Oklahoma City Thunder: The class of this division, and quite possibly the class of the Western Conference for years to come. OKC came within a few baskets of the title last season (they lost Games 2-4 by an average of 5 points per game, including a poor no-call in the waning moments of Game 2) and the Thunder return all major pieces in 2012-13. James Harden can become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and though his contract situation is complicated (the team already handed out big deals to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, all of whom are signed through at least 2016), it’s unlikely that they’ll deal him this season when they came so close to winning it all in 2011-12. Durant is still the guy who makes everything go for the Thunder, but it was clear in the Finals that LeBron James was a much more complete player than KD. James didn’t shut Durant down defensively (KD averaged 31 ppg on 55% shooting), but he still played superior defense than Durant, who allowed James to score 29 ppg AND orchestrate the Heat’s entire offense for long stretches of the series (James had 25 combined assists in Games 4 and 5). Getting by Miami this season is certainly possible, as the Thunder weren’t that far away in 2012, but they’re not the only team that the Thunder will have to account for. The Spurs figure to be just as tough as they were last season, and though OKC seemed to figure San Antonio out, reeling off four straight wins to eliminate the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals after falling behind 0-2, you can bet Gregg Popovich will be making some adjustments so that doesn’t happen again this year. The Lakers also present a size mismatch for the Thunder, though with Dwight Howard-killer Kendrick Perkins manning the center spot and Ibaka at power forward, OKC should be able to handle LA better than most. No doubt about it, this team is a title contender. But for OKC to take the next step and get over the hump, a few things have to happen:
1) Ibaka needs to become a more complete defensive player and develop a midrange jumper.
2) Russell Westbrook needs to be a more consistent point guard and make better decisions with the ball. More Game 4 of the Finals-type efforts (43 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 20-for-32 FG) and fewer Game 5 of the Finals-type efforts (19 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 4-for-20 FG). Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer on the planet. Putting the ball in his hands more often is a good thing.
3) The bench needs to step up and score a bit more. When your top three scorers combine for 68 points per game, you don’t need a ton of support off the bench, but OKC didn’t have anyone coming off the bench who made you think “uh-oh, I hope he doesn’t get hot.” Harden doesn’t count, because, for all intents and purposes, he’s a starter, and only four players on the team averaged over 6 points per game. A healthy Eric Maynor could help in this area.
If all that happens, there’s a good chance that the Thunder will end the 2012-13 season as NBA champions.
Could Make Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Denver Nuggets: Even though the Nuggets’ win percentage has declined in each of the past three seasons, I like what I’ve seen from general manager Masai Ujiri, who took over in 2010. He got rid of Carmelo Anthony, who was never going to win in Denver, and turned the team into one that’s incredibly fun to watch, running the floor and shooting threes with exciting, high-energy players like Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried. Denver led the league in points per game last season and ranked third in Offensive Rating. Under coach George Karl, that’s likely to continue in 2012-13. JaVale McGee projects as a franchise center and played like it for a couple games in the team’s first-round series against the Lakers last year (averaged 19 ppg, 15 rpg, 2.5 blocks per game on 71% shooting in Games 3 and 5, both Denver wins). Unfortunately, he also showed why Washington was willing to part with him after three and a half seasons, averaging 5 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.4 blocks per game on 21% shooting in the other five games, four of which were Denver losses). Still, for the Nuggets to rise above their current status—a team that probably won’t make it out of the second round—Ujiri had to take some risks, and banking on McGee maturing into a reliable NBA center is certainly one of them (that includes cutting crap like this out). New addition Andre Iguodala also fits nicely into the Nuggets’ system as he grabs a lot of steals (top 10 in the league six times), which should help kickstart Denver’s fast break. He’s also a better scorer than Arron Afflalo (who the Nuggets sent to Orlando in the Iguodala deal) and is comfortable playing in a system without one dominant scorer (which is how the Sixers succeeded in the past couple years). As constituted, the team doesn’t have a traditional power forward, which isn’t a huge problem based on their playing style, but could come back to bite them when the pace inevitably slows down in the playoffs and you need someone who can create offense one-on-one. The point guard position is set, with Lawson splitting time with the ageless Andre Miller (a great backup). The main problem is that the Nuggets have a glut of decent players in the 20-26 age range (Wilson Chandler, Evan Fournier, Danilo Gallinari, Jordan Hamilton, Timofey Mozgov, Anthony Randolph) but none of them are skilled enough to be a number one or number two option on a good team (I didn’t include Faried or Corey Brewer on this list since they bring lots of value in areas apart from scoring). They can get it done in the regular season, but none can be counted on to deliver on a consistent basis in the playoffs. That’s why Denver is a good, but not great team, and unless one of those guys takes a leap—which is possible but far from certain—why Denver is not yet a championship contender.
