As we approach the opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine what's soon to be popping in the division where Russell Westbrook is now the undisputed king.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder – Two story lines dominated OKC’s offseason: Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors in free agency, and Russell Westbrook’s response to Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors in free agency.
The first order of business was Westbrook signing a contract extension worth $85 million over three years, squashing any fears that he’ll follow KD’s footsteps out of town or that the Thunder would feel forced to trade Westbrook and start rebuilding the roster.
Next order of business: What will Westbrook do now that he is OKC’s undisputed leader, go-to guy and face of the franchise?
A lot of fans and media predict Westbrook (who averaged 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game last season) will become the first player since Oscar Robertson in ’61-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Many have him as the early favorite to win MVP.
The good news for those people is that Westbrook will have a green light so bright that John Legend and Andre 3000 could be his soundtrack for the season. The bad news is that the last player to win MVP whose team wasn’t a top-2 seed in its conference was Michael Jordan in ’87-88.
Suffice it to say, Westbrook is no Jordan, and OKC is not a top-2 team in the West.
There is more to the Thunder than Westbrook, however.
Offseason trade acquisition Victor Oladipo (16.0 ppg) should fill the bulk of the scoring void left by Durant. Oladipo and Westbrook are probably the league’s most athletic backcourt pairing. Andre Roberson can play shooting guard or small forward – even power forward in a small-ball lineup – and is OKC’s designated defensive Rottweiler.
Enes Kanter is a good offensive center and Steven Adams is a good defensive center, but Thunder head coach Billy Donovan doesn’t (and shouldn’t) often play them at the same time. Rookie PF Domantas Sabonis inherited his father Arvydas’ passing gene and looks like he could be an effective scorer and rebounder in the league.
The Thunder have too much talent to actually “struggle” while adjusting to their new normal, but the reality is that they’re not a legit championship contender with just Westbrook and no other obvious All-Stars. They’ll be in the playoffs, but that postseason rematch with Golden State is more likely to happen in the second round than the conference finals.
2. Portland Trail Blazers – Damian Lillard is most of what you’d expect an NBA point guard and burgeoning hip-hop lyricist to be: Confident, aggressive, competitive, able to adapt and improvise, and above all else, smart.
When Lillard said in a recent Sirius XM radio interview that he couldn’t see himself pulling a Durant-like move in free agency, he may have been completely honest. But he was also being extremely smart.
“I wouldn’t do it. That’s just not who I am,” Lillard said. “I might have too much pride for that or be too much of a competitor where I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Durant and the Warriors are the NBA’s newest villains. In that interview – the NBA version of a low-key diss track – Lillard just set himself and the Blazers up to be heroes.
Portland is on the rise. One year ago, after losing four starters during the summer of 2015, they weren’t even expected to make the playoffs. Not only did the Blazers make the postseason, but they advanced to the second round before losing to Golden State.
Leading the way is Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists last season and finished eighth in MVP voting. He and the reigning Most Improved Player, SG C.J. McCollum, are arguably the league’s best starting backcourt outside of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Backup SG Allen Crabbe is solid, even if his four-year, $75 million contract suggests he’s a star. And the team’s top newcomer, SG/SF Evan Turner, fits right into head coach Terry Stotts’ small-ball style.
The Blazers’ bigs are serviceable, their wings are versatile, and their backcourt is elite. That’s good enough to make some postseason noise in the West.
3. Utah Jazz – The last time you saw the Jazz in a game that counted, they responded to barely missing the playoffs by lying back and letting Kobe Bryant drop 60 on them in his Lakers finale. The pieces are there for this season to end on a better note.
Utah has an interesting mix of young talent who should be entering their primes (SF Gordon Heyward, PF Derrick Favors, SG Alec Burks), even younger prospects who are still a year or two away (C Rudy Gobert, SG Rodney Hood, PF Trey Lyles, PG Dante Exum), and 30-something veterans who can help you win now but probably aren’t part of the long-term plan (SG/SF Joe Johnson, PG George Hill, SF/PF Boris Diaw).
