The 2015-16 NBA Preview – Northwest Division

By: DREW SORRELLS

Courtesy: B/R
Courtesy: B/R

Oklahoma City Thunder:

  • 2014-15 Record: 45-37
  • Key Additions: Coach Billy Donovan (from the University of Florida)
  • Key Departures: None
  • Projected Starters: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter

What You Need to Know:

Entering this season, the Thunder have more pressure for immediate results than any other team. Rumors of Kevin Durant leaving the city for his hometown have been circulating for almost two years now and this cloud of uncertainty will loom over the franchise all season. Combined with the fact that they have new coach Billy Donovan, who has never coached an NBA team, and there is even more work to be done in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder will look to prove that they belong back with the elite teams in the NBA. With Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have arguably two of the top five players in the entire league sharing the same court. Westbrook took the Thunder on his back in the face of last year’s adversity and put together a monster season. He led the league with 28.1 ppg and turned in an absurd 11 triple doubles (triple digits in 3 different statistical categories). The next highest player had just 4. With Ibaka and Durant out, Westbrook proved he could be the franchise player that nobody thought he was.

The questions lie in the supporting cast. Will they be enough to help ease the burden for Durant and Westbrook? Serge Ibaka will be coming back from an injury and has to put together a better season than he did last year. He posted his career low in field goal percentage by a wide margin, an effort that must improve. Other scoring will have to come from the likes of Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler and sharpshooter Anthony Morrow. There are obvious benefits of playing with players who can put up the numbers that Durant and Westbrook are capable of; however, these players will have to take some pressure off of their two superstars.

The Thunder have fallen in the past because of a stagnated half-court offense. Scott Brooks was not known for creative offensive sets, and often relied too heavily on Durant and Westbrook in dribble-heavy isolation plays when the team is unable to score fast break points in transition. If they are going to win in the West, they will have to be able to keep up with the gaudy numbers of offensive juggernauts like Golden State and San Antonio.

Expect huge years out of Durant and Westbrook, and the Thunder should be in the conversation for the title come playoff time if everybody remains healthy. But the Western Conference is a brutal place to call home, with teams like Golden State, San Antonio, Houston and Los Angeles all improving. More than any of those teams mentioned, OKC will be pressured to win now. And this pressure will only intensify with time.

Utah Jazz:

credit: www.sbnation.com
  • 2014-15 Record: 38-44
  • Key Additions: Trey Lyles (Kentucky)
  • Key Departures: None
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert

What You Need to Know:

The Jazz are the league-wide consensus underdog to jump an established team and make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. So much, that it is hard to actually view them as underdogs. They have the necessary pieces to get the final spot in the West, but they will have a lot of competition to face in that pursuit.

Utah put together a surprising run where they finished with the sixth best winning percentage after the All-Star Break, behind five teams who all made the playoffs. They dealt Enes Kanter to the Thunder, opening up a starting spot for the 7-foot-1-inch Rudy Gobert. He’s been nicknamed “The Stifle Tower” and rightfully so. He instantly made Utah the best defensive team in league, holding opponents to a mere 89 ppg after his insertion into the starting lineup. His rim protecting abilities make it impossible for teams to score in the paint against the Jazz. Gobert is also a safety net for the Jazz’s perimeter defenders. He improves their ability to defend from the perimeter by simply being on the court, giving wing defenders the freedom to close out hard on perimeter shooters without worrying about these shooters getting to the rim and finishing inside. If they blow by the over anxious wing defenders, they will run into one of the best shot-blockers in the game in Gobert.

Offensively, Gordon Hayward will be the main weapon for the Jazz. He has improved his offensive production each season, posting a career high 19.3 ppg last season. Derrick Favors has also been one of the most underrated big men in the league and has steadily improved his game each season like Hayward. He will be a reliable pick and roll option with Hayward but can also create his own shots in the post.

They face potential spacing issues with Gobert and Favors. Gobert is not a threat to make plays on his own, which could clog the lanes that Favors uses to work out of the post. They also lost what would have been their starting point guard Dante Exum before the season even started to a torn ACL. Trey Burke will then be the starter and he has been less than great in that role. Exum knew his limitations on the offensive end, which made the Jazz more effective there. Burke does not. Burke is gung-ho, constantly looking to make plays off of the dribble despite not having the skill set to do so. If Utah is going to take that next step, Burke will also have to take that step as well.

The Jazz are an intriguing “underdog” who can make some noise in the crowded Western conference. The mantra has always been “defense wins championships” and Utah has built a contender out of their defense-first style. We will see how this mantra plays out in actuality and if the Jazz have the offensive prowess to match their defense.

Portland Trail Blazers:

credit: www.espn.go.com
  • 2014-15 Record: 51-31
  • Key Acquisitions: Ed Davis (LAL), Mason Plumlee (New Jersey), Noah Vonleh (Charlotte), Gerald Henderson (Charlotte), Al-Farouq Aminu (Dallas)
  • Key Departures: Lamarcus Aldridge (San Antonio), Wesley Matthews (Dallas), Robin Lopez (New York), Nicholas Batum (Charlotte)
  • Projected Starting Five: Damien Lilliard, Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee

What You Need to Know:

This offseason was pretty devastating for Portland. I mean, just take another look at those key departures. They lost their cornerstone franchise big-man when Lamarcus Aldridge moved to the Spurs, who is an irreplaceable talent. That alone is enough to kill a franchise’s playoff aspirations. Add the fact that the rest of their starting lineup left and it’s hard to see the Blazers having a successful 2015-16 campaign.

