Tag Archives: Tom Thibodeau

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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Clueless In Chicago

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11 of the last 13 NBA seasons have seen the Chicago Bulls make the playoffs, but they’ve never been able to recapture the magic that they had in the 1990’s. That decade saw the Bulls win six NBA Championships as they were led by Michael Jordan who many people view as the greatest basketball player to have ever played. Jordan would leave the Bulls in 1998 which paved the way for the franchise to head into a tailspin. The next six seasons would see the Bulls fail to make the playoffs as they were one of the worst teams in the NBA. Since 2005, the Bulls have been respectable in spite of the fact that have never made it back to the NBA Finals since Jordan’s departure. However that respectability appears to be heading by the wayside.

Jimmy Butler

Leading up to the 2017 NBA Draft, the Bulls began to shop swignman Jimmy Butler with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers showing some interest. However the Celtics weren’t willing to part with high draft picks, while the Cavaliers don’t have the salary cap space, and they’re also dealing with front office issues. Those proposed deals fell through rather quickly and it appeared that cooler heads would prevail with Butler remaining in the Windy City.

However during the draft it was announced that Butler was part of a deal that would see him traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Butler along with the draft rights to center Justin Patton are being sent to the Twin Cities, while point guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, along with the draft rights to power forward Lauri Markkanen are going to the Windy City as this could be one of the worst trades in the history of Chicago based sports franchises.

Butler was selected 30th overall by the Bulls in 2011 and in that time his game has improved immensely. Butler’s points per game total has increased in each of his six NBA seasons with him averaging 23.9 points this past season to go along with 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Each of the last three seasons have seen Butler be an NBA All-Star, while he is also a three-time NBA All-Defense Second Team member. Butler rose through the ranks to become the face of the Bulls franchise, while he has also become one of the better players in the NBA. But none of that matters as the Bulls have sent Butler packing. However this should not come as a super surprise since the Bulls front office has been making poor decisions for a very long time.

Gar Forman

Gar Forman assumed the post of Bulls general manager in 2009 which did see the team reach the postseason over the next six years. However Forman and head coach Tom Thibodeau could not remain on the same page which led to him begin fired in 2015 in spite of the fact that he made the Bulls into one of the NBA’s better teams. Things have continued to spiral downwards for the Bulls since they let Thibodeau go as Forman hired a head coach in Fred Hoiberg who he is on the same page with, but the same cannot be said about the players that were retained that fit the system of their former head coach.

During the 2015-2016 NBA season, the Bulls went 42-40 and missed the playoffs, while they would back into the playoffs this past season with a record of 41-41. The Bulls won the first two games of their opening round series with the Celtics before they would lose the next four to be eliminated which symbolized their season in a nutshell.

The Bulls dealt with in fighting all season long as Butler and veteran shooting guard Dwyane Wade criticized the team’s young players, while the youngsters fought back with point guard Rajon Rondo as their mouthpiece. Hoiberg doesn’t have the personality to police the Bulls locker room in the same fashion as Thibodeau as it appeared that the inmates were running the asylum which is never part of a formula for success. And that dysfunction continued with the trade of Butler which hurts the Bulls franchise is several ways.

The Bulls no longer have a face of their franchise that fans in Chicago can relate to and more importantly get behind. This also signals that the Bulls won’t be a competitive team for the upcoming season as they don’t appear to have any semblance of order when it comes to figuring out what direction that they are going in. And last but certainly not least, they’ve traded Butler to a Timberwolves team that employs Thibodeau as their president of basketball operations and head coach.

Tom Thibodeau

Upon taking over the Timberwolves last year, Thibodeau attempted to pry Butler away from the Bulls, but he was unwilling to part with a first-round pick as well as small forward Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau used his first-round pick on Dunn last year who is now headed to Chicago, while he gets Butler to team with Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns to give Minnesota one of the better trios in the Western Conference. And more importantly the Timberwolves now have a finisher in Butler who not only excels at both ends of the floor, but he is a Thibodeau guy.

Now the fortunes for the Timberwolves have risen as this is a franchise that has failed to make the NBA Playoffs since 2004 which was the only year in their history that they advanced past the first round as they made the Western Conference Finals. And for the Bulls, Forman must now face the music as both the media and fans alike in Chicago are not thrilled that an All-Star in Butler was shown the door in exchange for what could amount to nothing more than a hills of beans.

