Tag Archives: Utah Jazz

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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Salt Lake City’s Not So Little Secret

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The Utah Jazz are nestled in Salt Lake City which is one of the NBA’s smallest media markets. And with that the Jazz organization has always struggled in bringing in some of the NBA’s talented free agents. But that hasn’t prevented the Jazz from competing as from 1984-2003, they made the playoffs in each year. After losing in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the Jazz fell on hard times which included them losing 57 games during the 2013-2014 season for their worst mark in franchise history.

Quin Snyder

When Quin Snyder became the head coach of the Jazz in 2014, the bar of expectations for him wasn’t that high. Snyder didn’t have any previous experience as a head coach in the NBA, but he had succeeded at every level that he coached at which included leading the Missouri Tigers to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in each of his first four years there, and being the NBA’s Developmental League Coach of the Year in 2009 when he was the head coach of the Austin Toros.

But in Snyder’s first season with the Jazz, the team won 38 games after they were expected to once again hover around the 25-win mark. And last season, the Jazz won 40 games to miss out on a playoff berth by just one victory. However after small forward Kevin Durant decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer in order to join the Golden State Warriors, it opened things up in the Northwest Division. And with the Thunder still trying to figure things out without Durant, along with the Portland Trail Blazers struggling, guess who has decided to take control of the Northwest Division?

At the NBA’s All-Star break, the Jazz are sitting atop the standings in the Northwest Division. The Thunder are in second place as they are three games behind Utah, while the Blazers are languishing in fourth place as they’re 11.5 games out. Utah’s 35-22 record is good enough for fifth overall in the Western Conference as this is a team that could be ready to make some noise when the NBA Playoffs roll around this spring.

Dennis Lindsey

The key to the success of the Jazz begins with their general manager Dennis Lindsey and their executive vice president of basketball operation Kevin O’Connor. Lindsey has been Utah’s general manager since 2012 when O’Connor assumed his new role within the organization and together these two men have embraced the fact that the Jazz are a small-market team. The Jazz have focused on getting their core key players through the NBA Draft which is paying off in a big way.

Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert

In 2010, the Jazz selected small forward Gordon Hayward ninth overall in the NBA Draft. In each of Hayward’s seven NBA seasons his numbers have improved which includes him averaging 22.2 points per game this season as that has resulted in his first All-Star Game selection. Center Rudy Gobert was the 27th overall selection by the Jazz in 2013. And like Hayward, Gobert’s production has increased in each season with the Jazz as he is fifth in the NBA this season in rebounds at 12.6 per game, while he’s also leading the league in blocks at 2.5 per contest. Hayward along with Gobert are two big reasons for the success of the Jazz this season, and once you factor in the contributions of veterans such as point guard George Hill and veteran swingman Joe Johnson, Utah can no longer fly under the radar as they are a very formidable team.

Prior to joining the Jazz, Lindsey was the assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. And during Snyder’s time in the D-League, the Toros were operated by the Spurs. The Spurs have become the pinnacle for success in the NBA as they’ve made the playoffs in each of the last 19 seasons while claiming five championships over that stretch. One key for the Spurs that Lindsey has brought to the Jazz is unselfishness and ball movement. And if you watch the Jazz play under Snyder, their offensive system mimics what the Spurs do as the basketball and players alike are constantly moving. This unselfishness by the Jazz has led to victories this season over the Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Cleveland Cavaliers who are the defending NBA Champions as more quality wins could be coming down the pike for them.

The second half of the season for the Jazz will get going this Friday as they’ll begin a three-game road trip which starts against the Milwaukee Bucks and includes meetings against the Washington Wizards and Thunder. Next month the Jazz will have a stretch of seven games where six of those contests will be on the road, including games against the Houston Rockets, Thunder, and Cavaliers. But the Jazz should be able to continue to hang with the big boys of the NBA due to what they bring to the table.

Aside from the unselfishness of the Jazz on offense, they are leading in the NBA in fewest points allowed per game this season at 95.7 as it doesn’t hurt to have a rim protector like Gobert, another big body in power forward Derrick Favors who can also plug up the paint, and Hayward who is one of the better perimeter defenders in the Western Conference which gives Utah a puncher’s chance to do some damage during the NBA Playoffs.

