NORTHWEST DIVISION: No one saw Sam Presti making such a drastic move by trading James Harden days before tipoff, but we can still see the Oklahoma City Thunder running away with the division title. However, there will still be a hell of a race for second place. With five bona fide All Stars in the Northwest and four more on the cusp, it wouldn’t be surprising to see four of these teams in the playoffs come April.
NYQUIL (DON’T SLEEP): You may not have noticed, but the Thunder went to the Finals last year, beating that pesky team from Los Angeles along the way. Furthermore, there are some other pretty good teams in this division, keeping the strength and depth of the Western Conference alive another year with no end in sight. What they all have in common is that they’re from small markets. For all the chatter of big cities hoarding all the talent and championships, small markets are in a better position than ever before.
1 PLUS 1 EQUALS 2 (THE INEVITABLE): After that crushing Finals defeat, a determined Kevin Durant will undoubtedly return stronger and presumably with a few new shots in his arsenal this season. But so will Russell Westbrook. OKC’s second best has always been ambitious, to say the least, and more than a few of us have been quick to remind him of his place in the Thunder’s hierarchy. For every time he dazzles us, disappointment looms, most notably his 43 point, Game 4 Finals performance marred by a crucial error in the final seconds. Can Russ just live this year? Of course not. Especially with Kevin Martin's expectation of 15+ shots per game.
LEFT FIELD (OH, IT’S COMIN’): Nicolas Batum’s free agency was a classic exercise in passive aggressive fuc*ery. Brandon Roy is playing for the Timberwolves, as Batum wishes he was. Damian Lillard has surpassed expectations, thus far, but the backcourt is still depending on quality minutes from…. Sasha Pavlovic? Yikes. In short, the roster is thin and the playoffs are out of the question for Portland. The Blazers are stuck in NBA No Man’s Land; too far from the postseason and not close enough to a rebuilding lottery pick. LaMarcus Aldridge is going to want out. Will Portland oblige him?
THE WACKNESS: I think three teams are good enough to win 45 or more games (you could add Minnesota, if it was healthy). But, of course, due to the titans in the Southwest and Pacific divsions, some of them will go home in April while a bum squad in the East waltzes into the postseason by default. Eff that. If centers can disappear from All Star ballots, sub .500 teams need to get the hell out of my playoffs.
Guess who’s bizzack? Well, not quite yet, but soon. You may have rightfully had your doubts about him before last year, but sleep on Ricky Rubio this time around and you don’t deserve to wake up.
ALL DIVISION SQUAD:
Russell Westbrook, Thunder, G: The league’s most explosive guard, bar none. The latest Jumpman spokesman’s only competition is a cliché: himself. If Russ can align his wants with the needs of his mates, watch out. Even if he can’t, watch anyway.
Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves, G: James Harden is healthy, an underrated distributor and a devastatingly efficient contributor to a title contender. But he plays for the Rockets now, so this spot is Ricky's to lose.
Kevin Durant, Thunder, F: C’mon son.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves, F: Eff the division, he’s arguably the best power forward in the land. It may take a while for him to find the shooting stroke upon his return, but Love’s uncanny ability to inhale rebounds and keep defenses off balance with his passing is still tops.
JaVale McGee, Nuggets, C: Surprised? Don’t be. Nikola Pekovic is a beast, however JaVale’s size and athleticism make him a constant threat on the boards and a far superior presence at the rim on both ends.
NORTHWEST MVP -- Kevin Durant, Thunder: Durant is a top three talent, steadily building towards a 50/40/90 season and though he may only receive an MVP this season due to LeBron’s trophy case overflowing, no one would begrudge him. Aside from all that, he apparently is as good as advertised off the court too, consistently involving his mates in practically all of his endeavors, right down to the shoes. Kevin Durant is a leader, a competitor and a joy to watch. If I have to explain this any further, you’re better off watching Family Guy reruns.
HOOD PLATINUM: Andre Iguodala has been on the edge of something big for years. Now is his chance to show and prove. Denver, talented as they’ve been after ransoming off Carmelo Anthony, needed an injection of defense and a dependable shot creator. Iggy is both of these things without having to be too much. Let’s see how Denver’s experiment with a new A.I. goes.
1.Oklahoma City Thunder
Even after replacing their deadly shooter and selfless playmaker with a one dimensional, shot happy guard, that relies on getting to the line and failed to do so last year, this one shouldn't be in doubt. The Thunder took a great leap forward as a team last year. Whether Martin struggles or not, with the return of Eric Maynor and marginal minutes from Hasheem Thabeet in the post, this team is talented enough to run roughshod over the division. But as far as title contention goes, two other questions still loom. Is their post play solid enough to provide the easy baskets, rebounding and rim protection needed to get out of the West, much less beat the Heat? More importantly, for all the rancor and hand wringing directed at Westbrook’s play and Harden’s contract, one name has gone free of scrutiny over the years -- Scott Brooks. His offensive schemes leave something to be desired. Can he incorporate Martin's game and be the taskmaster that takes OKC to the Promised Land?
Projected Record: 55-27
2. Denver Nuggets
Forget what you knew of JaVale McGee’s hijinks in Washington. When the entire team has given up after their first dozen games, there’s little left to do to keep one’s self or the fans happy than to throw the occasional fast break oop off the back board. Hell, sometimes you wouldn’t remember which way to run back on defense either. Instead, let’s remember the McGee of last year’s playoffs, who gave Andrew Bynum all he could handle for seven games. In a well-coached and structured offense with a tangible and attainable goal in sight, listless or inattentive players generally find that list or attention. JaVale can be the difference maker on this year’s Nuggets. Along with an assortment of solid wing players and a capable point in Ty Lawson, the Nuggets will still put a scare into anyone come playoff time.
Projected Record: 52-30
3. Utah Jazz
Utah is loaded with depth and talent in the frontcourt. Derrick Favors’ basketball acumen grows by the day, Enes Kanter spent the summer eating and breaking bricks and Paul Millsap is still one of the league’s most underrated players. This is all before mentioning Al Jefferson, mostly due to his expensive expiring contract, which would presumably make him trade bait come February. If not, then there’s the issue of that backcourt. Randy Foye, Mo Williams and Gordon Hayward are relatively dependable shooters who can spread the floor and keep a defense honest, but who’s going to get the ball to the frontcourt? None of their guards are noted distributors and it’s unlikely they’ll learn soon. Nonetheless, this is a talented team that has improved, if only through experience. Expect to see them fighting for another playoff appearance.
Projected Record: 45-37
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves were finally good for something other than a laugh last season. With buzzer beaters, a bucket full of highlights and an All Star appearance from Kevin Love, Minnesota was streaking towards a playoff position. Then Ricky Rubio crumpled in a heap. Then Kevin Love went down. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. But management didn’t stand around and pick their noses, partially thanks to the undue pressure they put on themselves to keep Love happy. Regardless, this was the team’s best offseason in ages. Andrei Kirilenko wasn’t off crying in Siberia or cashing in on those freebies the Mrs. gave him . As the Olympics showed, he’s still a lithe and rangy defender and boards man. His compatriot, ball-handling wunderkind Alexey Shved, is another welcomed import and Nikola Pekovic somehow added even more muscle this offseason. But can they hold down the fort while Ricky and Kevin are on the mend? It’s doubtful.
Projected Record: 39-43
5. Portland Trailblazers
Poor Paul Allen. All that money and no one wants it. He essentially had to beg for Nicolas Batum to take it and again, it won’t be long before LaMarcus Aldridge wants to see other people. This is a franchise in flux and it could be years before they find any stability. Not much else to see here.
Projected Record: 33-49
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