Upcoming 2011-12 NBA Preview: Northwest Division

WESTERN CONFERENCE – NORTHWEST

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Last Season55-27, Division Champions, 4th Overall in West, Lost to Dallas in West Conf Finals

Key LossesByron Mullens, Robert Vaden

Key AdditionsDaequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, Reggie Jackson (draft)

Main RotationStarters – Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins; Key Reserves – James Harden, Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Nate Robinson

Will this be OKC’s year to get to the mountain top of the West?  Well, they’ve got a very good chance to do so.  By bringing back basically the same team from last year with the addition of 3pt specialist Daequan Cook; the team is primed to make a title run.  Expect Kevin Durant to take his game to another level to try to dethrone the Dallas Mavericks.  Last year the Thunder traded for some muscle and defense in Kendrick Perkins but this time he has the luxury of participating in training camp to get further acclimated to his teammates.

Of course, this team will depend on both their star players – Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Look for these guys to step it up to another level.  Now, Westbrook will need to understand that this is KD’s team and if the game is close, the number one option has to be Durant.  This was the concern during the postseason last year as Westbrook tried to be the man at times.  If KD was not on this team, then Westbrook would have the green light to be the man. Yes, Westbrook is that good but Durant is better.  There are two key players outside of their stars that will need to make their presence known.  That’d be big men – Perkins and Serge Ibaka.  These guy’s need to bring the toughness and defense in order to chase that title.  OKC’s front line should be quite a handful.  Expect this team to lead the league in blocks and charges.

If OKC was in the Eastern conference,  Ibaka would be in the running for an all-star spot in February.  He has been in the league for a few years now and he is due for a killer breakout season.  This is the time for him to do so and dont’ be surprised if he’s in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.  Backup guard James Harden should be in the same boat as well in terms of a breakout year.  Look for him to have huge scoring games and battle for the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Prediction: 46-20, Division Champions, 2nd Overall in West, Championship Contender

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS

Last Season:  48-34, 3rd in Division, 6th Overall in West, Lost to Dallas in 1st Round

Key LossesBrandon Roy (retired)

Key AdditionsGreg Oden (resigned), Jamal Crawford, Nolan Smith (draft)

Main RotationStarters – Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby; Key Reserves – Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt, Kurt Thomas, Earl Barron, Craig Smith

The Blazers received quite a blow before the season started.  Brandon Roy, who was once thought to be the franchise for Portland, has decided to retire due to the injuries to his knees. Secondly Greg Oden – Surprise –  may be out indefinitely due to a medical setback.    Even with all the bad luck, the Blazers have a very formidable starting five especially with the addition of Jamal Crawford.  Although nowhere near as skilled as Roy, Crawford will add another shooter around Aldridge.  The main thing is he brings another go-to-guy in the fourth quarter.  We all know Crawford can light it up when he’s on fire.

LaMarcus Aldridge should be in position to have an MVP caliber year.  He will truly be the focal point this year in the offense.  Expect him to make the all-star team for the first time as well, as he leads the Blazers to an improved record.  The sleeper of this team will be Gerald Wallace at the small forward position.  If he brings in his knack for scoring around the basket and most importantly his rebounding, the Blazers will have one of the top five frontcourts in the NBA.  Don’t forget they also have veteran Marcus Camby in the middle.

This season for the Blazers will be one helluva showcase for the big man Aldridge.  The main storyline for this team this year will be where does Aldridge fare among the all-time great power forwards.  That’s how good he will be this year.  Portland fans have got to be worried though.  With all their bad luck over the years, they can’t help have it cross their minds on what heartbreaking loss will happen this time.  Hopefully nothing.  This team could be special.

Prediction41-25, 2nd in Division, 4th Overall in West, Playoff Contender

UTAH JAZZ

Last Season:  39-43, 4th in Division, 11th Overall in West, Missed playoffs

Key LossesRonnie Price, Andrei Kirilenko (overseas), Mehmet Okur

Key AdditionsJosh Howard, Earl Watson (resigned), Enes Kanter (draft), Alec Burks (draft)

Main RotationStarters – Devin Harris, Alec Burks, Josh Howard, Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson; Key Reserves – Paul Milsap, C.J. Miles, Raja Bell, Earl Watson, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hawyard

It’s rare to see the Jazz with a losing record. Actually last year, they started out very strong until former head coach Jerry Sloan stepped down and franchise point guard Deron Williams was traded.  Everything fell apart under new coach Tyrone Corbin.  Well, the Jazz brought back Corbin as the head coach which is a great move.  Although, struggled last year in his first head coaching stint, Corbin will be a very good coach in this league one day.  He now has this team for a full year and actually has a nice nucleus around him.  Draft picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks are great additions to this youth movement that the Jazz are in.  Well, moreso Burks than Kanter at this time.  Kanter will be another Greg Ostertag type player but if you recall Ostertag was an important piece to the Jazz’s ’97 and ’98 NBA Finals run.  Burks has the ability to be a star and should quietly put up some numbers this year.

This team has a lot of talent up front.  Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap, and Enes Kanter.  Wow, this is a great problem to have but they may have to trade one of these guys.  The odd man out may be Milsap and the Jazz can get some good value for him and strengthen their team all around.  They need some help at the small forward position.  Although, newly acquired Josh Howard is solid, he’ll need some help.  Maybe Gordon Hayward will pick up the slack and be a strong backup.