Things are only going to get better for the Jazz as shooting guard Rodney Hood should return to the team soon after suffering a hyperextended knee last month. Hood is Utah’s third leading scorer at 13.7 points per game which is only going to make this team that much more difficult to deal with.

Unlike the Thunder and Trail Blazers who have had their issues, the Jazz continue to take care of their business which includes regularly beating up on the also-rans of the NBA. And with the current success that the Jazz are having, it could sway Hayward to remain in Salt Lake City as he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But winning cures everything, and a deep run this spring by the Jazz could keep Hayward there for years to come.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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The Salt Lake City Star

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Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward is accustomed to flying under the radar. In high school the only Power 5 basketball program that offered Hayward a scholarship was the Purdue Boilermakers. Hayward would ultimately play his college ball for the Butler Bulldogs where he would help them reach the Final Four in 2010 for the first time in school history. And after Hayward averaged 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as a sophomore, he would forgo his final two years in college in order to try his hand at the NBA.

The Jazz would make Hayward the ninth overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. With the Jazz, Hayward was joining a team that was fresh off of making the Western Conference Semifinals and they were led by an iconic head coach in Jerry Sloan whose 1,221 career wins are the third most in NBA history. But as a rookie Hawyard had a front row seat for the ongoing feud between Sloan and former Jazz point guard Deron Williams which led to the head coach resigning and the point guard being traded. The Jazz would remain in contention for the playoffs with Tyrone Corbin as the head coach until the 2013-2014 NBA season when they lost 57 games for the first time since their first season in Salt Lake City which was 1979-1980 campaign. After Corbin was fired in 2014, he would be replaced by Quin Snyder who would be the architect of the Jazz’s rebuilding process with Hayward as the center piece.

In each of Hayward’s seven NBA seasons his production has increased. This season Hayward is averaging 22.2 points per game and he is a big reason why the Jazz are in first place in the Northwest Division. And in spite of the fact that Hayward was not selected to the NBA’s All-Star Game, if he is able to lead the Jazz to their first postseason appearance since 2012, he will no longer be a secret to the basketball world outside of Salt Lake City.

What makes Hayward the player that he has become is the fact that he is able to hold his own at one of the toughest positions in the NBA. The small forward position in the NBA features the likes Jimmy Butler with the Chicago Bulls, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers. Grant it that only Durant plays in the Western Conference, but Hayward has been able to hold his own as one the better small forwards in the NBA.

After Hayward missed the first six games of the NBA season due to a finger injury, he debuted by getting 28 points in a 114-109 win over the New York Knicks. On November 29, Hayward scored 31 points and dished out 7 assists in a 112-101 victory over the Houston Rockets which was the first of three consecutive games in which he scored at least 30 points. To Hayward’s credit he has five, 30-point games so far this season and for him it is coming at the right time.

Hayward is scheduled to earn nearly $16.7 million from the Jazz for next season, but he has the ability to opt out of his deal this summer in order to become an unrestricted free agent. And with the NBA’s new television deal, player salaries are exploding as Hayward could be in line to benefit from that. However would he entertain leaving Salt Lake City?

Hayward is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana where he played for a small college in Butler before playing for the Jazz in one of the smaller NBA markets. Big market teams such as the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, and Los Angeles Lakers could potentially be in line for Hayward’s services this summer where he could become a household name.

If Hayward were to leave Utah, the two teams that make the most sense for him are the Celtics and the Lakers. The Celtics are coached by Brad Stevens who just happened to be Hayward’s college coach at Butler as the two have a rapport. And The City of Boston would welcome Hayward with open arms as they looking to see the Celtics get back to being a championship level team. The Lakers have one of the younger teams in the NBA and if there is a glaring weakness on this team, it is the fact that they are missing a proven scorer to build around. In the case of both the Celtics and Lakers, they each run offenses that are predicated on ball movement and moving without the basketball which are two things that Hayward excels at.

For the Nets they are simply desperate to become relevant as they are arguably the worst team in the NBA. The Nets are still recovering from one of the worst trades in NBA history when former general manager Billy King mortgaged the future on getting washed up players from the Celtics in 2013. The Celtics have the option to swap first-round picks with the Nets this year, while Boston outright will receive their first-round choice next year. Thus the Nets need  a quality player that would make them respectable while also putting people in the seats. But would Hayward want to be a part of rebuilding process in Brooklyn while doing it under the umbrella of the media in New York City?

