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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.