Immediate success does not appear to be in the cards for Portland; their front office did an incredible job recovering from the losses they encountered this offseason. After the Aldridge departure, they recognized that the franchise was no longer a contender in the West. They signed a slew of young talent to relatively cheap deals and assembled a core that could become very respectable with some development. This is something that has allowed Portland to be one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA. Many front offices inhibit their own success by chasing fool’s gold. They attempt to stay in the hunt as makeshift contenders when it is obvious they have no real chance to win it all. Take the Charlotte Hornets, for example. The team they have assembled has no shot at a title. Best-case scenario, they are able to compete for the 8 seed in a weak Eastern conference. By doing this, they remain in no man’s land. They won’t get a high draft pick, they won’t compete for a title, so what are they doing?  General Manager Neil Oshey and the rest of the front office avoided this trap beautifully and ideally it will benefit them in the long run.

The building block for all of Portland’s future success is Damian Lilliard. They locked him up with a 5-year extension over the summer with hopes that he can develop into the franchise player. He is only 25 years old, has yet to enter his prime and is a superstar in the making. In a league filled with spectacular point guards, having one who can carry an offense is crucial, and this alone gives them hope that their rebuilding process will be more quick and painless than other teams. He is the kind of rare piece that teams like Philadelphia have tanked year after year to get.

The loss of starters will also open up rotation spots for young guys like C.J. McCollum and Myers Leonard, who are keys to the future in Portland. He is primarily the shooting guard off of the bench, but McCollum will receive extended minutes at the point as well. Leonard will also take steps forward in his own development as the Blazers throw more minutes his way.

While acquisitions to get the likes of Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee and Gerald Henderson are not exactly glamorous moves, they give Portland a veteran foundation. At the same time, Henderson is the oldest out of all of these players and he is only 27. They will see increased minutes for Portland and each will look to find their own niche. Other moves like signing Al-Farouq Aminu and dealing Batum to Charlotte for Noah Vonleh are based purely on potential. He will receive more minutes this season, but will have the ability to ease into his role with veterans like Davis, Plumlee, Chris Kaman and Leonard in front of him in the rotations.

The Trail Blazers will still be a competitive team, mostly because of Damian Lilliard. Being in the West will most-likely result in a finish closer to the bottom of the conference than the top and for Portland, that’s okay.

Denver Nuggets:

credit: www.nba.com

  • 2014-15 Record: 30-52
  • Key Acquisitions: Emmanuel Mudiay (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Jameer Nelson (Boston)
  • Key Departures: Ty Lawson (Houston)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Emmanuel Mudiay, Randy Foye, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic

What You Need to Know:

It was a futile effort for the Nuggets in 2014-15. Looking to compete, they finished with only 30 wins and more questions than ever. The biggest question mark was Ty Lawson. They quickly dealt him for scraps to Houston after his second arrest for driving under the influence. It was a divorce that was a longtime coming, but paves the way for rookie Emmanuel Mudiay to be an immediate starter.

Mudiay is their building block for the future, alongside the 7-foot Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic. They believe the pair can develop into a dynamic one-two punch, but it is going to take time for this to happen. The Nuggets’ mix of young, undeveloped talent with veterans who are leaving their prime is peculiar. Guys like Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are not young and their combination with younger players leads Denver down a confusing path. They extended Wilson Chandler’s contract this summer, a move that makes almost no sense because he is simply not a player who will be on the roster by the time Mudiay and Nurkic develop the skills necessary to be stars.

Denver has enough talent to outplay the bottom dwellers of the league, but not nearly enough to compete in the West. While the focus in Denver should be on developing their young pieces, it seems that the front office wants this team to compete despite no real shot at a title. They could very well fall into the “fool’s gold” category I discussed above and that is not a good thing.

Minnesota Timberwolves:

credit: www.foxsports.com
  • 2014-15: 16-66
  • Key Acquisitions: Number one draft pick Karl Anthony-Towns (Kentucky)
  • Key Departures: None
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic

What You Need to Know:

The Timberwolves will be in next year’s lottery once again. For the organization, the next season is not about competing. It is about developing their very young core into a team that can compete in the future. Last year’s rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins and this year’s top draft pick Karl Anthony-Towns are the building blocks the Timberwolves will move forward with. Both of these players have serious star potential, but they are not there yet.

They implemented Zach LaVine into the starting lineup over Kevin Martin for nest season, despite the fact that Martin is the better player. They are hoping that LaVine can continue to improve his game and become a part of their future success, and want to ensure this by giving him as much in-game action as they can. They have surrounded these young players with an incredible pool of NBA knowledge. Veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and professor Andre Miller have achieved incredible success in the league, and will serve as mentors for the young players who are still learning the ropes. They are there as much, if not more so, for their off-court leadership presence of older players.

All of that being said, next year is another season committed to development over tangible results for Minnesota, which looks to be a contender in a couple of years with the pieces that they have.