No matter what the sport, great players and great teams don’t win championships as it comes down to great organizations, and what the Bulls have shown us is that the people of Chicago will have to worship the statue of Jordan that is outside of the United Center even more because it is going to be a very long time before we see another championship parade for this team heading down Michigan Avenue. And for a man in Forman who wasn’t on the same page with Thibodeau when they worked together in Chicago, he certainly went out of his way to make his new job in Minnesota that much easier.

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Not On The Same Page

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On May 31, 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves found themselves walking off of the court at the Staples Center as they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The loss was bittersweet for the Timberwolves as it marked their best season in franchise history which included winning their first playoff series. But little did the T-Wolves know what was coming down the pike for them.

Since then the Timberwolves have failed to make the postseason and they’ve only been able to secure one winning campaign. Over this stretch the Timberwolves have employed eight different head coaches, while trading a future Hall of Famer in power forward Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics in 2007, and trading another perennial All-Star in power forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. In 2009, the Timberwolves entered the NBA Draft with four, first-round picks, but they managed to pass up on point guard Steph Curry twice as their mistake would be beneficial for the Golden State Warriors. Once the Timberwolves exited the playoffs in 2004, they’ve gone on to have nine seasons in which they’ve lost at least 50 games and unfortunately for them, another one could be in the cards.

Last spring saw Tom Thibodeau named as the Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations. Thibodeau came to Minnesota after he compiled a record of 255-139 in five years as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau is known as a disciplinarian and a stickler for defensive basketball which meant that it would be an interesting relationship between he and the young T-Wolves.

Thibodeau took over a Timberwolves team that is loaded with young talent which includes the last two NBA Rookie of the Year Award winners in small forward Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. But with more than two months of the NBA season in the books, it’s the same old Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

Through 37 games the Timberwolves are 11-26 and they are well on their way to another 50-loss season. Minnesota has never won more than two games in a row this season with the lowest of the low points coming this past Tuesday when they lost 93-91 to the Philadelphia 76ers. Towns is averaging 21.5 points, and 11.6 rebounds this season which includes a pair of 40-plus point outings, but as a team Minnesota is allowing 105.2 points per game which is 17th in the NBA as Thibodeau is pulling out the few hairs that he has remaining. The Timberwolves lack the attitude at the defensive end of the court that is needed for Thibodeau’s system to be successful, while some of his issues that ended his run with the Bulls are front and center once more.

During Thibodeau’s time with the Bulls, he was as stubborn as they come on his basketball philosophy which included running his star players such as point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah into the ground. The Bulls made the playoffs in each of Thibodeau’s five seasons in Chicago, but they were a fatigued team when they got there as the long minutes that his starters logged during the regular season caught up to them.

Now in Minnesota, Thibodeau has a team that not only features Towns and Wiggins, but other explosive young players such as guards Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine. The Timberwolves are better suited for something out of the Don Nelson school of coaching where you simply roll the basketballs out and get out of their way as opposed to the grind it out fashion that we are seeing. And what we’re currently seeing is what happens when oil and water are mixed.

Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as he is the Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations which means that anyone not named Towns, Wiggins, or Dunn who was the team’s first-round pick last summer are expendable. But this is a team that was expected to be showing some improvement this season under Thibodeau.

The biggest thing that is still holding the Timberwolves back aside from being one of the youngest teams in the NBA is that they don’t know how to win. There have been several instances where Minnesota either held a lead at halftime, or heading into the fourth quarter, and they were not able to seal the deal. The T-Wolves have also lacked that killer instinct to take care of their business against other sub-.500 teams which has resulted in them currently being 14th in the Western Conference.

The good thing for Minnesota is that they are only four games behind the Kings for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference as the season isn’t completely a wash as of yet. But if the young Timberwolves cannot get on the same page with Thibodeau, while he also needs to adjust his coaching style, the losing on the basketball court will continue in the Twin Cities.

