Let’s get it on.
Heading into the 2016-2017 NBA season, it was tough to get a fix on the Washington Wizards. Scott Brooks was set to begin his first season as the Wizards head coach, while Washington’s two best players in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal were not on the same page.
At first the Wizards resembled a team that wasn’t in sync as they began the season with a record of 3-9. However the tide would begin to turn for Washington and once the calendar was set to shift to 2017, they had climbed back to the .500 mark. But after the Wizards dropped their first two games in January, they’ve gone on to become one of the hottest teams in the NBA as they have won 17 of their last 20 games. And heading into the NBA’s All-Star break, there isn’t a team in the Eastern Conference that wants to face them right now.
The Southeast Division has been up for grabs for the majority of the season, but things are changing since the Wizards have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. The Wizards currently hold a 2.5-game lead over the Atlanta Hawks for the top spot in the division as they appear to be the most complete team there.
Wall has been one of the better point guards in the NBA since the Wizards made him the first overall pick in 2010. And this season has seen Wall earn his fourth consecutive trip to the All-Star Game as he is averaging a career-high in points per game with 22.9, while his 10.6 assists per contest are second in the league. Wall has 34 double-doubles to his credit this season which includes him recording one in each of Washington’s last eight games.
Like Wall, Beal is averaging a career-high points this season with 22.3 per contest which included going for a career-high 42 points on November 21 in a victory over the Phoenix Suns. Beal is showing that he is worth every penny when he and the Wizards agreed on a new five-year extension that is worth $128 million during the summer. This contract initially caused a rift between Beal and Wall, but now they’ve combined their forces to be one of the better back court duos in the NBA. And the fact that Beal and Wall are both healthy and on the same page is fueling the Wizards surge, along with several other factors.
The Wizards appeared as if they weren’t going to grow anymore under former head coach Randy Wittman which resulted in his termination and the hiring of Scott Brooks. Prior to joining the Wizards, Brooks was the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder for seven seasons where he compiled a record of 338-207 which was highlighted by guiding them to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012. Brooks also knew how to deal with different personalities as he found a way to get point guard Russell Westbrook, shooting guard James Harden, and small forward Kevin Durant enough shots. And this ability to keep the team’s best players happy is what makes him perfect for the Wizards as he is a breath of fresh air.
Small forward Otto Porter Jr. was the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft by the Wizards and he has been a project for them as his production has increased in each season. This season Porter is averaging 14.4 points per game, while he is connecting on nearly 46% of his three-point attempts which currently leads the NBA. But even with the emergence of Porter, along with the strong play of Beal and Wall, the Wizards now have unity which has fueled their surge.
This NBA season has produced some very intense battles between the Wizards and Boston Celtics. At the end of Washington’s game against Boston on January 11, there was a heated exchange between Wall and Celtics small forward Jae Crowder where both players had to be separated. This was just one of several incidents between these two teams this season which led to Wall and his teammates figuring out a way to respond.
As Washington was set to welcome the Celtics to the Verizon Center in D.C. on January 24, the entire Wizards team arrived to the arena wearing all black as is was dubbed that they were attending a “funeral”. The Celtics didn’t give the words of the Wizards any life, however Washington played inspired basketball throughout which led to one of their best victories of the season as they won 123-108 with them appearing to be a very tight knit group.
With the way that the Wizards are currently rolling, the only thing that can stop them right now is the NBA’s prolonged All-Star break which began for them last night. The Wizards have ascended to the third best record in the Eastern Conference as they are only trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics in the standings. And thus it will be interesting to see if Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld will be willing to make a deal prior to next Thursday’s trade deadline in the NBA as it wouldn’t be wise to mess up team chemistry; especially with front court contributions of power forward Markieff Morris and center Marcin Gortat whose 11.5 rebounds per contest are eighth in the NBA.
But there is a buzz around this Wizards team as everyone is on the same page, while they are eyeing their first division title since 1979 which was the last time that they reached the NBA Finals. And who knows how far that this team can go once the NBA Playoffs roll around.
