I'm going to try to hammer out my NBA previews over the next two days, we'll start with the least-important divisions and work our way back east to the Atlantic. Up now is the Northwest division.
The storyline for this division is the colossal downgrade of Denver, two young teams on the rise, Utah's Boozer crisis and one young team firmly entrenched in the cellar.
After the jump we'll go team by team with roster updates and a prediction for their record in 2008-2009.
1. Utah Jazz (50-32)
The Jazz pretty much stayed the course in the offseason. They matched an offer for sharp-shooter C.J. Miles, extended Deron Williams and traded for Brevin Knight to back him up. Williams is one of the best points in the league and only getting better. The only other veteran squad in this division took a giant leap backward, so the Jaz remain on top for the time being.
The big question mark for Utah is Carlos Boozer. He had a poor showing at the Olympics and rumors will swirl all season about his status for next year. I think the distraction alone is going to cost this team a couple of games, if they wind up moving him, it'll cost them more.
I like the fact that Korver is going to have an expanded role on the team. I also don't expect them to duplicate their unbelievable home/away splits from last season (37-4 at home, 17-24 on the road). Team blog worth checking out: True Blue Jazz
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (44-38)
If you're building a team from scratch, there are certain things you'd want to compete: a big-man who can dominate down low, a sharp shooter who can knock down open shots created by the big down low, a point who can distribute the ball, a second big to clean the glass. If you can effectively fill those four positions, you're on the road to being a playoff team.
This Summer, the T-Wolves added one of the best shooters in the league, in Mike Miller. They drafted the most-skilled big to come out of college in years in Kevin Love, a guy who should dominate the glass and make their low-post beast, Al Jefferson, even better with his outside jumper and interior passing. I think they've filled three of the four key positions, leading right into the key to their season, the play of Randy Foye. If he and/or Sebastian Telfair can play the point adequately, this team will be fighting for a playoff spot. The final starting spot will probably be occupied by a combination of Rashard McCants (40% shooter from three who can light it up), or Corey Brewer (top-notch defender with no offensive game).
The T-Wolves are also putting together a representative bench. Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith and David Harrison provide the depth in the front court with Telfair, Rodney Carney and the odd man out between McCants and Brewer in the backcourt and on the wings. I like Minnesota to make a big push this season.Team blog worth checking out: TWolves Blog
3. Portland Trailblazers (43-39)
I realize the Blazers were a surprise .500 team last season, and yes, I also realize I'm only predicting a 2-win improvement even with Greg Oden's long-awaited debut. There's a simple reason for this, the Blazers played over their heads last year. This is another team with a crazy home/road split (28-13 at home, 13-28 on the road).
Brandon Roy is a legit player, probably a notch below All Star talent, and at 24 he represents the veteran leadership of this team, which is kind of the problem. Portland has stockpiled young talent, and even mixed in some foreign blood, including Rudy Fernandez who should see significant time. I just think it's going to take some time for them to figure out who needs/deserves the minutes, and it's going to take their centerpiece, Greg Oden, a few years to really get the NBA game. He should be a defensive force from the get-go, but his offensive game is going to take longer to develop, possibly a lot longer.
A 43-39 record coupled with a playoff berth is a huge step forward for this team, and I expect them to take it. But picking them to win 50 with this young roster and so many unanswered questions about their rotation is asking too much.Team blog worth checking out: Blazers Edge
4. Denver Nuggets (38-44)
No team in the NBA took a bigger step in the wrong direction this offseason than the Nuggets. Two years ago, they rolled the dice to get one of the best talents of our generation, Allen Iverson. The hope was that he'd find a way to mesh with budding superstar, Carmelo Anthony, and their combined offensive firepower would propel an uber-explosive offense to a championship.
Well, while Iverson has been more than advertised in Denver, they haven't been able to make it work. They had two shots at it, then their owner decided it wasn't worth the luxury tax penalties to keep the team together. He basically sold Marcus Camby to the Clippers for nothing more than cap relief and now the team which scored 147 points on the Sonics and lost last season has absolutely no defensive identity. This experiment is going to get ugly quick and I'll be shocked if Iverson isn't moved before the season is over. I'm predicting a ten-game swing in the wrong direction for AI and Melo.Team blog worth checking out: The Nugg Doctor
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-64)
New city, same garbage team.
There are plenty of prognosticators out there who sincerely believe Kevin Durant is going to be a star in this league. In fact, there are plenty who look at nothing but scoring average and think he's already there. I'm not one of them. All I see is a 6'10" volume shooter who's too tall and doesn't handle the ball well-enough to be a shooting guard, too weak and not a good enough defender to play small forward, and far too weak to play power forward. He's the ultimate tweener who really only does two things well, take shots and make free throws. Sure, on this hapless squad he's capable of averaging more than 25 per game, but on most nights the guy he's "guarding" is going to match him point for point.
There are a couple of guys I like on this squad as complimentary players, namely Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and possibly Russell Westbrook. Wilcox is a hard worker down on the blocks, Green and Westbrook are exceptional athletes and top notch defenders. The biggest problem facing OKCT is outside shooting. Durant and Green combined to go 80/281 from three, 28%. That's too many threes from two guys who can't shoot them.
If you want a sure bet, OKCT in the lottery is as safe as it gets.Team blog worth checking out: Supersonic Soul
Up next, the Pacific Division.