Tag Archives: Russell Westbrook

2017-2018 Northwest Division Projections

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X-Oklahoma City Thunder 53-29 (3)

The 2017-2018 NBA season proved to be a strange, but interesting one for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had to deal with the notion that they no longer had the services of small forward Kevin Durant as after nine seasons with the franchise he decided to leave in free agency to join the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder only had one superstar to carry the load now in point guard Russell Westbrook who went out of his way to answer the bell. Last season Westbrook won the NBA’s MVP Award as he averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Westbrook would help the Thunder to their seventh playoff appearance in the last eight years. But in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Houston Rockets and point guard James Harden proved to be too much for the Thunder as they eliminated them in five games. Westbrook showed that he was good enough to get Oklahoma City to the postseason, but he alone would not be enough if this franchise was serious about winning an NBA Championship.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti has never been one to shy away from making a deal in order to improve his club and this off-season was no different.

In July, the Thunder were able to acquire All-Star small forward Paul George from the Indiana Pacers as Oklahoma City once again had a star duo to help them compete in the Western Conference. However Presti was not done there as last month saw the Thunder acquire small forward Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. And in the span of two months things have really changed in regards to the outlook for the Thunder.

For Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, he no longer has to worry about Westbrook needing to do everything by himself as his ability to penetrate the lane will be magnified as Anthony can now play the role of being a spot up shooter. And if the Thunder don’t want to consistently use Westbrook as the team’s primary ball handler, George can provide them with some quality minutes in the point forward role.

Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony

The biggest thing for the Thunder is attempting to find their chemistry. Anthony, George, and Westbrook have all been members of the United States Men’s Basketball team which should help to expedite the process due to familiarity with one another, while Donovan knows how to stay out of the way of his players in order to allow them to be themselves. I don’t see Westbrook averaging a triple-double this season, but he should still be able to facilitate. Westbrook, George, and Anthony have all shown that they can be the guy during their respective NBA careers, but who is going to be “the guy” in those key moments for Oklahoma City?

The Thunder did lose some depth to acquire both Anthony and George which included them trading center Enes Kanter to the Knicks, but they still have center Steven Adams, while they signed power forward Patrick Patterson. Adams has shown that he is willing to do all of the dirty work. In four years with the Thunder, Adams’ numbers have continued to increase, and although that his offensive numbers might dip this season, he should still be a factor on the boards as he has the potential to average 9 rebounds per game, while also being a presence in the paint due to his shot blocking ability.

Last year the Thunder averaged 106.6 points per game which was 11th in the NBA, while they shot just above 45% from the floor which was 17th. Both of those stats should increase as the additions of George and Anthony will allow Oklahoma City to play and even more wide-open brand of basketball. And as soon as George, Westbrook, and Anthony are able to get on the same page, the more dangerous that the Thunder will be for this NBA season.

Y-Minnesota Timberwolves 52-30 (4)

It has been a long dry spell for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they have gone 13 seasons without a postseason berth, but things finally appear ready to change. The spring of 2016 would see former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau named as the new head coach of the Timberwolves as well as being the team’s president of basketball operations. And after losing 51 games last season, Thibodeau has gone out to upgrade the Timberwolves roster which not only puts them in position to make the playoffs, but also to contend for an NBA Championship.

Jimmy Butler

The Timberwolves were able to pull off one of the biggest splashes of the summer in the NBA when they acquired All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In exchange for the services of Butler, Minnesota sent guards Kris Dunn and Zach Levine as well as the draft rights of power forward Lauri Markkanen to Chicago which will be worth it. In six seasons with the Bulls, Butler’s points per game have increased during each season, while he is one the better two-way players in the NBA.

What Butler gives the Timberwolves is a proven finisher who knows Thibodeau’s system. Thibodeau drafted Butler in 2011 as a late first-round pick while he developed into one of the better players in the game and that aspect will help to give Minnesota some credibility.

Aside from Butler, Thibodeau signed a pair of his former players with the Bulls in point guard Aaron Brooks and power forward Taj Gibson. Like Butler, Gibson knows Thibodeau’s system like the back of his hand, while he can also help Minnesota improve in the toughness category. Gibson falls into the category of being a player that will do whatever it takes to win. Gibson has shown the ability throughout his NBA career to rebound, defend, as well as consistently hit baseline jump shots, and he should be able to feed off of the talented players around him this season.

Brooks didn’t spend as much time with the Bulls that Butler and Gibson did under Thibodeau, but he does fit the mold of being a gritty player.The Timberwolves will be Brooks’ seventh NBA team in 11 years which gives you an idea of how mentally tough that he is. What Brooks gives the Timberwolves is a quality player off of the bench, who has the potential to explode for 20 points on any given night.

And aside from the editions of Gibson and Brooks, Minnesota will now consistently get consistent scoring off of the bench as they signed shooting guard Jamal Crawford. Crawford is the is the only three-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award as he is instant offense as soon as he enters the game. And just like Brooks, Crawford has the ability to go for 20 points on any given night.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

The additions that the Timberwolves have made are solid, but the success of this team will still hinge of center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins. This side of New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, Towns is the most exciting young big man in the NBA. Towns was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2016 and he was able to avoid the sophomore slump as he was 12th in the NBA in scoring at 25.1 per game and sixth in rebounds at 12.3 per contest last season. Before the Timberwolves made all of their moves during the off-season. it would have been easy to pencil in Towns to average 25 points and 15 boards, but his points per game production should take a slight dip with the addition of Butler.

