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NBA Preview: Northwest Division

Sun, 10/19/2008 - 3:51pm

By Jon Pastuszek

(Teams listed in projected order of finish)

 
 


Deron Williams
 
1. Utah Jazz
Head Coach: Jerry Sloan
2007-2008 Record: 54-28 (Lost in Western Conference Semis to the Los Angeles Lakers)
Key Additions: Kosta Koufos (Draft), Brevin Knight (trade with Clippers)
Key Losses: Jason Hart (trade with Clippers)

Though not as major of a move as the Pau Gasol robbery from Memphis, Utah made an impactful deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, acquiring three point specialist Kyle Korver in exchange for the unhappy Gordan Giricek.

Going 18-17 in thier first 35 games, everything went right for the Jazz after the trade. With Kover, the team went 38-16, and regained their reputation as a well-oiled, efficient offensive machine. Korver will now be on the opening night roster, and expectations in Salt Lake are high for the Jazz as they will be shooting for their first NBA Championship.

The Jazz have a very promising lineup for the present and the future. Deron Williams has solidified himself as a top-five point guard in the NBA. His large frame and understanding of half-court offense is perfect for Jerry Sloan’s calculated and precise half-court attack. Where Williams goes, Utah follows.

Carlos Boozer is D-Will’s main weapon off the screen and roll, and his knack for scoring ambidextrously inside while also canning mid-range jumpers makes for quite a tandem. Undersized yes, but he has become a superb offensive player in spite of his lack of height.

Other than Boozer and Williams, the Jazz boast a bevy of players who can score. Mehmet Okur is one of the best shooting centers in all of hoops, and he pops out to the perimeter constantly in order to keep defenses honest. Korver is an assassin from outside and cannot be given any kind of room when shooting. Andrei Kirilenko has become an enigma over the years, but he still shows the flashes of talent that made the Jazz throw a max contract at him a while back.

For a different look this year, there’s talk of playing the perennial disgruntled Kirilenko off the bench as the sixth man. C.J. Miles, who was just inked to an extension, is getting consideration to start at the 3, which would put Kirilenko in a bench role for the first time as a veteran. AK-47 has said he’s on board with whatever Sloan has planned, and if that’s truly the case, the Jazz would have a potentially dangerous weapon to bring in off the pine.

All of this is fine and well, but can Utah finally get over the hump and win a title?

Utah has enjoyed some success in recent playoffs, but to me, these successes seem a little artificial. Two years ago, they needed the full seven games to dispatch of a solid, yet highly flawed Houston Rockets team. After slugging it out with Houston, the Jazz were fortunate to get the Cinderella story, Golden State, a team that truly could not match up with Carlos Boozer. In the Western Finals, they were eliminated, fairly easily I must add, by the eventual champs, the San Antonio Spurs.

Last year, the Jazz beat the same Rockets squad (this time sans Yao Ming) it had faced a year ago, before getting stomped by Kobe Bryant and his 96 free throws. Nobody could stay in front of him, and once he got past the first layer, he was hacked and fouled at a preposterous rate.

In both 06-07 and 07-08, the Jazz bowed out to teams with elite perimeter defenders. And after standing pat this offseason, they are still faced with the same inevitable situation come playoff time, and that to me is worrying.

The Jazz are a team that is more built for the long grind of the regular season and less so for the intensity of the playoffs. The Jazz lack the personnel to match-up with the Kobes, Manus and Dirks of the Western Conference and unless a move is made to pick up a true defensive stopper, Utah will once again fall victim to an elite team with an elite wing player. With Korver on board for a full year, Utah will be at the very least a top three team in the West, but are bound to fall flat again in the playoffs because of their lack of defenders.

