(a preview of the Western Conference’s Northwest Division)
As you may know, I am from (and continue to reside in) the Northwest.
Of course, my team is gone. I won’t get over that. I wish that there would have been a league mandate involving selling the Sonics only to a local owner, but when you have the type of borderline, homoerotic relationship that old man Stern and Clay Bennett have, I guess it doesn’t matter, right? That’s not an insult, by the way (in spite of my apparent tone) – it’s just the truth and the only thing you need to know to get why that all happened.
Regardless, basketball still exists, and the Northwest Division is full of intrigue. If a division can have a “style” then, for my money, this one might have the most have the interesting of them all. The composition and approach of a few of the teams actually gets me physically excited…
… take that however you wish.
THE OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The fact that I will always wish failure upon this organization (you should have seen me as they choked against Dallas last year, laughing uproariously like the most sadistic, bitter human-being on the planet) is mostly a superficial sort of thing. I hate the owner, the team colors, the attribution of the accolades of former Sonics to OKC history, and my general disdain for any team name that doesn’t end with the letter “s.” In reality, the team itself is full of stud players and is a legitimate contender, perhaps more than ever.
The Best Case: The Thunder take the next step that everyone thought they might take last year and/or think they will inevitably take. It’s essentially the same team as last year’s squad, with the only notable move possibly being the addition of rookie SG, Reggie Jackson, out of Boston College (considered a sleeper by some). Other than that, what you have is a group that is said to be pretty tight and familiar with all of the contributing parts. Deep, young, and in possession of next-level players, including a top-5 guy – you might as well win it all.
The Worst Case: Russell Westbrook’s head destroys the whole thing. The talented Westbrook showed his main weakness in a big way last year, as he routinely allowed himself to get worked up and taken out of his own game. His overreactions, combined with at least some obvious friction with Kevin Durant over who should be doing what when it matters, were the type of thing that could continue to shake a team enough and provide enough of a distraction to stop them from achieving elite status.
The Bottom Line: Thunder win (see how bad that sounds?). I am going to assume that the type of hiccups we saw in the form of Westbrook’s explosions will become less and less prevalent and were partially due to inexperience and youth. Speaking of which, the team now has two years of valuable playoff experiences behind them, and their roster is perfectly suited to tackle the abbreviated season without much fear of fatigue. Considering that they had the eventual champs rocked last year, I don’t see how one couldn’t rank them as the favorite to win the division, if not more…
THE PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
Knees. Fuck ‘em. It’s hard to believe in the Tebowian theories when you not only look at the delicate nature of one of the most utilized parts of the human body, but also when one considers how they completely abandoned a player, forcing to him to retire in his prime. Brandon Roy was everything I liked about a basketball player, and his career is over. Greg Oden’s career probably won’t even really start. That’s the reality of the situation, though, and ironically, the minus might actually be a plus.
The Best Case: With Roy no longer a concern (his ability to still play at a high level was inconsistent), the Blazers can now focus on an uptempo, fluid rotation. Coach Nate McMillan has already stated that this team is going to play fast, and they have the parts to do it. It’s Ray Felton instead of Andre Miller. It’s Jamal Crawford instead of Brandon Roy. Gerald Wallace isn’t joining the team midseason (although he could be gone by the time the next midseason rolls around), and LaMarcus Aldridge is officially the team’s leader (and one of the best, finesse big men in the game). Additionally, Kurt Thomas brings nothing but value with his experience and toughness, and younger guys will have a chance to play. The mix is just right that, if everything gels, the team is an easy playoff squad and the type of team that no one would be eager to face.