Like Towns, Wiggins was a Rookie of the Year during his first year in the NBA, and his production has continued to increase. At 6’9″, Wiggins is a matchup nightmare for opponents due to his length as well ability to score. And with the addition to Butler as well as the maturation of Towns, Wiggins could be scary good this season.

But for all of the big moves that the Timberwolves made during the off-season, there most significant one was signing point guard Jeff Teague. After Minnesota traded point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz over the summer, they needed a floor general that could operate the team’s offense in the fashion that Thibodeau wants which is exactly what Teague can do. Teague is coming off of arguably his best season in the NBA as he averaged 15.3 points and 7.8 assists for the Indiana Pacers. Now Teague will be charged with consistently getting the ball to Butler, Towns, and Wiggins which should not a problem for him as he has always proven to be a team first point guard which goes back to his time with the Atlanta Hawks.

Defensive basketball has always been a hallmark of Thibodeau’s teams which was not the case last season as Minnesota was 18th in the NBA in points allowed at 106.7 per contest. However the addition of Butler will help to change that due to his ability to clamp onto the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. And although that it will take this squad some time to get on the same page, Minnesota will be a very dangerous team in the second half of the NBA season as well as the playoffs.

Y-Denver Nuggets 44-38 (7)

The Denver Nuggets have been competitive, but they have missed the NBA Playoffs in each of the last four years. The Nuggets went 40-42 last season and they missed the postseason by one game. And as Denver fell just one win short of the postseason, they’ll look back at the fact that they went 1-3 versus the Portland Trail Blazers which was the team that edged them out for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But as the Nuggets were able to overachieve under head coach Mike Malone last season, will they have enough for the upcoming campaign to take that next step in order to reach the playoffs?

The Nuggets traded their leading scorer from last season in small forward Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers, but they still have the potential to have one of the more underrated front courts in the Western Conference.

Nikola Jokic

When the Nuggets drafted center Nikola Jokic in 2014, he appeared to be an afterthought. But once Jokic left Europe in 2015, he was able to adjust to the NBA game rather quickly. Last season Jokic was able to average 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, while also chiming in with 4.9 assists per contest. And after Jokic barely missed out on averaging a double-double last season, he should be able to pull it off during this campaign, while also being in the mix to be an All-Star.

Last season the Nuggets acquired center Mason Plumlee from the Portland Trail Blazers who throughout his NBA career has been severely underutilized. Plumlee knows how to crash the boards as well as score in various ways due to his ability due to produce buckets without having a play called for him.

Like Plumlee, power forward Kenneth Faried is a member of the all-energy team, but he has been limited over the past few years due to injuries. However if Faried is healthy, he can provide the Nuggets with more depth coming off of the bench due to his ability to crash the boards as well as by making plays that will never show up on the stat sheet.

Paul Millsap

Over the summer the Nuggets were able to sign power forward Paul Millsap who has always shown the ability to produce in the paint. For Millsap’s 11-year NBA career, he has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, while he also has the ability to pass from the perimeter as well as in the paint.

Since small forward Wilson Chandler broke into the NBA in 2007 with the New York Knicks, he has gone on the be an underrated player at his position. Chandler has averaged 14 points for his NBA career which included tallying 15.7 per contest last season to go along with 6.5 boards. And what Chandler gives the Nuggets is a slasher from the small forward position who should be able to feed off of the passing ability of Jokic as well as that of the point guards in Denver.

Malone has a solid blend of primary ball handlers to work with in veteran point guard Jameer Nelson and Emanuel Mudiay. Nelson has 13 years of experience to share with Mudiay who only has two years under his belt. And this duo must find a way to facilitate for this Nuggets team; especially for Mudiay as the potential success for Denver will be in his hands.

The Nuggets will be a team to pay attention to for the entire NBA season as they will make each opponent work for everything in every game.

Y-Portland Trail Blazers 42-40 (8)

After overachieving during the 2015-2016 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers underachieved last season. The Blazers had to fight, scrap, and claw in order to earn the final playoff spot in the Western Conference last season with a record of 41-41. For Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, he relied on his back court of point guard Damian Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum to carry the team last year as they combined to average 50 points per game, but will this strategy be able to get Portland back to the NBA Playoffs?

Damian Lillard

Lillard is one of the most exciting point guards in the NBA and he became the focal point of the offense two years ago when the Trail Blazers lost several key players in free agency. However after Lillard averaged 6.8 assists per game during the 2015-2016 NBA season, he only averaged 5.9 per contest last season. Lillard focused too much on isolation ball which destroyed the rhythm of Portland’s offense. And heading into a new season, Lillard must find a way to make the players around him better, while also not losing his ability to score.

Playing alongside Lillard has afforded McCollum the opportunity to become a solid scorer for Portland. In each of the last two seasons, McCollum has averaged more 20 points per game. But the duo of McCollum and Lillard taking nearly half of the Trail Blazers shot once again won’t cut it.