X-Atlanta Hawks 46-36 (6)
Believe it or not, the Atlanta Hawks will enter the 2016-2017 NBA season with the second longest active playoff streak in the league. The Hawks have made the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons and they’ve done it under the guidance of three different head coaches. Mike Budenholzer is set to begin his fourth season as the Hawks head coach and this is expected to be his toughest campaign with the club.
The Hawks must find a way to replace the contributions of center Al Horford who after spending nine seasons with the club, left as a free agent to join the Boston Celtics. During Horford’s time with the Hawks, he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest, and aside from his production on the court, his leadership will also be missed in Atlanta.
To replace Horford, the Hawks signed veteran center Dwight Howard. Howard is a 12-year NBA veteran that has been one of the better rebounders of this era. Howard has averaged 12.7 rebounds for his career, and when the season is over he should be in the top 20 of the NBA’s all-time list for rebounding. Howard has also averaged 2.1 blocks for his career as he is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But the thing that has held Howard back during his career has been his scoring and free throw shooting.
Howard has averaged 17.8 points per game for his career, but he has never been a player that has developed his offensive game. And if Howard ever decides to figure it out at the offensive end of the floor, he can boost his productivity along with the chances of the Hawks. But the Hawks should get Howard’s best effort being that he is a native of Atlanta.
Along with Howard, the Hawks have power forward Paul Millsap who is a double-double machine. And although that Millsap has is a more proven scorer than Howard, the two should help Atlanta clean up on the glass after they were only 24th in the NBA in the category last season.
The Hawks will be the eighth different NBA team that point guard Jarrett Jack has suited up for, and at each stop along the way he has been an underrated player. Jack is coming off of a career-high in assists last season as he averaged 7.4 with the Brooklyn Nets, and he should give Budenholzer another quality ball handler. Jack’s presence will definitely benefit the team’s young point guard Dennis Schroder. Schroder’s numbers have improved in each of his three NBA seasons, and now he has a quality veteran such as Jack to learn from.
Atlanta still has shooting guard Kyle Korver who even at the age of 35 is one of the best long range shooters in the NBA. Korver has a career three-point field-goal percentage of nearly 43, and he should continue to thrive in Budenholzer’s offensive system that relies on ball movement.
Nobody is expected to run away with the Southeast Division, but the Hawks will definitely have a say in who will win it.
Y-Washington Wizards 45-37 (8)
The Washington Wizards entered the 2015-2016 NBA season with solid expectations to be a contender. But when it was all said and done the Wizards had to settle for a record of 41-41 as they missed out on the postseason by three games. The Wizards inability to reach the playoffs would cost head coach Randy Wittman his job and he would be replaced by former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. In seven years with the Thunder, Wittman compiled a regular season record of 338-207, while he also led Oklahoma City to the Western Conference Championship in 2012 and the Wizards are helpful that his presence will be the spark needed to get them back to the playoffs.
But one of the keys for any potential success by the Wizards during the upcoming NBA season is the health of their starting backcourt in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Both Wall and Beal have been injury prone during their respective NBA careers which was evident by the fact that the combined to miss 32 games last season. However if Wall and Beal are healthy and can get on the same page, it should be all systems go in D.C.
Around Beal and Wall, center Marcin Gortat has shown that he can be a quality contributor as he has averaged 12.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in three seasons with the Wizards. Small forward Otto Porter has continued to improve in Washington as he has been getting more minutes, and his growth will be vital to any success that the Wizards intend on having as he could be a force for them at both ends of the floor in the front court, while center Ian Mahimi and power forward Markieff Morris should provide some size up front.
The Wizards should show some improvement this season, but I doubt that it will be enough for them to contend with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.
Orlando Magic 38-44
If the Orlando Magic could ever get out of their own way, then they might be able to end their current four-year playoff drought. One of the main issues that has hurt the Magic has been their issues at the head coaching position. The last five years have seen Orlando employ five different head coaches and after Scott Skiles left after a promising start with the Magic, it is now up to former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel to get one of the youngest teams in the Eastern Conference to reach its full potential.
