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This week Max Gabovich is continuing his series breaking down each NBA conference and team. In this article, Max examines the NBA’s Northwest Division which was home to the NBA finalists and division champions, the OklahomaCity Thunder.
Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-2012 Regular Season: 47-19
Playoffs: #2 seed in Western Conference, lost in NBA Finals (Dallas 4-0, Los Angeles Lakers 4-1, San Antonio 4-2, Miami 1-4)
Key Additions: Perry Jones III (Draft), Hasheem Thabeet (FA), Daniel Orton (FA)
Key Subtractions: Nazr Mohammed (FA), Royal Ivey (FA)
2012-2013 Outlook: The Thunder kept their entire starting lineup and most of their bench from last season intact this offseason – not a bad move for a young team coming off of an NBA Finals appearance. General manager Sam Presti has done an extremely impressive job of building a championship contender, which is not an easy task in a small market like Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is not only a superstar and the league’s best young player, but is also loyal to the franchise that drafted him and truly wants to be in Oklahoma City. With the way that the NBA is today in which superstars do whatever they can to get to the big markets, it is almost impossible for a small market to find an elite talent like Durant, and getting one who actually STAYS in that small market long-term is one in a million. KD signed a five-year extension that keeps him in OKC through the 2015-2016 season and announced it on Twitter days before Lebron James announced his move to Miami on the infamous TV special “The Decision.” But enough about Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook is an all-star point guard who seems to really want the spotlight and needs to mature some, but has shown he can help lead a team to success. Kendrick Perkins is a solid center, while Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka are both terrific defenders. James Harden, the reigning sixth man of the year, is similar to Manu Ginobili in that he could be a good starter on any NBA team, but instead has found a role as a scoring guard who can come off the bench and lead the second unit. Perry Jones III fell to OKC in the late first round due to injury concerns, but has the talent to be a top ten pick and could end up being the steal of the draft. With all of their starters and key role players returning this season, the Thunder are still the team to beat in the West.
2011-2012 Regular Season: 38-28
Playoffs: #6 seed in Western Conference, lost first round (Los Angeles (Lakers) 3-4)
Key Additions: Evan Fournier (Draft), Quincy Miller (Draft), Izzet Turkyilmaz (Draft), Anthony Randolph (FA), Andre Iguodala (Trade)
Key Subtractions: Rudy Fernandez (FA), Arron Afflalo (Trade), Al Harrington (Trade), Chris Anderson (Amnesty)
2012-2013 Outlook: The Denver Nuggets were a fun team to watch last year; that is, if you enjoy an overdose of offense. Coach George Karl’s squad led the league in both points per game, averaging a whopping 104.1 per contest, as well as assists per game with 24. However, that aggressive offense led to an inability to get back on defense and the Nuggets were 29th in points allowed per game giving up an average 101.2 per game to their opponents. The Nuggets were also involved in what I thought was a weird trade last season which sent starting center Nene to Washington for JaVale McGee. The trade itself seems fairly good for both teams, but Denver had signed Nene to a five year, $67 million contract just three months earlier seemingly experiencing buyer’s remorse. Luckily for them, they found a team willing to take on Nene’s big contract and got a guy in return who’s extremely talented, but is just as immature. If they can find a way to get McGee to mature significantly, I think he could be an all-star. The Nuggets have a really solid starting lineup with McGee, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari in the frontcourt while Ty Lawson and newcomer Andre Iguodala man the backcourt. They also have some nice bench players in Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Corey Brewer and Anthony Randolph. I like this team and I think they will be better defensively this year thanks to the addition of Iguodala, so I have them getting the four or five seed in the West.
