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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.