The Worst Case: Well, somebody else could blow a knee. Actually, it’s basically a given that at least 3 Portland players will hobble off the court during the season – it’s just a matter of who and when. Also, I will always have a little hesitation when it comes to Felton, because I’m not sure about his leadership/attitude, and that gut scares me (not that it matters if he can play, but you’d rather not look at a guy and assume that he’ll weigh well over what he should at some point). Finally, there’s a bit of a balancing act that has to be figured out with Wallace and Nic Batum. Batum wants to start and sees himself as an offensive player, possessing the ability to spread the floor (and, with the loss of Rudy Fernandez, the team will need more in the way of shooting threats). The organization, however, sees him as a defensive guy. Wallace is a workhorse and an all-around guy, but his contract makes him a trade piece. Something needs to be figured out there.
The Bottom Line: I think it works… in a 6 or 7-seed sort of way. Portland is past their days of idiocy, and an overall successful product is what comes with the territory now. As alluded to, the Blazers had a smoother, more congruent rotation when Roy wasn’t available last year. Now, he’s not even an option, and the team might actually benefit from that (as wrong as that sounds). I expect Aldridge to continue with his all-star level play this year (and maybe he’ll actually get named to the squad that he deserved to be named to last year), and Crawford should be enthusiastic now that he’s playing as close to home as possible. Who can’t picture the Rose Garden exploding as Crawford drops one of those ridiculous threes from about 25 feet at the buzzer? They’re not title contenders and they have holes (lack of depth at 1 and 5, consistent shooters), but they’re one of those teams that I’ll try to watch as much as possible. They’re also the type of group that could cause headaches for any team. Speaking of which…
THE DENVER NUGGETS
Last year, I fell in love with the Nuggets and their style of play. Melo-less, two deep at every position, energetic and, quite frankly, overachievers. No, they didn’t have a superstar, but I didn’t have more fun watching any other team. This year, the structure is similar, but the pieces are a little different. Nene is back, and Aaron Afflalo is likely to follow. Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer were added to the mix for pretty much nothing and, in what seems like the perfect fit, the Nuggets drafted a “no off-switch” guy in Kenneth Faried. However, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and JR Smith are all trapped in China, which most definitely hurts. Can George Karl pull it all together again?
The Best Case: Honestly, the best result would look similar to last year. Take a bunch of guys, some of whom are pretty good, and develop a rotation that is relentless and effective. In terms of sheer numbers, the team might actually be deeper than last year, which could equal a bunch of wins over tired teams in the upcoming shortened season. Furthermore, the team could benefit from the emergence of someone like Timofey Mozgov or Kosta Koufus in the post as a reliable compliment to the likes of Nene and Chris Andersen. Get Danilo Gallinari to develop his game, and who knows… maybe these guys make some noise.
The Worst Case: The pieces don’t fit. Chandler was emerging as somewhat of a big-time player last year, and he’s gone. Martin’s solid post presence (on both sides of the ball) is gone. How realistic is it to expect Mozgov to step in and establish himself as a reliable starter? Exactly what do Fernandez and Brewer bring, at this point? Both have their talents, but they’re also pretty limited in terms of significant impact. Another thing to consider is that this team may take a serious hit in the attitude department. Last year’s team played with a bit of a point to prove, and Karl reigned it all in to produce a successful product. With the losses of some key guys and being even further removed from the bitter taste of the Melo situation, an effort letdown doesn’t seem unreasonable. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where you have a ship full of solid crew members with no one at the helm and the boat not going anywhere.
The Bottom Line: I think Denver will sneak into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, and I think the reason for that is George Karl. Karl has his x’s and o’s covered, but more importantly, he can motivate and connect with his players based on his temperament and perspective. The guy got a fucking cohesive product out of a crew of inked-up maniacs that was collectively disenchanted and didn’t know shit about chemistry last year. I do believe this year will be a little more difficult, as it will be a challenge to match the spirit of the previous season. Plus, Karl is once again faced with actually establishing a rotation that works and keeps a lot of suspect egos satisfied with mostly supportive roles. As mentioned, Denver does stand to benefit from its depth in a big way, and I think it all will be enough to get them to the postseason. In reality, it might actually be better for things to fall apart so that they could land a lottery pick and a premier young talent, but he’d probably just leave in three years anyway… so to hell with it.