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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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Tom And The T-Wolves

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The Minnesota Timberwolves have been an NBA franchise for 27 years, but they have been unable to produce that much success for themselves. The Timberwolves all-time winning percentage of .391 is the worst in NBA history which can be traced back to their overall ineptitude at the NBA Draft. Outside of getting it right in 1995 in drafting power forward Kevin Garnett, the Timberwolves over the years in the NBA Draft have passed on players such as Tim Hardaway and Shawn Kemp, while also passing on the chance to draft Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry twice in the 2009 NBA Draft. For the first time in franchise history, Minnesota would get the first overall pick in 2015 which they used on center Karl-Anthony Towns. As a rookie this past season, Towns averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds as there is a good chance that he could be named as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Towns teamed with shooting guard Andrew Wiggins who was the first overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers and abruptly traded to Minnesota, to give the T-Wolves a solid inside-out combination. This combo grew together as the NBA season went along, but they were unable to get Minnesota out of their funk and get them to the postseason for the first time since 2004. However business appears to be ready to pick up in the Twin Cities.

Tom Thibodeau

In five years as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Tom Thibodeau never had a losing record while he guided the Bulls to their best five-year stretch since the glory days with Michael Jordan in the 1990’s. And although that Thibodeau produced wins, he was never on the same page with Bulls general manager Gar Forman which led to a messy divorce last summer.

Thibodeau could have immediately jumped back onto the coaching train, but he decided to sit back and survey the situation. And with several high-profile jobs becoming available this spring, Thibodeau had his pick of the litter.

The Timberwolves recently met with Thibodeau and they gave him an offer that he could not refuse as aside from having another opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA, he would also become the team’s new president of basketball operations which is the same deal that Stan Van Gundy received from the Detroit Pistons two years ago. And the move by the Pistons has paid off as they now find themselves back in the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2009 which gives the T-Wolves some hope.

At the end of the day for Thibodeau, he no longer has to worry about clashing with anyone in the front office which should be good for the Timberwolves. But Thibodeau is a very smart man because of all the available head coaching jobs in the NBA this spring, none have the upside that the Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

Aside from having Towns and Wiggins as franchise cornerstones, the Timberwolves also have a wealth of young talent in point guard Ricky Rubio who has the passing skills of Pete Maravich, center Gorgui Dieng, and point guard Zach Levine who after averaging 14 points per game this season, is showing the basketball world that he is more than merely a dunker. The Timberwolves will once again be picking in the NBA’s Draft Lottery, and if Thibodeau wants to make things interesting, he could package the pick, along with some of the young talent in Minnesota in order to acquire a superstar-caliber player. It also isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the T-Wolves could dip into free agency over the summer and sign a player the likes of center Joakim Noah. Noah has spent the first nine seasons of his professional career with the Bulls, while he had his most productive span under Thibodeau which included him being named as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. Noah could provide the young Timberwolves with leadership being that he knows what Thibodeau wants and expects from his team. But for the first time in a long time, the Timberwolves have options.

Thibodeau is going to work the young T-Wolves in a way that they are unaccustomed to, but they will be winners. Although that Minnesota finished this past NBA season with a record of 29-53, you can see the potential that is there with this team as they scored a road victory over the Golden State Warriors this season which is something that most team fell short of doing this season. Thibodeau’s hiring comes after things appeared to be unraveling for the organization last year. The Timberwolves were taken by surprise when their head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders had to take a leave of absence after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But nobody expected Saunders to take a drastic turn for the worst when he tragically passed away last October. Sam Mitchell would take his place as the Timberwolves head coach this past season, but he could not provide the young team with the leadership that they needed. And I truly believe that the Timberwolves will receive that leadership now.

Although that the Timberwolves have been down in the dumps of the Western Conference for a long time, the future is extremely bright.

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2014-2015 Central Division Projections

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X-Cleveland Cavaliers 52-30 (1)

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LeBron James

After four years of manipulating the NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers are back in business as a legitimate title contender. After spending the first seven years of his NBA career with the Cavaliers, small forward LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010 to join the Miami Heat. In the seven seasons that James spent in Cleveland, the Cavs made the postseason five times including their only trip to the NBA Finals in 2007. But since James left, the Cavaliers never made the postseason and over that stretch they “won” the NBA Draft Lottery three times. This past summer James decided to leave the Heat as a free agent in order to return to the Cavs and all of those fans who famously burned his jerseys four years ago and called him “gutless” are now back on the LeBron bandwagon.