Put it all together and head coach Quin Snyder has a squad that could battle for a seventh or eighth seed in the West.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves – This seems to be everybody’s favorite Lottery team to watch.
SG/SF Andrew Wiggins and PF/C Karl-Anthony Towns, the league’s two most recent Rookie of the Year award winners, are either building a Kobe-and-Shaq foundation or headed for a “Whose Team Is It?” power struggle. Maybe both.
Wiggins led the Wolves in scoring (20.7 ppg) and took more shots (16 FGA per game) than Towns (18.3 ppg, 14.1 FGA) last season, but Towns is widely viewed as the guy Minnesota should make its focal point in the post-Kevin Garnett era.
Point guard Ricky Rubio (passing) and PG/SG Zach LaVine (dunking) are highlight machines, but still have fundamental holes in their games. Electric rookie PG Kris Dunn will challenge them for playing time, and it’ll help his case with head coach Tom Thibodeau that Dunn may already be a better defender than those two.
And we haven’t given up on Shabazz Muhammad yet, have we? The former teen phenom is only 23 years old (or so), he finished last season strong by averaging 17 points per game in April, and this is a contract year for him. That may be the recipe for a breakout season.
5. Denver Nuggets – It’s all about the youth movement in Denver, as second-year head coach Michael Malone and the Nuggets are building around PG Emmanuel Mudiay (20), SG Gary Harris (22), centers Jusuf Nurkic (22) and Nikola Jokic (21), and 19-year-old rookie guards Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley.
Meanwhile, the actual best and most productive players on the team – SF Danilo Gallinari (28), SF Wilson Chandler (29) and PF Kenneth Faried (26) – seem like placeholders just waiting to be traded.
Don’t be surprised if the Nuggets end up being the worst team in the West.
Possible MVP – Russell Westbrook, Thunder
He’ll have the numbers, but will the Thunder win enough games?
Impact Rookie – Jamal Murray, Nuggets
Minnesota’s Kris Dunn may be better down the road, and OKC’s Domantas Sabonis will probably see playoff action first, but Murray has a wide-open opportunity to make his mark immediately in Denver. The one-and-done kid from Kentucky is really good, the Nuggets look really bad, and they’ve got nothing to lose by giving Murray as much experience as possible.
Breakout Player – Gordon Hayward, Jazz
He’s a 19-ppg scorer who’s been flirting with 20 ppg for two years. This will be the year Hayward reaches that milestone and leads Utah to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, when he played a supporting role to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Division’s Defender – Andre Roberson, Thunder
Think Doug Christie with better defense, worse offense, and a smaller chance of his post-playing life turning into a comical montage of reality-TV disasters.
League Pass Alert – Minnesota Timberwolves
They have all the appeal of an AND 1 Mix Tape Tour squad, with NBA talent to boot. Wiggins and LaVine will bring the acrobatic dunks. Rubio has the ball tricks and mind-bending passes. Dunn can break ankles. Muhammad can pour in points in volume. And while Towns may not do it in highlight-reel fashion, he’s on the fast track to becoming one of the best overall players in the league.
The Wolves may lose a lot of games, but they could win over a lot of fans.
Breakout Social Media Superstars – Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, Thunder
They’re literally the biggest buddy-comedy team since Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. (Seriously, did you know that the Dumb & Dumber duo stands 6-foot-2 and 6-3, respectively?) Do yourself a favor and follow Kanter and Adams (6-11 and 7-foot) on Twitter and Instagram.
The ‘Stache Brothers won’t combine for 50 points a game like the Splash Brothers, and they probably won’t contend for a title this season, but they do have the Golden State guards beat in terms of intentional and unintentional comedy.
Three-Peat Threat – Zach LaVine, Timberwolves
Nate Robinson is the only man to win three NBA Slam Dunk contests, but he didn’t win them consecutively. LaVine is the two-time defending dunk champ. Will he go for three at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans?
Orlando’s Aaron Gordon just might try (and succeed) jumping over a Mardi Gras float, or having himself dropped from the rafters for a dunk. He’s capable of anything. So if LaVine does go for the three-peat, he needs to do more than just jump really high and hang in the air for a long time.