Top Rookie: Kosta Koufos (Ohio State)
With no defensive presence inside, the Utah Jazz went forward and drafted Kosta Koufos, a player who reminds a lot of people of his Jazz teammate, center Mehmet Okur. Offensively, Kosta mixes 7 feet of height with great hands a nice shooting stroke from the perimeter. But, like Okur, Koufos is a run of the mill athlete with average footspeed, and may find defense difficult. Kosta won’t be getting too much run this year -- head coach Jerry Sloan is notorious for rooting his rookies to the pine – but he’s is very young at 19 and may blossom into a solid big man in the years to come.

Bold Prediction: C.J. Miles will have a breakout season.

While Miles has been slow to earn playing time after being selected early in the second round of the draft straight out of high school, he has steadily improved and shown flashes. He could be ready to put it altogether and make an impact for the team this year.

Projected Record: 55-27 (3rd in the Western Conference)

 
 


Rudy Fernandez
 

2. Portland Trailblazers
Head Coach: Nate McMillan
2007-2008 Record: 41-41
Key Additions: Rudy Fernandez (draft, signed from Spain), Greg Oden (back from injury), Jerryd Bayless (traded from Indiana in a draft day deal)
Key Losses: James Jones (FA to Miami)

The most intruging and potentially dangerous of the teams that didn’t make the playoffs lasts year is the Portland Trail Blazers.

This is the deepest team in the league, a roster that goes 12-deep. In the backcourt, Portland will use some combination of Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez and rookie Jerryd Bayless to run the show. Though none are considered elite point guards, they are all serviceable and their importance is somewhat lessened by the presence of Brandon Roy, who can bring up the ball and distribute effectively from the 2-guard position. Sergio in particular appears ready to step his game up, and should be helped by the familiar presence of Fernandez.

On the wings, Portland will also be solid. Roy is an All-Star, one of the best all around players in the NBA and he should enjoy another well rounded season as Portland’s best perimeter player. Travis Outlaw looked very good at times last year, and he will provide athleticism, scoring and clutch plays down the stretch of games. Off the bench, Martell Webster is inconsistent, but is capable of catching fire from three and rookie Rudy Fernandez is primed to be another versatile player who can score in a variety of ways. He could be a huge addition for the team.

Up front, the Blazers also look very good. Lamarcus Aldridge had a career year last year, putting it all together for the first time in his young NBA life. Channing Frye is another player who is athletic enough to get out in transition while also using a soft touch to spread out defenses. Joel Pryzbilla is out for a while with an injury, but when he returns, he should add size and toughness.

I saved the best for last. Greg Oden will finally be playing in the regular season and I for one am very excited to see what he can do. Oden will be a dunking machine, and I’m truly expecting him to throw down forcefully every time he’s near the hoop on offense. On defense, Oden will make an immediate impact with his great natural instincts and athleticism. Last year, the Blazers lacked a true center. This year, their true center has arrived and it should add a number of wins over last season.

GM Kevin Pritchard did a fantastic job in rebuilding this Portland team. They are young, talented, and deep. While not yet an elite team, Portland is going to be good enough to make the postseason this year, and I expect them to be the 8th seed in the ultra competitive, high stakes Western Conference playoffs.

Top Rookie: (Tie) Greg Oden (Ohio State), Jerryd Bayless (Arizona) and Rudy Fernandez (Spain)
The two rookies that I’m most excited to see play happen to both play for the same team. Greg Oden, who missed all of last year with microfacture surgery, is back and at full strength. We had to wait an extra year to see him, but better late than never, I say. A healthy Oden will be exactly what the Blazers need inside: Big, tough and defensively superior. At the very least, he’ll be a game changer on the defensive end with his already all-world rebounding and shot-blocking ability.

Rudy Fernandez impressed everybody that watched him play during the Olympics in Beijing this year. He was a great player in Europe (playing in Spain for Joventut), and he lived up to the hype when he was put on the world stage for everyone to see. Fernandez is a slithery player who is athletic enough to burst his way inside and finish with controlled finesse or violent authority. Not adept off the dribble, Fernandez instead gets his buckets by building up momentum before the catch, and then shifting his way into openings. He's also a terrific passer who's sure to draw comparisons to Manu Ginobili. The NBA game is different than the FIBA game and he will probably need some time to adjust, but I believe his game translates pretty well into the NBA and he should a great pickup for the Blazers.