Vogel’s first order of business was a surprising move as he traded shooting guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder for power forward/center Serge Ibaka. Oladipo appeared to be a building block for the Magic, but Vogel and team general manager Rob Hennigan decided to go in a different direction.
What the Magic will be getting with Ibaka is a solid defender as he can rebound and block shots, while also knocking down the occasional three-point shot which will help Orlando spread the floor. Ibaka should be able to play alongside center Nikola Vucevic who led the Magic in scoring (18.2), and rebounding (8.9) last season. Vucevic has been an underrated player primarily due to the fact that he plays in a smaller market, while the Magic haven’t made the playoffs. But under Vogel, I do believe that Vucevic’s production can increase which would lead to him getting more public recognition.
Oladipo’s departure should result in more playing time for Evan Fournier at the shooting guard position. In each of Fournier’s four NBA seasons, his points per game average has increased. And if Fournier is able to average at least 18 points per contest, it could point the Magic in the direction of the playoffs.
Along with Fournier, the Magic have speed in their backcourt in the form of point guard Elfrid Payton who has a quirky style of play, but Vogel should find a way to get the most out of him in his system.
The Magic do have a solid group of veteran players that includes small forward Jeff Green and point guard D.J. Augustin, while power forward Aaron Gordon is out to show that he is more than merely a dunker.
Vogel is a head coach that knows how to get the most out of his talent and he’ll have a challenge ahead of him this season in Central Florida.
Charlotte Hornets 37-45
The Charlotte Hornets came out of nowhere last season to win 48 games for the first time since the 1999-2000 NBA campaign. But as good as the Hornets were in the regular season, they were still unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs which is something that they’ve been unable to do since 2002. The Hornets will enter the upcoming NBA season looking to build off of their trip to the playoffs last year, while also looking to do something they’ve been unable to since 2002 which is to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years. But for Hornets head coach Steve Clifford and his crew, it won’t be an easy task.
The Hornets lost veteran center Al Jefferson in free agency as he signed with the Indiana Pacers, and it is time for their youngsters in the front court to step up. In recent years the Hornets have used first-round picks on small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with centers Cody Zeller, and Frank Kaminsky. But none of these players have been able to step up and consistently contribute for the Hornets.
Charlotte still has the luxury of having point guard Kemba Walker who is coming off of averaging 20.9 points per game last season. Although that Walker is listed as a point guard, he is more of an “off-guard” as he is a shooting guard that is in a point guard’s body.
Aside from Walker, the Hornets other main scoring option is small forward Nicolas Batum who is more of a facilitator and not really thought of as a consistent scoring option.
And with Walker expected to be the Hornets main scoring option, other players such as Zeller and Kaminsky need to find a way to contribute in other facets of the game such as rebounding which is a category that Charlotte was 14th in the NBA in last season at 43.9 per contest.
The Hornets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long, and it will be a miracle if Clifford finds a way to get this team to the playoffs.
Miami Heat 36-46
As the Miami Heat are set to begin the 2016-2017 NBA season, they are indeed a team that is at the crossroads. Seven of the last eight NBA seasons have seen the Heat make the playoffs, and since 2006, no team in the league has won more titles (3) than them. But the Heat will definitely be a long shot it regards to winning an NBA Championship this time around.
After losing small forward LeBron James in free agency in 2014, the exodus continued this summer when shooting guard Dwyane Wade left Miami to join the Chicago Bulls. Wade’s decision came down to money as Heat team president Pat Riley wasn’t willing to budge in regards to offering him more than $40 million over the next two seasons. Wade leaves Miami as the leader in nearly every statistical category as he was hands down the best player in franchise history.
Aside from Wade, I doubt that you’ll ever see power forward Chris Bosh in a Heat uniform again. Bosh has been limited over the past two NBA seasons due to blood clots, and the Heat are refusing to give him clearance in regards to resuming his basketball career. Bosh feels that he can still get it done, but Riley and Heat owner Mickey Arison understand the severity of his issue which has all but signaled the end of his time in Miami.