The Cavaliers “tremendous success” at the NBA Draft Lottery has given them the ability to put a team around James which wasn’t the case during his first stint in Cleveland. The Cavs were able to trade power forward Anthony Bennett and shooting guard Andrew Wiggins who were the last two first overall picks in the NBA Draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the package that sent All-Star power forward Kevin Love to Cleveland. Love and James will team with point guard Kyrie Irving to be the Cavaliers version of the “Big Three”. Four years ago small forward LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and he is still the best best player in the NBA. With James back in the saddle the Cavs should once again contend for an NBA Championship, but what about their team chemistry?

David Blatt is the new head coach of the Cavaliers and he has never coached in the NBA as he spent the last four seasons coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Blatt is a four-time Israeli league Coach of the Year, but it is just a matter of him getting his message across in the NBA.

In his brief NBA career, Irving has shown that he is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. Irving has not always been a facilitator which must change this season for the Cavaliers to be successful. This season’s Cavaliers team will resemble the team that Love played on during his one season of college basketball at UCLA as they are deep and talented. Love is a proven scorer and rebounder in the NBA and his talents will compliment those of James.

Just like he did with the Heat, James has been able to lure veterans to Cleveland with seasoned small forwards Mike Miller and Shawn Marion looking to add another NBA Championship to their respective resumes. The Cavaliers also have youngsters in power forward Tristan Thompson and shooting guard Dion Waiters who will look to be on board as members of the new “James Gang” in Cleveland.

It will take some time for this Cavs team to gel, but by the spring they should be a well-oiled machine that will be ready to contend for an NBA Championship.

Y-Chicago Bulls 52-30 (2)

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Derrick Rose

In the past four seasons head coach Tom Thibodeau has proven his worth with the Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011 as he led the Bulls to 62 regular season victories. But what Thibodeau has done in the past two seasons has been remarkable. Thibodeau has kept the Bulls as an upper echelon team in the Eastern Conference in spite of the fact that point guard Derrick Rose that he has only played in 10 games due to knee injuries. Rose is expected to return to the Bulls lineup this season and he has a ton of depth around him.

In Rose’s absence, center Joakim Noah has become the leader of the Bulls. Noah in the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and he has a variety of ways in which he can effect the outcome of a game as he is a scorer, defender, rebounder, and facilitator. The Bulls finally have a proven low-post scorer in power forward Pau Gasol. For his 13-year NBA career, Gasol has averaged 18.3 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game and he was also a two-time NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now Gasol will bring that championship pedigree to the Windy City as he could be the missing piece for the Bulls as far as them winning an NBA Championship.

For each of his three seasons in the NBA, Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler has improved. Aside from averaging 13.1 points per game last season, Butler is a tremendous on-the-ball defender who’s overall game should benefit from the Rose returning to the Bulls lineup.

The Bulls also have depth behind Rose at the point guard position in veterans Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks who will bring a blend of fire and ice to the court in Chicago. Rookie small forward Doug McDermott will be key as far as coming off of the bench for the Bulls. McDermott comes to the Bulls as one of the top scorers in college basketball history and he was a three-time All-American at Creighton along with being the Consensus Player of the Year last season in college basketball. McDermott will also push veteran small forward Mike Dunleavy for minutes on the wing.

Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have been one of the better defensive teams in the NBA and if Rose is indeed healthy this season, they will be able to ascend back to being one of the better overall teams in the league.

Y-Detroit Pistons 42-40 (8)

The past five seasons have seen the Detroit Pistons become an afterthought in the Eastern Conference. This Pistons have failed to qualify for the postseason since 2009 and they have not had a winning season since 2008. But a front office shake up has the fans in the Motor City optimistic that the Pistons can return to respectability this season.

Stan Van Gundy is the Pistons new head coach and he will also serve as the team’s president of basketball operations. Van Gundy previously coached the Miami Heat whom he led to the playoffs twice and the Orlando Magic where he guided the team to the Eastern Conference Championship in 2009. Now Van Gundy’s task is to turn the underachieving Pistons into playoff contenders.

