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2016-17 NBA Preview: Northwest Division

1. Oklahoma City Thunder –

Projected Starting 5: PG Russell Westbrook SG Victor Oladipo SF Andre Roberson PF Ersan Ilyasova C Steven Adams

Projected Record: 59-23

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Another almost fruitless exercise to look back at the Thunder’s season last year because of the major off-season moves that went down. But, it is worth examining where this team was headed and analyzing the pieces they had that still remain.

If it wasn’t for their collapse in the Western Conference Finals last season, the NBA landscape could look very, very different this year. Regardless if Westbrook and KD won the title, the Thunder may have had an even better chance to re-sign KD, seeing as they made it back to the finals, and because they would have toppled the seemingly unstoppable Warriors.

The Thunder franchise has had a track record of being proactive and aggressive when it comes to the team’s future. Sam Presti didn’t hesitate to trade James Harden away, and even traded for Victor Oladipo before he knew what was going to happen with Kevin Durant. He is excellent at drafting talented players and at moving on from players that will compromise the team’s financial future.

Let’s just appreciate the guys who have come up under Sam Presti. He started the job in 2007, when they were still the Seattle Supersonics. Under his tenure, they’ve drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, and Steven Adams. The other honorable mentions, who are now contributing for the Thunder, are Cameron Payne and Andre Roberson.

And while not everyone of Presti’s moves have worked out, more often than not he’s been extremely savvy about which players to hold onto, and which to move on from. He seemingly replaced Thabo Sefolosha with a younger version in Andre Roberson, and he didn’t hesitate to let Reggie Jackson walk, and promote Cameron Payne to back up Russell. He also knew when to walk away from players like Jeff Green and Kendrick Perkins, promoting Steven Adams, who has become one of the most effective/efficient bigmen in the league, and now all the pundits are endorsing Presti’s move to replace Serge Ibaka with Domantas Sabonis.

I appreciate Presti’s proactive approach, and the fact that he does not let traditional philosophy of “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” influence the way he runs his team. Again, this may be better to explore in a separate article, but they are a few antiquated business habits in American sports that still persist. Presti doesn’t shy away from moves just because “that’s not usually what’s done in the NBA.”

Trading James Harden seems crazy, but honestly do we really think the big three of Russell Westbrook, Harden and KD would have won a championship? First, they would have had very little money left to build a team around those three if they started to pay Harden, and plus now that we can see what sort of players both Westbrook and Harden have become, I’m not sure the chemistry on that team would have worked.

And Presti doesn’t hesitate to replace and move on from players that other teams would stick with. He moved on from Kendrick Perkins even though he was on a team that won 60 games, and he moved Thabo Sefolosha when most teams would have stuck with him because he had been a consistent contributor for their team. It’s that ambition and foresight that allows the Thunder to retool and remodel year after year, instead of having to blow up the team or fall into mediocrity.

So here the Thunder are, without Kevin Durant, but with enough pieces to support Russell Westbrook and make a run at the top of the Western Conference this year.

This Season’s Prediction –

So even though the Thunder suffered a terrible free-agency, their season this year is actually going to be pretty easy to sum up. In one sentence actually. Give Russell Westbrook the damn ball, and get the hell out of his way!

This is one of my favorite teams to predict this season, simply because there is so many potential storylines surrounding the Thunder, their relationship with the Warriors, and of course the relationship between Russ and KD. I really hope that one of these stories comes true so that this NBA season can do go into NBA lore forever.

Is Russell Westbrook going to average a triple-double and win the MVP, all just to prove to KD that he made the wrong decision? Will Russell win a championship before KD? What will happen if the Thunder finish with a better record than the Warriors? Is this the start of an epic intra-conference rivalry? Will the Thunder and Warriors become the biggest rivalry in the NBA? What happens if this OKC doesn’t compete in the stacked West? Will Enes Kanter and Steven Adams stop messing around with these mustaches and just go full on Mutton Chops?? So many questions!