Jerryd Bayless was somebody who slipped a little bit on draft night, but GM Kevin Pritchard made a deal to bring him over to Portland. He’s young and will need to acclimate to the NBA, but he’s an exciting player who has tremendous skill and athleticism. He’s expected to be the point-guard for years to come, but he probably will need a year before his impact is truly felt.

Bold Prediction: The Rose Garden becomes one of the best homecourt advantages in the league again.

Through thick and thin, Portland loves their Blazers. Since their epic 2001 game seven collapse against the Lakers, Blazers fans have had to endure the JailBlazers era and the ensuing rebuilding process that followed. Now, the Blazers are back in the playoff hunt with a team of likeable and talented young players. The Blazers will have a big homecourt advantage from the start, and the Rose Garden will once again be a place that nobody wants to step into.

Projected Record: 47-35 (8th in Western Conference)

3. Denver Nuggets
Head Coach: Head Coach: George Karl
2007-2008 Record: 50-32 (Lost the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers)
Key Additions: Chris Anderson (FA from New Orleans), Renaldo Balkman (traded from New York)
Key Losses: Marcus Camby (traded to LA Clippers), Eduardo Najera (FA to Nets)

The Nuggets are one of those teams that are better in video games than they are in real life. They have two superstars, Alan Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, a duo of athletic scorers, J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza, and a decent frontcourt pair, Kenyon Martin and Nene. On paper, this seems like a pretty good team, right?

It may seem like a good team, but the reality is that Denver is not going to match its win total of 50 from last year. The reason is simple: There’s no more Marcus Camby to clean up the defensive mess. To avoid the luxury tax, Denver traded Marcus Camby to the Clippers for nothing, but received a $10 million trade exception that can be used this season. Due to his age and his salary, the Nuggets obviously saw him as expendable as they are possibly preparing to shake up the squad in order to quickly rebuild for the future.

Even though Camby is gone, the talent is still there for the Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are two of the most gifted offensive players in the league, and their explosive scoring ability alone is enough to keep in them in any single game. J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza are two other players that can fill it up as well and Smith especially has the ability to score 30+ on some nights.

Denver’s ability to outscore their opponents will win them some games, but Denver is going to be in some serious trouble on the other end of the court.

Brittle as he was, Marcus Camby was the glue that kept the flimsy Nuggets defensive structure in tact. His rebounding and shot-blocking made opponents wary of driving the paint, and a lot of Denver’s weaknesss in this sense were covered up. ‘Melo has never seemed too interested in playing defense, and A.I. is a risk taker in passing lanes who gets beat badly when he comes up empty on gambles. In fact, other than the newly acquired Renaldo Balkman, nobody is really capable of staying in front of their man. Last year, the Camby Man would cover up those mistakes on the perimeter. Without him, the Nuggets will need to play with a new defensive focus and attitude. To me, considering George Karl hasn’t coached defense since he was in Milwaukee and hardly anybody on this has ever played any defense in their life, improving defensively seems like an impossible proposition.

The Nuggets are currently in a tough position. They have a team that as currently constructed, is not a threat to win a title. By trading Iverson and his expiring contract, the Nuggets can reload around Carmelo Anthony and make another attempt to break through the West. Or, by keeping Iverson, they can use their large trade exception to acquire another piece in order to make a run this season. With the defensive situation looking as precarious as it does, I would expect the Nuggs to opt for the former and try to put some new players around its young star, Carmelo Anthony.

