Mar, 23, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) and Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) fight for the loose ball during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE
Battle of The Northwest
Starting this post off, I think that its fair to say that this may be one of the most–if not the most–underrated and under-appreciated divisions in all of basketball.
This division boasts the Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder, the 6th seeded Denver Nuggets, and the 8th seeded Utah Jazz. It also has a Minnesota Timberwolves team with plenty of potential on that roster and a perennial All-Star in Kevin Love and a point guard with high promise in Ricky Rubio.
The division also features a Trail Blazer team that, before their fire-sale last season, were looking to make a post-season run with their star Lamarcus Aldridge. Now they’ll pair him with Damian Lillard and we’ll see what kind of combination they’ll make together.
This is a deep and talented conference.
All of the teams have young potential stars that could blow the league up if given enough time, patience and coaching. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the process of doing that right now, as a matter of fact. This division has a legitimate shot at having at least four playoff teams when the end of next season rolls around. At least, they should be in contention fighting for a final playoff slot.
Its fair to say that, barring any unforeseen injuries, that this division could be the best in the West next season. They’ve all got young, upstart teams while everyone else’s teams are growing in age. They’ll definitely be one of the most entertaining divisions to watch because of the pace that most of the teams play at. Outside of Utah and Portland, all other teams in the division play at a pace that is fast and will wear the opposing team out. Utah and Portland feature offense that go through the post more than anything else.
Needless to say, regardless of their playing styles these teams are good. They’ll make plenty of noise within the NBA next season, whether that means fighting for a playoff position or spoiling someone’s season. We’ll see them around plenty of times, I’m certain. With that being said, let’s dig in.
Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-2012 record: 47-19
2011-2012 Playoff Series: The Thunder reached the NBA Finals last season and even won the first game. They were then dominated by the Miami Heat and lost, 4-1. They could only come up with 13 of the 16 wins they needed to win a championship.
2012-2013 Projection: 62-20
Starters: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefalosha, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Sixth Man: James Harden, as usual.
Synopsis: The Thunder will come back with the agony of defeat as motivation this season. I believe that they’ll take the Western Conference by storm and win 62 games this season. They’ll finish the season up 62-20 and have the best record in the Western Conference.
I think that them losing the Finals was something that needed to happen for this team. They need to know what defeat feels like to ever know the true joys of winning. LeBron James faced the same thing throughout his career as did Michael Jordan. All great teams go through rough times at some point in their career. Rarely is there an exception to that rule.
I think that they’ll be a much deeper team than they were last year with the return of Eric Maynor, the experience that Reggie Jackson got from last season, and Perry Jones, III as a very versatile threat off of the bench. They’ll be able to stretch the floor in ways that they never have before with Jones. This should be a very productive season for the Thunder.
2011-2012 Record: 38-28
2011-2012 playoffs: The Denver Nuggets were a team that was truly a dark horse in the playoffs. Facing the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t a really good match-up for them because of their lack of a post presence on both ends of the floor. They only managed to win three games and took a 1st round exit.
2012-2013 Projection: 53-29
Starters: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danillo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Javale McGee
Sixth Man: Wilson Chandler
Synopsis: This is going to be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Their roster is somehow still stacked, after being turned over once again, with many players who could be starters in the NBA elsewhere. They’ve got pieces other teams would love to have on their bench like Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mosgov, and Andre Miller.
Though they lost their post presence in NeNe after trading him to Washington last season, they’ll be able to fixate themselves on one style of basketball. They’ll play a style that focuses more on getting shots up and increasing the pace and possessions rather than a slowed down half-court game. They were moving to that last season, but when Nene was playing he couldn’t really keep up. I believe that this is why he couldn’t stay on the floor and they ended up trading him away to Washington.
This team should still be a force in the league next season. They’re an incredibly balanced team and can score the ball from all perimeter positions. Their small forward versatility is very deep with the presence of Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, and Wilson Chandler. With the pace that this team plays at, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to all get minutes and touches.
2011-2012 record: 26-40
2012-2013 projection: 50-32
Starters: Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Brandon Roy, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko
Sixth Man: Luke Ridnour
Synopsis: A thirty game improvement for the Timberwolves seems like a lot, but the way that they played at the beginning of last season was very inspiring. They were a team who played .500 basketball before Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL. Losing Rubio was the reason why the fell way out of contention for that 8th seed in the West.
Rubio may not be able to return until December. If that’s the case, I think their opening day starter will be Luke Ridnour because of his knowledge of the offense. The sixth man will switch to Derrick Williams, and Alexey Shved will be the back-up point guard. He has a playing style similar to that of Rubio besides the fact that he isn’t as adept of a passer and that he’s more proficient off of the ball than Rubio.
With that being said, the team has upgraded at the point guard position and the small forward position this off-season. Signing Chase Budinger and Andrei Kirilenko to the team should be some great additions along with the point guard play of Alexey Shved and his relationship with Kirilenko as well. This team will definitely be a team to be reckoned with this season.