The Heat were spurned nearly three years ago when James decided to return to the Cavaliers. Heat president Pat Riley allowed longtime shooting guard Dwyane Wade to leave in free agency last summer to sign with the Bulls, while a blood clot condition prematurely ended the playing career of power forward Chris Bosh. The Heat are also dealing with a rash of injuries which includes the likes of swingman Justise Winslow as they are on pace to lose 50 games for the first time since the 2007-2008 NBA season. But the Heat still have Riley calling the shots and he’ll be more than willing to pull out all of the stops in order to get things turned around, and luring Hayward to Miami could team him with a healthy Winslow and center Hassan Whiteside which would once again point this organization in the direction of the playoffs.

But whichever NBA city that Hayward will call home next season will definitely benefit from having one the better wing players in the league. And if Hayward continues to produce at the level that he currently is, his silky smooth playing style will no longer be a secret that is only known to the folks of Salt Lake City.

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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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2016 NBA Mock Draft 2.0

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Ben Simmons

1. Philadelphia 76ers-Ben Simmons-Small Forward-LSU

Maybe this is the year that the Philadelphia 76ers finally get it right at the NBA Draft.

2. Los Angeles Lakers-Brandon Ingram-Small Forward-Duke

With selecting Ben Simmons out of the equation, look for the Los Angeles Lakers to select the second best small forward in this year’s draft.

3. Boston Celtics-Dragan Bender-Power Forward-Israel

If the Boston Celtics are right on with this selection, it could be the start of something special in Beantown.

 

 

4. Phoenix Suns-Ivica Zubac-Center-Croatia

If you watched the Phoenix Suns that much during this past NBA season, you could see the glaring weakness that they had in their front court.

Buddy Hield

5. Minnesota Timberwolves-Buddy Hield-Shooting Guard-Oklahoma

If the Minnesota Timberwolves don’t trade this selection, they could find instant offense at the shooting guard position in Buddy Hield.

6. New Orleans Pelicans-Jaylen Brown-Shooting Guard-California

In watching the New Orleans Pelicans play this past NBA season, it became quite apparent that they need more play makers around center Anthony Davis.

7.Denver Nuggets-Jamal Murray-Shooting Guard-Kentucky

The Denver Nuggets appear to have their franchise point guard in Emanuel Mudiay, now they need a running mate for him in the back court.

8.Sacramento Kings-Kris Dunn-Point Guard-Providence

I expect the Sacramento Kings to allow point guard Rajon Rondo to leave in free agency which opens the door for the arrival of Kris Dunn.

Jakob Poeltl

9. Toronto Raptors-Jakob Poeltl-Power Forward-Utah

The Toronto Raptors have proven that they can make a run in the NBA Playoffs with their strong back court of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. But if the Raptors want to be serious as far as winning an NBA Championship, they are going to need more scoring up front.

10. Milwaukee Bucks-Deyonta Davis-Power Forward-Michigan State

At this point of the draft Deyonta Daivs is the best player available, while I also expect the Milwaukee Bucks to do some wheeling and dealing on Thursday night.

11. Orlando Magic-Timothe Luwawu-Shooting Guard-France

With a new head coach in Frank Vogel taking over, expect the Orlando Magic to be a more productive team.

Denzel Valentine

12. Utah Jazz-Denzel Valentine-Shooting Guard-Michigan State

Denzel Valentine heads into this NBA Draft as arguably to most pro ready prospect.

13. Phoenix Suns-Domantas Sabonis-Power Forward-Gonzaga

The upgrade of the front court continues for the Phoenix Suns with the addition of the son of a former NBA big man.

14. Chicago Bulls-Tyler Ulis-Point Guard-Kentucky

The end of the Derrick Rose era with the Chicago Bulls could be coming to an end.

15. Denver Nuggets-Henry Ellenson-Center-Marquette

Henry Ellenson has top-ten talent, but if he falls here to the Denver Nuggets, he could be the steal of the draft.

