The league MVP still has a chip on his shoulder, Lillard, Aldridge & Batum revive Rip City, the Nuggets throw the kitchen sink, and the Timberwolves are all outta Love but diggin’ Wiggins.
Don’t forget to tune in to Place To Be Naton’s NBA-Team Podcast as Andrew Riche and Adam Murray break down every division for the upcoming season. Click here for the Northwest Division preview.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (Last season: 59-23, 1st in Northwest, 2nd in Conference)
IN: Anthony Morrow, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Thomas, Talib Zanna, Grant Jerrett (re-signed), Mitch McGary (draft), Josh Huestis (draft), Semaj Christon (draft)
OUT: Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, Hasheem Thabeet
Just like it did at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2013-14 season began with one giant question mark with All Star point guard Russell Westbrook at the end of it. After tearing the meniscus in his knee thanks to a run-in with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the playoffs, Westbrook found himself on the shelf to start the season due to a knee scope, followed by yet another one after Christmas. Never fear, because the Durantula is here, and in the process, KD added another abbreviation to his career: MVP. With Westbrook mending early on from knee problems, Durant took the bull by the horns, averaging a career-high in point (32.0) and assists (5.5) while shooting 50% and missing only one game. Westbrook bounced back pretty fiercely come playoff time, but the Thunder’s postseason run in 2014 had a few missteps. On the verge of elimination against the Grizzlies, Durant was declared by a local newspaper as “Mr. Unreliable.” The Thunder needed an epic Game 5 screw-up by Chris Paul to eliminate the Clippers. And then came the fallout as their Western Conference peers, the San Antonio Spurs, took them down in six games.
The Spurs loss had to sting even more for the Thunder because of the fact that Oklahoma City was seen as the closest opponent to San Antonio until they were eventually outclassed. Now the urgency grows once more at the outset thanks to Durant suffering a fractured foot, taking him out for at least a month. Now it is Westbrook who has to carry the weight for the Thunder instead of the other way around, and although many complain that Westbrook hogs up shots, he is now in a position where he probably has to. We will know really quickly how well Russ can carry the Thunder on his own, and I think he can. Serge Ibaka was his brilliant rebounding and shot blocking self, but when are we going to see something more out of him other than the crazy hops? The bench was solid all year, but more is expected now that the Clippers strengthened and the Spurs aren’t going anywhere. Reggie Jackson really stepped up at guard, but is he worth signing to more than $8 million next summer? Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones looked great in midseason then fell off the face of the earth come playoff time. One youngster who you will see more of is Steven Adams as he replaces Kendrick Perkins, who is in the last year of his deal. They made minimal moves since they are pretty complete, but Anthony Morrow was a good signing because their three-point shooting was average and Morrow will improve that.
PREDICTION: The Thunder have to feel at some point like vengeance will eventually be theirs after the last two seasons, one cut off by an injury and the other by dual greatness. Picking on Durant in the playoffs seemed a bit harsh in hindsight, but that’s par for the course when a superstar MVP falls short of the Finals. OKC is blessed to have a player so constantly aggressive and great at the same time like Russell Westbrook is, but the beginning of the season will be a high-wire act at first. Durant seems destined to win an NBA Championship, and if he doesn’t, he will make sure the champion has to go through his home court to do it. The big question after that, however, is if that will be enough to keep Durant happy when free agency comes up in 2016. (1st in Northwest, 1st in Conference)
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (Last season: 54-28, 2nd in Northwest, T-4th in Confrence)
IN: Chris Kaman, Steve Blake, Diante Garrett, James Southerland, Darius Morris
OUT: Mo Williams, Earl Watson
If you thought the same Portland Trail Blazers team that finished the 2012-13 season on a 13-game losing streak was going to have the best record in the NBA in January, you would have done a double take. But things clicked just right as Rookie of the Year winner Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge took the leap together as All Stars. Alongside Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez, the Blazers’ starting lineup made up one of the most cohesive, explosive starting units in the league. They were elite at rebounding, three-point shooting and averaged 106.7 PPG along the way. A 21-win improvement under Terry Stotts was quite the accomplishment by itself, but Lillard punctuated it with a memorable game-winning three-pointer in Game 6 of the first round against the Rockets. Unfortunately, it was all downhill in the second round of the playoffs where they were wiped out by the Spurs.