Honestly, I think Russell Westbrook is underrated. Or maybe the better adjective is underappreciated. This guy is elite, and I think that this season he will be on a mission to prove that, and his teammates will just be along for the ride. I truly want him to have a MVP type season, because that would be the best follow up to the stories about this season: “Remember when KD left OKC and joined Golden State?” “Yeah, and do you remember how Russell Westbrook went bananas that season and averaged 32 PPG, 11 APG and 10 RPG??”

Okay, so realistically, what is this OKC team going to look like? Well I think they’ve taken a slight step back now that they are without Serge Ibaka. While Russell, with help from Oladipo, will probably make up for KD’s absence, will they be able to replace what Ibaka brought to this team? I think Adams can certainly step up on the defensive end, but can he, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis be able to help out enough on the offensive end? I’m not too sure.

I think their starting 5 is very good defensively, but we’ll have to wait and see how they are on the offensive end. If Russell really does dominate each game, that will help his teammates get open shots. But if opposing teams load up against him, the Thunder could struggle for points this season.

What might let this team down is their bench. Payne is out for a while with a broken foot, which may not be as big a factor because Westbrook will play most of the minutes at PG, but they will miss Payne’s defense. Anthony Morrow and Kyle Singler are not defensive stoppers by any means, and whoever is coming off the bench for the bigmen, either Sabonis/Ilyasova or Kanter aren’t great on the defensive end. This bench might not be able to hold leads that the starting 5 build up, which could result in fatigue later on in the season if the starters have to stay in the game longer, or it could cause this team to drop games because the starters cannot both build a lead and then comeback from a deficit night after night.

Unfortunately for Russell, I do not see this team competing for a title this season. I do think they will win 50+ games on the back of Russell, but they won’t have enough in the playoffs by the time GS figures out their chemistry. I do hope that they match up in the Western Conference Finals, but they might not get that far if they have to go through either the Spurs or Clippers.

But I will now enter my first plea to Sam Presti: please commit to winning now! While I praised your business up until this point for keeping your team in contention, this is the time to actually contend! Start trading draft picks for win-now talent and support Russell Westbrook at the peak of his career. You don’t want to be known as the GM that both lost KD AND couldn’t deliver a championship even though you had Russell Westbrook on your team. It’s time to go all out in OKC, and it starts with Presti.

2. Portland Trail Blazers –

Projected Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard SG C.J. McCollum SF Evan Turner PF Ed Davis C Mason Plumlee

Projected Record: 48-34

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Impressive. Who honestly thought last season’s Portland team would go 44-38, and finish in the 5th sport in the Western Conference? After loosing pretty much everyone from their starting 5 except Lillard, no one had this team coming back to compete last season.

They lost Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Aaron Afflalo, Nicholas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s a serious amount of talent that walked out the door up there in Portland. But then again, Portland proved that the team is more important than the players, and they put a competitive starting 5 out on the floor, and they earned that record last season.

I think this team didn’t allow the media and the fans’ expectations for this season get in their way. No one would have blamed them if they snuck into the playoffs just at the very end, or if they were abysmal all season long because after loosing that much talent, teams are granted a sort of pass and the expectations are lowered when that happens.

But this team used that situation to put a chip on their shoulder and go out and prove that they were still a good team. Before everyone left, Portland was building towards becoming a major competitor in the West. After the off-season, they had to hit the reset button, but luckily for them they still had a star on their team in Damian Lillard.

Lillard and C.J. McCollum proved to have good chemistry in the backcourt, and Mason Plumlee gave them the hustle and muscle that they needed down low. This team was clearly built on hard work, hustle and defense, and they had enough offensive firepower that they could win games when they needed too.

After suffering that set back, the Blazers were supposed to be in the basement of the Western Conference. In reality, they fell back into the middle of the pack, but they still had a bright future because of their young talent. If it was the other way around, and Lillard left instead of Aldridge, then I would be more concerned for this team, but they can build around the young core that they have in their backcourt now.

This Season’s Prediction –

Like I said, this team hit the reset button. They are a middle of the road team looking to set itself up for the future. I like their bench, with Shabazz Napier, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Festus Ezeli. I expect this team to be pretty similar to last year, finishing somewhere in the 4th-6th seeds.