Aside from combining to average 38.1 points per contest last season, the biggest thing that the Heat will miss from Wade and Bosh is the leadership that each player brought to the organization. And for Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he is facing one of his toughest challenges in Miami.
The Heat have very quickly become a young team that needs someone to step up and take charge. The last two seasons have seen center Hassan Whiteside emerge as a force for the Heat. Whiteside led the NBA in blocks last season with 3.7 per game, while he averaged 14.2 points, and 11.8 rebounds. The Heat rewarded Whiteside with a four-year, $98 million contract, but is he ready to be the guy?
In two seasons with the Heat, Whiteside has had his maturity questioned on many occasions, and now he is in a position where he has to be a leader for this team, on and off the court on a nightly basis, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to answer the bell.
Just like Whiteside, shooting guard Tyler Johnson was paid by the Heat over the summer as he received a four-year, $50 million deal. Johnson only averaged 24 minutes per game last season, and his playing time will increase now that he has been compensated. Small forward Justise Winslow was Miami’s first-round pick in 2015, and after showing flashes at both ends of the floor as a rookie, it’s time for him to take his game to the next level.
As point guard Goran Dragic is set to begin his second full season with the Heat, will he be able to finally shed to label as a player that can only put up big numbers on bad teams? Prior to joining the Heat in 2015, Dragic had averaged 20.3 points per game during the 2013-2014 NBA season as a member of the Phoenix Suns. But since Dragic has joined the Heat, he has only averaged 14.8 points per contest. However with the departures of Wade and Bosh, Dragic should see an increase in shots for him as the Heat are desperate for someone to step up and be “the guy”.
And whereas the Heat have a huge void to fill with the departure of Wade, shooting guard Dion Waiters could have new life. Waiters joined the Heat this past summer on a two-year deal. And after Waiters spent the past two years as a role player with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he could be ready for a bigger role for the Heat as he’ll definitely get more shots to score.
Anyway that you slice it this will be a trying season for the Heat who find themselves in the middle of a rebuild.
Sam Presti has been an NBA general manager since 2007. Presti started as a GM in the front office of the Seattle Supersonics before they became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. Presti’s first season saw the Sonics finish with a record of 20-62 which was the second worst record in the NBA, but they did have a building block that year in small forward Kevin Durant who would average 20.3 points per game and would be named the NBA’s Rookie of The Year. Presti would give Durant a running mate in 2008 when he selected guard Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall selection of the NBA Draft as the team was set to transition to Oklahoma City. With a young Durant and an even younger Westbrook, the Thunder would go 23-59 in their first season in Oklahoma City. The Thunder would use the third overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft on guard James Harden and Presti now had his core to build around. The following season would see the Thunder win 50 games and make the 2010 NBA Playoffs. And in 2012, the Thunder would win the Western Conference Championship. After the Thunder’s run to the NBA Finals in 2012, Presti would then begin to show even more of his savvy as a general manager.
With Harden up for a contract extension, the Thunder could not afford to give him, Durant and Westbrook maximum deals; especially after signing power forward Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension in August 2012. And after failing to sign Harden to a team friendly contract, Presti traded him to the Houston Rockets in a six-player deal that also saw the Thunder receive three draft picks just prior to the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season. Two of those picks would work out for the Thunder as they used them on center Steven Adams and power forward Mitch McGary who are growing into solid role players in Oklahoma City. Since trading Harden, the Thunder haven’t skipped a beat as they won 60 games during the 2012-2013 NBA season for the first time since 1997-1998 when they still called Seattle home. In the past five years the Thunder have become a consistent title contender as they also advanced to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Things would be tougher for the Thunder this season as Durant began the season in street clothes as he was recovering from a fractured foot. And it would become more complicated for the Thunder in their second game of the season when Westbrook suffered a fracture in his hand versus the Los Angeles Clippers that would sideline him for nearly a month.