The smart thing for the Blazers to do with a team so vastly improved is to stay the course, and they stuck to that script by being the least active team in the offseason. Nicolas Batum is the third wheel among the trio of stars, and he looked great playing for France in the FIBA World Cup. Mo Williams is gone, but he was their best bench guy so veteran Steve Blake or second-year player C.J. McCollum will need to step in. Chris Kaman will likely back up Lopez, so don’t expect much there and there is a good chance Thomas Robinson could take that spot soon. Will Barton really surprised me in junk time, so I wonder if he can be a consistent spark off the bench in a contract year. Matthews is in a contract year, as well, and he is shockingly reliable. The defense, however, was middling to bad all year long, and that doomed them against San Antonio. That side of the ball needs to improve.
PREDICTION: The Blazers turned out to be beneficiaries from losing together at the end of the 2013 season because by the start of the next one, the starters got a lot of dress rehearsal time for the real deal, and they passed the test… for one season. Can they maintain a streak of 50-win seasons and somehow gain traction up the standings where the Thunder, Clippers, and Spurs are still clearly better? Portland fans who think all is well with the Aldridge free agency question need to take pause. People think the chit chat about Aldridge not wanting to stay in Portland are now stymied by last season’s success, but what if the Blazers really go backwards in the last year of his contract? I still think he stays with Lillard, but I actually see the win total going down with no marked improvements. (2nd in Southwest, 7th in Conference)
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (Last season: 40-42, 3rd in Northwest, 10th in Conference)
IN: Andrew Wiggins (draft), Zach LaVine (draft), Glenn Robinson III (draft), Thaddeus Young (trade), Anthony Bennett (trade), Mo Williams, Robbie Hummel (re-signed), Brady Heslip, Flip Saunders (head coach)
OUT: Kevin Love, Alexey Shved, Luc Mbah a Moute, Dante Cunningham, Othyus Jeffers, A.J. Price
Does this franchise ever get a friggin’ break? Going into the 2012-13 season, Flip Saunders inherited a bit of a mess from ex-GM David Kahn and tried his hardest to bring in serviceable players and win the heart of center Kevin Love, who had grown disgruntled with his situation. He signed Kevin Martin and got a full season out of Ricky Rubio, who was among the league leaders in assists and steals. Love was incredible statistically (26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.4 APG) and the team started out well, but well don’t cut it in the West, and even after winning 40 games (their highest win total since 2005), the playoffs were well out of reach. The writing was on the wall that Love wanted out in the offseason, and the deals were proposed to teams like Chicago, Boston, and (the most serious suitor at the time) Golden State. When LeBron re-arrived in Cleveland and interest piqued, a deal was finalized between the Wolves and Cavs, officially ending the K-Love era in Minneapolis (or, as they were jokingly called by bloggers, the era of the “Timber-whites”). It wasn’t the most memorable one, but Wolves fans are obviously going to notice Love’s absence at the Target Center.
Rick Adelman led a highly ranked offense in his last season of coaching before he retired, so now Saunders will move from the president’s seat down to courtside. Expect a more balanced style under Saunders where the games slow down a bit more, especially with their young new faces. The Wolves did not necessarily get fleeced by teams as they mounted quite an interesting pot of talent over the summer. Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two #1 overall picks, are now there, and if both of them break out, the Love deal will not be as one-sided as people think right now. Multi-talented forward Thaddeus Young has a player option next season, but he was definitely the Sixers’ best player down the stretch and he is a solid addition for any kind of team, good or bad. Martin had a very good year last season, but he is only good at shooting so his options are limited and probably overcompensated. Corey Brewer had a career year (51 points in a regular season game!) so I would not be surprised if the rookie Wiggins played behind him at the start of the season. Watch out also for Gorgui Dieng, who played very well at the end of his rookie year (5.0 RPG) and is likely to play in relief of perennial starting big NIkola Pekovic. The Zach LaVine draft pick was a smart project because of his insane athleticism, and Mo Williams will be a good insurance policy if Rubio gets hurt. And how serious does the team get when it comes to signing Rubio to an extension before he becomes an RFA next season?