This team is going to once again rely on their defense and athleticism to win games. I would really like them to throw all caution to the wind, start Harkless at the PF position, and just try and run-n-gun teams out of the building. Unfortunately, they are slightly top heavily, in that all of their talent is in the backcourt, but I think playing a high tempo game would help their role players exploit their match-ups.

Mason Plumlee is another “new-age” bigman, who is basically just there to defend, rebound, and throw down dunks in transition or off the pick and roll. I’m not quite sure Evan Turner is a good pick-up for this team chemistry-wise, (do they need another ball-handling slasher? No.) but I think in the bigger picture he’s just a band-aid at that position until they can get someone better.

For this team, getting back to the playoffs is essential. Not only does it help them build chemistry and continue to give them experience, but it will help them show free-agents that they are for real, and not just floating in mediocrity. They need to add two more pieces, at the SF and PF positions before they can properly contend. If they can get a post threat at the PF position, that will make their offense more dynamic, or if they can get a SF who can create his own shot, that will take the pressure off of Lillard and McCollum. If they get one of those two players, than the other pick-up needs to be for their bench, giving them a dynamic player to come into the game and relieve their starters for a decent amount of time, and give the opposing teams something to worry about.

The Blazers’ future will be decided through the front office. They can either be aggressive, and trade their draft picks for players now, or they can try and build through the draft and free-agency. Unfortunately, Portland isn’t the biggest market in the league for free-agents, but that’s where their performance on the court will help them. The gap between small markets and big markets is closing, thanks to all of this TV money and the power of social media, so now is the time for Portland to make a statement in free-agency, and set up their future to be contenders.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves –

Projected Starting 5: PG Ricky Rubio SG Zach LaVine SF Andrew Wiggins PF Gorgui Dieng C Karl-Anthony Towns

Projected Record: 41-41

Last Season’s Thoughts –

The Timberwolves are in the position that every team in floundering in the middle or struggling at the bottom wants to be in. The T-Wolves were gifted Andrew Wiggins after the Kevin Love trade, and they had their own star prospect in Karl-Anthony Towns. Everyone pretty much agrees that the T-Wolves will be competing for championships pretty soon, so they didn’t have huge expectations for last season.

This was KAT’s first season, and he ended up averaging a double-double, with 18.3 PPG and 10.5 RPG. He also played all 82 games, which is huge, as 76ers fans can tell you. Andrew Wiggins continued to progress, averaging 20 PPG, and Zach LaVine also improved.

Last season was all about experience for the T-Wolves, and they were in the situation that I think Detroit and Milwaukee will be in this year. All they had to do is play out the season and get more experience under their belt. It also didn’t hurt that with their poor record they got a top 5 draft pick. That’s the consolation prize to letting your young stars develop, you can add even more talent through the draft.

Two factors basically guarantee that the T-Wolves will be at the top of the Western Conference and competing for a title in the near future. The first is pretty simple: their roster is loaded with potential. Now, potential is not guaranteed, and it is not necessarily obvious. People thought Michael Beasley had the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, and we know how that worked out. Also, no one really knew what to expect from Kristaps Porzingis, but now the League has been put on notice to watch out for a 7-footer who is money from deep.

Everyone agrees that Wiggins and Towns have great potential. The only way to predict if someone is going to reach their potential is to read into the small signs that players give off when they’re early on in their career. Take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for example. The pundits really liked him because of his energy and his character. He had the defense, he had the drive to win, and if he developed his offense, then he could excel in the league.

The two red flags with MKG were his health issues, and his awkward shot. Unfortunately, MKG has missed 126 games in his NBA career of 328 games. You can’t reach your full potential if you are on the sidelines. And I don’t think anyone realized just how broken his shot was until he got to the NBA. His first year, he only averaged 9 PPG, compared to Wiggins, who averaged 16.9 PPG. Luckily for MKG he is still young, he’s only 23, but he has a lot of work to do to reach his full potential.

For Wiggins, he already has NBA level defense, and it was a matter of rounding out his offensive game. He’s only 21, and if he can continue to add to his shooting game, and maybe even add a little in the post, he will be dominant in the NBA. And unlike MKG, he’s only missed 1 game in his entire NBA career, so it looks like he will be able to stay healthy.