Last season forward Josh Smith led the Pistons scoring at 16.4 points per game, but he did not have the impact that the team expected when they signed him to a four-year, $54 million deal. Throughout his 10-year NBA career, Smith has never been an assertive guy which will makes things interesting this season as Van Gundy is a no-nonsense type of coach.

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Andre Drummond

Aside from Smith, the Pistons do have a pair of Van Gundy type players in their front court in power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond. For his four-year NBA career, Monroe has averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds per contest. This past summer Monroe signed a one-year qualifying offer and he will be looking for a max contract next off-season which means that the Pistons could have a big season from him. Drummond was the Pistons first round pick in 2012. Drummond is only 21-years of age and the future is looking bright for the youngster. Last season Drummond became one of the top rebounders in the NBA and he is just beginning to scratch the surface at the offensive end of the floor.

In his first season with the Pistons, point guard Brandon Jennings surprised some people by averaging 7.6 assists per game. Van Gundy will rely on Jennings to continue to be a facilitator in this offense for the Pistons who have a huge front court that he needs to get the basketball to. Behind Jennings, Van Gundy and the Pistons have a very reliable backup point guard in D.J. Augustin who is more than capable of picking up the slack when he checks into the game. Coming off of the bench the Pistons also have a reliable veteran small forward in Caron Butler along with sharp-shooting Jodie Meeks at shooting guard as Detroit is poised to be an improved team this season.

Van Gundy is all about changing the culture with the Pistons and bringing some much needed toughness back to Detroit. It will either be Van Gundy’s way or the highway and we shall see who is tough enough to hang with him this season.

Indiana Pacers 39-43

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Frank Vogel

Unless you’ve been trapped in a cave for the past few months you know that Indiana Pacers chances for the upcoming NBA season took a huge blow in the off-season. Over the summer, Pacers small forward Paul George was a member of Team USA when he suffered a broken leg. George’s leg injury will more than likely keep him on the shelf for the entire 2014-2015 NBA season. With the injury to George, who will Pacers head coach Frank Vogel be able to rely on as far as picking up the slack in Indiana?

Veteran power forward David West is entering his fourth season with the Pacers and without George he can expect to be called upon more on the offensive end. Behind West, the Pacers have another veteran power forward in Luis Scola who is also a proven scorer in the NBA. The Pacers are hopeful that center Roy Hibbert can become more assertive in the low post as he has averaged 11.2 points and 6.7 boards for his NBA career. At 7’2″, Hibbert must aggressively crash the boards while also establishing better position for himself down low to become more of an offensive threat.

With the injury to George, the departure of shooting guard Lance Stephenson who signed with the Charlotte Hornets, and their lack of production from the point guard position, this will be a tough season for the Pacers and their fans to endure.

Milwaukee Bucks 28-54

After a 15-win campaign last season there is only one way to go for the Milwaukee Bucks which is up. The Bucks have a new ownership group, a new head coach, and an exciting rookie who are all looking to turn around the franchise. Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry are the new owners of the Bucks who are looking to increase the interest for their team in Milwaukee. Jason Kidd spent one season as the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. But after not being on the same page with the Nets front office, Kidd left to become the new head coach of the Bucks. The Bucks had the worst record in the NBA last season, but they were unable to attain the first overall pick in the draft. The Bucks however did have the second overall pick in the NBA Draft which they used on small forward Jabari Parker.

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Jabari Parker

In one season of college ball at Duke, Parker averaged 19.1 points per game and he has the ability to eventually become a franchise player for the Bucks. Aside from Parker, the Bucks have center Larry Sanders and power forward Ersan Ilyasova who will both need to be healthy this season as they combined to miss 86 games last season. Sanders is a tremendous rebounder and interior defender while Ilyasova can stretch opposing defenses with his mid-range game. Last season as a rookie, Bucks shooting guard Giannis Antetokounmpo was only able to average 6.8 points per game, but at 6’11”, he can be a matchup nightmare on the wing and Kidd is hopeful that he improves in his sophomore season. For Bucks point guard Brandon Knight, his numbers have improved in each of his three seasons in the NBA and they should continue to rise with the arrival of Parker.

The main thing for Kidd and his young Bucks to do is to win some games early in order to gain some confidence and as the season progresses you should see this team grow.

X-Clinched Division

Y-Clinched Playoff Berth

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