By Ben Fisher
Last season, four of the division’s five teams – the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trailblazers – not only reached the postseason, but won no fewer than 50 games. One year later, each of these teams return similar rosters or, at the very least, players of equivalent talents. Meanwhile, the perennial doormat Minnesota Timberwolves have put together an intriguing collection of talent that will make them more interesting to watch, if not more successful.
Denver is the reigning division champion, but that’s about the best thing that can be said for a franchise that saw its play-off run come to a crashing halt in the first round and then endured a summer of in-house turmoil involving its superstar. The good news is Carmelo Anthony is still a Nugget, but how long will that last and how much of a distraction will it be for the rest of the still-talented team?
The ironic thing about all the chaos surrounding the Nuggets is, on paper at least, how little has really changed. Yes, Masai Ujiri took the reins as general manager, but the rotation remains intact, save for the addition of Al Harrington. Perhaps the most meaningful return is that of head coach George Karl, who has been cleared to resume coaching after another cancer battle kept him off the bench last April. While the Anthony drama looms large over the whole franchise, Denver may be best served – for now, anyway – to ignore it and keep on winning basketball games. Easier said than done, I suppose.
The Nuggets’ first round play-off ousters, the Jazz, won’t offer too much sympathy if ‘Melo flies the coop. Utah lost one of their marquee stars, the now-injured Carlos Boozer, to the Bulls in free agency. In fact, Chicago seems to be ex-Jazz central this season, also bringing Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer into the fold. For their part, the Jazz hardly sat idly by, adding elite post presence Al Jefferson and hard-nosed defender Raja Bell while drafting Butler star Gordon Hayward, all of whom should blend seamlessly on a Jerry Sloan-coached club with Deron Williams, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur already in place.
The Nuggets and Jazz claimed the last five division crowns, but the rapidly-rising Thunder might have something to say about that. Kevin Durant (who just celebrated his 22nd birthday) spent the summer dominating the world in Turkey and also earning praise for what he didn’t do. While his contemporaries were announcing their free agent decisions via ill-conceived, gaudy TV specials, Durant quietly went about signing a five-year contract extension to stay in OKC.
He won’t be alone, either. The Thunder improve simply by virtue of the growth of a talented, young core that includes Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden to go along with Durant. They will be surrounded by a solid supporting cast of Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, Nenad Krstic, Serge Ibaka and newcomers Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson and Cole Aldrich.
Portland has been leapfrogged in the ‘rising young team to watch’ department by Oklahoma City, but have still remained competitive in the tough West. A fairly quiet off-season saw the Blazers retain Marcus Camby, who thrived after a mid-season trade landed him in Rip City, draft Luke Babbitt and sign promising guard Wes Matthews to an offer sheet which Utah declined to match. Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum are back, while Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden provide the question marks. Just imagine this team with Durant instead of Oden.
Rounding out the field in the Northwest are the Timberwolves, who will still likely remain bottom feeders (just ask the team) but may not be laughingstocks this year. Sure, GM David Kahn gave Jefferson away to a division rival for pennies on the dollar, but newcomer Michael Beasley and holdover Kevin Love will have the chance to shine in his place. Around them, new additions Martell Webster, Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver have the chance to take on meaningful roles. But this team is about youth and potential, and Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington will welcome incoming rookies Wesley Johnson and Lazar Hayward to a club that could contend moving forward.