks to be very competitive this season, after Oklahoma City. Potentially, all five teams will be competing for playoff spots this year in a difficult Western Conference. Portland and Minnesota are looking to take the next step and make the playoffs. Utah is in a rebuilding stage, but has a lot of talent, especially in the front court. After a great season last year, the Nuggets will probably take a step back, but they also have a lot of young talent and a new bright head coach.
1) Oklahoma City Thunder*
The Oklahoma City Thunder are major contenders this year to reach the NBA Finals and dethrone the Heat. However, there are a lot of questions with the Thunder as they are very young and attempting to ingrate new players into their rotation. The Thunder will have a great chance to succeed this season because of their star power. Led by All-NBA players Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the Thunder can defeat anyone in the league. However, Russell Westbrook needs to be able to return and play at a high level, if the Thunder are going to meet expectations. As seen last year in the postseason, the Thunder are not the same team without Russell Westbrook on the floor. Another X-Factor for Oklahoma City will be Serge Ibaka. The man they call Dr. Nasty must step up and perform at an All-Star level, if the Thunder are going to dethrone the Heat. There is a lot of pressure on Ibaka because the Thunder decided to keep him, instead of James Harden. Although Sam Presi does not make many mistakes, the James Harden trade will go down as one of the biggest blunders in NBA history, unless Jeremy Lamb or Steven Adams become major contributors in the next few years. Although Russell will be missing a majority of the first two months of the season, the Thunder will definitely win the division. This year, none of the other teams pose any true threat to the team. However, the Thunder need to remain a quality record without Westbrook. As seen in the past few postseasons, home court advantage is incredibly important and necessary for teams with title aspirations. Although the Thunder are a small market franchise, I would make an attempt to acquire a top player during the trade deadline. In my opinion, the Thunder are still one player away from winning the Larry O Brian trophy, even with the addition of Westbrook. If I was Sam Presi, I would attempt to make a deal for either LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love. Although neither are able to lead their teams to a title, they are both All-Star players and have the ability to put the Thunder over the top. Both player could probably be had for a combination of Ibaka/Lamb/Jackson/First round pick.
2) Portland Trailblazers*
After a poor year last season, which ended with a 33-49 record, the TrailBlazers look like they have the talent to surprise a few experts this season. Although the Trailblazers had a horrible 49 wins last season, the number is a little skewed. Last year, Portland ended the year on a 13 game losing streak because they lost many of their starters to injury. The Trailblazers have one of the most talented starting fives in the league, which should lead them to at least a 500 record. If healthy, the starting five of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mathews, and Robin Lopez should strike fear into many of their opponents because they all can score the ball and play solid defense. After recording a great rookie season, Lillard looks like he can become a true star in the league. If Lillard can learn to effectively play with LaMarcus Aldridge, the dual should become devastating on offense because they each should put up 20 points per game. On defense, the team will become better and more efficient. The addition of Robin Lopez and the return of Nicolas Batum and Wes Mathews from injury will greatly improve the team’s overall defense. Lopez is a stalwart on the inside, while Batum and Mathews can shut guards down on the perimeter. However, the major improvement this season will be on Portland’s bench. The additions of Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, and Thomas Robinson should improve a bench that was horrible and frequently lost gams for Portland. Unfortunately for the Trailblazers, Aldridge, Batum, and Mathews are injury prone and frequently miss games due to nagging injuries. If the Trailblazers can stay, they will exceed expectations and have a great opportunity at making the playoffs. However, if Portland starts the season badly, they should look to trade Aldridge from their roster. Although he is an All-Star player, he could net a good return for the Trailblazers, who need picks and players to return their success of the early 2000s.