PREDICTION: Once upon a time, Flip Saunders beloved for the coaching job he did in Minnesota back in the late 90’s and early 00’s as Kevin Garnett rose to superstardom and the Timberwolves, for the first time in their history, were not a pushover. Nearly two decades later, Saunders is back in as the head coach but he will have to embark on a talent-laden reset full of inexperience and untapped potential. I don’t like pegging Minnesota down this quickly, but despite grabbing Wiggins and Young through trades, this is going to be a lost season from the start. The offense will take a step back thanks to Love’s departure, and the defensive prowess just isn’t there. I don’t consider them the worst team in the NBA, for sure, but they just might finish with the worst record in the Western Conference. Just enjoy the Wiggins highlights from his rookie year regardless of the score. (5th in Northwest, 15th in Conference)
DENVER NUGGETS (Last season: 36-46, 4th in Northwest, 11th in Conference)
IN: Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari (injury), Erick Green, Alonze Gee, Josuf Nurkic (draft), Gary Harris (draft)
OUT: Anthony Randolph, Evan Fournier, Aaron Brooks, Jan Vesely
Last year, I wrote an article pointing out how strongly I felt that the Denver Nuggets made an irredeemable mistake when they let George Karl go instead of paying up to keep him on the team’s salary. Under Karl, the Nuggets never had a season with a winning percentage less than .537 and then-G.M. Masai Ujiri etched the opus on how to trade a superstar player by pillaging one valuable asset after the next over the course of several years from the New York Knicks in the 2011 Carmelo deal. Ujiri and Karl are both gone, and the new head coach last season was former Lakers and Pacers assistant Brian Shaw. Shaw was defensively minded as a coach, and his straight-laced style did not suit the wackiness of the Nuggets roster at all. Along with a culture shock on the court for players like Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and Wilson Chandler came a slew of injuries that cost them any inch of momentum they could have gained. Danilo Gallinari missed all of last season with a knee injury, and resident circus freak Javale McGee missed most of the season with a leg injury, Lawson missed 20 games due to an ankle problem, and signee Nate Robinson tore his knee, too.
It was no shock following them all season that the Nuggets won only 36 games, but historically, it is definitely a drastic drop from the previous regime under Karl. Shaw knows that he has to make this season count for something if the fans are going to buy into him. The talent is there, though. Faried was beastly winning the gold medal for Team USA in Spain in September. He got a new deal this month and he looks like a star already. Randy Foye was having a career-best year despite sharing point guard duties last season with Aaron Brooks many nights. Gallinari is a big X-factor simply because he has not played a minute of NBA ball in a year and half, and before the knee injuries, he was arguably the team’s best player. Lawson is close to elite as a point guard, Timofey Mozgov is a fierce rebounder in the same vein as Omer Asik, and foreign rookie Jusuf Nurkic is a sight to behold. J.J. Hickson is a posterizer inside, but he is coming off an injury and got suspended for drug use, so he has some ground to catch up. Hell, even Quincy Miller and Darrell Arthur are sneaky good! Tim Connelly felt he had to swing for something so he went in on a trade that brought back shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who was a key part of the team in 2011 and 2012. After peaking in Orlando, can he be the missing piece to getting back in the playoffs?