The Thunder were without their two stars in Durant and Westbrook and it showed in their record as they began the season at 3-12. But the slow climb back to respectability has seen them get back above the .500 mark as they’re back in the playoff hunt.
Ever since returning to returning the Thunder lineup, Westbrook has been a one-man wrecking crew as he has scored in double figures in every contest. In Westbrook’s first game back he went for 32 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds in a 105-78 victory over the New York Knicks on November 28 and earlier this month he scored for 45 points in a 102-91 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. In the past Westbrook developed a reputation as being a bit of a ball hog, but this season he is averaging 8.1 assists per game which is fifth in the NBA. On the season Westbrook has three triple-doubles to his credit including one this past Tuesday night in the Thunder’s 105-92 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the victory over the Pacers, Westbrook went for 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. For the month of February, Westbrook is averaging 10.1 assists per game and on the season he is averaging 26.2 points, 8.1 assists and 6.6 rebounds as he is in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP.
Westbrook’s emergence as a better all-around player has been able to somewhat offset Durant’s absence. Durant missed the first month of the season as he was recovering from a fractured foot. That same foot has caused Durant to miss some time here and there after initially returning to the Thunder’s lineup, but he has been shutdown since February 19 after undergoing a minor procedure to reduce the pain in his foot and he will be re-evaluated soon. Durant is the reigning NBA MVP and on the season he is averaging 25.4 points. But at this point Durant is just trying to stay fresh for the stretch run and the postseason.
But aside from Durant and Westbrook, Presti has given Thunder head coach Scott Brooks a talented team to work with. Last month the Thunder acquired shooting guard Dion Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal that included the Knicks. Waiters was fourth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the Cavs, but during his time in Cleveland he and point guard Kyrie Irving were never on the same page. Waiters came to the Thunder and he has been a valuable sixth man off of the bench as Oklahoma City has needed a player that can somewhat fill the void that Harden left when he was traded a few years ago. Earlier I talked about Adams and McGary and how they are asserting themselves with the Thunder. In 2013, Adams was the 12th overall pick of the NBA Draft while McGary was the 21st overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft. Adams is currently sidelined with a broken hand, but when healthy he has shown drastic improvement this season as he is averaging 7.4 points and 7.0 rebounds. At 7’0″, Adams came to the Thunder being rather “green” after spending just one year in college at the University of Pittsburgh. Adams has a tremendous wing span and his overall game is only going to improve due to his athleticism. Like Adams, McGary left school early as well. After two years at the University of Michigan, McGary declared for the 2014 NBA Draft. But due to injuries and a positive test for marijuana, McGary’s stock fell; however he has found a home with the Thunder. And after missing the majority of the season due to injury, McGary has appeared in ten games for the Thunder as he is averaging 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest.
And as if that weren’t enough for the Thunder, Presti added a slew of depth to his squad just prior to the NBA’s trade deadline. The Thunder acquired point guard D.J. Augustin from the Detroit Pistons. After being a first round pick of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2008, Augustin has bounced around the NBA and the Thunder are the sixth team that he has played for in the league. For his career Augustin has averaged 10.2 points and 4.1 assists and he can be veteran presence coming off of the bench for the Thunder. Presti also made a big splash when he acquired center Enes Kanter from the Utah Jazz. Kanter’s numbers have improved in each of his four years in the NBA and at 6’11”, he is another big body in the Thunder’s frontcourt to go along with Ibaka, McGary, and Adams as in the Western Conference you can never have enough big bodies when the postseason rolls around.
The Thunder have won nine out of their last ten games and they are currently in possession of the final spot in the Western Conference, but they are mowing down opponents in spite of the injury to Durant and that is mainly due to their depth which comes as a result of the ability of Presti. With the exception of selecting Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder have drafted in the later part of the first round and they have come out smelling like a rose due to the fact that most of the teams that have been picking in front of Oklahoma City are clueless which makes Presti’s job that much easier. Presti has continued to push the right buttons with the Thunder and regardless of where they are seeded when the NBA Playoffs begin this spring, they are poised to contend for the NBA Championship.