Minnesota Timberwolves: This franchise just can’t seem to catch a break. Or perhaps, more accurately, they catch too many breaks, as in the broken right hand that will sideline face of the franchise Kevin Love until December. With Ricky Rubio figuring to be out approximately that long as well (still recovering from a torn knee ligament), Minnesota will probably struggle early, but the pieces are in place for a playoff run and perhaps even a series win, neither of which have happened since 2004. Love, coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 26 ppg, is one of the league’s top 10 players, a dominant rebounder who can also knock down threes and score in the paint. He’s also probably the best passing big man in the game today, and with him and Rubio working the ball around, the TWolves could make some beautiful music in Minneapolis this season. The supporting cast isn’t bad either and should be able to win a few games until Love and Rubio return. Last year’s #2 overall pick, Derrick Williams, figures to improve in his second season in town after a so-so rookie season (Job one: re-discover his three-point stroke, which fell from 57% at Arizona in 2010-11 to 27% last year). Andrei Kirilenko looked good at the Olympics and is coming off an MVP season in the Euroleague, and his steals and blocks should help start the Love/Rubio-fueled fast break. Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea are both capable alongside Rubio in the backcourt, while Nikola Pekovic (one of the league’s most improved players last year) and defensive stopper Greg Stiemsma are both tall, solid big men to pair alongside Love. The most intriguing player on the team might be guard Brandon Roy, who will be attempting an NBA comeback after walking away in 2011 at the age of 26. Roy was a great crunch-time guard who could do it all for the Blazers, and if he’s anything close to the form he flashed a few years ago, he’ll be a major addition. Of course, there’s a reason Roy was available (if you have to retire at age 26, there’s probably something wrong with you, and for Roy, it’s his knees, which robbed him of his explosiveness), but a two-year, $10 million deal isn’t terribly risky for a team like Minnesota. The future is bright for the Timberwolves, something I’m not sure I’d ever say about the team while David Kahn was still running it. But with experienced coach Rick Adelman, young stars in Love and Rubio (and possibly Williams) and a solid supporting cast, this team is definitely moving in the right direction.
Utah Jazz: Utah is similar to Denver in that the Jazz have a glut of fairly talented 20-somethings but no dominant scorer. Denver is more battle-tested and capable of contending in a playoff series – if you remember last season, Al Jefferson famously said that no one could beat the Spurs, even though the Jazz were still in the midst of a playoff series against San Antonio. Overall, this is a pretty average team. They do a couple things well (such as rebound, led by Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who combined for 18 per game last season) and a couple things poorly (like shoot threes – 32% last season, 27th in the league) and a lot of things okay. Gordon Hayward has been better than expected in two seasons, but if he’s your number three scorer, you’re in trouble. Hayward, Jefferson, Millsap, Devin Harris and Raja Bell combine to form an extremely average starting five, with an average bench that includes Randy Foye, C.J. Miles and Mo and Marvin Williams. The one area that Jazz fans can get excited about is in the frontcourt, where the team has a couple of young top-three picks in 21-year-old Derrick Favors (who is slowly improving as he adds strength) and 20-year-old Enes Kanter, who averaged 13 minutes per game last season. The problem with improving in the NBA is that you generally need to have a free-spending owner and play in a desirable location (LA, Dallas, Miami or New York) or hit the lottery with a draft pick (like San Antonio or Oklahoma City) in order to contend. Utah fits neither category, and the Jazz’s consistency (beginning in 1999-2000, the team has won between 39 and 55 games every year but one, not counting last year’s 36 wins, which would equate to 45 wins in a full season) means that the team has never really bottomed out enough to have a chance to pick in the top five for more than one year at a time (the pick to select Kanter was acquired via trade, as was Favors, who came to Utah in the Deron Williams deal). Right now Utah is just treading water, with the hope that Kanter and Favors one day pan out to form a dominant frontcourt tandem. Until that day comes, things are going to be pretty boring in Utah.
Portland Trail Blazers: When you’re a one-sport town and that sport isn’t doing well, things aren’t pretty. Actually, to be fair, Portland still has the Timbers of the MLS, but there are just two games remaining in the MLS season and Portland sits in second-to last in the Western Conference. Still, you get the point: it’s going to be a long winter in the Rose City. Let’s start with the positives: the frontcourt is pretty solid and athletic with J.J. Hickson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Beyond that, though, there are several negatives. The frontcourt will be able to score, but, as a trio, their defense is unremarkable, and they figure to be dominated by bigger front lines such as the Lakers’. The guard rotation might be the NBA’s worst, with 41% shooter Wesley Matthews the team’s top option, followed by overmatched rookie gunner Damian Lillard and afterthoughts Will Barton, Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Ronnie Price. That’s a really ugly group, and the squad’s backup bigs aren’t much better, with Jared Jeffries, Luke Babbitt, Sasha Pavlovic and rookies Meyers Leonard, 24-year old Spaniard Victor Claver and 25-year-old Englishman Joel Freeland battling for minutes behind the team’s top three. Best-case scenario for Portland is that the team’s first-year players exceed expectations, leading to a 35-40 win season. But more likely is a season where wins are few and far between. With some cap room next season and one of the league’s richest owners, there’s the possibility that the Blazers will make a run at a free agent—of course, that hasn’t happened in Portland for quite some time, so it’s unlikely to think owner Paul Allen will open his checkbook now. Like I said, things aren’t pretty in Portland right now.
Top 5 Players
C/F: Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz
F: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
F: Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
G: Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets