The Northwest Division has two strong teams, a borderline playoff team, and two lottery bound teams. I'll start with the team I predict to finish last in the division this year, the Utah Jazz.
The Utah Jazz had a mostly quiet summer. They let Tyrone Corbin's contract as head coach run out, replacing him with Quin Snyder, an assistant on the Hawks in 2014. Gordon Hayward, their starting small forward, was re-signed to a 4-year $63 million deal, the Jazz being forced to match the offer made by the Hornets. Outside of that, no major additions were made in the offseason, with Trevor Booker brought over in free agency and Steve Novak via trade with the Raptors. Dante Exum was drafted with the 5th overall pick with much excitement and hype, joining the young Jazz core, along with later selection Rodney Hood. The last veteran remnants of the old regime such as Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams were allowed to leave.
The Jazz's projected record depends almost entirely on how bullish one is on their young core. Hayward is no longer that young, and now that he has his max deal, the days when "upside" was talked about need to be in the past. Hayward does a lot on the basketball court, but as the first option last year he posted horrific efficiency statistics, and his 3 point shooting was especially poor. He needs to regain his efficiency and increase his total production in order to live up to his deal. Derrick Favors is a very solid big man who can play either position, especially on the defensive end, but he too was a top tier prospect and has not quite reached his potential heights.
Enes Kanter has also struggled a lot at times, mostly on defense, and has yet to be an impact player in any sort of successful team, but he has shown flashes of dominance. Trey Burke had a mediocre rookie year that looked better due to the awfulness of his rookie class, and his lack of height and athleticism limits his ceiling to an average starter. Despite my strong affection for him, I don't think he even reaches that level, instead topping out as a rotation player. This was part of the reason for drafting Dante Exum, whom the Jazz insist will play alongside Burke, but is probably supposed to be his replacement. However, he looked unready for NBA ball in Summer League and the Olympics, so they should be looking for mere flashes from him this year.
There are other interesting young players such as Alec Burks and Rudy Gobert who could turn into core pieces, though they are blocked by the Jazz's other young guys. Gobert in particular showed a lot of promise this summer, and might benefit by a trade of either Kanter or Favors. The only other real rotation players are Jeremy Evans and Trevor Booker, creating a packed frontcourt without a star player. Snyder is an unknown as a head coach, but he has a good pedigree, and it would be difficult to be worse than Corbin. The Jazz might be fun to watch with all their young guys, but their record will not be good in the potent Western Conference.
Projected Record: 29-53
Players to watch: Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors
Here is a preview of the team from the Jazz fans themselves: SLC Dunk Preview
The Minnesota Timberwolves had the most impactful offseason developments of any team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers, trading star Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young, and a trade exception. This package, combined with a few drafted players (Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III), has made for one of the fastest rebuilding projects in NBA history. Mo Williams was the only free agent signing, brought in to back up Ricky Rubio and mentor the young Timberwolves roster. Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah Moute were shipped out as part of the Love deal, and Dante Cunningham was allowed to walk. There are rumors that J.J. Barea will be bought out after a terrible 2014 season, but it hasn't happened yet.
This new Timberwolves team has some promise, but the loss of a superstar is always a move backwards, and this case is no exception. Their team underachieved last year with a Pythagorean record of 50-32, but only winning 40 because of horrible play in clutch situations. They will be nowhere near 40 wins this season, and instead are hoping just to see potential of stardom from their young prospects. Unfortunately for the Wolves, they are a mixed bag. Andrew Wiggins did not quite live up to the hype as "the next big thing" at Kansas, nor is he one of those prospects where greatness seems predestined (Anthony Davis). He has a very poor handle and his jump shot is inconsistent, which limits his offensive effectiveness out of the gate. His otherworldly athleticism and solid fundamentals keep him as a top prospect, however, especially on the defensive end.
Zach LaVine was a terrible draft choice, with very poor numbers at UCLA backed up by the eye test: horrible decision making, poor overall contributions, and a body nowhere near NBA ready. Anthony Bennett had one of the worst rookie seasons of all time, and while he improved late in the season, it was a movement from "this guy shouldn't be in the NBA" to "this guy still sucks, but might be a rotation guy in a few years". He's coming into this season in better shape, but he has a long way to go to be a positive on the court. Shabazz Muhammad was pretty bad last year as well, and seems more suited to be an undersized 4 than a wing player. He needs to improve his decision making and perimeter shooting to make it in the league.