Top Rookie: Sonny Weems (Arkansas)
In a cost-cutting move to avoid paying the luxury tax this year, the Nuggs sent their first round pick to Charlotte, giving them no selections in the draft. Denver did manage to pick up Chicago’s 39th overall pick, Sonny Weems, in exchange for a future 2nd rounder. Weems has the potential to be a good defensive player on the perimeter with his sick athleticism and quickness, but is very raw on offense. Weems may see some time in Denver’s running attack, but will need to acquire some better fundamentals if he is to stick around in the league.

Bold Prediction: George Karl loses his job mid-season, A.I. gets traded before the deadline.

The Nuggets need to take a good look at themselves in the mirror. Under head coach George Karl, this is a team that has been knocked out of the first-round three years in a row. Even with the dominant defensive presence of Camby, the Nuggs still couldn’t get it done. Let’s face it – this Melo-A.I. thing clearly isn’t working. The Nuggs brass made the first step in blowing this team up by dealing away Camby and his hefty contract. Now, in A.I.’s contract year, they need to offload the ageless superstar while they can in order to acquire some younger pieces that compliment Carmelo Anthony. Once A.I. is gone, there is no real point of keeping Karl either, a coach who has been unable to reach his players to play defense. Denver will ultimately realize this, and pull the cord on this entire experiment.

Projected Record: 41-41 (10th in the Western Conference

4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Head Coach: Randy Whittman
2007-2008 Record: 22-60
Key Additions: Mike Miller, Kevin Love, (both acquired in draft day deal with Memphis), Rodney Carney (traded from Philadelphia)
Key Losses: Marco Jaric, Antoine Walker, Greg Buckner (all dealt to Memphis)

Last year, GM Kevin McHale received praise multiple times in one season for the first time in half of a decade. First, he delighted every Boston fan by handing over Kevin Garnett for Al Jefferson and some basketballs in a trade that brought the Celtics their 17th championship banner. Then, McHale received more accolades – this time from his own fans – for putting together a draft day deal that sent USC standout O.J. Mayo to Memphis in exchange for, among others, UCLA power forward Kevin Love and Memphis sharpshooter Mike Miller.

The trade should instantly turn the T-Wolves into a dangerous outside shooting team. Miller is one of the best three-point shooters in the league (career 40%), and he is accompanied by several other defense stretching players, like Rashad McCants, Randy Foye and rookie Kevin Love. The threat of three points will in turn make teams hesitate in double teaming Al Jefferson, one of the best young big men in the league.

McHale was applauded for bringing in Love and Miller, but I have my doubts about the logic of the deal. The Timberwolves have invested their future in an undersized center (Jefferson) and an undersized power forward (Love), both of whom are incapable of challenging defensively in the paint. Big Al and Love (sounds like a country band) are both hampered by poor lateral quickness and their naturally heavy set frames anchor their feet to the floor, rendering them as non-factors in the shot-blocking department.

Minnesota doesn’t exactly have any defensive menaces on the perimeter, and there will be many situations where Jefferson and Love will need to rotate over to challenge penetration. The pair may be fundamentally sound offensively, but are they honestly going to be able to stop anybody from scoring? I highly doubt it, and I feel that this is going to be a glaring flaw for a team that put the Love deal together create a championship foundation.

Minnesota is going to be a decent offensive team and terrible defensive team in 08-09. McHale made some faintly encouraging moves in the offseason, but this is a team that is still far away from being discussed in any playoff discussions.

Top Rookie: Kevin Love (UCLA)

Bold Prediction: With space to work with down on the block, Al Jefferson appears in his first All-Star game.

Al Jefferson is a throwback player who plays with his back to the basket, using an array of old-time moves to score. Jefferson was underrated in his final season in Boston, and he’s extremely underrated in the smaller market of Minnesota. Last season, Big Al was the 12th most efficient player according to John Hollinger’s PER rankings, ahead of many other notable bigmen.