Jusuf Nurkic

Last season the Blazers acquired center Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets and he showed the ability to play off of Lillard and McCollum. In 20 games for Portland, Nurkic averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds before his season came to a premature end after he suffered a broken leg. Nurkic is still working his way back from the injury, and once healthy, he has the ability to have an impact at both ends of the floor.

Aside from Nurkic, the Trail Blazers have size on their front line which includes small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Meyers Leonard, and power forward Ed Davis. Portland was tied for 13th in the NBA in rebounding last season at 43.7 per game, but with their size, there needs to be a change in philosophy in regards to how this team plays. Offensively Portland should concentrate more on having Lillard drive the lane in order to set his big men up for easier shots, while they also need to get nastier at the end of the defensive of the floor where they surrendered 108.5 points per game last season which was 25th in the NBA.

Unlike last season, Portland might not be able to recover from having a slow start due to the Western Conference being tougher which means that they must develop team chemistry early on in order to keep up.

Utah Jazz 41-41

The past NBA season saw the Utah Jazz emerge as a force in the Western Conference. The Jazz were able to win their first Northwest Division Title since 2008, while they won their first playoff series since 2010. The Jazz showed all of the signs of a team that was trending upward until they had to deal with the harsh reality of the NBA.

Small forward Gordon Hayward who led the Jazz in scoring at 21.9 points per game decided to leave Salt Lake City as a free agent to join the Boston Celtics. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s smaller market franchises, and the allure of Hayward playing for his former college head coach in Brad Stevens as well as being in Boston was enough for him to leave town.

The Jazz won’t be able to replace the contributions of Hayward as he was a solid two-way player. But for Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, he heads into a new NBA season trying to keep his squad on track, while making the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

Rudy Gobert

The departure of Hayward means that center Rudy Gobert will now be the guy for Utah. Gobert was a first-round pick by the Jazz in 2013 and he has been a project. However Gobert is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he led the league in blocks last season at 2.6 per contest. Gobert stands 7’1″, but his wingspan makes him 7’9″ and his ability to block shots makes him Utah’s best interior defender since Mark Eaton. However Gobert could become more of a threat at the offensive end of the floor as he should get more shots now in the post as there are not too many centers in the Western Conference that will be able to deal with his size and presence.

Aside from Gobert, the Jazz have size on their front line in the form of power forward Derrick Favors. Like Gobert, Favors has ability to be a shot blocker and rebounder, but his overall production took a dip last season due to injury. Favors is a seven-year NBA veteran, but he is still a youngster at the age of 26. And if Favors is healthy this season, points will be at a premium this year for Utah opponents due to his presence as well as that of Gobert on the interior.

Ricky Rubio

The Jazz were able to acquire point guard Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves over the summer as he has morphed into a quality point guard, and the Jazz’s style of offense which focuses on movement will benefit him. Utah still has veteran swingman Joe Johnson, but the one thing that’ll hinder their chances this season is that they no longer have a play maker like Hayward who can consistently create for his teammates.

The Jazz will definitely take a step back as the loss of Hayward, along with a stacked Western Conference will make it tough for them to get back to the postseason.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

 

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Mr. Triple-Double

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Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook entered the NBA in 2008, he has been nothing short of pure excitement. Westbrook has been front and center for the Thunder’s ascent in the Western Conference, while he has become one of the NBA’s best players. At 6’3″, 200 lbs., Westbrook is one of the fastest players in the NBA and he is also fearless. It’s nothing for Westbrook to drive to the lane while also mixing it up with the big men in the paint. Westbrook is a six-time NBA All-Star and following the departure of small forward Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City last summer to join the Golden State Warriors, you expected Westbrook to have a special season; just not as spectacular as it has been.

This season I expected Westbrook to lead the NBA scoring in scoring as he would now be the focal point of the Thunder’s offense, but he has done it in the fashion of making history. Westbrook is on the verge of becoming the first NBA player since Hall of Fame point guard Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season. On the campaign Westbrook is averaging 31.8 points (which leads the NBA), 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists. Westbrook has already tied Roberston’s single season record of 41 triple-doubles in a season, and he just missed setting the new mark as he had 45 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds this past Wednesday night in a 103-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Westbrook will have another opportunity to get his 42nd triple-double tonight when the Thunder face the Phoenix Suns. With Westbrook leading the way the Thunder are heading to the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight years and regardless of what happens in the postseason, he should be ready collect some individual hardware.

Being that Westbrook has done something which hasn’t been accomplished in more than 50 years, he is the odds-on favorite to become the NBA’s MVP. On 18 occasions Westbrook has scored at least 40 points this season which included going for 58 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 7. From February 26-March 3, Westbrook had four consecutive games in which he scored at 41 points. Westbrook has 10 contests in which he has gotten at least 15 assists which was highlighted by him going for 22 assists versus the Suns on December 17. And the other caveat is that 32 times this season Westbrook has tallied at least 12 rebounds in a game which included him grabbing 18 boards on two separate occasions which is why he’ll be a shoe-in to be the NBA’s MVP.