Ricky Rubio is a tremendous playmaker and defender, but his abhorrent touch at the rim and shooting off the dribble drives down his value immensely. He still has time to improve, but needs to make strides this season. Gorgui Dieng came on very strong at the end of last season and in FIBA play, and is a core piece with some upside. Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Thaddeus Young, Corey Brewer and Mo Williams are the solid veterans in the rotation, and will help to keep the team competitive and competent, but they aren't enough to take the team to the playoffs. Flip Saunders is a good coach, but he is old school, and it remains to be seen whether he can transition to the new era in the NBA. The T-Wolves will be a league pass favorite with tons of highlight plays, but there will be growing pains, especially if some of the veterans are moved mid-season.
Projected Record: 32-50
Players to watch: Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio
The Canis Hoopus preview is here.
The Denver Nuggets had a couple of big moments this summer surrounded by a lot of nothing. They traded for their former starter Arron Afflalo early in the offseason, only surrendering prospect Evan Fournier and the pick that became Roy Devyn Marble. In the draft, they flipped 13th pick Doug McDermott to the Bulls for 16 and 19, landing them Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris, another trade I really liked. The rest of their offseason was super quiet, with the only changes coming in the back of the rotation. Jan Vesely left for Turkey, Aaron Brooks for Chicago, and Jordan Hamilton for Toronto. The Nuggets brought over 2013 2nd rounder Erick Green from Italy to be their third stringer at point guard, then closed out the summer with another big move, re-signing dynamic big man Kenneth Faried to a 4-year 50 million dollar extension.
The Nuggets had a seemingly bright future a few years ago that didn't come to fruition. The haul from the Carmelo Anthony deal gave them several solid players but no studs, and outside of Faried they have failed to acquire any significant talent through the draft. They are a team that goes 12 deep on rotation players but has no real stars, leaving them stuck in the worst place in the NBA: a 10th seed.
Ty Lawson is a jitterbug point guard who puts up very good numbers and has developed every season, yet isn't an All-Star in today's point guard dominated NBA. Faried is a great energy guy and rebounder, but don't expect his FIBA production to carry over to the NBA, where his athleticism advantage is much less marked. Afflalo had a career year last season as a scorer and 3-point shooter, however he doesn't do too much else and his defense has really fallen off over the years. Danilo Gallinari might be their best player, but he missed all of last season and has been injury-prone in the NBA. Timofey Mozgov broke out last year at center to become a serviceable starter, though the Nuggets are still waiting on JaVale Mcgee to put it all together (a futile task in my humble opinion, as much as I love watching him play).
The rest of their bench contains veterans Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, and J.J. Hickson. The Nuggets' only real hope of improvement lies in their youth, and the prospects they have just aren't top-tier quality. Gary Harris and Nurkic were both good picks, but neither one will probably contribute much out of the gate, and stardom is years away if it ever happens. The Nuggets are going to score a lot of points, and they have some decent defenders on the wing, but they don't have a star player to build around, and it doesn't look like any are walking through that door. Coach Brian Shaw will have an entertaining and good team this season; they just don't have the firepower to make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference.
Projected Record: 44-38
Players to watch: Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Gary Harris
Here is a preview from Denver Stiffs: Nuggets Preview
The Portland Trail Blazers had a completely uneventful offseason. Leading bench scorer (and distributor of the most assists off the bench in the NBA last season) Mo Williams was allowed to leave for the rival Timberwolves, remedied by the signing of veteran point guard Steve Blake. Chris Kaman was also brought in to be the third big in the rotation after a forgettable season with the Lakers. Finally, Earl Watson, their third string point guard last year, retired and joined the Spurs D-League coaching staff.
