Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC won its first division title last season before bowing out in the conference finals, and the expectation around town is that this year’s squad is capable of advancing to the NBA Finals and challenging for a championship. Of course, several other teams in the West also feel that way (starting with the defending champion Mavericks, who bounced the Thunder from the playoffs in five games), but Oklahoma City has as good a chance as any to win the West this year. Kevin Durant has won the past two NBA scoring crowns, and there’s no reason to expect a drop-off in production this season. Russell Westbrook continued his ascension to the league’s elite in 2010-11, posting career highs across the board. Perhaps most encouraging, Westbrook’s field goal percentage rose for the second year in a row, from a dismal 40% in his rookie season to 42% in 2009-10 to 44% last year. That’s why you know that Westbrook’s bump in scoring (16 PPG in 2009-10 to 22 PPG in 2010-11) wasn’t a fluke—he played pretty much identical minutes per game, yet shot better from the field and got to the line more (7.7 times per game last year compared to 5.1 the year before). There’s a family atmosphere in OKC, and like any set of brothers, Durant and Westbrook won’t always get along. There does seem to be a hint of truth to the rumors of a Durant-Westbrook power struggle, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to derail this team. Both guys are only 23 years old, and last year was the first time they had truly contended at the NBA level. Expect Westbrook to learn from his benching in last year’s playoffs and for this team to win the division and lock up a high seed. How the Thunder fare beyond that, though, will depend on the supporting cast, especially presumptive third-scorer James Harden. Harden, the third pick in the ’09 draft, really came on in the playoffs last year, but fell short in a couple crucial moments, tallying just 14 points, total, in Game 3 and 4 losses to Dallas. The good thing about guys like Harden and Serge Ibaka, both 22, is that they are still young with room for improvement. Both have taken steps in their careers so far, but the next one—from decent role player to legitimate third/fourth guys on a championship team—is the hardest one to make. [Editor's Note: Throw in known-entity role players like Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed, and Oklahoma City is the only team that one can argue has more good depth than the Bulls, which could become quite important in a tough season that is likely to require a little more than normal from most teams' benches.]
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Portland Trail Blazers: It’s beginning to look like the Blazers are cursed. Brandon Roy was forced to retire due to a chronic knee injury (though at least that answers the question of whether they would amnesty him), and we all know Greg Oden’s injury history. Now that LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart ailment has resurfaced, the three most important Blazers of the last decade have all been struck with tremendous bad luck. Portland will press on, however, behind a deep, rugged frontcourt. Assuming Aldridge will be okay to start the season, he’ll be joined Marcus Camby (still a force on defense, but rapidly declining on offense), Kurt Thomas (another ancient banger), Gerald Wallace (defensive maven who plays bigger than his listed 6-foot-7) and flashy Frenchman Nicolas Batum. The problem Portland faced last season, however, was that, apart from Aldridge, they couldn’t rely on anyone to consistently score inside, and that led to a FG% that ranked 24th in the league, and second-to-last among playoff teams. Portland’s guards are slightly above average: Wesley Matthews surprisingly played up to his contract last season, and Raymond Felton is solid if unspectacular at the point. Jamal Crawford will be fine for them as long as they keep him in the proper role—a scorer off the bench who can carry the offense for brief periods. This team won’t win a title any time soon, but they’re good enough to pull a first-round upset (and maybe more) if they get the right matchup in the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: No team has had a busier (or stranger) off-season than the Nuggets. Usually, a team in Denver’s position would look to build on the success of an 18-7 regular season finish (after trading Carmelo Anthony) and a close playoff loss to the Thunder (Denver’s four losses were by an average of four points). But the lockout crippled Denver’s roster, meaning that their squad will have a very different look when they take the court in 2011-12. Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened, and what still needs to happen:
-Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and J.R. Smith--all key pieces of last year’s playoff run--signed with the Chinese Basketball Association during the lockout and won’t be able to return to the NBA until March because their Chinese contracts don’t include escape clauses. While all three were free agents, it’s likely Denver would have re-signed two, if not all, of them, considering that they are still way under the cap with a week to go until the season begins.
-The Nuggets sent point guard Raymond Felton to Portland for Andre Miller on draft night. They also received the rights to #26 pick Jordan Hamilton and drafted Kenneth Faried at #22. [Editor's Note: Everyone knew before the draft that Faried would drop down to the 20's and everyone also knew his career would be much better than that - one of the most bizarre combinations we've seen in quite some time. There is no question that Faried will very quickly go down as one of the top steals in recent NBA history, yet everyone knew this would be the case before the draft. WTF NBA scouts and GM's?]
-Nene, one of the prize free agents in this year’s class, re-upped for five years and $67 million.
-They acquired Corey Brewer and Rudy Fernandez from Dallas for a second-round pick on December 13.
