When it comes to the Northwest Division, it’s Oklahoma City and, then, everybody else.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Portland Trail Blazers
3. Denver Nuggets
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
5. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder – In 2010, the Thunder was a Nick Collison-box-out away from taking over the series between them and the Los Angeles Lakers. The result: they lose in six games. In 2011, the Thunder made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. So I expect big things from the Thunder this season. I won’t go so far as to say that they will win the Finals, but they have a great shot. Kevin Durant is a top 3 player in this league, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive and, at times, erratic point guards in the league, and James Harden is one of the best at coming off the bench and playing crunch-time minutes. The value of having three very good players surrounded by an over-rated Kendrick Perkins and an up-and-coming Serge Ibaka give the Thunder a great chance at closing out opponents in the fourth quarter. Don’t forget that they still have [Nick] Collison, Thabo Sefalosha, and Eric Maynor in the rotation. Durant might average 35 points per game this season. I might be going out on a limb by saying that, but I have a strange feeling that he is going to be able to do whatever he wants to opponents. He might even become a more dominant player than LeBron James.
Player(s) to Watch – James Harden – He is good enough to be inserted into the starting lineup, but head coach Scott Brooks loves the fact that Harden can come off the bench and still be effective. Harden has the best play-making ability on the team and can play some defense, too. He can knock down three-pointers and get to the basket. He is everything, and more, that you expect from your two-guard. Look for him to have a big season.
Why they will finish 1st in the Northwest Division – They had an amazing season in 2011, so why can’t they have another amazing season in 2012? The team that made it to the conference finals a year ago is the same team that will take the floor when the 2012 season starts. Like I said earlier: It’s Oklahoma City and, then, everybody else.
Portland Trail Blazers – It’s tough to choose who should finish in second place in the division. I gave the Blazers the edge over the [Denver] Nuggets because IF, Greg Oden is healthy, the Blazers might finish ahead of Oklahoma City. O.K., I was kidding about that last part, but if indeed Oden is healthy and productive the Blazers will be a top 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Even with the sad retirement of Brandon Roy, the Blazers compensated that loss with the addition of Jamal Crawford. They also traded Andre Miller for Raymond Felton on draft night and Felton will help them a lot more than Miller did last season. Felton is a better shooter and play-maker than the older Miller, who is on the last leg of his career. LaMarcus Aldridge is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging 21.8 ppg and 8.8 rpg. Wesley Matthews is going to be a nice player, but they want his rebound and assist totals to rise after he averaged 3.2 rpg and 2 apg last season. The Blazers have a nice team.
Player(s) to Watch – Greg Oden – I really want to see Oden stay healthy, I really do. He is only 23 years old, but how old are his knees after having multiple surgeries? Since being drafted in 2007, Oden has played in only 82 games. Before he got hurt during the ’09-’10 season, Oden was averaging 11 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 2.3 bpg. If healthy, Oden is the difference-maker that the Blazers are missing right now.
Why they will finish 2nd in the Northwest Division – I am not convinced they are better than OKC. Aldridge is beast, but the Blazers don’t have much beyond that. Marcus Camby is too old to make a difference. That’s why, if Oden is healthy, he and Aldridge can form a formidable frontline in the Western Conference. Matthews and Crawford are volume scorers and Felton will run the point. They just aren’t better than OKC, though.
Denver Nuggets – If they can get their “team” back from China, they will finish 3rd in the division. If, for some reason, they can’t retrieve their players, they might finish 4th or 5th. After the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony last season, they went on a 17-6 run to close out the season. The additions of Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari make the Nuggets a more balanced team both offensively and defensively. They re-signed Nene and Arron Affalo, and both of those players are impact players. They drafted rebounding-machine Kenneth Faried and sweet-shooting Jordan Hamilton, and signed free agents Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer. Ty Lawson is one of the more underrated point guards in the game, J.R. Smith is instant offense off the bench and the Chris “Birdman” Andersen is still the fan-favorite. This is a roster full of good NBA players and their rotation can go 12-deep if need be. Don’t forget, they got Andre Miller in a draft-night trade and Kenyon Martin is looking for a way to get out of China.