2011-2012 record: 36-30
2011-2012 playoff series: The Jazz ended up making the postseason as the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Not many people thought that they would be competitive at all against the Spurs and they weren’t. They ended up getting swept, 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
2012-2013 projection: 30-52
Starters: Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Paul Milsap, AL Jefferson
Sixth Man: Raja Bell
Synopsis: I don’t really have much expectation for this Jazz team. I thought that, even though they were a well put together squad, they overachieved last season. I didn’t expect them to make the post-seeason, and I thought that the fire sale by the Trail Blazers, who we’ll talk about later in this post, was the best thing that ever happened to them.
The Jazz are a veteran team with not too high of a ceiling. Their best player is Paul Millsap, and that’s not a bad player to have as a second option. There-in lies the problem, though. Millsap isn’t their second option, he’s their first. He’s the best player on that team and the most versatile one as well. He’s a really good player–one of the top power forwards in the NBA. But when you need someone to go to for a bucket, I’d rather it be someone else other than him.
Al Jefferson fits that same mold as well. He’s probably option 1-B on this team. While he has some of the best low-post moves that the NBA has to offer with a variety of hooks and scoops among other things, you don’t really want to have him as a main option to score.
Furthermore, the Jazz are the weakest team in the NBA at their guard positions. While they have Gordon Hayward, who does show some promise, they don’t have anyone quite capable of being a starting NBA point guard. They’ve got Mo Williams on the downward slope of his career, who is a scorer at best, and behind him there’s virtually nothing. Devin Harris was the best thing that they had at the position last season and they traded him away–not to say that he was unmovable by any means. Truthfully, since the departure of Deron Williams, they haven’t had a very good perimeter threat by any means.
Next season, I think they hit an all-time low. Don’t be surprised if Al Jefferson an Paul Millsap are moved because of extension difficulty, as they are both in the last year of their respective deals.
Portland Trail Blzaers
2011-2012 record: 28-38
2012-2013 projection: 33-49
Starters: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, Meyers Leonard
Sixth Man: J.J Hickson
Synopsis: I have a very high expectation for Portland next season. I think that their offensive system under newly hired head coach, Terry Stotts, will do them some good. I think he’ll be able to put Aldridge in places that he’ll be able to succeed on the floor at. Though Nate McMillan tried to do the same thing, his offense was based more on guard play than anything. With Stotts, this will surely change.
I have a very high expectation for rookie Damian Lillard also. In my rookie prediction post he was my pick for rookie of the year. In standing by that, its only natural that I expect him to succeed in his first year. At Weber state he was a force on the court and I think that after he takes his lumps for the first few months of the season, he will be a force on the next level as well.
This team wasn’t too far from the post-season last year before they decided to blow the team up. They were in the hunt for the 8th seed for a while last season and I think that if Lillard is able to be productive they’ll be able to be in the same position this season, maybe even better. They already have a player that they can depend on in Lamarcus Aldridge, and other pieces like Nicolas Batum. If they can manage to put up the same efficiency numbers and production that they did two season ago, we’ll be talking about the Blazers for a long time to come.
Overall, again, this is going to be a very good division in the NBA for years to come. They’ve got a lot of potential All-Stars and a lot of current ones as well. The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t going anywhere for a long time, and the rest of the teams in the division are trying to make the right steps in order to catch them. I like the direction that this division is going in. Most of the teams are drafting by talent and not positional need and making the proper off-season moves.
I think that the obvious team to watch in this division is the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re the reigning Western Conference Champion and are looking to repeat this year as well. They’ve got three players who put up All-Star type numbers, and another one who is a defensive wall when it comes to protecting the rim.
What more could you ask for as an NBA team?
They’ve got one of the deepest benches in the league, even if it doesn’t score a lot of point outside of James Harden. They’ve got a culture instilled in all of their players where they are willing to sacrifice for each other if it means winning games. Everyone knows their roles and they play them all well. Not to mention that they are very fun to watch–moments like this one can happen at any time.
A team that will surprise people out of this division are the Minnesota Timberwolves. I think that they’ll end up making the postseason this year for a seed as high as the 4th one. They’ve got a team that is very well balanced on paper and, if they pan out, could be better than most in the NBA. Once Ricky Rubio heals from his ACL injury we’ll see the true potential of this team.
Out of all of the teams in this division, the Jazz will be the most disappointing one. I think that they’ll have a fire sale by the trade deadline because of difficulty in getting Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson to extend. At the en of the day, I don’t know what direction this organization is going in. Over the past two years, they’ve gotten worse and worse. They surprised me by making the playoffs last season, but I think that was only because of how weak the bottom of the Western Conference was. They don’t have a starting point guard on their roster that is capable of making teammates better, and their best scoring option is a 6’8 power forward. I don’t really see many positives for this team right now.
The Trail Blazers will be a team to keep your eye on through the years. I think that Damian Lillard will become one of the best point guards in the NBA before his career is over. This team is virtually set up for him to succeed. Lamarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum will be huge for his career; especially in the early parts of it.
This division should be on of the best to watch next NBA season. They’ve got a lot of teams who are fun to watch and have very exciting futures ahead of them. Keep your eyes peeled.