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