Westbrook has made the impossible possible as he has done what many people thought would never be done again which is to average triple-double for an entire season. Since Robertson pulled it off in 1962, the NBA has seen a plethora of great point guards such as Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and John Stockton. But whereas these men had other talented players to shoulder the load, Westbrook is doing this without a talented squad around him as he needs to do what he is doing in order for Oklahoma City to win basketball games. This season the Thunder are 31-10 when Westbrook records a triple-double as he has been a one-man wrecking crew and thus head coach Billy Donovan has given him the green light to turn it loose.

With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, I don’t expect Westbrook to slow down his production even though that the deck will be stacked against him as far as Oklahoma City being able to make a deep run in the Western Conference Playoffs due to the fact that they’ll have to go through the likes of the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets.

I knew that Westbrook would be locked in this season as he was out to emerge from the shadow of Durant in Oklahoma City. And since the folks in Oklahoma City weren’t thrilled at how Durant left along with the team that he joined, it has led them to embrace Westbrook more than ever; especially since he signed an extension to remain there.

Averaging a triple-double for an entire season in the NBA is the equivalent to hitting for the triple-crown in Major League Baseball, rushing for 2,000 yards in a season in the National Football League, and scoring 75 goals in one campaign in the National Hockey League. Occurrences such as these don’t come down the pike that often and thus they should be put onto a pedestal. And regardless of what Westbrook is able to do for the remainder of his NBA career, his name will forever live on in the history of the league.

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2017 NBA MVP Candidates

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It’s still early in the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot begin to look at who’ll take home some hardware in the spring as the league’s MVP. And although that Christmas has not yet arrived, here are some players that are right now a cut above the rest.

DeMar DeRozan-Shooting Guard-Toronto Raptors

Since the Toronto Raptors made shooting guard DeMar Derozan the ninth overall selection of the NBA Draft in 2009, he has been a work in progress. As a rookie, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per contest, but he would make a huge leap in his second season as he netted 17.2 points per game. And by 2014, DeRozan had elevated his game to that of an NBA All-Star.

Last season saw DeRozan help the Raptors make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and he’s doing his part to help Toronto take that next step in order to win an NBA Championship.

DeMar DeRozan

This season DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game, which has included a pair of 40-point performances. In all but three games this season DeRozan has scored at least 21 points as he is the focal point of the Raptors offense.

DeRozan deserves a ton of credit as after signing a five-year, $139 million extension to remain in Toronto over the summer, his production has increased which goes against the norm as athletes tend to regress after agreeing to a mega deal. But DeRozan is mentally tough and as he has the Raptors poised to make a title run, he cannot be overlooked in regards to being the NBA’s MVP.

LeBron James-Small Forward-Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James falls into that rare air. James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he first came on to the scene in 2003 which is evident by him being a four-time NBA MVP. James is always in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP, and although that he’s only averaging 23.9 points so far this season, he is averaging 9.1 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per contest as he is still the game’s best all-around player.

Russell Westbrook-Point Guard-Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook

Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made his NBA debut in 2008, he has been one of the league’s most explosive players. Westbrook is a five-time NBA All-Star in spite of the fact that he has spent his entire professional career playing out of position as he was always a shooting guard prior to joining the Thunder.

I expected Westbrook to have an increased role in the Thunder’s offense after small forward Kevin Durant left last summer in free agency and he has lived up to the expectations and then some.

In Westbrook’s first game this season, he dropped 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists on the Philadelphia 76ers. Westbrook follwed this up by torching the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season for 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

For the season Westbrook has 11 triple-doubles to his credit which includes recording one in his each of his last six games. Westbrook is currently averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.9 rebounds as he is seeking to become the first player in the NBA to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. And if Westbrook is able to pull off that feat, he should receive very strong consideration to be the NBA’s MVP.

Kevin Durant-Small Forward-Golden State Warriors

Kevin Durant

Small forward Kevin Durant shocked many people last summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors. And when Durant joined the Warriors, it was going to be interesting to see how he would play alongside point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson who are two of the premier scorers in the NBA.

But so far Durant hasn’t skipped a beat with his new team as he is averaging 26.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds which are a career-high. Durant has been consistent for the Warriors as he has scored at least 20 points in every contest in all but two for the Warriors. And as the Warriors once again find themselves in the title hunt, Durant’s contributions cannot be overlooked.

James Harden-Point Guard-Houston Rockets

Before this NBA season began, new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he would be shifting James Harden from shooting guard to point guard. And whereas people such as myself laughed at the notion, D’Antoni has been right on so far.

James Harden

Harden has still maintained his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.5 points per game. But the amazing feat is that Harden has done this while he is leading the league in assists at 11.4 per contest. Harden has four triple-doubles on the season. And in those contests the Rockets are 3-1 which includes victories over the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Golden State Warriors.

D’Antoni has maximized the ability of Harden which is leading to victories for the Rockets and the elevation of the all-around game of one of the best players in the NBA.

Anthony Davis-Power Forward-New Orleans Pelicans

Being that the New Orleans Pelicans are not one of the better teams in the NBA, the exploits of power forward Anthony Davis could go unnoticed to the casual fan. Davis was the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the then New Orleans Hornets, and he has been as good as advertised. Davis is a budding superstar which began to recognized as he was named to his first All-Star team in 2014. That season Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks as he helped the Pelicans reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Injuries limited Davis to just 61 games last season, but this time around he is currently averaging 31.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks.