Player(s) to Watch – Arron Affalo – Now that he has gotten his money, he needs to show that he is worth that money. He has done nothing but improve in each of his first four seasons in the league. He is an underrated defender, solid three-point shooter, and clutch shot-maker. With Anthony gone, Affalo has become the team leader. I think he can handle it. Denver is no joke.
Why they will finish 3rd in the Northwest Division – They have no bona-fide superstar, and OKC and Portland do. The Nuggets are the most balanced team in the division, but you need that one guy who is able to take over a game when it comes to winning playoff games.
Minnesota Timberwolves – I think it’s safe to say that the Timberwolves have not been the same since Kevin Garnett was traded in the summer of 2007. Since then, the Timberwolves have been one of the worst teams in the NBA, going 78-250 since that trade. They have had several head coaches, such as: Dwane Casey, Kevin McHale (twice), Randy Wittman, and Kurt Rambis. None of them have been able to produce a team with a record that was even close to .500. Now Rick Adelman will take the reins. And there is no shortage of potential talent on this team. This is a team full of past lottery picks: All-Star Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson, Darko Milicic, Derrick Williams, Anthony Randolph, and Ricky Rubio. Love has been the most productive player out of all these lottery picks. Williams and Rubio are rookies, but should have a big hand in whether the T-Wolves have a successful season or not. The Wolves had no problem scoring last season (101.1 ppg good for 1oth in the league), but they couldn’t stop a cold on defense. They allowed an average of 107.7 ppg, finishing dead last in the league in points given up per game. Adelman will look to change the culture in Minny.
Player(s) to Watch – Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio – Williams was the #2 pick in the 2011 draft. He figures to be in the rotation when the season starts for the Wolves on Monday. He has had trouble in practice guarding small forwards, forcing Adelman to play Williams at the power forward position, where he is a bit smaller than the majority of NBA power forwards. He has shown the ability to shoot the ball from the three-point line and can take players off the dribble. The only player that might have a harder transition to the NBA-game is Rubio. Now, I go against all the nay-sayers that say he won’t be very successful at the NBA because the importance of a point guard that has the ability to penetrate the defense is just as, or more important, than having a point guard that can score. Rubio is a pretty good defender as well. If he can make progress throughout the season, score a few points here and there, he already passes the ball really well; I feel that he might be a candidate for Rookie of the Year. But Williams might get that award.
Why they will finish 4th in the Northwest Division – They are, probably, the second most talented the division behind OKC, but I feel that the Wolves will be a very improved team. After winning only 17 games last season, the only place they can go is up. The addition of J.J. Barea should not go unnoticed. He will be a very important player for the T-Wolves. They are going to be a fun team to watch this season.
Utah Jazz – The Jazz have been one of the most consistent franchises since Jerry Sloan became the head coach. But 2011 was a different story. Sloan stepped down as coach during the season and then management traded away its star player Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for veteran point guard Devin Harris and rookie power forward Derrick Favors. The Jazz finished the season with Ty Corbin as the head coach and a 39-43 record. The Jazz have a roster that went from consistent veterans to unproven players in the time span of two years. Al Jefferson is their best player but he hasn’t even been an All-Star in his seven seasons as a professional. Harris is a nice point guard, but he didn’t turn the Nets into a winner when he was there. The rest of the roster is solid, but unproven from top to bottom. This might be a tough season for the fans in Salt Lake.
Player(s) to Watch – Derrick Favors – He has a lot of potential. He is a good defensive player but his offense needs work. His playing time didn’t change once he was traded from New Jersey to Utah (19.5 mpg to 20.2 mpg) and neither did his production. Kevin Love played alongside Al Jefferson for two seasons when Jefferson was in Minnesota. Once Jefferson was traded to Utah, Love became an All-Star. I am not saying that Jefferson restricts the development of young players, but you have to think about this a little bit. Jefferson is not the greatest “team” player there is in the league and playing alongside Favors, he might hinder some of Favors’ numbers this season.
Why they will finish 5th in the Northwest Division – They are a good defensive team, but their offense is not that good. They drafted scoring guard Alec Burks and Turkish big-man Enes Kanter in the 2011 draft. I don’t know how much Kanter will play this season, but I know he is itching to get out there after he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last season after Kanter enrolled at Kentucky. Burks should be a nice player for the Jazz if he gets decent playing time. I don’t feel this roster is as talented as the other rosters in this division.