The second factor has to do with their youth. Obviously youth on the court is a commodity in the NBA, but there is a second blessing to having youthful talent. And that blessing is their contracts.

What kills super teams? Two things: age and money. If the big 3 of any team gets too old, then of course they are going to have to hit the reset button, like the Celtics did. Otherwise, if you have three stars at their peak, it is extremely hard to sign other players (you still need 15 dudes on the roster) because their salaries are so high, like with the Miami Heat.

But having young stars negates that for a few reasons. First, is that young stars obviously make less because they haven’t been in the league very long, but it also means that when they re-sign with their team, it is only their first major contract, so they still won’t be earning top dollar. Andrew Wiggins makes $6 million this year and $7.5 million next year, so when the T-Wolves re-sign him, he’ll be making around $20-25 million a year (which used to be $15 million dollars before all this crazy TV money).

KAT will make a similar amount through the 2018-19 season, but what is great for the T-Wolves is that both KAT and Wiggins have team options at the end of their contracts. When super-teams reach their height, their hardest task is keeping everyone on the team and financially happy. We just saw Dwyane Wade leave Miami because he finally wanted the payday he deserved, and the T-Wolves can’t afford to let one of their star talents walk because they can afford to pay them. So the fact that their contracts are staggered, Wiggins and LaVine both come off the books in 2018, Towns in 2019 and Kris Dunn, their newest addition in 2020, they won’t have to worry about paying these guys all at once.

When LeBron left Miami, Wade and Bosh were also off the books. If Miami had paid LeBron his proper maximum, and some how satisfied Wade and Bosh with less than the max, they would all still be earning around $20 million, which would make it extremely hard to sign any other plays. Now that the T-Wolves can stagger those huge contracts coming up, they can invest now in role players and bench players so that they will still be there once the stars re-sign.

Also pivotal in this case is the “Bird years” that the T-Wolves will have on Wiggins and Towns. The “Bird years” is basically the rule that allows teams to break the salary cap for their own players, as long as they have played enough seasons for that team. That’s huge when it comes to paying all your stars max money. That’s pretty much how Golden State is surviving right now with their super-team, and how they will be able to give Steph Curry his max deal once he becomes a free-agent.

Obviously, all of the things that have gone right for the T-Wolves can change next season, but again, when trying to predict the future, all you can do it analyze what you have in front of you, and their young players all look like breakout stars and their trajectory is looking pretty good. And financially, they are in a great position to keep their young stars in the future.

This Season’s Prediction –

I don’t hop on band-wagons often, but when I do, I choose the T-Wolves. All this team has to do is grow older, and they pretty much will be contenders in the near future.

Looking at this roster, with the mindset of looking to the future, there aren’t very many holes. I think this is the last season they should start Ricky Rubio because we now know what his potential is. He’s not great defensively, he is a supreme passer, and he has the ability to contribute 10 points a night. Sounds great for the back-up PG position. Plus, they have him signed until 2019, so there’s not much he can do about a demotion.

Besides him, LaVine is a lock at the SG position, Wiggins at the SF position and Towns at the C position. Assuming Kris Dunn becomes their starting PG, that only leaves the PF position. I’m not convinced Gorgui Deing will be anything special in this league, so he’s a toss up at that position. Obviously it would be hard to incorporate another star into this team in the future, but if they can improve at that position, chemistry wise, they I think they should make the move.

The only star in their young core I’m worried about in the future is Zach LaVine. What has he done so far? Put on an amazing performance at the dunk contest. For me, that’s not enough. He has tremendous athletic ability, but if this team really wants to win, he needs to round out his game. I don’t think he needs to average much more than 15 PPG, but he has to sure up his defense, and add more dimensions to his offensive game. If he does that, he fits perfectly along side Wiggins and Towns.

And now for their bench. This year, I like Dunn coming off the bench, and in the future Rubio will be a good back-up PG. I like Shabazz Muhammed, I think that he can reach a better potential on the bench than he could in the starting line-up. I also really like their back-up bigs, with Jordan Hill, Nikola Pekovic and Adreian Payne. I think they are perfect for backing-up KAT, who will be getting most of the minutes. Like I said, if they can find a good bench in the next year or two, lock them up with fair contracts, that will be huge for this team in the future.