-Denver still needs to re-sign guard Arron Afflalo, which may end up costing them big since he’s one of the top remaining free agents and a lot of teams still have cap room.
What the Nuggets have now is a weird roster that divides pretty cleanly into two main groups. Half the team (Nene, Chris Andersen, Faried, Brewer, and Afflalo if he signs) are tough, defensive-minded guys. The other half (Al Harrington, Danilo Gallinari, Fernandez, Ty Lawson because of his size) are very talented on offense but are questionable on D. In a way, it’s nice to have players that display a variety of skills, but it’s not great for a team when everyone’s pulling in a different direction. I’d expect Denver to play at a fast pace, with Miller, who’s 35, ceding minutes to Lawson, one of the league’s fastest players. Lawson and Fernandez will look to get a lot of steals and turn them into easy baskets. If everyone’s in shape, Denver could steal a bunch of wins just by pushing the ball and playing hard at home; the elevation coupled with the compressed schedule will do the rest. The biggest problem Denver faces is that it lacks a great player, and in the NBA, the track record of teams without a bona fide star is pretty poor. A return to the playoffs is possible, but this roster is still too discombobulated to hope for much more.
Utah Jazz: This isn’t a great team right now, but it’s clear that GM Kevin O’Connor has a plan in place. The trade with New Jersey netted them (yes, pun intended) two top-3 picks in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. They form the centerpiece of what has the potential to be an absolutely dominant frontcourt when you add in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap (both of whom are only 26 years old). Devin Harris is a good all-around guard (though with a career 30% 3FG, he has to either get better at shooting threes or stop launching them). And once Mehmet Okur’s $11 million salary comes off the books at season’s end, Utah will have the chance to address their biggest need, a stud shooting guard. All this means that there’s a lot to be excited about in Utah…in 2013. As is the case with every rebuilding team, the Jazz will have to take their lumps, and that means no playoffs this season and the possibility of no playoffs next year too. But those losing records will yield lottery picks, and adding low-cost talent is the way to go when you’re rebuilding. Until Favors and Kanter get stronger, teams will dominate Utah around the rim, and the Jazz’s backcourt (Harris, Raja Bell, C.J. Miles, and Josh Howard) won’t score enough for the team to be competitive. At least head coach Tyrone Corbin had some time to get to know his players at the end of last season, rather than rushing to prepare his new team in a shortened training camp. There’s no guarantee that either Favors or Kanter develop into stars, but if one of them does, Utah will be dangerous in the near future. And if both do? They sky’s the limit.
Minnesota Timberwolves: For the first time since Kevin Garnett left, there is hope in Minnesota. Yes, they somehow still have three point guards after signing J.J. Barea. But even David Kahn’s front office fumblings don’t change the fact that Minnesota has a glut of young talent, led by the league’s leading rebounder (Kevin Love) and possibly the best player in the most recent draft in Derrick Williams. Kahn also brought in new coach Rick Adelman (after dragging out Kurt Rambis’ firing WAAAY too long) who’s had success in Portland, Sacramento, and Houston. However, this team has been the worst in basketball over the past two years, tallying just 32 wins total, and because of that, there are naturally several areas of concern. Though Love and Williams are almost guaranteed to find success in the NBA (Love already has), the same can’t be said about the rest of Minnesota’s roster, all of whom face serious questions about their ability to hack it in the league. Michael Beasley averaged 19 PPG last season, but he did it extremely inefficiently (took 17 shots a game and shot 45% FG). He also has a marijuana problem. Ricky Rubio--whose arrival has been anticipated for what seems like forever--could be a transcendent player, but he can’t shoot at all (his career high FG%, over six seasons in Spain? 41%), and his numbers in the Spanish League/Euroleague are far from impressive. Wesley Johnson’s already 24 years old and didn’t show much in his rookie season. Anthony Randolph’s potential has been talked about since his rookie year of 2008-09, but he’s not much further along now than he was back then. Minnesota’s more experienced players aren’t much better. Their center situation is a joke with Darko Milicic, Brad Miller, and Nikola Pekovic. No one on the team can score consistently apart from Love; Minnesota is just lucky that he gets plenty of putback opportunities because he’s a great offensive rebounder. In fact, apart from Love, the Timberwolves are below average at every spot on the court, sometimes considerably so. Ridnour, Johnson, and Milicic all started at least 63 games last season and all have an argument as one of the worst five starters at their position across the league. There is one bright spot, though, in the signing of Bonzi Wells. Only joking—I think that Wells (who’s been out of the league since 2008) just follows Rick Adelman around the league at this point. The best the T-Wolves can hope for is that their young talent isn’t as flawed as it looks and that they land another high draft pick in 2012...oops, their draft pick now belongs to the Hornets due to a trade for Marko Jaric back in 2005.
Top 5 Players
C: Nene, Denver Nuggets
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
F: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder