A shift of power is in order in the Northwestern Division. The steadily approaching wave is labeled change. It’s highlighted by sophomores Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Brandon Roy, by rookies Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love.
Without further delay, here is my preview of the upcoming 2008-09 season for the Northwest division:
Denver Nuggets Starting Lineup
PG Allen Iverson
SG J.R. Smith
SF Carmelo Anthony
PF Kenyon Martin
This offseason, the Nuggets dealt their premiere defensive player, resigned an emerging star, and conquered time by swapping draft picks with the Bobcats.
Olympic Gold Medalist and Team Captain Carmelo Anthony’s recent commitment to defense should soften the blow after Marcus Camby’s departure to the Clippers, but that doesn’t shield the rest of the Nuggets’ roster from their own individual defensive obligations.
Denver acquired flamboyant forward Renaldo Balkman from the Knicks in July, which should boost their depleted bench. Balkman excels in a high tempo offense, feeding off crowd intensity as well as his own. While Renaldo isn’t a savvy scorer, his defensive capability alone compensates for his shortcomings on offense.
J.R. Smith had dreams of a substantial raise and a new environment but watched them get crushed in a collective effort by the mass of the league. Smith settled for a three year reunion and returned to the Mile High.
The chaotic guard should walk into the starting lineup as Anthony Carter seems to be one-and-done in Denver’s starting rotation. With ample playing time provided, scoring will be the least of his worries.
Gazing ahead, here are three factors will contribute to a smile on the faces of Nuggets fans next season: Two first round draft picks in the 2009 NBA Draft, a 10 million trade exception, and the expiring contract of Allen Iverson.
For a bonus: George Karl’s possible banishment from the bench, depending on seasons’ outcome.
Bottom Line: Expect a surplus of scoring from this unit to combat a non-existent defense. The Nuggets will miss the playoffs and finish the season as the 9th seed in the Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers Starting Lineup
PG Jerryd Bayless
SG Brandon Roy
SF Travis Outlaw
PF Lamarcus Aldridge
C Greg Oden
A 13 game winning streak and once being the top team in the Western Conference, are certainly motivational pieces for an emerging force.
Mastermind and Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard assembled this team in only a few years and now the youngest team in the NBA receives another slice of bliss in the form of Greg Oden.
However every team has their faults.
One problem is at small forward. Portland has a collage of small forwards, Travis Outlaw, rookie Nicolaus Batum, and Martell Webster. Outlaw has been quoted as saying “I don’t want to be a sixth man forever”, a clear declaration that he deserves more playing time and rightfully so after averaging more points, rebounds, and assists than fellow small forward Martell Webster.
As for Batum, the Blazers will salt him away, preserving him for the future.
Contrary to popular belief, Steve Blake will not be Portland’s starting point guard for the upcoming season. Blake did a modest job for the Blazers averaging 8.5 PPG, 5.1 APG, and shooting 40.6% from downtown in 79 games last season.
But not well enough to hold off the momentum of rookie Jerryd Bayless. Crowned the Summer League MVP, Bayless averaged 29.8 PPG, 1.3 APG, 4.8 RPG, and 1.2 SPG during the annual summer exhibition.
Beloved Blazers Brandon Roy and Greg Oden will make their first joint appearance in the starting lineup after separate knee surgeries clouded their offseason and hampered their movement.
The 2006-07 Rookie of the Year, Roy is the leader of the team with his character, fearlessness, and voracious appetite for success being his main traits.
Even more impressive, 7-1 rookie Greg Oden has bulked up to 290lbs to influence his demeanor as the menacing figure in the middle.
However, Portland’s youth may also be their demise, producing only a single player over the age of 30; 32 year old NBA journeyman Raef LaFrentz.
Veteran Leadership is vital down the stretch, where Portland faltered last season.
Bottom Line: With Oden’s presence in the paint, Roy’s maturity, and Bayless’ quickness, Portland should battle for contention. Also expect Ken Pritchard to hunt for a veteran before February’s trading deadline. The Blazers will make the playoffs, attaining the 6th seed.
Utah Jazz Starting Lineup
PG Deron Williams
SG Ronnie Brewer
SF Andrei Kirilenko
PF Carlos Boozer
C Mehmet Okur
The disciplined Jazz becomes a year older and the only team in the Northwestern division to retain the same lineup as last season.
Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and Carlos Boozer will continue their individual monstrous tears, devouring opponents, and assaulting them with their wits and their brute strength.
However Utah looks to be the most vulnerable among the five teams with trio Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and Carlos Boozer recovering from the stress of the Olympics.
Boozer’s meltdown against the Lakers has loomed on the minds of the Jazz faithful. Besides Team USA’s recent bid, Carlos will have a personal task of redemption this year.
If any indication of talent is necessary, All Stars Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were the only duo in the NBA last season to have 50 double-doubles on the same team.