2011-2012 Regular Season: 36-30
Playoffs: #8 seed in Western Conference, lost first round (San Antonio 0-4)
Key Additions: Kevin Murphy (Draft), Randy Foye (FA), Mo Williams (Trade), Marvin Williams (Trade), Shan Foster (Trade)
Key Subtractions: C.J. Miles (FA), Blake Ahearn (FA), Devin Harris (Trade)
2012-2013 Outlook: The biggest strength for the Jazz last season was their big men, and it will be much of the same this year. I believe Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are two of the most underrated players in the entire league and they proved it last season. While the Jazz have a nice core of young, talented players who are getting better each season, those guys aren’t yet good enough to lead a successful team. If you want to know how Utah made it into the playoffs, look no further than Jefferson and Millsap. Marvin Williams was acquired this offseason from Atlanta and although he hasn’t lived up to the expectations that came with being the second pick in the 2005 draft, he is a legitimate starter at a position of need for the Jazz. Another addition is Mo Williams who is just an average point guard, but will start along side the developing Gordon Hayward in the backcourt. The bench has some youngsters still trying to prove themselves in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks, and the front office in Utah is hoping those guys can develop and become the future of the organization. I think the Jazz will be slightly better thanks to the development of these young bench players, along with Hayward, but will remain in the same situation as last year – fighting to sneak into the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers
2011-2012 Regular Season: 28-38
Playoffs: Missed playoffs (11th in Western Conference)
Key Additions: Damian Lillard (Draft), Myers Leonard (Draft), Will Barton (Draft), Ronnie Price (FA), Victor Claver (FA), Joel Freeland (FA), Dan Gazuric (Trade), Jared Jeffries (Trade), Sasha Pavlovic (Trade), Kostas Papanikolaou (Trade), Giorgos Printezis (Trade)
Key Subtractions: Jamal Crawford (FA), Raymond Felton (Trade), Kurt Thomas (Trade)
2012-2013 Outlook: The Trail Blazers had an up and down season last year, but showed some signs of life having three winning streaks of at least five games throughout the year. LaMarcus Aldridge has come a long way since being drafted second overall by Chicago in 2006, and should be able to reach his first all-star game this season. The Blazers front office clearly has high expectations for their forward Nicholas Batum matching a four-year, $45 million offer sheet from the Timberwolves this summer to retain the Frenchman. Other than those two guys, Portland will be relying largely on their rookies, hoping that they can grow significantly throughout their first season in the NBA. Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Weber State, is a quick, scoring minded point guard who will have a great opportunity on a team that lacks offensive weapons and will look for him to score immediately. The Trail Blazers also got Myers Leonard out of Illinois with the 11th pick in the draft who I see as a good back-up center, but not worthy of a lottery pick. In the second round, they got Memphis’s Will Barton with the 40th overall pick, and I think he can be a nice rotation player who helps the team keep putting points on the board when the starters are on the bench. This season should be fairly comparable to last year as far as winning goes for the Portland Trail Blazers, but they now have some promising young players, particularly Lillard, who will improve over the duration of the season and eventually will help them get back into contention.
2011-2012 Regular Season: 26-40
Playoffs: Missed playoffs (12th in Western Conference)
Key Additions: Robbie Hummel (Draft), Brandon Roy (FA), Andrei Kirilenko (FA), Alexey Shved (FA), Greg Stiemsma (FA), Lou Amundson (FA), Chase Budinger (Trade), Dante Cunningham (Trade), Jerome Dyson (Trade)
Key Subtractions: Michael Beasley (FA), Wesley Johnson (Trade), Wayne Ellington (Trade), Anthony Randolph (Waived), Martell Webster (Waived), Darko Milicic (Amnesty)
2012-2013 Outlook: The Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since the 2003-2004 season when they reached the Western Conference Finals. Last season, it looked like they may break that streak thanks to Kevin Love’s continued improvement and the emergence of rookie point guard Ricky Rubio. With Rubio in the starting lineup, the Wolves went 18-13 and were sitting at 21-19 overall on March 9th, which would have been good enough for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, Rubio tore his ACL in a game that night after colliding with Kobe Bryant ending his season and keeping him out of the Olympics. He is on track to return in December or January, so until then the Wolves will have to rely on Luke Ridnour and Jose Barea at the point guard position. The team also has two new starters, both of whom are veterans that didn’t play in the league last season. Andrei Kirilenko spent last year in Russia and will start at small forward, while Brandon Roy, who will be the starting shooting guard, retired last December due to multiple knee injuries, but has decided to attempt a return. I think that each of these players still has some gas left in the tank to help the team on the court, and their veteran presence will definitely be felt in the locker room. I’m going to be optimistic and say that Rubio comes back in December and the team quickly builds chemistry causing Minnesota to head to the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.