Utah Jazz: I know they lost a bunch of guys, most notably PF Carlos Boozer. They’re also missing contributors Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews, and Ronnie Brewer (all lost in free agency) from last year’s 53-29 squad. If you think this means the Jazz are dipping a bunch of games, you haven’t been paying attention to two key things. 1) Deron Williams is one of the NBA’s four elite PG’s (Paul, Nash, Kidd), all of whom can direct the flow of a game through pure will and decision making.
Even with no new additions, Williams isn’t letting Utah slip far at all. 2) Jerry Sloan is the Deron Williams of coaches. As long as they have something resembling playoff talent, he’ll have them running smoothly, being physical, playing like a team. Now that we’ve established those two items, let’s mention that they picked up even-“swap”-for-Boozer Al Jefferson, now one season further removed from his knee injury in early 2009. This is good because a huge part of their defense being so solid is that they have been a great defensive rebounding squad; that will continue (not to mention AJ is larger than and a better defensive player than Boozer anyway). They also picked up perimeter lock-down specialist Raja Bell, who is great from downtown (career 41% 3FG, has been shooting about 5 per game the past five seasons).
These two additions nearly neutralize every loss they took, giving the Jazz one of the league’s best top-7 rotations (PG Williams, SG, Bell, SG/SF CJ Miles, SF Andrei Kirilenko, PF Paul Millsap, PF/C Jefferson, C Mehmet Okur) plus they’ll get the occasional 20-point outburst from rookie shooter Gordon Hayward.
Could Make the Playoffs (In Order of Likelihood)
Portland Trail Blazers: For those who haven’t paid attention to basketball since 2008: The Blazers won 54 games in 2008-09 with one of the youngest teams in league history, and followed that up with 50 wins last year with one of the most injured squads of all-time (over 300 games missed). I’ll take “Getting Overlooked Far Too Quickly” for 400, Alex. They are one of the most masterful halfcourt teams in terms of offense, and SF Nicolas Batum is only getting better and more confident in that regard (52% FG, 41% 3FG, 84% FT last year – only Steve Nash and Mike Miller could touch that).
Their defense is improving (it was terrible a few seasons ago), and the additions of SG/SF Wesley Matthews and F Fabricio Oberto will only help. Not to mention any signs of consistent health out of centers Greg Oden, Marcus Camby, and Joel Przybilla, all three of whom can hold the paint together defensively. A healthy Oden, even just for the second half of the year, could do wonders for the Blazers’ ability to destroy some dreams in the playoffs. All of this is held together by the heady and mature Brandon Roy, one of the most forgotten top-10 players in years.
Oklahoma City Thunder: I know everyone is expecting a huge jump for this franchise, but where realistically is it coming from? Kevin Durant controls the offense and is MVP-candidate-deserving amazing, but he’s not getting a whole lot better – it’s just not possible. Russell Westbrook is a very good PG, but until he learns how to shoot, he’s not providing OKC with their big jump. Jeff Green is what he is—which is good, not great, at everything—but his skills aren’t taking big strides ahead right now. There’s your Big Three. You have to love secondary players SG/SF Thabo Sefolosha (watch him on defense), PG Eric Maynor, SG James Harden, and C Nenad Krstic, but you don’t get 10 extra wins, take over the toughest division, and knock off the Lakers because of your secondary guys.
The addition of rookie C Cole Aldrich might be the biggest reason they win some extra games this year since he provides a lot of toughness, rebounding, and defense inside. This all adds up to a great squad that everyone will love watching, but you have to turn your head to the side and squint your eyes just right to see how they’re taking the giant step up many fans are expecting. And I hope I’m totally off with this one, but it’s nearly impossible to go two straight seasons without a major injury at some point (Nenad Krstic’s missed 6 games last year, that’s it for all of their starters in 2009-10).
Denver Nuggets: Last year they won 53 games. The year before they nearly went to the NBA Finals. They still have essentially the same squad, and they’re considered by most to be the fourth best in this division – that’s how good the Northwest is.
There are some obvious setbacks right now for the Nuggets, however, namely a foot injury to Al Harrington that kept him out of most of the preseason (he’ll be back shortly), and pretty big injuries that are keeping PF Kenyon Martin and PF Chris Andersen out a few more months. Chauncey Billups is still one of the toughest most cohesive PG’s in the game, so he won’t let the ship go too far off course, and his second-year back-up, Ty Lawson, has shown a lot of potential (good shooter, good passer). Nene is one of the most underrated players in the league and will hold it down inside by himself for a while. Arron Afflalo is one of those defensive-stopper-corner-3-pointers type of shooting guards, which every team needs.
And then there’s Carmelo Anthony, who I only mention last and say little about because there’s still uncertainty surrounding his future (long-term and now) with this team. If he’s traded for future picks and the like during the year, they’ll likely drop out of the playoff hunt and go into some sort of half-hearted rebuilding mode that includes trading a few more players (Martin’s $16.5 million expiring contract will net something decent, I’m sure).
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves are about the surest lock for worst record in the league as you’re going to find. Kevin Love looks like he’s actively improving his game. Rookie scorer Wesley Johnson will raise some eyebrows this year. Corey Brewer has his moments. That’s the end of my “good” list. It’s a short list because GM David Kahn has no clue whatsoever what he’s doing. Theoretically they’re waiting for Ricky Rubio, and I honestly think that’s as far as the got in the concrete planning department. Good luck figuring out how Kahn and the rest of the front office is going to hype this team once they finally give up on Rubio, who obviously wants nothing to do with Minnesota. They’re horrible and should probably be relegated to the Big Ten this year.
Top 5 Players
F/C: Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz
F/C: Nene Hilario, Denver Nuggets (yes, I believe he is that underrated)
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
G: Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
G: Deron Williams, Utah Jazz
Possible Award Candidates
Kevin Durant will likely lead the league in scoring while playing on a good team; that’s a guaranteed top-2 finish for MVP. Deron Williams and Brandon Roy will again get far less consideration than they should. Although I think Cole Aldrich is the best rookie in this division, Minnesota’s Wesley Johnson is more likely to put up good scoring numbers and have a chance at the Rookie of the Year award (but again, it’s Blake Griffin’s to lose). Portland’s Marcus Camby and Greg Oden have the chops to be a Defensive Player of the Year winner (Camby won it in 2007), but there are too many injury concerns for both it to be realistic. Thunder coach Scott Brooks won the Coach of the Year award last year, and Jerry Sloan and Portland’s Nate McMillan are both very good, so it’s not unreasonable to think the award could stay in the division if one of these clubs truly looks like a contender by the end of the year.
Previous divisional previews:
- Eastern Conference, Atlantic
- Eastern Conference, Southeast
- Eastern Conference, Central
- Western Conference, Pacific
- Western Conference, Southwest