X-Portland Trailblazers 53-29 (3)
In his second year as the head coach of the Portland Trailblazers, Terry Stotts led a revival in “Rip City” as the Blazers made the second round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2000. The Blazers have the ability to once again be a dangerous team in the Western Conference as they have balance on their roster along with having a dependable big man that can score along with a quick and elusive point guard. Trailblazers power forward LaMarcus Aldrige would be more of a household name if he played in a bigger market, but he is one of the best at his position in the NBA. Aldridge is coming off of his best NBA season as he averaged 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Aldridge is entering the final year of his contract with the Blazers and he should have a tremendous impact this season before he hits the free agent market.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is set to embark on his third NBA season and he is quickly emerging as one of the better point guards in the NBA. Lillard has a tremendous combination of passing, speed, and scoring. Like Aldridge, Trailblazers shooting guard Wes Matthews is coming off of his best NBA season as he averaged 16.4 points per game last season. The combination of Aldridge, Lillard, and Matthews gives Stotts and the Trailblazers a great inside-out threat that will allow them to contend for the Western Conference Championship.
Aside from Aldridge, Lillard, and Matthews, the Trailblazers have a good blend of role players and reserves. On Twitter, Blazers starting center Robin Lopez refers to himself as the “Screech Powers” of the NBA and he plays with reckless abandon on the floor. Lopez averaged a double-double last season in points and rebounds as the successful teams in the NBA need scrappy players such as him on the roster. Blazers reserve center Chris Kaman has been a journeyman in the NBA, but like Lopez, he is willing to bring his lunch pale on a nightly basis and do all of the dirty work. At 6’8″ Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum has one of the longer wing spans at his position while reserve point guard Steve Blake continues to get it done as he is set to enter his 12th NBA season.
Fans in Portland should be treated to an exciting brand of basketball this season from their Trailblazers.
Y-Oklahoma City Thunder 51-31 (5)
The last four seasons have seen the Oklahoma City Thunder make deeps runs in the NBA Playoffs, but they don’t have any titles to show for it and they are hopeful that things will change in the upcoming season. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has never had a losing season while walking the sidelines in Oklahoma City and that should once again be the case as he’ll have one of the top scoring threats in the NBA in the form of small forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook.
For his seven-year NBA career, Durant has averaged 27.4 points per game as he has one of the quickest releases on his jump shot in basketball. But for Durant and the Thunder to be able to take that next step and win an NBA Championship, he is going to need to play in the post more. This season will already be different for the Thunder being that Durant will begin it on the sidelines while he is recovering from a broken foot. As for Westbrook he deserves a ton of credit being that he has played out of position from his first day in the NBA. Westbrook is a shooting guard at heart, but he has been asked to play point guard. In spite of this and a severe knee injury in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Westbrook returned to form last season by averaging 21.8 and 6.9 assists last season. Westbrook also turned into a triple-double machine in the 2014 NBA Playoffs and the Thunder are hopeful that it will carry over to this season. But until Durant returns from his injury, this will be Westbrook’s team and his scoring numbers should increase.
The Thunder have been unable to replace the scoring ability of current Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden who was vital for them coming off of the bench when they won the Western Conference Championship in 2012, but center Serge Ibaka continues to improve. Last season Ibaka averaged a career-high in points (15.1) and rebounds (8.8) along with being an enforcer on the interior as he averaged 2.7 blocks per game. Ibaka continues to dabble with a mid-range jump shot that will take some much needed pressure off of Durant and Westbrook to carry the load in Oklahoma City.
The production of Thunder center Kendrick Perkins is not nearly what it was when he helped the Boston Celtics claim the NBA Championship in 2008 and Oklahoma City is hopeful that second-year center Steven Adams is prepared to step into a bigger role this season.
