Hello Pacific! Except that we’re going to start with the Northwest Division before heading to the Pacific, sorry L.A. Four of last season’s playoff spots came from the Northwest Division, yet none were higher than the fourth seed. Interesting. Let’s start with the Denver Nuggets.
In 2003, the Nuggets struck gold when they drafted Carmelo Anthony. Last season, he and Chauncey Billups led the team to 53 wins, which in a competitive Western Conference, got them the fourth seed. Their opponent, the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz, who shared the same record as the Nuggets, dismantled Denver before the Lakers mopped the floor with the Jazz. Denver has plenty of interior talent with guys like Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Anderson. Unfortunately, the latter two have had various injuries, and Nene himself hasn’t exactly been a beacon of health. On paper, the Nuggets had one of the best rosters in the league last season. Between injuries and rotation problems, the Nuggets of last season were significantly worse than the Nuggets of two seasons ago, who nearly toppled the Lakers in the Conference Finals. Denver’s real problem right now is Carmelo Anthony. Rather, his demands to be traded. Every team in the NBA now realizes just how terrible the “Lebron Factor” can be in this league. Overnight, a city can go from being a perennial title contender to one hoping for a playoff berth come April. It’s a scary situation indeed. Since the Denver-New Jersey-Utah-Charlotte trade fell through, Carmelo is still a Nugget for the time being. However, he’ll almost certainly be gone by the trade deadline in February. Predicting the Nuggets’ success this season is nearly impossible. If Carmelo stays for the whole season, the team could do well. If he gets traded tomorrow, who knows what the Nuggets will get in return? They want young talent and draft picks. If he stays until the deadline, and then gets traded, who the heck knows? The fact of the matter is that Carmelo won’t stay the whole season. Whatever players the Nuggets can get for him will hopefully help keep the Nuggets in playoff contention. Therefore, I’d give the Nuggets at least 40 wins and hope for the best.
The Utah Jazz may have taken one of the bigger losses in the Northwest Division as they lost Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer. Getting Raja Bell won’t be this team’s lifeline, and frankly, Al Jefferson needs to have a very strong season after underperforming in San Antonio in order to be worthy of the basketball acumen that he’s garnered over the past few years. With Andrei “AK-47” Kirilenko’s contract expiring this year, he needs to stay healthy and perform at the level he’s been accustomed to (12+ points per game). Deron Williams is a fantastic point guard, but like the rest of this team, is somewhat injury prone. It’s hard to predict exactly how well the Jazz will fare this season because they haven’t gotten better but also haven’t gotten so much worse that their playoff berth has been lost. They won 53 games last year, and I think they’re looking at around 45 wins this year.
The Portland Trailblazers had a solid 50-win season despite injury after injury. The NBA had to grant the team permission to have more than 15 players on the roster because so many were injured throughout the season. With Rudy Fernandez wanting out, this team could suffer from chemistry problems. The biggest problem, however, is Greg Oden. If he’s ever healthy enough to play a full season, he could be an All-Star Center. As it stands, his NBA career has been flashes of greatness meshed with massive amounts of recoveries. Brandon Roy’s return for the playoffs last season was admirable – he fought hard to help his team. If he’s healthy, he’ll continue to be an amazing guard. Andre Miller is another solid backcourt player that the Blazers have. Let’s face it, a 52-point performance is impressive by any standards. This team has plenty of depth in its roster, but it all hinges on how healthy the players can stay. Every time one of their starters goes down, the rotation changes, and changes, and changes. This kept the Blazers from developing any kind of long-term synergy. Hopefully, that won’t happen this season, as the Blazers will likely have another 50-win season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder barely made the playoffs last season, but they fought valiantly against the Lakers. Durant had a lot of trouble, and the reigning scoring champion wasn’t able to rain down on the Lakers like he had during most of the regular season. That being said, after leading Team USA to the gold medal at the FIBA World Championships, he seems ready to emerge as a true title contender. Despite repeatedly being compared to Lebron James, and even considered better than him by some, Kevin Durant is NOT, I repeat, NOT the best player in the NBA. His defensive game is nowhere that of Kobe, James, Wade, or some of the other greats. Durant also has a tendency to flirt with too many turnovers. He also lacks the amazing spacing that guys like James have, and this prevents him from being able to rack up assists. To his credit, Durant can rebound the ball very well. By no means am I saying that Kevin Durant is overrated – he’s an extraordinary talent who could win the MVP award as early as this year. However, he alone will not be responsible for the Thunder’s success. That credit belongs to his entire team. After being the NBA’s doormat for several seasons in Seattle, the Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City and the weather suddenly got darker for another NBA teams. The Thunder finally made the
playoffs, and most of us enjoyed watching their success. However, when a 50-win team just makes the 8th seed, you have to admit that they’re playing in a very competitive conference, and that means they’ll have to do significantly better this season in order to avoid facing the Lakers in the first round once again. I, like many others, have jumped on the Thunder bandwagon, and could see them have a 60-win season. With the talent and depth of their roster, they could go so far as the second seed in the Western Conference. I’d love to see them face the Lakers in the Conference Finals. The question is, if they make it that far, can they actually win?
Lastly, we come to the city where NBA teams come in expecting to win before they ever hit the floor. Hear that lone wolf howling? See that ad in the newspaper “guaranteeing” not winning a title this year? Wishing hopelessly you could see Ricky Rubio in an NBA uniform? You must be in Minnesota! Say hello to the Timberwolves. They rivaled the Nets for last season’s worst record but managed to get three more victories than New Jersey. Kevin Love is currently facing an injury, but he’s definitely a good player. Michael Beasley will fit in nicely with this team – why? – simply because this is a team of misfits out to prove something. Signing Darko Milicic to a four year deal worth nearly $20 million dollars is a risk only the T-Wolves would take. Sure, he was drafted second after Lebron James. Sure, he’s shown flashes of glory every now and then. Sure, he’s nowhere a big a bust as Kwame Brown, who was, after all, drafted first by Michael Jordan. In all fairness, guys deserve a second chance, and both Milicic and Brown are getting it this season. If Milicic can perform, he might just emerge as the leader of the pack. He’ll have plenty of time, changes, and a starting spot (most likely) to give it a shot. Anthony Tolliver’s signing with the Wolves is a pleasant addition. He displayed significant talent in scoring and rebounding (12.3 and 7.3, respectively) with the Golden State Warriors, and his “Decision, Part 2” (see youtube) was hilarious. On one hand, I respect this team for trying when so many factors are working against them. On the other, any team that openly says they won’t be winning anything this season needs to be reminded of what it means to be competitive. In the NBA, you simply can’t be competitive unless you aspire to win a title. If the Timberwolves can win 20 games this season, they’ll have improved their record by a whopping 33%. The operative word is “if”, and in Minnesota, when it comes to basketball, one should never take anything for granted.
So that’s it for the Northwest Division. Up next, the Pacific!