I have this team being a solid .500 team, but they could easily be better than that. Just like Detroit, their youth might be their biggest asset, which could help them surprise better teams. This team should also be very good against sub .500 teams, which will be the true marker of their progression this season. The best goal for this team is to make the playoffs and gain some playoff experience. It’s all about building for the future, and now is the time for them to start competing.

A setback for this team would be to end up in the lottery again. They need to start winning, and they need to transition from stock-piling youth to obtaining win-now players. Trades and free-agency will be big for this team, and I think they’ll have the perfect bargaining chip, offering any player the opportunity to play along side the future superstars of the NBA.

4. Utah Jazz –

Projected Starting 5: PG George Hill SG Rodney Hood SF Gordon Hayward PF Derrick Favors C Rudy Gobert

Projected Record: 36-40

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Last season for the Jazz was a step in the right direction. The Jazz have been trapped in the zone of mediocrity for a little while now. They bottomed out a few years ago, and they were trying to stock up some talent for the future. Unfortunately, they’ve let go of a lot of pieces that I bet they wish they could have back.

After the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozr era in Utah, they let Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, and DeMarre Carroll leave, and all of those players are key players for their respective teams. Besides Millsap, those players aren’t make or break players, but if we are talking about getting out of mediocrity, you’d definitely want those players on your team.

Last season’s Jazz went 40-42 and missed the playoffs. They certainly took a step in the right direction from the previous season, but they are in a dangerous position of falling back down into the bottom of the conference. I’m not sure if Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood have star potential in this league, but they are definitely good role players/solid starters in the NBA. If they can trade for a star, those players would be great supporting pieces.

Their future really comes down to the two players with the most potential on their team: Derrick Favors and Dante Exum.

This Season’s Prediction –

Derrick Favors needs to step up for this Jazz team this season. If he continues to be average, they need to move on and fast. Talking about potential with the T-Wolves, Favors is another example of how potential can be sidetracked. He has never played a full season in the NBA, after entering the league in 2010, and he averaged only 16.4 PPG and 8.1 RPG last season, which is very average. If he isn’t putting up better numbers on this team, then who will?

Favors was the piece that they were going to build around after sending Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets, and he has not panned out. At this point, I don’t think he has the alpha dog mentality to be a superstar. If he can only put up 16 and 8 on a .500 team, that should raise alarm bells for Jazz fans. It’s not like they have another player that is demanding more shots, so if he isn’t taking advantage of his position then it doesn’t bode well for the future. KAT was able to put up 18 and 10 on a team that only won 29 games, so Favors needs to up his production if this Jazz team is going to get anywhere soon.

The other player that needs to step up is Dante Exum. He is the PG that they brought in for the future, and while I’m not sure about his potential, this team needs to find out his ceiling fast. It is worthless to have him back-up George Hill, they need to throw him into the deep end now. If they bring him off the bench, they won’t be able to tell if he is injury prone and won’t be a good choice for their future, or if he can stay healthy and realize his potential. Also, if he can stay healthy, he needs all the experience he can get, so why have him play back-up?

The toughest thing for the Jazz is there current window to succeed before they have to blow this team up again. Favors is about to enter his prime, he’s 25, but if he has reached his full potential, they can’t build around him. As I said, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood aren’t players to build around, so this team is running out of options fast. If Dante Exum isn’t the future, then this team is really screwed.

If I was dropped into the GM’s position in Utah, I would do the following: Trade Favors and a first round draft pick for some assets. If you get rid of him now, for draft picks, then you tank this season and try and get a future star, who could develop while you still have Hood, Hayward and Exum on your team. If you trade him for a good player now, then maybe you can use some of the other assets that you already have, Exum, Raul Neto, Alec Burks, to trade for other pieces.

