2014/15 Predictions: The Northwest

1:  The Oklahoma Thunder

 

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will have to shoulder more responsibilities this season.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant look to lead the Thunder back to the top of the Northwest Division.

The Thunder were one win away from a 60-win season last year, and had Russell Westbrook not been injured for as long as he was, the Thunder would have likely had the best record in the West.  This year, the Thunder see themselves facing a similar situation with Kevin Durant on the shelf for the first six weeks of the season due to a fracture.  Given the lack of depth in the Northwest, it seems reasonable to assume that the Thunder will be able to repeat as division champs, but that does not mean they will be as good as they were last year.  While Durant and Westbrook may continue to play MVP-level basketball, and Serge Ibaka will likely continue to a dominant defender, the rest of the team is another issue.  The Thunder saw defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha get signed away by the Hawks, and that may hurt the Thunder more than most expect.  The team has proved all too willing to let talented players leave in free agency, like they did with James Harden, and a team can only let talent walk away for so long before they start getting worse.  If Steve Adams develops into a legit starter at center, and Reggie Jackson continues his improvement, the Thunder should be able to repeat as division champs, but I’m not sure that they will be able to perform as well against teams like the Spurs and the Clippers if they let talented role players like Sefolosha walk away.  If the Thunder hope to return to the conference finals, they will need superhuman performances from Durant and Westbrook.

 

2:  The Denver Nuggets

 

Kenneth Faried hopes to lead the Nuggets back into the playoffs this year.

Kenneth Faried hopes to lead the Nuggets back into the playoffs this year.

The Denver Nuggets went through some growing pains last season; not only did they have a new coach, but their starting center went down with an injury 5-games into the season.  During his absence both J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried demonstrated that they were more than capable of holding the fort down, so with JaVale McGee returning, it looks like the Nuggets have are pretty solid front court as far as rebounding and defence goes, and though Hickson may not be as good a defender as his mates in the front court, his offense is a little better than theirs.  With Faired’s experience on Team USA under his belt, he looks to improve, and with the addition of Aaron Afflalo and the return of Danil Gallininari, the Nuggets have more options for point guard Ty Lawson on the offensive end.  The Nuggets are also welcoming first-round pick Gary Harris, who proved a solid long-range shooter in college, as well as Bosian big man Jusuf Nurikic.  Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, and Nate Robinson are all returning, so the Nuggets are going to have enough depth to weather a few injuries.  That said, I don’t expect more than a first-round exit in the post season should they get that far.

 

3:  The Portland Trailblazers

 

LaMarcus Aldridge, Damien Lillard and Nicholas Batum make for a promising trio of players.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Damien Lillard and Nicholas Batum make for a promising trio of players.

The Portland Trailblazers may have overachieved a little last year after a hot start, but there is no doubt that they are a solid team.  With their entire starting line-up returning, and each player still in their prime, it seems almost certain that the Trailblazers will end up with a winning record, but with the Nuggets likely returning to the playoff hunt, and the Southwest possibly hosting as many as five winning teams, a playoff spot is not so sure.  The Blazers’ front office made some nice moves to ensure continued improvement, namely picking up rebounding stud Chris Kaman to give them some beef upfront, and snagging back-up point guard Steve Blake to add some depth to their point guard rotation.  The Blazers also have some snipers in Wesley Matthews and Nicholas Batum, the latter of whom also serves as an exceptional defender and one of the best all-around players in the league.  The problem, though, is that their primary scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, needed 20 shots a game to score 23 points, not the most efficient scoring option in the league.  If Aldrige doesn’t mind his shots being reduced and continues to rebound as well as he did last year, the Trailblazers will be in good shape.  The other problem is their primary ball handler: Damian Lillard.  Lillard proved a solid scorer, but as a playmaker, his 5.6 assists per game seemed a little modest and his assist-to-turnover ratio didn’t compare well to the elite point guard, though it was respectable.  If Lillard can improve his playmaking skills, and Aldridge doesn’t mind getting less shots, the Blazers will be in good position to secure a playoff spot and finish with 50+ wins.

 

4:  The Utah Jazz

 

Dante Exum might not help the Jazz improve this season, but he could be crucial to their long-term success.

Dante Exum might not help the Jazz improve this season, but he could be crucial to their long-term success.

There is little doubt that the Jazz will be missing the playoffs for the third straight season, barring some kind of miracle. After letting both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk away in free agency, the Jazz have struggled to compete in the West.  Neither Enes Kanter, nor Derrick Favors proved to be as good as hoped.  Though both are solid rebounders, neither has a polished all-around offensive game and neither can pass the ball as well as Millsap.  Gordon Hayward proved an exceptional all-around player and Jazz fans have a reason to be excited that he is locked in for a few years, and though Trey Burke started off slow, he seemed to develop his shooting stroke as the progressed last season; hopefully that progress will continue.  The oddity of Utah’s offseason is that they drafted Dante Exum, who seems to prefer the point guard position.  Given that Hayward and Burke are both eager ball-handlers, and Exum prefers bringing the ball up, it seems that there may not be enough basketballs on the court to satisfy all three of their ball handlers.  The Jazz are bringing in Trevor Booker, who will give them some depth in the front court, and Steve Novak and Alec Burks should help spread the floor, but the team’s front court is simply not good enough to compete with the more complete centers and power forwards in the league, while the wing players and point guards simply don’t have enough experience and talent to go toe-to-toe with teams like the Clippers, Warriors, Spurs and Thunder.  This year will be more about developing young talent than winning games, but if Exum proves a quality point guard, his size would give him some distinct advantages and make Trey Burke expendable, giving the Jazz an interesting trade piece which they could pack up with either Kanter or Favors to bring in an All-Star level center or power forward.

 

5:  The Minnesota Timberwolves

 

The T-Wolves hope that Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be the best wing duo since Jordan and Pippen.

The T-Wolves hope that Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be the best wing duo since Jordan and Pippen.

It isn’t so much the loss of Kevin Love that is going to ensure the Timberwolves finish at the bottom of the division, but the fact that they are committed to starting the league’s worst shooter at point guard.  They could very easily finish above the Jazz, but that would be more dependent on who plays worse and not who plays better.  I’ll take Minnesota’s front court over Utah’s in a heartbeat, as both Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng have proved to be solid rebounders, and both have the humility to not overreach their abilities on offense.  On the wing, the T-Wolves have a lot of options: a proven veteran in Kevin Martin; a burgeoning talent in Chase Budinger; competent forward Thaddeus Young; last year’s first overall pick Anthony Bennett; lottery pick Zach LaVine; and potential franchise player Andrew Wiggins.  With so many options at shooting guard and small forward, the T-Wolves will certainly be making a trade, and will certainly have enough options put together a respectable rotation, however, with such little experience, this year will be more about developing their young talent and not so much about trying to compete against guys like Durant, James and Harden.  Though the T-Wolves have a good insurance policy at point guard in Mo Williams, it seems that since they will be in the lottery, coach and general manager Flip Saunders will be giving Ricky Rubio more time at starting point guard with the hopes that by some miracle he might be able to shoot over .400 from the floor, and though that seems unlikely, Rubio’s rebounding, playmaking and defense are enough reason to give him another shot.  The most optimistic outcome for the Timberwolves is 4th place in the Northwest, and a couple of All-Rookie team selections, but the only thing that a few extra wins is going to get them is a lower pick in the draft.  With exciting young players like Wiggins and LaVine on the roster, and rebounding machine Gorgui Dieng getting more minutes, even watching these guys lose should be entertaining.  A playoff run could come as soon as next season if their young talent develops quickly enough.

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