16. Boston Celtics-Skal Labissierre-Power Forward-Kentucky

Size, size, and more size is the name of the game for the Boston Celtics this year at the NBA Draft.

17. Memphis Grizzlies-Marquese Chriss-Power Forward-Washington

There are several directions in which the Memphis Grizzlies can go with this selection, but they definitely need to get younger and more athletic in the front court.

18. Detroit Pistons-Brice Johnson-Power Forward-North Carolina

Rebounding and defense are vital for any Stan Van Gundy coached team which makes Brice Johnson a no-brainer here for the Detroit Pistons.

19. Denver Nuggets-Ante Zizic-Center-Croatia

The Denver Nuggets could be bulking up for a possible run to the postseason next year in the Western Conference.

Malachi Richardson

20. Indiana Pacers-Malachi Richardson-Shooting Guard-Syracuse

If the Indiana Pacers want “small ball” to work for them, they are going to need more perimeter scorers that can compliment small forward Paul George.

21. Atlanta Hawks-Thon Maker-Center-Australia

The Atlanta Hawks could be rolling dice here, but if it works then they will look like geniuses.

Wade Baldwin IV

22. Charlotte Hornets-Wade Baldwin IV-Shooting Guard-Vanderbilt

In losing in the first round of the NBA Playoffs this year, the Charlotte Hornets proved that they need more perimeter scoring.

 

 

 

23. Boston Celtics-Taurean Prince-Small Forward-Baylor

When the NBA season rolls around, the Boston Celtics could have one of the most athletic teams in the Eastern Conference.

24. Philadelphia 76ers-Furkan Korkmaz-Shooting Guard-Turkey

The Philadelphia 76ers are still going to be a work in progress, but under president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo, they finally appear to be headed in the right direction.

25. Los Angeles Clippers-DeAndre’ Bembry-Small Forward-Saint Joseph’s

DeAndre’ Bembry is a tough minded player that fits the mode of what Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers wants with his team.

26. Philadelphia 76ers-Demetrius Jackson-Point Guard-Notre Dame

Of all that the things that have held the Philadelphia 76ers back over the past few years, one of the biggest issues is that they’ve lacked a quality floor general which they can get here with Demetrius Jackson.

27. Toronto Raptors-Malik Beasley-Shooting Guard-Florida State

The arrival of Malik Beasley to the Toronto Raptors could allow head coach Dwane Casey to use DeMar DeRozan more at small forward.

28. Phoenix Suns-Paul Zipser-Small Forward-Germany

The front court transformation for the Phoenix Suns continues.

29. San Antonio Spurs-Ben Bentil-Power Forward-Providence

With power forward Tim Duncan hanging on by a thread, the San Antonio Spurs must get younger in the front court if they want to maintain their status as one of the top teams in the NBA.

30. Golden State Warriors-Damian Jones-Power Forward-Vanderbilt

Losing the NBA Finals this week showed that the Golden State Warriors must get better in the front court.

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2015-2016 Northwest Division Projections

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Y-Oklahoma City Thunder 58-24 (2)

The past five years years have seen the Oklahoma City Thunder emerge as a contender for the NBA Championship. But injuries put the Thunder in a bind last season as they missed the NBA Playoffs last year for the first time since 2009 in spite of the fact that they won 45 games. What was even more surprising than Oklahoma City missing the playoffs was that Scott Brooks was fired as the head coach of the Thunder in spite of never having a losing season in a full season as their head coach along with leading the franchise to just their third appearance in the NBA Finals. To replace Brooks, Thunder general manager Sam Presti went to the collegiate ranks where he found Billy Donovan.

Billy Donovan

Donovan spent the last two decades at the University of Florida where he led the school to a pair of national championships with four Final Four appearances while compiling a record 467-186. Donovan played in the NBA for a cup of coffee during the 1987-1988 NBA season as he appeared in 44 games for the New York Knicks. But during his time at Florida, Donovan sent his fair share of talent to the NBA in current Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal just to name a few. But in spite of Donovan’s lack of experience in the NBA, he emerged as the right guy for the job in Oklahoma City due to the fact that he has the ability to work with different personalities which is something that the Thunder have and need.

