The Northwest Division features teams from every NBA walk of life. Aspiring championship contenders, reeling playoff pretenders, young teams with bright futures, and still younger teams buried under the pressures of the daily NBA grind.
1) Utah Jazz
While the Blazers will make a show of it, the Northwest Division is Utah’s and Utah’s only. Physically superior to any challenger, the Jazz excel at operating their multi-faceted halfcourt offense to perfection as the team has the talent, strength and discipline to get to a set’s second, third, and fourth options and still end up with quality looks.
Deron Williams is the ringleader and his tricky ball handling, precision bounce passing, and dependable jump shooting make him lethal with the ball in his hands. What sets him apart from his competitors is his unbridled physical strength which allows him to run over defenders too small to match up, and set screens opening up quality looks for teammates.
Carlos Boozer’s combines rock-strong strength with a feathery touch and an explosive handle to create a fearsome post player.
Mehmet Okur operates beyond the boundaries of opposing centers’ comfort zones, Andrei Kirilenko provides a swiss-army knife of weapons, while Ronnie Brewer skies over the clouds to hall in lobs along the baseline and in transition.
Add in Matt Harpring’s genius at reading screens and ferocity when cutting, Paul Millsap’s pulverizing screen-setting and rebounding, and Kyle Korvers’ accuracy from deep, and Utah has as well rounded an offense as any.
However, besides Williams, Kirilenko, and Brewer, the team suffers from a team wide lack of athleticism. This weakness shows up in the defensive back line as neither Boozer nor Okur is quick enough or sprightly enough to provide adequate help defense at the rim. Until either of them get more sprightly, the Jazz will be at a severe handicap defensively.
Also, while the media genuflects on the coincidence of Kyle Korver’s acquisition and the Jazz subsequent impressive record after obtaining his services, he has proven to be an insufficient player during pressure situations, and his defense, too, leaves much to be desired.
Should the Jazz run into soft, or heartless teams in the postseason that aren’t astute enough to take advantage of Utah’s lack of speed, then the Jazz will romp to an NBA title. If not, the Jazz will be definite contenders, but not favorites.
2) Portland Trail Blazers
When discussing the Blazers, it’s difficult to know who to be more impressed with, general manager Kevin Pritchard for transmuting the Jail Blazers stench into the sweet fragrance of future title contention, coach Nate McMillan for instilling such a rapid learning curve with his baby Blazers, or Brandon Roy for being a present star and a future superstar.
Besides Roy, Steve Blake is smart, athletic, and unselfish. Travis Outlaw’s step back jumper from the right wing has become automatic, while LaMarcus Aldridge has good length, a good jumper, and good post moves to round out a very good player.
The bench features a combination of youngsters, imports, projects, and role players, ranging from Jerryd Bayless’ unlimited potential, to Channing Frye’s mid-range shooting, to Joel Pryzbilla’s sturdy screens and defense.
While the Blazers can certainly make a run at the playoffs right now, their championship dreams will only be realized when the youngsters get enough experience, and Greg Oden evolves into the superstar he’s projected to be. Expect that to take place in the not-too-distant future.
3) Denver Nuggets
While there are financial reasons to justify losing Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera, there is no way to justify the loss of the only two Nuggets players even willing to play defense.
In their stead, the Nuggets will have to wait for the consistently immature and underwhelming Kenyon Martin to grow up, and for Nene Hillario to receive a clean bill of health. Denver may as well be waiting for Godot.
Without Camby’s needless penchant for taking ill-advised 20-footers, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, and Linas Kleiza will have even more chances to show off their scoring ability.
But can the Nuggets score points quickly enough to replace the ones that will leak from their defenseless hull? Expect Denver’s ship to sink.
4) Minnesota Timberwolves
Though only marginally talented, the Timberpuppies played hard and competed honorably in every single one of their ball games last year.
While passing, defending, and deciphering double teams are still a problem, Al Jefferson’s a house in the middle, and slowly improving his weakest areas. Mike Miller’s mad bombing will give Jefferson more room to operate down low, and Miller’s also a threat to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim.
Sebastian Telfair made major strides last season and is infinitely more unselfish and more aware of how to run an offense than at this point last season. Randy Foye can pass and shoot, Rashard McCants is an undisciplined scorer, and Ryan Gomes can do a little bit of just about everything well.
The team is short on defenders, playmakers, and experience, but a trip to respectability isn’t out of the question.
5) Oklahoma City Thunder
New location, same problems.
Is Kevin Durant strong enough to be a physical slasher, a dutiful rebounder, and an intimidating defender, or will he continue to simply be a volume jump shooter? Oklahoma City’s long-term prospects depend on answers to that question.
Aside from Durant, the roster is a hodgepodge of spare parts, youngsters, and projects—with nobody appreciably better than their competitors.
Is Earl Watson’s ability to play earnest defense and push the ball in transition and inability to run an offense and make plays in the halfcourt a better option than the wonderfully talented, yet painfully inexperienced Russell Westbrook?
Is Jeff Green’s inexperience and potential worth more than Desmond Mason’s tough defense, athletic baseline drives, and inability to shoot?
Who gets the power forward minutes out of Nick Collison, Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, and D.J. White? Will Robert Swift be healthy enough for people to decide if he has game or not, or will the soft shooting, defense lacking Johan Petro be the center by default?
Despite the innumerable questions, expect another long season with precious few answers.