THE UTAH JAZZ
I used to just choose the easy route and start off with some bit about Jerry Sloan, but I obviously can’t do that. It seems like my perception of the Jazz and their collective identity doesn’t even exist right now. It’s all still so new. What I do know is that there’s a shitload of talent, proven or otherwise, on the roster. Can they contend at all? Well…
The Best Case: Utah supposedly wants to emphasize motion, and they have the squad to do it. Furthermore, the bigs are intriguing. Between Al Jefferson, Mehmet Okur, Paul Milsap, and possibly Enes Kanter (depending on what exactly he turns out to be), you could have a frontcourt that is tough to handle. I also like what their backcourt can do on both sides of the ball. A Devin Harris-led group can play efficient but energetic ball, with the likes of Gordon Hayward and CJ Miles playing their roles. Imagine the thought of rookie Alec Burks living up to the buzz, or the Josh Howard gamble paying off. Imagine…
The Worst Case: Kanter and Burks could both comes out and be obviously lost. It’s not like they should be expected to come out and immediately tear it up, but you get the feeling that the organization wants a lot, particularly from Kanter. Also, who do you go to for leadership and in high-pressure situations? I know guys like Harris and Jefferson want it, but I’m not convinced. Also, if a guy like Favors came out looking like he hadn’t progressed, or if situations forced the team to rely too much on Miles or Earl Watson, then there could be issues. And, if Jamaal Tinsley ever ends up starting, then you know something went horribly wrong.
The Bottom Line: At least you know that you won’t have to put up with Deron Williams and his shitty attitude, or AK-47 blowing easy shots in remarkable ways. A lot of it is dependent on the play of the young post players. This team was close to the playoffs last year, so if they get some production out of the fresh faces and the developing pieces, they’ve got a good shot at sneaking in. I’ll just go ahead and say something doesn’t happen in the ideal way, like Burks getting busted for cocaine or Howard and Raja Bell causing friction by feuding over some American Idol reject (the poor man’s Kidd/Braxton/Jackson situation). I have to make some sort of prediction, so there you go.
THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
The Best Case: It begins. The accumulation of young talent, outcasts, and journeymen blossoms into a moderately successful team. Kevin Love matches his play from last year. Derrick Williams bursts onto the scene as the most pro-ready rookie and plays out of his mind. Ricky Rubio works. Darko finally works. JJ Barea justifies that massive contract. Michael Beasley acts like an adult and plays up to his potential. Wayne Ellington, Wesley Johnson, and Malcolm Lee all shoot the lights out. Brad Miller wins the 6th Man of the Year award.
The Worst Case: With Minnesota, what could this possibly be? Recent history has been so weird. I can only envision something like Williams not being able to find the ideal pro position and struggling in a big way, Love coming down from his high rate of play, and all of these backcourt players battling each other in mediocre fashion without anyone emerging. Also, if Rubio comes in and completely sucks, then it will be viewed as a completely colossal waste of time by a franchise that hasn’t exactly struck gold with their point guards since the early days of Marbury. All of this is completely possibly, by the way.
The Bottom Line: I’m just going to say that they’ll be improved. To what extent? I’m not sure. I can’t commit to anything with Minnesota because, well, I just can’t. What I will say is that it does feel like there is some sort of direction or vision. Maybe the youth seems more legitimate. Or, maybe it’s just a case of so many years of bizarre making this roster actually look more sensible. What is indisputable is that they paid Barea way too fucking much.
THE FINAL WORD:
OKC is the clear frontrunner, and everyone would be shocked to see anyone else in the number one slot. With that said, I feel like the bulk of the division is talented and will be competing amongst one another for one or two of the final playoff spots. If pressed, I’d rank Portland slightly above Denver and Utah, who I think will be similar, record-wise. The other Western Conference divisions have more stars, but the Northwest is where the youth is. Enjoy it. Or don’t. I don’t care.
– Wes Lilliman