The Trailblazers were one of the big surprises last season, winning 54 games and making the 2nd round of the playoffs after defeating the favored Houston Rockets. They are bringing back almost the same squad this year, counting on internal improvements to push them to the next level. LaMarcus Aldridge is their rock at power forward, providing a consistent 20 and 10 line almost every game and able to dominate if he gets going. Rising star Damian Lillard is the straw that stirs the drink however, since he shoots better off the dribble than almost anyone not named Steph Curry or Kevin Durant. His defense and playmaking need work if the Blazers want to make a run at the Conference title or even a championship this season. Joining them in the starting lineup are underrated 3-and-D wing Wes Matthews, do-it-all small forward Nic Batum, and coolest guy ever Robin Lopez (seriously, read it). None of them have much remaining potential if at all, but they are starting caliber players in the playoffs.
The real issue is the bench, which improved last year with the addition of Mo Williams, but must now cope with his departure. Steve Blake is a different kind of point guard: less able to create his own shot, but a much better defender. It remains to be seen what effect this switch will have. Chris Kaman has not aged well, and his signing was a bit puzzling, though he can definitely still score the ball.
The rest of the bench is young and inexperienced, and their improvement is crucial to keeping the bench afloat. I loved CJ McCollum out of Lehigh last year, but he was injured in his rookie season and didn't contribute much. I think he and power forward Thomas Robinson will have semi-breakthrough years. Will Barton is an exciting and explosive player who needs to work on decision making, though he looks promising of late. Meyers Leonard looked like a lost cause last year, but he is big, athletic, and has nice touch on his jumper. Terry Stotts was a candidate for coach of the year last season, and another year of experience with him and his system should only benefit this talented Blazers squad. Depending on the young guys' improvement, this team could be anywhere from an 8th or 9th seed to 3rd or 4th. I am optimistic about their odds.
Projected record: 56-26
Players to watch: Thomas Robinson, CJ McCollum, Will Barton
Check out the fantastic site Blazers Edge for the Portland perspective.
The Thunder are going to be really good this year, as they have been for the past several seasons. However, Kevin Durant may miss a month of the regular season with a fractured foot, which is a harsh blow to the Thunder's chances at a one or two seed in the conference. When the league MVP does return, one can be assured that the Slim Reaper will be out for blood, and I expect even more growth from him this season. Terrifying.
In the meantime, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive athletes in the history of the league, and while he may have some horrid shooting nights from an efficiency standpoint, I think he has the ability to keep the Thunder well above .500 while Durant is out. Serge Ibaka is a top tier interior and help defender with a burgeoning offensive game. He will be relied on more than ever with Durant out, but he stepped up when Westbrook was injured last year, and he should be able to do the same this season. Reggie Jackson has developed into an excellent combo guard off the bench, though he may start this season if the starting lineup needs his offensive help.
The other candidates to fill the wing positions are Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson, Jeremy Lamb, and Anthony Morrow. Jones and Roberson are defensive specialists who don't contribute much on the offensive end, while Morrow is a 3-point sniper who doesn't do anything else. Lamb is interesting as a fairly well-regarded prospect who has offensive skills, but makes a lot of little mistakes and is a poor defender despite great tools. If Lamb, Jones, or Roberson has a breakthrough season, it would be a huge help both when Durant is out, and when he returns, stablizing the bench. Kendrick Perkins remains the starter at center, but Steven Adams was terrific in his rookie season and merely needs to cut his fouls down in order to increase his minutes. Expect him to start by February barring injury.
Mitch McGary looked fantastic in summer league and preseason but will be sidelined with a broken foot for a few weeks. He has a lot of upside on the offensive end, and could be a great focal point for the 2nd unit as soon as this season. In support is veteran Nick Collison, who does all the dirty work. Scott Brooks has received criticism for his lineup management and lack of offensive strategy as the Thunder's expectations have increased, but he is loved by his players and has developed his young guys well for the most part. The Thunder are going to be a home court playoff team, and if their young players on the bench continue to develop they might well win a championship.
Projected Record: 58-24
Players to watch: Steven Adams, Andre Roberson
Here are some Thunder writers' views on the upcoming season: Welcome to Loud City preview.
Tell me what you think about my predictions! I don't think there were any surprises here, but I have a couple in the next preview, which is the Southwest Division.
Check out the other Division previews in this series: