The Northwest division has become the new place to be, replacing the Southwest as the toughest to get out of and into the playoffs. The Thunder still seem to be the team to beat, but they will be run ragged by the Nuggets and the Timberwolves. The Jazz, in a transitional phase and Portland, with no squad depth, face uphill battles and will most likely bring up the rear. A detailed preview follows below:
Till about 4 hours ago, the Thunder had the best roster in the league. Now, with them having traded off James Harden, they stand to lose a lot of that versatility and flexibility that they had. Kevin Martin is a great scorer, but so far has only played on teams where he was the principal scorer. He will have to deal with playing a support role with the Thunder.
More than that though, the Thunder will miss Harden’s defensive tenacity and playmaking skills. This season promises to be a challenging one for them, in more than one respect. After last year’s performance, expectations of them are sky high, and it remains to be seen if they can make a smooth transition through this period of uncertainty.
Oklahoma City are a small market team, and their strength has been their group of highly talented youngsters, with a balanced head on their shoulders, a lack of starry airs and a consistent belief (coupled with a down to earth attitude) that they belong at the top of the NBA. The General Manager, Sam Presti, worked extensively with the Spurs before taking over the reins at OKC, and has moulded the Thunder into the team that they are today by following the same blueprint.
Coach Brooks is as important to the Thunder as Presti, as he has overseen a transformation that saw the Thunder go from having one of the worst records in the League to becoming a consistent playoff team.
Kevin Durant should take home the Scoring Championship once again this year, but after last night’s trade, it remains to be seen how well Martin integrates within their system and what it bodes for Durant’s scoring. After having the best season of his career in terms of his all-round play, he will be expected to give a repeat performance, and bear the burden of all of the Thunder’s expectations.
Russell Westbrook has been a constant source of scoring, and athleticism for the Thunder, but the departure of Harden and the arrival of Martin, give him the opportunity to develop his skills as a Point guard further, and control the Thunder offense. With Sefolosha, Perkins, Ibaka and Collison, the Thunder have the necessary toughness and defensive tenacity to sustain themselves in the pursuit of the championship.
The Denver Nuggets are well known for being the team that has no star. With a well rounded roster of talented and athletic young players, the Nuggets will again be a tough team to deal with. Trading for Andre Igoudala was a good move, even if that meant letting go of role players like Harrington and Afflalo. The addition of Dre will help the Nuggets be a stronger force defensively, and also get some much needed experience in their ranks.
After last year’s breakout performance during the playoffs, Javale Mcgee will have a lot to do to live up to the increased hype over his play, and combining with Mozgov, will also have to lend potency to the frontcourt to make up for Nene’s loss. The veteran presence of Andre Miller lends a calming influence to the team, and brings in the necessary leadership. Expect Ty Lawson and Gallinari to have standout seasons, and coupled with Coach Karl’s influence, this team can go a long way.
The Timberwolves are living up to Minnesota’s reputation for attracting European settlers, as they have reconstructed their roster dramatically to become a truly global team. David Kahn, badly vilified for his draft selections in 2009, has worked slowly and steadily to win back a lot of the Timberwolves faithful, and has gone onto make some astute signings (atleast on paper), along with removing some of the deadwood in Milicic, Webster and Beasley.
Kevin Love has proven his talent at the highest level, and is right now by far the best Power forward in the business. His ability to rebound, coupled with his all-round shooting game and a drive to be the best, has seen him become the face of the Timberwolves.
In Rubio and Pekovic, they have a couple of diamonds in the rough, who showed enough in their rookie years for expectations from the team to rise through the roof. The addition of veteran role players like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko lends a lot of balance and poise to the team. With the team buying into Adelman’s trusted systems, the Timberwolves could be the dark horse in the Western Conference this year.
The Jazz are in an interesting period of transition, with their roster an eclectic collection of veteran guards and a young, undersized frontcourt eager to prove themselves. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are undoubtedly the stars of the team and give the team a strong inside presence. The presence of guards such as Mo Williams and Foye, along with the veterans Watson, Tinsley and Bell add some outside threat and veteran leadership to the team.
The Jazz have always been a tough defensive force, and will impose their game on their opponents. However, the lack of a true dynamic point guard is an issue, and will put a lot of collective pressure on the group. It also remains to be seen whether Ty Corbin can get the best out of Hayward, Kanter and Favors, which is something they are counting on, and which is what will add the much needed depth to the Jazz’s system.
The Blazers, to say the least, have a roster full of promising rookies and sophomores, and will look to build on that with an eye on cap flexibility in next year’s free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge is their only All-Star, and will look to lead his team to a position of respectability, with able support from Batum and Matthews. However, with a very young and inexperienced roster, it will be a struggle for the Blazers this season, and getting to 30 wins will be an achievement.