On a side note, in the battle of Deron Williams versus Chris Paul, Williams is 7-3 against CP3 since the two entered into the league in 2005-06.
On a brighter note, rookie Kosta Koufus should have an immediate impact coming off the bench for Jerry Sloan. Koufus is long, possesses a good basketball I.Q., and is a terror on the offensive glass.
Bottom Line: The Jazz are still the most mature and strongest team in the Northwest but Portland and Oklahoma City are closing the gap. Utah makes it a three peat, wining their third consecutive division title. Utah will advance to the postseason, garnering the 4th seed in the Western Conference.
Minnesota Timberwolves Starting Lineup
PG Randy Foye
SG Mike Miller
SF Corey Brewer
PF Al Jefferson
C Kevin Love
The Timberwolves are embarking on their 20th year of their franchise this upcoming season, all of which they have endured without an NBA Championship.
The floor general position seems to be at a stalemate. Randy Foye and Sebastian Telfair are the only point guards on the roster and both have experience as the team’s starter under their belts.
A kneecap stress reaction robbed Foye the majority of the NBA’s first half last season and character issues have plagued Telfair’s career.
Minnesota’s patience is wearing thin with Corey Brewer and the T’Wolves are reportedly fielding offers for the multifaceted forward and are also tempted to allow him to walk after this season.
Al Jefferson returns to power forward with the addition of rookie heartthrob Kevin Love. Wolves Vice President Kevin McHale’s infatuation for Love cost the Timberwolves a bona fide scorer in O.J. Mayo.
To complete the domino effect, the Wolves are expecting high output from three point marksman Mike Miller who joined Minnesota from Memphis along with Love in the infamous Mayo-Love deal, hours after the draft’s conclusion.
With the addition of Love, the wealthy get wealthier. To further illustrate the main objective, in the last ten years Minnesota has only been outrebounded twice for an entire season.
Craig Smith provides added insurance on the boards, barring he upholds his pledge to maintain proper dieting and conditioning.
Left out amongst the crowd is third year shooting guard Rashad McCants. McCants has been smothered on the depth chart with the additions of Mike Miller, Rodney Carney, and Kirk Snyder. Rashad averaged a personal best 14.9 PPG while shooting 40.7% from long distance. If the Wolves won’t utilize his talents, there is a smorgasbord of teams that crave his services, several them in the division.
Bottom Line: The Wolves have a steady young core but a lack of team chemistry will hurt them. In a few years they maybe able to make their rise to fame. The Wolves will miss the NBA Playoffs in their 20th anniversary, placing as the 10th seed in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder Starting Lineup
PG Russell Westbrook
SG Kevin Durant
SF Jeff Green
PF Chris Wilcox
C Nick Collison
After a messy divorce from Seattle, a franchise in need of direction may have found it in rural Oklahoma.
Kevin Durant the reiging Rookie of The Year, leads the Thunder along with fellow 2007 first round draft pick Jeff Green.
With shooting guard and small forward verified, Oklahoma elected to balance out thier lineup by drafting point guard Russell Westbrook 4th overall in the 2008 NBA Draft.
A ball hawk, Westbrook's speed, agility, and quick hands will make him invaluable on a team that loss 62 games a year ago.
But there are questions at the center position.
Power forward and part time center Chris Wilcox seemingly has too much pride to become the enforcer in the middle, and is comfortable with his role at the 4.
Because of Wilcox's stubborness, OKC may have to place Nick Collison at center and force him to revert to his collegiate days as a Jayhawk playing center.
Or they could showcase the future immediately, halting all hopes of development.
The Thunder selected three lumberjacks in June- Serge Ibaka, Devon Hardin, and Sasha Kaun. However, none have intrigued OKC’s coaching staff as Nick Collison currently stands atop the center position on depth Chart Mountain.
The likelihood that Ibaka will stay overseas is great, while Kaun and Hardin may remain on the team’s immediate roster as reserves. Let’s hope Ibaka’s decision won’t be a repeat of the Tiago Splitter fiasco with San Antonio.
Trading is another option but with Oklahoma engulfed in talent, their unlikely to part ways with their young playmakers, i.e. Westbrook, Durant, and Green.
So with an abundance of youth, draft picks appear to be expendable.
Veterans Ben Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, Eddy Curry, and Brendan Haywood seem to be available, but will they gamble on aging, underachieving bigs?
Bottom line: Like the Blazers, youth maybe their Pandora’s Box. The Oklahoma City Thunder will miss the playoffs in their first year as an NBA franchise. The Thunder will finish as the worst team in the Western Conference, for the second straight season.
The 2008-09 season could possibly become the toughest in division history since the 2004-05 season, in which three teams finished the season over 500.-Portland, Denver, and Seattle.
Alas, there can only be one atop the Northwest.