Kevin Durant

Thunder small forward Kevin Durant was the NBA MVP in 2014 along with being a six-time All-Star and he’s lead the league in scoring on four occasions. But Durant spent the majority of last season on the bench for the Thunder as he only appeared in 27 games due to a foot injury. Durant’s absence allowed point guard Russell Westbrook to be the focal point of the Thunder offense. Westbrook led the NBA in scoring last season as he averaged 28.1 points per game while also averaging a career-high in assists with 8.6. Westbrook also proved his worth last year with 12 triple-doubles. But Westbrook’s ability and the health of Durant are only the tip of the iceberg for a Thunder team that has tremendous potential for the upcoming NBA season.

In the past few years, Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka has become a more vital part of the offense in Oklahoma City, but he is at his best when he is grabbing rebounds and blocking shots as opposed to being more a perimeter player. However the Thunder now have a situation in which Ibaka will be able to play off of center Enes Kanter. The Thunder acquired Kanter from the Utah Jazz last year just prior to the NBA’s trade deadline. Kanter is a legitimate back-to-the-basket player as he averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds in 26 games for the Thunder last season. Kanter won’t be the top scoring options for the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook on the court, but he’ll still be vital in the Western Conference which is full of quality big men. The Thunder used a first round pick on center Steven Adams in 2013 as he was deemed as a project. But what Adams lacked in skill when first arrived in the NBA, he has made up for with raw ability as he has a very high ceiling as far as his potential. Last year the Thunder acquired shooting guard Dion Waiters who is the perfect off-guard to compliment Westbrook while also fitting Donovan’s system.

There will be an adjustment period for the Thunder as Donovan learns his players, but his style of ball movement should make Oklahoma City a very dangerous team when the NBA Playoffs roll around next spring.

Portland Trail Blazers 37-45

The last two seasons saw the Portland Trailblazers emerge as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, but they’ve now gotten caught up in the financial squeeze of the new NBA as their small market wasn’t able to retain their top talent. The Trailblazers won 51 games last year, but injuries limited their chances in the NBA Playoffs as they lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. But the Blazers suffered a bigger loss this off-season as they were gutted in free agency. Longtime Trailblazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland this off-season and he joined up with the San Antonio Spurs. And what the Blazers lose in Aldridge is the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer while no other player that has been apart of Rip City has grabbed more rebounds than him. And with shooting guard Wes Matthews joining the Dallas Mavericks, shooting guard Arron Afflalo along with center Robin Lopez now with the New York Knicks, and small forward Nicolas Batum being a member of the Charlotte Hornets, the Blazers have lost five of their top six scorers from last season which amounts to nearly 69 points per game from last year that Portland must find a way to account for in the upcoming NBA season.

Terry Stotts

More than ever Trailblazers head coach Terry Stotts will rely on point guard Damian Lillard to carry this team. In three years in the NBA, Lillard has averaged 20.2 points per game which is a number that you can expect to increase this season as he is now the main scoring option in Portland. The Blazers have some youngsters in their front court as they acquired power forward Mason Plumlee from the Brooklyn Nets while signing former Los Angeles Lakers power forward Ed Davis. Both Davis and Plumlee have potential and this year they will each have ample opportunity to improve their respective games as each player will receive an increase in minutes.

With the Western Conference being extremely top heavy this season, the Trailblazers will be fighting an uphill battle all season long.

Denver Nuggets 35-47

After a taste of success, the Denver Nuggets are going back to the being the lackluster NBA franchise that they were in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Nuggets lost 52 games last year which marked their worst season since the 2002-2003 NBA season and they will be fighting an uphill battle once again in the Western Conference. Michael Malone is set to begin his first season as the head coach of the Nuggets and they will have a different feel this year.

This off-season the Nuggets traded point guard Ty Lawson to the Houston Rockets. Lawson led the Nuggets last season in assists with 9.6 per game while he was also the team’s leading scorer (15.2). But Lawson was becoming a malcontent which made him expendable which is why he is now a member of the Rockets. The Nuggets didn’t waste that much time replacing Lawson as they used the seventh overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft on point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay is 6’5″ and he has the potential to become a combo guard, but he’ll be a work in progress for the Nuggets.

The Nuggets still have small forward Danilo Gallinari and power forward Kenneth Faried while veteran point guard Jameer Nelson will provide a person that Mudiay can learn from, but they lack that go-to-guy in late game situations as they’ll be an afterthought in the Western Conference.