Anthony Davis

On the season Davis has 10 games in which has delivered at least 30 points and 10 rebounds which was highlighted by going for 50 points and 15 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, along with a 41-point, 16-rebound barrage last Tuesday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Pelicans don’t have a good team around Davis which will hinder his chances as far as making the postseason goes, but what he is currently doing the season cannot be discredited.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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2016-2017 Northwest Division Projections

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X-Portland Trailblazers 51-31 (4)

After winning 51 games during the 2014-2015 NBA season, the 2015-2016 campaign was expected to be a down one for the Portland Trailblazers. The summer of 2015 saw the Trailblazers ravaged by departures which included power forward LaMarcus Aldridge joining the San Antonio Spurs and shooting guard Wes Matthews signing on with the Dallas Mavericks. But Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t cry over spilled milk as he simply went to work in building his team around All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Last season saw Lillard become the focal point of the Trailblazers offense to the tune of averaging 25.1 points per game. And when the regular season was over, Portland shocked many people as they were heading for the NBA Playoffs. But the Blazers weren’t just content to reach the postseason as they advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals for the second time in three years. Now the Trailblazers will head into this NBA season looking to build off of their last campaign and add to what they accomplished.

Damian Lillard

Aside from Lillard being the best player on the Trailblazers team, he is rapidly developing into one of the best players in the league. Along with averaging 25.1 points per game last season, Lillard averaged a career high in assists with 6.8. Lillard isn’t afraid to mix it up in the post as well where as averaged 4 rebounds per contest last season. And as Lillard goes, so goes the fortunes of the Trail Blazers, but he has a team around him that can compliment his style of play.

Center Mason Plumlee has seen his numbers improve in each of three NBA seasons, and after being a starter in all 82 games for Portland last year, he could be poised to average a double-double in points and rebounds this time around. Like Plumlee, the Blazers also employ players in their front court such as power forward Ed Davis and center Meyers Leonard who can play off of Lillard’s ability to get to the basket as they are finishers at the rim who don’t require set plays to be run for them.

Lillard is consistently paired with guard C.J. McCollum to give the Blazers one of the fastest backcourts in the NBA as it is simply pick your poison with both players who have the ability to take over a game.

During the summer, Portland signed swingman Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million deal. Turner gives the Trailblazers another ball handler, while he is a solid defender. And due to the attention that Lillard and McCollum will receive, Turner is going to see more than his fair share of open looks at the basket which should allow for him to have one of his more productive seasons in the NBA.

Aside from Turner, the Trail Blazers also signed center Festus Ezeli in free agency. Ezeli was an under utilized big man during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but his championship experience could pay dividends for a young team in Portland.

Terry Stotts

Terry Stotts is set to begin his fifth season as the Blazers head coach, and in spite of the fact that he has guided this team to the postseason in each of the last three years, he is an underrated commodity in the NBA. But Stotts has a team this time around that could be more than just a playoff participant as the Trail Blazers have the potential to do some damage in the Western Conference.

Y-Oklahoma City Thunder 50-32 (5)

This past June the Oklahoma City Thunder appeared to be on the verge of heading to the NBA Finals, until things came apart for them in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder had a 3-1 series lead against the Golden State Warriors until the wheels fell off. And as the 2016 NBA Playoffs ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Thunder, the sorrow didn’t end there for them.

After nine years with the Seattle Supersonics/ Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, small forward Kevin Durant decided to leave. Durant spurned the Thunder’s offer in free agency in favor of joining the Golden State Warriors. Durant’s departure signals the end of his pairing with point guard Russell Westbrook as one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA. But if anyone is expecting the Thunder to feel sorry for themselves after Durant left town, think again.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti is one of the best front office people in the NBA when it comes to putting a team together which means that Oklahoma City should be poised for another run to the NBA Playoffs.

Russell Westbrook

After Durant left, the Thunder made it their business to sign Westbrook to a three-year extension that is worth $85.7 million as he will be the centerpiece for head coach Billy Donovan. This new deal will keep Westbrook in Oklahoma City through 2020 which is more than enough time for him to show the basketball world that he is ready to emerge from Durant’s shadow.

When Durant missed the majority of the 2014-2015 NBA season with a foot injury, Westbrook led the league in scoring at 28.1 per contest. And I don’t see Donovan attempting to hold him back this year.

Enes Kanter

But around Westbrook, the Thunder have a very talented team that consists of the likes of centers Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. Last year with the Thunder, Kanter averaged 12.7 which was the result of not enough basketballs to go around for everyone, but this time around he should become more involved in the offense due to the loss of Durant. Adams is a wild man on the boards and at the defensive end of the court as you never know what you’re going to get from him which makes him an X-factor for the Thunder.

Aside from losing Durant, center Serge Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic. In exchange for Ibaka, the Thunder received shooting guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis.

Oladipo is expected to be a running mate in the Thunder’s backcourt with Westbrook and he should be able to have an immediate impact. In three years with the Magic, Oladipo averaged 15.9 points per game, and as long as he is healthy, the sky is the limit this season for him in Oklahoma City.