3) Denver Nuggets
After a great season where the Nuggets finished 3rd in the West and claimed the best home record in the league and one of the best all-time, the Nuggets inexplicably lost in the first round, fired their coach George Karl, and did not re-sign star shooting guard Andre Iguodala. Also, toward the end of the season, the Nuggets suffered the loss of Danilo Gallinari, one of their best players and best scorer on the team. Unfortunately, the Nuggets will be without Gallinari for much of the 2013-2014 season because of his torn ACL. The Nuggets will be forced to rely on a bunch of role players to buy into a new system and achieve immediate success, in order to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they do not have a star that can generate offense or provide open looks for teammates. Although Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried are nice players, they do not have the talent to lead a team to the playoffs in a difficult Western Conference. Although Iguodala did not have a great season last year, his absence will be felt by the Nuggets this season. Iggy’s ability and success is not shown by the number of points he scores in a game. Even during his days with the 76ers, in his prime, Iguodala was never a great scorer, career high of 19.9 points per game. However, Iguodala could do a little of everything on a basket court. Iggy could garner assists, rebounds, points, steals, and blocks, all things necessary for a team to achieve success in the NBA. Also, Iguodala was a stalwart on defense. His physicality and athleticism allowed him to matchup with the opposing team’s best scorer and limit his points. Although it did not show on the box score, it was vital for a Nuggets team that has trouble playing defense. Although ex-coach George Karl was not a great postseason coach, he was great at leading his club during the regular season, although they did not have the same talent as other teams. The loss of Karl and Iguodala will be felt this season, as the Nuggets are probably not going to make the playoffs in the star studded Western Conference.
4) Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot more talent than their records have indicated the last few seasons. If the Timberwolves can stay healthy this season, they will be competing for the final playoff position in the Western Conference. Although trade rumors and injuries have diminished Kevin Love’s reputation, he is one of the best players in the game and posts some of the best numbers in the league for a big man. Love is the epitome of the new stretch forward because he can play inside and outside while grabbing rebounds and defending opposing power forwards. The Timberwolves must rely on Love to score and rebound the basketball, if they are going to compete. For the first time since the Kevin Garnett era, the Timberwolves have a complete basketball team. Along with Love, the Wolves have quality players such as Rubio, Pekovic, Martin, and Williams. Rubio has improved his game during each of his two seasons in the league. Although Rubio is not a threat to score 20 points a night, he has some of the best hands and vision in the NBA. Similar to Rondo, Rubio has the ability to improve his team without putting the ball in the basket. Pekovic and Martin will be important for the Wolves this season. Martin has shown in the past that he can score over 20 points per game. Along with Martin, Pekovic has displayed the ability to be a productive center in the NBA. Pekovic is strong and adept around the basket, which allowed him to score 15 and grab 8 rebounds last season. If Williams and Muhammed become competent bench scorers this season, the Wolves will surely be a top 15 scoring team in the NBA. However, their defense will be the x-factor this season. None of the Wolves players are known as shut down defensive players. Thus, they must learn to play as a team since they will not be able to individually defend their man. Although the Wolves will improve from last season, they will probably not make the playoffs.
5) Utah Jazz
After finishing 9th in the West and barely missing the playoffs by only two games, the Jazz underwent a major overhaul this offseason. The Jazz are undergoing a major youth movement and looking to build for the future. This offseason, the Jazz made a great trade, which netted them 2 first round picks and only lost cap space for the coming season. If Trey Burke did not injure himself, the Jazz would have the youngest starting five in the NBA, Burke, 20, Burks, 22, Hayward, 23, Favors, 22, and Kanter, 21. This offseason, the Jazz lost two of their best players to free agency, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. However, they were willing to not re-sign the duo because of their confidence in Favors and Kanter. Favors, the main part of the Deron Williams trade, and Kanter were both the third overall picks during the 2011 and 2012 drafts. Unlike the previous duo, Kanter and Favors have a greater upside and potential because of the defense they provide to the Jazz. While Millsap and Jefferson were quality offensive big men, Jefferson showed little effort on defense and could not protect the rim. Millsap was an undersized power forward and was routinely bullied by the other power forwards in the Western Conference. Although raw, the Jazz should rely and lean on the big men to carry them this season and in the future. Along with Favors and Kanter, they have 21 year old rookie Rudy Golpert out of France. Although he is extremely raw, he has the potential to be a great rim protector and defensive stopper because of his size and wingspan, largest in NBA combine history. Although the back court does not have the same promise as the front court, Burke and Burks have shown that they have the ability to score in succeed in the league. Although this season may be difficult for the Jazz, in terms of wins, the team will be fun to watch because they have a lot of talent and should improve throughout the season. The Jazz executives and fans should be excited for the future of the club because they have good young players, future first round picks, and they will have money to sign free agents after they lose Jefferson, Biedrins, and Williams after the season.
stats from espn.com