Once again the Thunder will only go as far as Durant and Westbrook will take them. You can pencil the Thunder in for another 50-win season, but for them it all comes down to what they are able do in the months of May and June.
Denver Nuggets 41-41
Last season saw the Denver Nuggets suffer their first losing campaign in 11 years. Brian Shaw was in his first season as Nuggets head coach and he had to deal with a rash of injuries that limited the Nuggets chances in the Western Conference. Nuggets small forward Danilo Galinari missed the entire 2013-2014 NBA season as he recovered from an ACL injury. What the Nuggets lost in Galinari was a player that has averaged 14.5 points in six NBA seasons and he gives them a presence as a perimeter player. This season Galinari will split time at the small forward position in Denver with another former New York Knicks small forward in Wilson Chandler.
This past summer the Nuggets were able to re-acquire shooting guard Arron Afflalo. Afflalo previously played with the Nuggets for three seasons before spending the last two seasons with the Orlando Magic. In seven NBA seasons, Afflalo has increased in each season as he averaged 18.2 points per game last season for the Magic.
Like Afflalo, the offensive numbers of Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson have increased in each NBA season. Lawson averaged 8.8 assists last season and he has plenty of talent around him to get the basketball to this season which means that those numbers could increase this year. Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried is becoming the new “Junkyard Dog” of the NBA for his ability to crash the boards along with being able to fill up every column in the stat sheet and he will also be coveted in fantasy basketball.
The Nuggets will be an improved team this season under Shaw, but the overall strength of the Western Conference could see them once again watching the playoffs from home.
Minnesota Timberwolves 37-45
The Minnesota Timberwolves have not finished an NBA season with a winning record since 2005 and being that they are once again “rebuilding” they have a long shot of changing that this time around. After six years of an on-again, off-again relationship with the Timberwolves front office, power forward Kevin Love was traded over the summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In exchange for Love, the Timberwolves received shooting guard Andrew Wiggins and power forward Anthony Bennett from the Cavs while also acquiring power forward Thaddeus Young from the Philadelphia 76ers. Young is coming off of his best NBA season as he averaged 17.9 points and 6 rebounds per game last season with the Sixers. Bennett was the first overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers, but he was unable to make an impact last season as he only appeared in 52 games without making a start. In his one season of playing college basketball at the University of Kansas, Wiggins showed tremendous scoring ability and he should be off to the races with his running mate in the Timberwolves back court this season in point guard Ricky Rubio. Rubio averaged a career high in assists last season at 8.6 per game and those numbers could increase this season with the Young and Wiggins now being in Minnesota.
The departure of Love will lead to a bigger impact this season for Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic. Last season Pekovic averaged 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and at 6’11”, 285 pounds, he is a tough presence on the interior. Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders can also rely on a bunch of underrated veterans in shooting guard Kevin Martin, center Ronny Turiaf, small forward Corey Brewer, and point guard Mo Williams to make some noise this season on the court in Minneapolis.
The Timberwolves may not be a playoff team this season, but they will be a thorn in the side of the contenders in the Western Conference.
Utah Jazz 25-57
From 1988-2011, Jerry Sloan was the only head coach that the Utah Jazz had. But since Sloan resigned in 2011, the Jazz are set to welcome their second head coach. Quin Snyder is the new head coach of the Jazz and he has a young team that must grow up in a hurry.
Jazz point guard Trey Burke was the 9th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft and a thumb injury forced him to miss some time at the beginning of last season as he was forced to learn on the fly. As a rookie, Burke averaged 12.8 points per game along with 5.7 assists and those numbers must increase if the Jazz are going to compete in the tough Western Conference. Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward has become the go-to-guy in Utah as led the team in scoring last season at 16.2 per contest. Jazz power forward Derrick Favors has seen his points and rebound averages increase in each of his four NBA seasons and Utah is hopeful that this trend continues in the upcoming season.
This season will be a long haul for the Jazz as they will not remind the people of Salt Lake City of the teams there that were contending for NBA Titles in the late 1990’s.
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth