And we have now hit week 4 of our preview series here at the Chasedown Block, and as preseason games are starting to be played we have finished up the Eastern Conference and start to turn our eyes westward, starting with the Northwest Division.
This division is home to all sorts of exciting teams and storylines, whether it’s the question of how Kevin Durant will respond to last year’s Finals loss, or how far Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love can carry one of last year’s fun surprise teams, the Timberwolves. The Jazz are ready to see if they can take their star-less roster for another scrappy playoff run, and the new-look Denver Nuggets look to do the same. Meanwhile Portland looks to rebound from what was obviously a disappointing season. Suffice it to say there is a lot at play in the division this year.
So without further ado, let’s start breaking it down again, in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly format, as always.
Eastern Conference Previews:
The Good: The Thunder return the majority of their roster from last year, a team that lost to the Heat much more narrowly than the five total games played would have you believe. It does not take a large jump of imagination to think up a few breaks that, had they gone the other way, would have pushed the series to six or seven games. All this to say, this team is still amazing, and as constructed they could beat anyone in a seven game series. This is good, since one imagines that the road to a Thunder title this season likely goes through the Lakers and Heat again this year. OKC is one of the only teams that has the position-for-position talent to match up against those two “super teams.” Kevin Durant is one of the five best players in the game by any measurement you want to take. Russell Westbrook is in my top ten. And you could make a strong case for Harden and Ibaka in the top twenty-five at least. This is still the most exciting young core in the league, and is definitely a title-ready team. They just need to take that last step to the top of the mountain.
The Bad: While one does hate to bag on a coach that got his team of talented youngsters to the Finals, it is definitely true that coach Scott Brooks is prone to making the occasional tactical mistake, and then seemingly refuse to correct it even when it is costing his team dearly. He made the decision during the Finals last year to keep Kendrick Perkins on the floor, despite the fact that against a team like the Heat who play small ball and employ no traditional post-player Kendrick was largely ineffective. Scott Brooks is a great coach and obviously deserves a job in this league, but how many more faux pas like that does he have before he’s labeled as the coach who can’t win the big one?
The Ugly: After he went nuclear in game four of last year’s Finals, I hoped that maybe we had finally heard the last of the never-ending “Durant and Westbrook hate each other and are a bad fit” story line. Then Westbrook lost the game on a late foul and it became clear we would not lose this awful storyline so easily. The moment Westbrook struggles for any amount of this series, look for this dead horse to be beaten anew.
Season Prediction: 59-23
Hit the jump for the rest of Jordan’s preview…
The Good: George Karl and his Nuggets squad rode the TEAM concept to a first round play-off exit last year, and after the season, decided to throw their hat into the Dwight Howard trade at the eleventh hour, shaking up their roster by sending Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo to Orlando for Andre Iguodala. I like the roster shake-up, since I think we saw the limits of what the previous squad can do, and Iggy does help fix some perimeter defense issues for the team while opening up some playing time for guys like JaVale McGee, a player who actually started resembling a guy with NBA talent after being traded to Denver. Danilo Gallinari will continue his development, which will be interesting to watch after he looked like a bona fide star in the making with Denver at time last year. As they have been since Melo left, the Nuggets continue to be a team of fascinating pieces, and there are few coaches better than George Karl to put the puzzle together.
The Bad: Denver is a small market team that will always have trouble luring the type of star that wins championships, so it is no surprise to see them going the route of getting supposed “blue collar guys” and talented young players. But do you really see anyone currently on this roster developing into the best player on a championship team? I’m a fan of GM Masai Ujiri’s work to keep this team competitive, but the type of competition we’ve seen from them is that of recent Hawks and Rockets teams, good enough to make it to the postseason but not good enough to accomplish much when they get there.
The Ugly: The best thing about Denver is that their frontcourt figures to employ the guy Blake Griffin murdered in front of a national audience, the guy who ran the wrong direction during a play, and a gentleman referred to as the Manimal, and you know what? Give them half a chance and they will rip you apart.
Season Prediction: 45-37
The Good: Look I know that I’ve already used the whole “blue collar” schtick in this preview, and that it is over used as a whole, but really it is impossible for me to write about Ty Corbin’s Jazz squad without the phrase coming to mind. After Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams left town a couple of seasons ago, many people (myself included) left the Jazz for dead. But they just keep plugging along being competitive and killing people with their frontcourt combo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Along with Derrick Favors, who continues to improve, that group of players figures to give plenty of perimeter opportunities to Mo Williams, brought in to take Devin Harris’s place after a disappointing season last year. When you factor in other standouts such as Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter, you figure that Jazz fans are in for yet another season of exciting basketball, and a likely playoff appearance. It will be interesting to see if they can make it to the second round this time.
