The Northwest division boasts a couple of very exciting young teams in Portland and Oklahoma City (formerly Seattle), another interesting and young team in Minnesota, a powerhouse Jazz team, and the hardest team to predict, the Denver Nuggets. I expect at least two playoff teams to come from this division, possibly a third, depending on how quickly a certain team matures.
The Nuggets averaged 111 points a game and gave up 107 a game, both second-most in the NBA to the Golden State Warriors. But the Warriors didn't trade their best defensive player (Marcus Camby) for a conditional second round pick. The Nuggets didn't really improve at any position either, unless Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin can stay healthy all season (something they've never, ever done). Allen Iverson is a year older, and eventually he's going to lose the extra step that he's had on every defender since he entered the league. Carmelo Anthony might be a better teammate and better defensive player than last year, but nobody's really thinking that.
The Nuggets were the #8 seed in the playoffs last year, and I think they figure to be worse this year. With their awful salary cap situation (only partially alleviated with the departure of Camby), it may be a few years before they get back to the playoffs.
Projected record: 41-41
The Timberwolves were pretty sorry last year, but it's a safe bet that they'll be a better team in 2008-2009. They've got a legitimate frontcourt force in Al Jefferson, and they made what I think was a great trade, acquiring Kevin Love and Mike Miller from the Grizzlies on draft day. Matching Miller with Rashad McCants and Randy Foye gives Minnesota a pretty potent trio of guards. And if Kevin Love can just develop into the next Charles Oakley, this team will have a dominating front line.
That said, they're still lacking a go-to guy when they need someone to make their own shot. They should work well together as a team, but could falter late in games, when nobody can take over and will them to a win. Still, I expect them to be much improved over last year.
Projected record: 35-47
Oklahoma City Thunder
This is a tough team to try to project, because so much of their production is dependent on very young players. Rookie Russell Westbrook will man the point, and the 2 and 3 will both feature second-year players in Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. Their frontcourt of Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox won't scare anybody, and part of the reason they're starting youngsters is that they don't have much in the way of depth.
This could be an interesting team to watch, especially because of their new home in what's suddenly become a strong basketball city, but they could be excruciating to root for. When your talent is focused in the backcourt, you get a lot of missed shots, which can be frustrating for a fan to watch. They'll be alright, but nowhere near a playoff spot yet. They're just too raw.
Projected record: 30-52
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland was a surprise .500 team, despite the fact that they lost #1 overall pick Greg Oden to injury before he even saw a regular season minute. He's expected to be healthy and ready to go from day one, and if he's all he's cracked up to be, he should immediately contribute, specifically on the defensive end.
The Trail Blazers have two other up-and-coming stars in 2006-2007 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and fellow third-year player LaMarcus Aldridge. If Oden can mature quickly (and he already looks like he's 35), the Trail Blazers could sneak into the playoffs, and when you can match up frontcourts with anyone, you've always got a chance in the playoffs. Portland's got a team the city can be proud of. This Pacific Northwest team won't be leaving town anytime soon.
Projected record: 46-36
The Jazz went 37-4 at home last season. Can you imagine if you were a Jazz fan and you only went to one game last season, and it was one of the 4? You'd feel like an idiot. The Jazz finished 2nd in team FG% and team assists, and were consistently one of the most efficient offensive teams in the NBA...as per those statistics.
Deron Williams has become a superstar in this league, and is one of several guys (Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, etc) that the Bucks and Hawks wish they had taken in the 2005 draft instead of Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams, respectively. Oops.
Utah also has three guys in the last years of their contracts: Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Kyle Korver. You have to think that, barring something unexpected, they won't be willing/able to re-sign all of them, so this might be the Jazz's best chance at a title for the foreseeable future. While the offense isn't a problem, they gave up 99.3 points per game, which isn't on Denver's level, but is still way too many to be a contender. If they can tighten the clamps on defense and keep their offensive efficiency, this team could be a force. And we just might get Deron Williams vs. Chris Paul in the Western Conference finals.
Projected record: 60-22
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