Last year Sabonis was a second-team All-American for the Gonzaga Bulldogs where he averaged 17.6 points, and 11.8 rebounds per contest. Sabonis is the son of former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas, and he will flash some of the moves that his old man did once upon a time on the hardwood.

Billy Donovan

In Donovan’s first year as the head coach of the Thunder, he stayed out of the way while letting his superstars in Westbrook and Durant do their thing. This time around I can see Donovan being more hands on, but I doubt that he will attempt to stop the one-man show that is Westbrook.

Y-Utah Jazz 41-41 (8)

The last two NBA seasons have seen the Utah Jazz overachieve, but it still wasn’t enough for them to make the playoffs. The Jazz won 40 games last season and missed making the NBA Playoffs by one game which is something the head coach Quin Snyder will attempt to build off of as Utah is seeking their first postseason berth since 2012.

Gordon Hayward

If Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward played in a bigger market, he would be a household name. In each of Hayward’s first six seasons in the NBA, his offensive stats have increased which included him averaging 19.7 points per game. Hayward is developing into one of the better wing players in the NBA, and his continued improvement is vital to any success that Utah seeks. Like Hayward, the numbers of power forward Derrick Favors continue to improve as he is one the most underrated big men in the Western Conference. At 7’1″, the length of center Rudy Goubert gives opponents problems, and after he averaged 11 rebounds and 2.2 blocks last season, he is a prime candidate to be the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year this time around.

With the return of point guard Dante Exum who missed the entire 2015-2016 NBA season after suffering a torn ACL, the Jazz decided to trade point guard Trey Burke to the Washington Wizards for a 2021 draft pick. And along with veteran guard Shelvin Mack who led the Jazz in assists last year with 5.6, Exum will be looked at as being one of the floor generals for Utah.

Last year the Jazz were one of the younger teams in the NBA, but general manager Dennis Lindsey has attempted to remedy that as over the summer he signed veteran swingman Joe Johnson, point guard George Hill, and power forward/center Boris Diaw. All three players have tremendous experience in the NBA which includes Diaw winning an NBA Championship in 2014.

Eight of Utah’s first eleven games will be on the road this season, but this is a Jazz squad that
should be up for the challenge.

 

Minnesota Timberwolves 37-45

The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of a very long hibernation. You have to go back to 2004 in order to find the last time that the Timberwolves made the playoffs as they’ve become an afterthought in the NBA. Minnesota has had its fair share of misses at the NBA Draft, but they finally appear to be headed in the right direction.

Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau is set to begin his first year as the T-Wolves head coach and president of basketball operations as he will be bringing law and order to the franchise. For five years Thibodeau was the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and in each season he was able to get them to the postseason. Under Thibodeau, the Bulls were one of the better defensive teams in the NBA and that is a philosophy that he will attempt to instill into the young Timberwolves who gave up 106 points per game last season which was tied for 23rd in the NBA.

Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves have the last two NBA Rookie of the Years to work with in shooting guard Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. Last year Wiggins led the Timberwolves in scoring at 20.7 points per contest and it would not surprise me to see him make the All-Star team this year. Power forward Karl-Anthony Towns was a double-double machine last year for the Timberwolves, and he has the potential to be the second best big man in franchise history behind Kevin Garnett. The T-Wolves also have a pair of young ball handlers in point guard Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, while guard Kris Dunn could be in the running to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year which would make it three years in a row that the franchise could claim that honor.

Five of the Timberwolves first seven games will be on the road, and even if they start slow, this should a be an exciting team as the NBA season progresses.

Denver Nuggets 35-47

After a decade of success, the Denver Nuggets are fading into obscurity. From 2004-2013, the Nuggets made 10 consecutive playoff appearances, but the last three years have seen them fail to reach the postseason while winning no more than 36 in any campaign. And as Michael Malone is set to begin his second year as the Nuggets head coach, he must find the right formula that can once again make Denver a playoff contender in the Western Conference.

One thing that has hurt the Nuggets in recent years is that they don’t have a consistent go-to scorer. Last year the Nuggets had seven players average at least 10 points per game with small forward Danilo Gallinari leading the team with 19.5 points per contest. However the Nuggets lack of a consistent 20-point per game scorer will hurt them against the better teams in the Western Conference.

The keys to any potential success for the Nuggets during the 2016-2017 NBA season will come down to the development of point guard Emanuel Mudiay, the health of Gallinari, and how power forward Kenneth Faried will play off of them.

Emmanuel Mudiay

Last year as a rookie, Mudiay averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 assists as he was one of the better first-year players in the NBA. Mudiay has the potential to be a quality floor general and the Nuggets could be ready to improve if he continues to make progress.

In five seasons with the Nuggets, Gallinari has averaged 15.6 points per game, but his main issue has been his inability to remain healthy. In eight NBA seasons, Gallinari has never appeared in all 82 games as he has been done in by knee injuries. But in spite of that Gallinari is still a solid perimeter scorer as he is a career 41% scorer. And if Gallinari is able to appear in at least 70 games this season, it should be a big boost for the Nuggets.

 

 

If there were an All-Energy team in the NBA, Faried would be on it. There’s nothing fancy about Faried’s game as he plays with the mentality of a junkyard dog. Faried scraps and claws as he does whatever is necessary for the Nuggets to win. Faried is one of those rare players in the NBA that doesn’t need a play to be called for him, but when the game is done, he’ll have 15 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, along with the respect of his opponents. And it is that ability of Faried which will allow him to play off of Mudiay and Gallinari.