PREDICTION: The Nuggets remain in a sort of identity crisis still dangling from the previous years under George Karl because a lot of the players assembled bonded together playing in the wide-open, frenetic style that Karl encouraged. Shaw wanted to make them tougher, but the Nuggets got going pretty quickly after that due to injuries and poor game planning. Their offensive stats were inconsistent and their defense was bad outside of rebounding and blocks thanks to their spoils of big guys. Bringing in Afflalo and getting back Gallinari for the first time since 2013 will both be big lifts for Denver if they can duplicate previous efforts under Brian Shaw. The problem is that we have yet to see that consistency under Shaw, and the winning usually comes last in that case. Owner Stan Kroenke might grow restless if the losing ways start to trend this season. I don’t foresee another losing season because there is just too much to like out in the Rockies, but getting to the playoffs will be a tough hurdle. (3rd in Conference, 10th in Conference)
UTAH JAZZ (Last season: 25-57, 5th in Northwest, 15th in Conference)
IN: Gordon Hayward (re-signed), Trevor Booker, Carrick Felix (trade), Steve Novak (trade), Toure Murry, Brock Motum, Dante Exum (draft), Rodney Hood (draft), Quinn Snyder (head coach)
OUT: Marvin Williams, Richard Jefferson, Diante Garrett, Brandon Rush, Malcolm Thomas, Erik Murphy, John Lucas III, Ty Corbin (head coach)
If the Sacramento Kings are the definition of a miscellaneous team, then the Utah Jazz are the definition of a blase team. After a handful of forgettable seasons with a loaded front court that included Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, and Derrick Favors, the Jazz missed the playoffs in 2013 and free agency went to work on them. Millsap and Jefferson both departed and had career seasons at their new destinations while the new big boys were Favors, Enes Kanter, and the enigmatic Marvin Williams. The Jazz drafted a rookie point guard in Trey Burke to play alongside Alec Burks in the back court while the team’s go-to guy suddenly became Gordon Hayward formerly of Butler fame. This team was doomed from the start not only due to the uninspired talent but the fact that they were coached by the awful Ty Corbin. The Sixers and Bucks finished with worse records, but the Jazz came out the gate stinkin’ it up as they 4-19 in early December. The team did better as Burke learned how to play the point, followed by a shameful 3-16 run to finish the season out. Corbin, in no shock at all, was shown the door. The new head coach, after a lengthy search, was a familiar face but a surprising one in Quin Snyder, a former college coach who was forced to leave MIssouri due to a series of violations. Snyder stayed in the coaching game by going on to the D-League, the Euroleague, and becoming an assistant for the Lakers, Sixers, and Hawks.
No one is absolutely sure what Snyder will do in Utah when it comes to coaching style, but word is that he took a lot of inspiration from the San Antonio Spurs model of success. To that, I say, ‘Easier said than done.’ Tutoring Burke, who had a very good rookie season, will be vital to the team’s development as he continues to improve. He is the new NBA mighty mite, a more methodical version of Ty Lawson. Hayward had a really good season last year, but due to the market demands, he received close to a max extension from the Jazz when he signed an offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets. I find it difficult to see Hayward live up to that money despite the many attributes he brings because he is simply not a star player. Favors can be frustrating to watch sometimes, but he is slowly getting better and can rebound. The same cannot be said for Kanter or Burks, who are both going to be restricted free agents next season and are getting no guarantees from management. I did like them getting former Wizard Trevor Booker to help out inside and French center Rudy Gobert looked great in the FIBA World Cup. The Jazz’ went with length in the draft by taking Dante Exum, a 6’6″ point guard, and Rodney Hood, a 6’7″ shooting guard, and I think both have a great opportunity to get on the court between the two of them. I bet we will see more of Hood, though.
PREDICTION: The Jazz won 25 games last year, their worst season since 2004-05, right before they drafted Deron Williams. I don’t see any kind of white knight like that coming in to bring up the team’s hopes, and tying up the team’s salary cap to Gordon Hayward’s talents ensures that the Jazz will have to find that magic either through the draft or being on the good end of a one-sided trade. Exum got a lot of buzz going into the draft, but he is very raw and not ready to contribute. Maybe he and Burke can work down the road as a unique 1-2 combo with a tall SG and a jitterbug PG, but that is way down the line. For the present day, this team still feels like a borrowed one with players that are likely to be out of the mix by next year (I’m looking at YOU, Alec Burks!). The Jazz did play well in the middle of the season, so avoiding a rough start is a must if they are to do remotely anything this year. Snyder is probably a better more seasoned coach than Corbin was, but this is a rough turnaround. I wouldn’t be stunned if they won even less games than they did last year. (4th in Northwest, 14th in Conference)