This roster needs to be reconstructed now, or else the Jazz will continue to be trapped in the middle, and they will have to start all over again. They have a not-so-great bench, with aging Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, and they have way too many back-up PGs. They don’t have any good back-up bigs, with Trey Lyles, Jeff Whitely, and Henry Sims, and I’m not even a fan of their starting C in Rudy Golbert.

The Jazz are not in an ideal place, but I think that if they shift their focus, and try and build around Exum and not Favors, they can improve their future. It will be tough to get enough talent to compete while you still have good role players, but the Jazz need to be aggressive with their future, even if it doesn’t work out, because then they won’t be trapped in the middle for much longer. They either drastically improve their roster now, or they sell off some of the assets they have now to come back even stronger in a few years’ time, even if it means tanking for a couple of seasons. Good luck Utah fans.

5. Denver Nuggets –

Projected Starting 5: PG Emmanuel Mudiay SG Gary Harris SF Danilo Gallinari PF Kenneth Faried C Nikola Jokic

Projected Record: 20-62

Last Season’s Thoughts –

The Nuggets have been struggling for a minute. Sadly for the Nuggets, some of the players that they have tried to rely on during this difficult period have let them down.

Ty Lawson fell off in a big way, and he now finds himself struggling to stay in the league. Danilo Galinari, while not the answer to all of their problems, hasn’t been able to stay on the court for this Nuggets team, and hasn’t played a full season in his entire career (he came close in 2009, playing 81 games). And Kenneth Faried hasn’t taken any further steps to really up his game, and he has also struggled to play a full 82 games for 2 seasons now.

The silver lining for the Nuggets, unlike the Jazz, is that they have stockpiled a good amount of talent on their roster, and they should improve in about 3-4 years. Garry Harris is going to become a good player, like a Gordon Hayward, and they seem to have a pretty good bigman in Jokic as long as he continues to progress. Add to that Emmanual Mudiay, who has the potential to be special (whether he gets there is another question) and now Jamal Murray, who is in the same category, and there is reason for hope in Denver.

Last season was pretty irrelevant for the Nuggets, since everything is about the future for this team. Another year, more experience, ‘nuff said.

This Season’s Prediction –

The Nuggets are close to being in the position of a team like the T-Wolves. They are just below teams like Milwaukee and Detroit. Their talent is still pretty raw, so they may struggle for another season or two, but they are on the verge of turning it around.

They have the potential for a good team in the future, especially with the role players that they currently have on their roster. If they can hold onto Gallinari for the future, and sell him on the idea of coming off the bench, he will be a great role player to support their future talent. Same goes for Kenneth Faried. He can hold down the PF position, and if the team around him gets better, he will be able to step his game up and contribute to a better team.

Experience will help this team, because then they will really know what they have in Mudiay, Murray and Jokic. They’ll also know just how helpful Harris and Jusuf Nurkic will be in the future. This season’s expectations should be to focus solely on keeping their players healthy and playing hard every night. If they do get more than 20 wins that’s fine, but at a certain point you don’t want to be like the Jazz and play your way out of the lottery. They Nuggets aren’t going anywhere fast, so they should continue to stockpile assets.

The draft will be the biggest place for improvement for the Nuggets this season. If they can get another young talent they will be set for the future. Either they get a player that will be a star, who will be supported by a great team in the future, or they get another asset that they can use to build a better roster.

The Nuggets hold their future in their own hands, and through savvy transactions, they can be great in the future. Let’s say their pick next off-season isn’t great. You can either trade it, and say Gallinari, for a better pick in the draft, or you can select a great talent that you won’t hold onto, and trade him with another asset for a better player. They should look at Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Faried as great trade assets that they can use to strengthen their team. Those players won’t necessarily be great for their team once their stars are of age, so trading them this season or next season would be smart business. Plus, after this season’s draft, if they pair those players with future draft picks, they could probably swing some pretty good deals to bring in really good players.

This season is a throw-away for the Nuggets, and their priority is all about the future. I don’t think it is in their best interest to win more than 20 games this season, but again, if they do, it’s all good experience for their young players. But watch out for this Nuggets team in the future, they will be on the up-and-up before you know it.

That's it for the Northwest Division preview! Check back next Friday (Oct. 14) for the Southwest Division preview!

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