Finally, we come to the division we all know best — the Northwest division. Will Oklahoma City keep its place at the top, or will Portland or Denver have enough to knock them off the top step of the pedestal?
Oklahoma City Thunder
(55-27, lost in the Western Conference Finals to Dallas)
Headline: Do Durant and Westbrook Have What it Takes to Win it All, or is the Future Not Yet Here for Oklahoma City?
Summary: OKC is now the hot young team of choice in the NBA. After making the Western Conference Finals last season, it is easy to see why. With their core of Durant and Westbrook, bolstered by Perkins and Ibaka, they look to be the team to beat out west this year.
Overall Trend: Up. The Thunder are a team on the rise, the only question is how far they can rise how fast.
Biggest Addition: Reggie Jackson (24th overall pick).
Best Case: NBA Title. It is probably a year or two too early for OKC, but they look capable of winning the title this season if everything comes together for them, or even if they merely get lucky versus Chicago or Miami four times out of seven in the finals.
Worst Case: First round of the playoffs. Here’s the thing about the west this year — there are not really any elite teams but many very good teams. It is possible, however unlikely, that one of these lower seeded teams could knock OKC off in the first round like Memphis almost did in the second round last year.
Most Likely Case: NBA Finals. The Thunder are the odds on favorite to win the west, and they should be. They look to be poised for a matchup with, most likely, Chicago or Miami, this June.
(50-32, lost in the first round to Oklahoma City)
Headline: After Doing Well Following the Carmelo Anthony Trade Last Season, can Denver Shock the NBA World and Make a Deep Playoff Run?
Summary: Lots of people assumed Denver would fall apart after the Carmelo Anthony trade. That assumption is wrong, as the Nuggets turned it on and were quite impressive the last few months of the year. Lacking a true star, they have become a team that is tough to beat because they have depth at almost every position and weapons everywhere you look. Overlook them at your peril.
Overall Trend: Uncertain. After losing Kenyon Martin, JR Smith and Wilson Chandler to China this season, the Nuggets may appear on paper to be worse off. However, they have plenty of assets and, in particular, plenty of tradeable assets, to allow them to improve in the short and certainly in the mid to long run.
Biggest Addition: Andre Miller.
Losses: Kenyon Martin, JR Smith, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
Best Case: Western Conference Finals. Much like the Detroit Pistons when they won the title a while back, Denver is a team without a star but with plenty of weapons across the board. They could easily make a deep playoff run this year.
Worst Case: Miss the playoffs. This will probably only happen if Denver trades much of their roster for future picks or young players, but if it all goes wrong, they could conceivably miss the playoffs.
Most Likely Case: First round of the playoffs. Denver is a playoff caliber team, but that is probably it for them this year. It should be an early trip home for George Karl’s bunch this season.
Portland Trail Blazers
(48-32, lost in first round to Dallas)
Headline: With Roy Gone, it is Time for the Blazers to Either Move Up or Blow it Up.
Summary: The headline on the 11 p.m. KGW newscast on December 9th said it all, “Triple Whammy Hits the Blazers.” Within a span of just a few hours, Brandon Roy had been forced to medically retire, Greg Oden reportedly suffered yet another setback and LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a recurrence of the heart condition that cost him the last nine games of his rookie season. Oh, and the franchise still didn’t have a GM and an owner who appeared erratic at best. Yet, somehow in that chaos, the team moved on and made a number of moves to shore up the roster. With a potentially huge amount of cap space next summer, this group will look to escape the first round or see the team significantly retooled next offseason.
Overall Trend: Up, improbably. For all the turmoil of the past few moments, the Blazers are probably in slightly better, certainly no worse, shape than they were at the end of last season.
Biggest Addition: Raymond Felton.
Losses: Brandon Roy, Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez.
Best Case: NBA Title. This is the year the Blazers are going to recapture the magic they once had and go on a run that……..okay, I don’t believe this either, but as a Blazer fan, I have to show I am a least a bit of a homer. In all seriousness, the Blazers could potentially make the Western Conference Finals, but that’s probably it for them this season.
Worst Case: Miss the playoffs. This could happen one of two ways. Either the team blows it up mid season, or injuries ravage the team in a way not even Coach Nate can get his team to scrap and do enough things to make the playoffs.
Most Likely Case: First round of the playoffs. Same script different year for Blazer fans, into the playoffs, out in the first round. Sadly, but likely to be repeated once again this season.
(39-43, missed playoffs)
Headline: After a Coaching Legend Exited Last Season, is Utah Ready to Make a Surprise Playoff Run?
Summary: In what has to be one of the more shocking decisions in recent NBA history, mid-way through last year longtime Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan chose to suddenly walk away. His departure, combined with the trade of their best player to New Jersey, sent the Jazz into an immediate tail spin. Yet, after the dust settled, they look to be better off than once thought and hope to not miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1980s.
Overall Trend: Down, but in a controlled manner. After trading Okur to New Jersey earlier this week, the Jazz clearly declared their intention to blow it up and rebuild. The only question may be, who takes Jefferson?
Biggest Addition: Enes Kanter (#3 overall pick).
Losses: Ronnie Price and Mehmet Okur.
Best Case: First round of the playoffs. As unlikely as it seems, the Jazz are just a few breaks away from finding themselves in the playoff race again. If Devin Harris and Paul Millsap stay healthy, they should compete for, if not make, the playoffs this year.
Worst Case: Just miss the playoffs and keep Al Jefferson. If Utah isn’t going to make the playoffs, they had best find someone to take Al Jefferson. If they can’t and they just miss, they will be stuck in neutral for now.
Most Likely Case: Land a pick in the 10-12 range. The Jazz are a decent team but probably not a playoff team. Still, they should be good enough to land a mid-to-late lottery pick.
(17-65, missed playoffs)
Headline: After GM David Kahn Surprised the Basketball World with a Good Offseason, Where Does Minnesota go From Here?
Summary: GM David Kahn had been a consistent source of amusement for those in the NBA, making bizarre moves and somehow managing to keep a bad Minnesota team from improving despite landing top pick after top pick. Yet this offseason he somehow managed to lure PG Ricky Rubio to the US, hire a good coach in Rick Adelman and bolster the roster in ways that make them, if not playoff caliber, certainly a lot closer than they’ve been in a while.
Overall Trend: Up. For the first time in a long time, Minnesota has hope. They are getting better in almost every facet of the game, and although they still have way too many point guards, they should at least be somewhat fun to watch this season.
Biggest Addition: Ricky Rubio (5th overall pick from 2009).
Losses: Sebastian Telfair.
Best Case: Just miss the playoffs. Since their unprotected first round pick is now owned by the Hornets, tanking to get a good pick is not going to help them this year. Minnesota is good enough to come close to the playoffs if everything breaks right.
Worst Case: Finish with one of the 2-3 worst records in the NBA. Since they don’t have a first round pick this year, finishing with a record similar to last year’s 17-65 mark will unquestionably be a total disaster for Minnesota. It’s unlikely, but never put any bad outcome past a team whose GM is David Kahn.
Most Likely Case: Miss the playoffs but emerge as a competitive team. Minnesota is going to make the playoffs again at some point, but if they can move up the ranks to say 10th-12th in the west, that would be a reasonable and substantial accomplishment for this team.