As a team the Nuggets were 22nd in the NBA in points allowed last season as they surrendered 105 per contest which must improve if they want to become a playoff contender.

Six of Denver’s first seven games for the upcoming NBA season will be on the road and they last thing that need is a slow start which could derail their postseason chances before they even start.

X-Division Winner
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth
Source: Basketball-reference.com
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Now It’s My Team

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Russell Westbrook

In a bit of a surprising move point guard Russell Westbrook signed an extension this week to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook was heading into the final year of his contract with the Thunder and he agreed to a three-year deal that is potentially worth $85.7 million, while he has a player option to opt out after the 2017-2018 NBA season. The move comes officially one month after small forward Kevin Durant left the Thunder as a free agent to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Durant’s move to join Golden State appeared to signal the end of Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City as the All-Star point guard might have been looking for a new home as well after next season when he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were prepared to pursue Westbrook in free agency or trading for him, however these teams will now have to go back to the drawing board as he is off of the market. Westbrook’s decision to remain in Oklahoma shows that he believes in the Thunder’s foundation under general manager Sam Presti and the upcoming NBA season could be very special for the enigmatic point guard.

For Westbrook’s eight-year NBA career he has averaged 21.5 points and 7.6 assists per contest. Westbrook has done this in spite of the fact that he has played out of position. Prior to being drafted by the Thunder, Westbrook never played the point guard position as he was a shooting guard throughout his high school and collegiate career. That has shown up at times throughout Westbrook’s career with the Thunder where he has attempted to take games over by himself while not always playing within the realm of the offense. And with Durant no longer around to get the basketball to, Westbrook could now be off to the races.

It’s only August, but it is not far-fetched that Westbrook could be one of the early favorites to be named as the NBA’s MVP next spring. As the Thunder’s top scoring option for next season, Westbrook could flirt with averaging 30 points per game like he did during the 2014-2015 NBA campaign when Durant missed the most of the season with a foot injury. That season saw Westbrook begin to emerge from Durant’s shadow as he averaged 28.1 points per game which was tops in the NBA, and it should be more of the same this time around.

The Thunder have a head coach in Billy Donovan that isn’t going to attempt to reign Westbrook in as he knows that he is one of the most exciting and energetic players in the NBA. Westbrook is a triple-double waiting to happen, and as the game of basketball has transformed into more of a perimeter game, he is ready to take his game to another level.

Westbrook’s decision to remain in Oklahoma City is a huge coup for Presti who had to watch Durant leave without getting anything in return, while also trading shooting guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012 after failed contract negotiations. Presti has shown that he can put together a quality team as the Thunder have won at least 50 games in five of the last seven seasons.

In spite of losing Durant and shooting guard Dion Waiters in free agency, while also trading center Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic, the Thunder still have a quality team that they can put around Westbrook which includes centers Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, along with shooting guard Victor Oladipo who was acquired from the Magic as Westbrook is now the undisputed leader in Oklahoma City.

The most recent piece of NBA history that can compare to the divorce of Durant and Westbrook was when the Los Angeles Lakers traded center Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in 2004. O’Neal’s departure from Los Angeles paved the way for shooting guard Kobe Bryant to emerge from the shadow of “The Big Diesel” which included Bryant averaging 35.4 points per contest during the 2005-2006 NBA season. And you can expect Westbrook to prepare for the upcoming NBA season with a huge chip on his shoulder as he has something to prove to himself, his teammates, his opposition, and Durant that he doesn’t have to play second fiddle to anyone.

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What About Me?

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By now you know that small forward Kevin Durant has decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors in free agency. The moves marks the end for one of the greatest players to ever suit up for the Seattle Supersonics/Thunder franchise as Durant was the team’s all-time leader in made three-point field goals (1,143) and second in points (17,566). Durant has left a lasting impact on Oklahoma City and his departure has opened up a ton of questions in regards to the future of point guard Russell Westbrook with the Thunder.

For the past eight years, Durant and Westbrook were one of the top duos in the NBA. Durant and Westbrook combined to help the Thunder go from a record of 23-59 during the 2008-2009 NBA season, to winning 50 games and making the postseason in 2010. Durant and Westbrook were also vital in the Thunder winning the Western Conference Championship in 2012, while that summer would also see them win gold medals as part of Team USA in the Summer Olympics. Durant and Westbrook are each regular fixtures at the NBA’s All-Star Game and it is hard to think about one without recognizing the other as they’ve been like peanut butter and jelly.

But with Durant having left Oklahoma City as an unrestricted free agent, it means that the Thunder didn’t get anything else than well wishes from the superstar when he decided to join the Warriors. And with Westbrook set to enter the final year of his contract, Thunder general manager Sam Presti is now on high alert about the status of their All-Star point guard.

With Durant taking his talents to Oakland, it doesn’t look like Westbrook wants to remain in Oklahoma City either which will make the next seven months very interesting there as the talents of “Trader Sam” will once again be on display. Presti is one of the better general managers that is currently in the NBA as he hasn’t been afraid to make trades that will return value to Oklahoma City.