The Bad: I mention them making it to the second round because, like the Nuggets, you imagine that to be the ceiling for this team. They do have an effective frontcourt, but you figure that as good as it is, the Lakers and Thunder will have this team’s number once they get to the postseason. I mean, the Spurs thoroughly handled the Jazz last year in the first round. You respect teams like the Jazz and Nuggets for wanting to compete, and no one like to watch a team tank to get a top draft pick, but it’s hard to get excited about fun teams like these when you know that it will take key injuries to the power house teams for them to have a chance to reach the promised land.
The Ugly: Not Gordon Hayward. After losing Kyle Korver a couple of seasons ago, the world waited with bated breath to see who would take his coveted heart-throb title for all the young Mormon girls on this Jazz team. For his part, Hayward spent most of the season competing with Ricky Rubio to see who the Justin Bieber of the NBA was in the oddest subplot of the season. This may have been mainly in my head.
Season Prediction: 43-39
The Good: Well, um, let’s see here. They still have LaMarcus Aldridge, who is coming off his highest season ever in field goal percentage, assists, and PER. But LaMarcus Aldridge has been an elite NBA power forward for a couple of years now, so this isn’t exactly news. So what else do we have here…. You guys still have Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. They’re cool and stuff! Okay….Oh yeah, you guys got rid of Raymond Felton, the only known chipmunk to ever play in the NBA. Seriously, all joking aside, we always knew that this was a team that would depend on the combination of Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge to get the job done. Last year they couldn’t, but last year was mostly proclaimed a tank job after the trade deadline. It will be interesting to see if they can improve this year, with a new coach and expectations that are significantly lower after they botched last year’s hot start.
The Bad: One of my thoughts one the NBA is that if you can only have top tier talent at two positions, you would want it at point guard and center, two areas that the Blazers are very thin at. It is true enough that Damian Lillard is getting some early buzz for Rookie of the Year and may be the piece that Portland needs at point, but you know who isn’t the answer at center? JJ Hickson, whose biggest contribution to the league has been being the guy that Cleveland wouldn’t give up to get Amare Stoudemire. This has all the marking of “improving” year instead of a “competing” year.
The Ugly: The Blazers got rid of Nate McMillan, a coach widely respected throughout the league, because he seemed to not be getting through to his players, namely Gerald Wallace and Jamal Crawford. This isn’t necessarily a bad move if you plan on making those players a part of your core going forward, as the Blazers have done….Wait, neither of those guys are around anymore? Oh.
Season Prediction: 35-47
The Good: Before Kobe Bryant savagely beat Ricky Rubio with a hammer before hooking up a car battery to his man region, the Wolves were one of the league’s most entertaining teams, and looked like a potentially interesting seven or eight seed. Powered by Rubio’s otherworldly passing and The Lord of All Things Rebound, Kevin Love, they look to now make a return to the postseason, something that actually looks attainable for a team that not long ago was one of the worst in the NBA. The Wolves will also look for Nikola Pekovic, another surprise from last season (and one of the funniest fake twiter accounts ever), to continue his inspired play from last season. When you combine other nice pieces such as Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger, Jose Juan Barea, Andrei Kirlenko, and Brandon Roy, the Wolves are a team that could morph into a possible contender under the steady hand of Coach Rick Adelman, who is entering his second year with the team.
The Bad: While the team will no doubt be exciting, one has to wonder if Ricky Rubio can improve his shooting enough to truly become one of the best point guards in a league where there is more competition at that position than there ever has been before. And while no one doubts the talent of some of the older guys on the roster, like Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirlenko, there are serious doubts about whether these guys are still able to compete at the level that the Wolves will need them to in order to compete with great teams like the Spurs, Lakers, and Thunder.
The Ugly: I’m going to use this space to harp on something that I mentioned on the last podcast Mark and I did: Brandon Roy, I love you. When you came alive against Dallas in the playoffs two years ago, that was one of the coolest things I have ever bore witness to. But I seriously want you to able to walk on your knees in ten years, and another year of basketball is not going to help that. So please walk out right now if there is any part of you doubting this.
Season Prediction: 46-36
Jordan Akin will gladly donate his knees to Brandon Roy if it helps the cause, even if it ruins his journalistic integrity. You can inform Jordan he never actually had any journalistic integrity on Twitter at @jakin1013, or via email at email@example.com.