The Jazz should surprise a lot of people.  They will be very tough to play especially at home.  Although he came off the bench last year, Derrick Favors should get the nod to start at the power forward spot.  Expect him to have a very good sophomore year and show why he was a high lottery pick two summers ago.  He’s no Karl Malone but if he can provide at least half of what the Mailman did, the Jazz found their big man of the future.

Prediction: 35-21, 3rd in Division, 7th Overall in West, Playoff Contender

DENVER NUGGETS

Last Season: 50-32, 2nd in Division, 5th Overall in West, Lost to Oklahoma City in 1st Round

Key LossesRaymond Felton, Melvin Ely, Gary Forbes, J.R. Smith (overseas), Wilson Chandler (overseas), Kenyon Martin (overseas)

Key AdditionsNene (resigned), Aaron Afflalo (resigned), Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez, Kenneth Faried (draft), Jordan Hamilton (draft), Chukwuiebere Maduabum (draft)

Main RotationStarters – Ty Lawson, Aaron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Nene; Key Reserves – Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer, Al Harrington, Chris Andersen, Timofey Mozgov

The Nuggets lost three key players who would have been part of their main rotation – Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and fan favorite J.R. Smith.  They all signed a one-year deal to play ball in China during the NBA lockout.  Bold move by these guys.  Fortunately, the Nuggets were able to keep their big man Nene as they resigned him to a multi-year contract.  If not, the Nuggets would have lost four of their best players from last year.  One player that will be the first step to replacing the fan favorite J.R. Smith, will be rookie Kenneth Faried.  This guy’s energy, hustle, and grit will be recognized by the league and be one of those guys you definitely want on your team.  Denver won’t be running plays for him but he’ll have a knack for all the loose balls and will eat up everything on the glass.  He has the potential to put up huge rebounding stats in the future.

Denver’s starting five is pretty decent.  The only position that may be exploited will be at the point guard spot.  Now, Ty Lawson is a solid NBA player but he’s not a starting point guard quality.  He’s an excellent back-up though.  The Nuggets will probably bite the bullet and go with Lawson over newly acquired Andre Miller but if they want to battle for a playoff spot, there’s no doubt Miller should start over Lawson.  However, it looks like Denver wants to go with a youth movement.  This will be Gallinari’s team.  His offensive skill set will put him as the number one option and catapult him into the second-tier small forwards in the NBA.  The Nuggets need some help though from a leader on the offensive end.  Gallinari is more of a complimentary type player rather than a lead guy.  He’ll be fine but it won’t get Denver too far.

As mentioned Kenneth Faried will be everyone’s boy. Look for him to be in the running for Rookie of the Year through his rebounding and hustle.  The Nuggets got a steal here.  Don’t forget the Birdman will still be flying around the Mile High City with some new tats.

Prediction: 30-36, 4th in Division, 9th Overall in West, Draft Lottery-bound

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Last Season:  17-65, Last in Division, Last Overall in West, Missed playoffs

Key LossesSebastian Telfair, Lazar Hayward

Key AdditionsDerrick Williams (draft), Ricky Rubio (draft), Malcolm Lee (draft), J.J. Barea, Brad Miller, Robert Vaden, Rick Adelman (head coach)

Main RotationStarters – Ricky Rubio, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams, Kevin Love, Darko Milicic; Key Reserves – Michael Beasley, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Anthony Randolph, Brad Miller, Wayne Ellington

Over the last few years, one would have thought President David Kahn was crazy.  Well, he probably is.  The moves that he made were often under debate.  He stockpiled on draft picks basically.  Looking at where this has brought Minnesota today – well, not bad Kahn.  He brought in Kevin Love, Wesley Johnson, Ricky Rubio, and Derrick Williams.  Rookies Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio will be the centerpieces this year.  Williams has had an NBA body since he was 12 and as the #2 pick will be one helluva scorer for this team as he gets acclimated to the NBA.  After waiting for about 2 years, Rubio has finally been able to leave Spain and join Minnesota.  Everyone’s waiting to see what this kid has to bring as he’s been hyped up ever since he was 16.

New coach Rick Adelman will bring structure to this team on the offensive end.  With the talent that this team has on offensively, Adelman is a great fit.  This team will be fun to watch assuming Rubio turns out to be what everyone expects him to be – some say Steve Nash or Pistol Pete-like.  That’s quite a comparison but he’s got a long long way to go.  Defense and maturity is what this team will sorely lack.  There’s nobody on this team that wow’s you on the defensive end.  Williams has potential but still unproven.  Love is ok but not a shot blocker.  He’s more of a position defender which he will improve in time.  This team is young and that will be their downfall but they will be competitive and will be vastly improved from last year.

If Rubio and Williams turn out to be great rookies, expect the Wolves starting five to grace magazine covers  and be on National TV a lot more.  With all the hype that Love, Williams, and Rubio will get; watch out for big man Darko Milicic and two guard Wesley Johnson.  These guy’s were lottery picks too in the past and have talent.  They will be the unsung heroes of this team.

Prediction23-43, Last in Division, 11th Overall in West, Draft Lottery-bound

Stay tuned for: Western Conference – Pacific Division

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