Projected Record: 24-58 (13th in the Western Conference)

5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Head Coach:
P.J. Carlesimo
2007-2008 Record: 20-62 (As the Seattle Supersonics)
Key Additions: Russell Westbrook (Draft), D.J. White (Draft trade), Kyle Weaver (traded from Charlotte), Joe Smith (traded from Cleveland), Desmond Mason (traded from Milwaukee)
Key Losses: Luke Ridnour (traded to Milwaukee), Adrian Griffin (traded to Cleveland), Donyell Marshall (waived, signed with Philadelphia)

The Seattle Sonics are just a memory, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are now a reality. Clay Bennett lied and conned his way into putting the 1979 NBA Champions into his hometown, Oklahoma City,

Outside of Oklahoma City, the only people who should be happy about the move of a once proud Seattle franchise are the Charlotte Bobcats. With the Thunder coming into existence, the Bobcats now have the second worst team name, logo and color scheme in the NBA.

Last year, the Thunder Sonics compiled a measly 20 wins, good for worst record in the NBA. New GM Sam Presti made a number of moves to get younger and clear cap, and the Sonics certainly felt the effects of the rebuilding effort in the loss column. For Sonics fans, it was a true nightmare scenario. Seatte fans watched helplessly as their owner ruthlessly went forward with the move to Oklahoma City, while also knowing that this was the last Sonics team they would be able to watch.

Everything is new for the Thunder this year: new city, new name, new logo, new unis and a new start. Their end of year record, you ask? That will remain the same. Oklahoma City is still in the developmental stages of their rebuilding process, and will need at least another season in the doldrums in order to pick up another top-five pick and get better.

As awful as this team will be, there is rationale for tuning in to watch them frequently. A year older, and a year wiser, Kevin Durant, last year’s Rookie of the Year, will be a much better player than he was in his first year.

Out of the gate, Durant struggled mightily to adjust to the NBA game last season, shooting one poorly selected shot after another. As the number one scoring option for Seattle, Durant was hounded by opposing teams’ best and most savvy perimeter defenders. Yet, as the season advanced and the kid gained more experience, Durant settled into a nice groove and became increasingly efficient offensively. After clanging a whopping 62% of his shots in the first 56 games of the year, Durant shot 47.6% overall post All-Star break and 49% in March and April (23 ppg). Before you dismiss Durant’s season as a disappointment from an effectiveness standpoint, remember: Durant was the number one scoring option on a horrible team -- at the tender age of 19, no less. Those struggles were to be expected. K.D. is one of those people who were born to play basketball, and he will be an improved player in all aspects over last year.

The Thunder will have very little pressure from an Oklahoma City fan base that is just stoked to have an NBA team in their city. Along with New Jersey, the Thunder will be the favorite in the Demar DeRozan (yes, he’s that good) sweepstakes in next May’s lottery selection.

Top Rookie: Russell Westbrook (UCLA)
Before moving to Oklahoma City, the Seattle Sonics made a surprise move in drafting UCLA’s sophomore combo-guard, Russell Westbrook. The lightning fast, uber-athletic 6-3 guard boasts a dazzling crossover and first step, which allow him to penetrate into the heart of defenses quite easily. With Luke Ridnour shipped off to Milwaukee, Westbrook will be immediately thrust into role of starter on a team that is devoid of point-guards.
Russell is being projected as the Thunder’s point man of the future, and much like Durant did last year, he will have to learn to run an NBA offense on the fly. It’s going to be a rocky year for the rookie point guard.

Bold Prediction: In lieu of the move, the United States geographical governing body will deem Oklahoma as part of the Northwest region, in order to agree with the NBA alignment structure.

Everything about the Thunder is silly… Their name, their uniforms, their logo… and the fact that they’re in the Northwest division. NBA fans will be reminded of Seattle’s relocation to Oklahoma everyday when they read the standings. Try telling residents of Seattle and Portland that the dry, arid climate of Oklahoma is in agreement with typical Northwest weather.

Projected Record: 20-62 (15th in the Western Conference)

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