Minnesota Timberwolves 35-47

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the potential to be an improved team this season, but they still have a ways to go if they want to qualify for the NBA Playoffs. The Timberwolves are coming off of their second worst season in franchise history as they went 16-66. And since 2008, the Timberwolves have had four seasons in which they’ve lost at least 60 games. But the future is bright for the Timberwolves as they finally won the NBA Draft Lottery and they received the number one pick in the NBA Draft for the first time in franchise history which they used on center Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns will now be apart of a young Timberwolves core that has a ton of potential.

Andrew Wiggins

The sky’s the limit for Timberwolves small forward Andrew Wiggings. Wiggins was the first overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers who traded him to Minnesota as a part of the deal for power forward Kevin Love in the summer of 2014. Wiggins averaged 16.9 points per game last year and he will begin this NBA season as the reigning Rookie of the Year. Things could be very exciting for the Timberwolves this season depending on the health of point guard Ricky Rubio. An ankle injury limited Rubio to just 22 games last season. But a healthy Rubio could give the Timberwolves a tough combination on the fast break as he would team with Wiggins. And Rubio will have the opportunity to learn from veteran point guard Andre Miller who is as crafty as they come.

Karl-Anthony Towns

For the upcoming NBA season, we could see Wiggins and Towns morph into a solid inside-out combination that the Timberwolves have lacked for a very long time. Towns was the first overall pick of this past summer’s NBA Draft and Minnesota is looking forward to using him in the post. Towns can also benefit from center Nikola Pekovic who is returning from injury as he has become a solid rebounder over the past few years. Along with Pekovic, the Timberwolves will be able to provide a veteran presence in their front court in power forward Kevin Garnett. This will be Garnett’s 21st season in the NBA and he has spent 13 of those years in Minnesota where he is the Timberwolves all-time leader in all major statistical categories, but more importantly, he is a leader.

The Timberwolves will have a rallying cry for the upcoming NBA season in their former head coach Flip Saunders. Saunders recently passed away at the age of 60 after a brief battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he’ll be replaced by Sam Mitchell who played 10 seasons for the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves won’t be Mitchell’s first jaunt around the block as an NBA head coach as he coached the Toronto Raptors to their first Atlantic Division Title in franchise history in 2007.

The Timberwolves will be a work in progress this season, but they will indeed be fun to watch.

Utah Jazz 32-50

The Utah Jazz were expected to be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference last year, but under first-year head coach Quin Snyder, they were able to show signs of life as they won 38 games. But the Jazz will have their hands full during the upcoming NBA season if they intend on being a player in the Western Conference.

Gordon Hayward

Last year the Jazz were 26th in the NBA in points per game at 95.1 as they didn’t have one player average 20 points per contest for them. Small forward Gordon Hayward has spent all five of his NBA seasons in Salt Lake City and he is coming off of his best year in the league as he averaged 19.3 points per game. Hayward will once again be the featured player in Snyder’s system and it wouldn’t surprise me if he flirted with averaging 25 points per game for the season. The Jazz also have a pair of lengthy big men in the NBA in center Rudy Gobert and power forward Derrick Favors as that law firm combined to average 17.7 rebounds last season. Gobert is 7’1″ with a rather long wing span and as he set to embark on his third NBA season, the future is really bright for him.

The Jazz were backing on improved play from their young backcourt of shooting guard Dante Exum and point guard Trey Burke. But Exum suffered a knee injury during international competition for his native Australia which will keep him out of action for the upcoming season while the Jazz really need Burke to become more of a floor general if they are going to contend for a playoff spot.

Like most teams in the Northwest Division, the Jazz will be fighting an uphill battle.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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2014-2015 Northwest Division Projections

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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.

http://talkinhoopz.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/lamarcusaldridge.jpg

LaMarcus Aldridge

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.

http://www4.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Russell+Westbrook+Oklahoma+City+Thunder+v+meCe_TmMnj3l.jpg

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.

http://blackbluedog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ty-lawson.jpg

Ty Lawson

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.

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Ricky Rubio

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.

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Trey Burke

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.

X-Clinched Divison

Y-Clinched Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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