In 2012 after being unable to come to agreement on a long-term extension with shooting guard James Harden, Presti traded him to the Houston Rockets which saw players such as center Steven Adams, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb go to the Thunder. With the contract of center Serge Ibaka set to expire next summer, Presti traded him last month at the NBA Draft to the Orlando Magic in exchange for guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis. And over the past few years Presti has made key in-season trades to beef up the Thunder’s postseason chances which included acquiring shooting guard Dion Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers and center Enes Kanter from the Utah Jazz.

Durant’s departure definitely changes things as far as the Thunder being a title contender, but don’t expect Presti to allow Mr. Westbrook to catch a flight out of Oklahoma City without receiving something in return.

Sam Presti

Whereas Presti will seek to trade Westbrook, it will have to be to a team that believes that they will have a legitimate shot at locking up the point guard to a long-term deal. And as of right now Presti is holding all of the trump cards which means that he’ll more than likely look to ship Westbrook to the Eastern Conference where he wouldn’t compete with the Thunder for a playoff spot. But it doesn’t mean that Presti wouldn’t trade Westbrook inside of the Western Conference which was the situation with Harden in 2012. What has made Presti so good as a general manager has been his ability to be a forward thinker which means that he dictates the trades and holds all of the aces.

Whomever will acquire Westbrook will more than likely surrender a king’s ransom to the Thunder as Presti is going to do what’s best for his organization as far as keeping them competitive. But just as the folks in Oklahoma City are beginning to come to grips with the fact that Durant is gone, they might as well begin to think about Westbrook playing for another team as his days there appear to be numbered.

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A Thunderous Defeat

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A week ago life was good for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and a trip to the NBA Finals appeared to be in the cards for them. But the Thunder were unable to seal the deal as they lost their next three games, with each defeat being more painful that the previous one. Now the Thunder have become a running gag on social media as some people are labeling them as “choke artists”, with their star players in point guard Russell Westbrook and small forward Kevin Durant being singled out. The Thunder enjoyed a terrific season as they won 55 games during the regular season en route to winning their fifth Northwest Division Title in the last six years. In the Western Conference Semifinals, the Thunder got past the San Antonio Spurs who were viewed by many observers as the uncrowned NBA Champions. But after being so close to defeating the Warriors, the Thunder are left to ponder what could have been as they’ll be licking their wounds over the summer.

Kevin Durant

But the Thunder won’t be able to sulk for long as team general manager Sam Presti must formulate a plan to keep Durant in Oklahoma City. Durant is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and there are several teams in the NBA that will be putting on the full-court press in order to entice him to join them. However what the Thunder have going for them is that they can offer Durant more money than any other team, while roster wise they still possess a squad that is championship ready.

Presti must also decided if he is willing to re-sign shooting guard Dion Waiters. During the 2014-2015 NBA season, the Thunder acquired Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he became a valuable sixth man in Oklahoma City. Waiters made $5.1 million this season, but you can expect that he will be seeking a bigger payday over the summer, and it will be interesting to see if the Thunder are willing to commit to him on a long-term deal. However being that Waiters is a restricted free agent, the Thunder will have the opportunity to match any offer from another NBA team.

Other than Durant and Waiters, all the key players to the Thunder’s success are under contract at least through next season. Billy Donovan was solid in his first season as the head coach of the Thunder as he was brought in for his ability to deal with different personalities. And Donovan did a solid job of staying out of the way, while letting his players be.

But as good as the Thunder have been and can be, they are not going to get too many opportunities to win an NBA Championship like the one that they just had which was right within their grasp.

The Western Conference is still difficult with the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and the emerging Portland Trailblazers. And the Thunder proved how difficult that winning the Western Conference can be as they’ll more than likely have to go through the Spurs and Warriors once more.

Russell Westbrook

Although that Westbrook didn’t enter the NBA as a point guard, he has evolved into one of the best in the league as he is a triple-double waiting to happen. And in the defeat to the Warriors, Westbrook showed that he is the heart and soul of the Thunder as he was a big reason why Oklahoma City was up 3-1 in the series due to his relentlessness at both ends of the court. With the deep run by the Thunder in the playoffs, I don’t see Durant leaving Oklahoma City as being there gives him the best chance of winning an NBA Championship which appears to be high on his list of priorities. The Thunder have rebounding in the form of centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, along with power forward Serge Ibaka. The Thunder also get interior defense from Ibaka and Adams, while Waiters and shooting guard Andre Roberson are solid perimeter defenders. But what the Thunder could benefit from is having another ball handler on the court coming down the stretch of games which would take some pressure off of Westbrook while allowing him the freelance more. And most importantly, the Thunder must find a way to finish.

What separated Golden State and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals was that the Warriors expected to win, while the Thunder hoped to win. The Warriors have been there and done it, which is why they are the defending NBA Champions and are still playing as the Thunder are not. Make no mistake about it that this version of the Thunder was better than the team that lost to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. And if the Thunder can find a way to build off of this difficult defeat as opposed to allowing it to bring them down, they can once again be a very formidable team next season.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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Teetering On The Brink

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If the Golden State Warriors cannot figure out how to stop Russell Westbrook, the off-season will begin earlier than expected.

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