NBA: Northwest Division Outlook
Since being created this division has not been dominated by one team in particular but for the most part it has been competitive. Utah had their fun with Deron Williams, and Carlos Boozer while Jerry Sloane was on the sidelines but now the Jazz have taken a back seat in the division with all of those guys gone. The Nuggets were an offensive juggernaut and now, well I'm not sure what they are. The Blazers are still a tough team, but missing that go to guy that would have been Brandon Roy had he not had his career cut short. The Timberwolves, they are the Timberwolves. The Thunder, the young Thunder, Kevin Durant has his team looking like a championship threat and with that being said this division is theirs too lose. It also helps that the Thunder also went all the way to the Conference Finals last season while also winning the Northwest division.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are a very good team, but they do have their fair share of flaws. Some may point to Russell Westbrook, and some of his criticisms are fair, some aren't. His skill set fits that position of a two guard rather than the point, but his athleticism and defensive prowess still make him a solid point guard. The lack of a back to the basket scorer on the Thunder is what hurts them the most. Outside of Durant and Westbrook the Thunder struggle to score, Serge Ibaka and James Harden may put up nice numbers but Ibaka's number is never called on. His points come mostly from hustle and the occasional jump shot which doesn't help considering that is Durant and Westbrook's game. When defenses bog down on the Thunder they struggle due to the fact that they are for the most part a bunch of jump shooters. In order for them to get further in the playoffs, they need to be more aggressive and cut down on mistakes. Albeit, the Thunder have the superior talent within the division and that should carry them to repeat as division champs.
Player to Watch - Russell Westbrook
The shortened season has begun this week and already there have been reports of Westbrook getting into a dispute with teammates, most notably franchise star Kevin Durant. Now of course, the media will zoom in on any kind of drama between two stars on the same team, but it was fairly clear during their playoff run last season that at times Westbrook had a problem deferring to Durant. That very issue led to him being benched at curious times in favor of Eric Maynor. If Westbrook can learn to defer and play within the system than the Thunder could be a legitimate championship contender for many years. His athletic and defensive abilities are the perfect complements to Durant's game and having the two together are a nightmare for opposing teams, it is just up to Westbrook to decide if he ultimately is okay with being the second fiddle.
2. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have been quite the competitive team in the years under Nate McMillian and seem to constantly be in the thick of things. However, they have struggled in the playoffs. Injuries have not helped them in the past, but the emergence of Lamarcus Aldridge was more than welcome by Blazer fans. The Blazers received terrible news when the lockout ended in the form of Brandon Roy's retirement. Roy was a top shooting guard in the league when he was healthy and the Blazers played the Mavericks very tough last season in the playoffs in large part because of Roy's late game heroics in that series. With him gone, the team will need to find a closer, and may struggle in a few games to find that guy.
Player to Watch - Jamal Crawford
Being down Brandon Roy the Blazers had to pick up another shooting guard and signing Crawford will help fill the offensive void. Crawford can also be the guy that the Blazers will look to in key situations as he does not sigh away from taking a big shot. He isn't the player that Roy could have been for the Blazers, but he can do enough to help them win ball games. Ultimately, that is all you can ask for.
3. Denver Nuggets
Last year the Nuggets surprisingly became a better team after trading away their franchise player. Carmelo Anthony. They were a better team due to their depth and having eight to ten players that could start on other teams. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton all came in and gave the Nuggets viable options throughout the season. Now, it is a different season. Wilson Chandler was a promising player who plenty of upside but during the lockout he jumped ship and signed on with a Chinese team without an out-clause so he will not be in the NBA until next season most likely. Felton was then traded to the Blazers for the former Nugget Andre Miller, rookie Jordan Hamilton and Rudy Fernandez. Gallinari is the only player remaining on the roster from the Carmelo trade.
Player to Watch - Danilo Gallinari
"Gallo" as he is called has all the tools to be able to put the ball in the basket and seeing how he is the lone player remaining from the Carmelo Anthony deal, he will need to score the ball often. Nene is the team leader, the man in the middle, while Gallo has to become the man on the outside. Ty Lawson's confidence has been rising from last season and to complete the team, Gallo will have to step up and be the man to hit shots in key situations. If he can raise his scoring average from 14-16 points per game to 17-19 points per game, that would go a long way to help get his team back into the playoffs. So far in the first week of the season he has done a good job of getting to the free throw line which is also a good sign that he is being more aggressive.
4. Utah Jazz
Enes Kanter? It is a little baffling how a team with three solid big men go ahead and use the third overall pick on Kanter, who is another big. Last time I looked at the Jazz roster I noticed that they had a lack of wing players. In fact when they had Deron Williams they never had someone that could consistently hit an outside shot or score efficently. That in a nutshell has been the problem for the Jazz as of late. We know they will play good defense, as they should considering the big men they have manning the paint. However, their lack of perimeter players has hurt them over the long haul. Devin Harris is a nice player, and Gordon Hayward can be even though I doubt it. I'm sure the Jazz faithful are hoping for a lottery pick where they can swoop up Harrison Barnes in the draft.
Player to Watch - Gordon Hayward
Hayward has a good skill set, he can pass, he can rebound and he can shoot. All he has to do now, is show that ability and play with some more confidence. If he can do that then it will improve his team and bring them a few extra wins. The main portion of the offense will come from Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Devin Harris so Hayward will never have pressure on him to score in bunches but when the defenses collapse in the paint leaving him open he will have to capitalize.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
I'd be stunned if this surprises anyone, it has been a regular occurrence as of late for the Timberwolves to be a terrible team. They do however have a big bright spot in Kevin Love who bursted on to the scene last season with a career year. He has solidified himself as one of the best rebounding big men in the NBA, and has quite the touch from the outside. He and Michael Beasley have formed quite the scoring duo in Minnesota but they other three positions and the team defense has been an issue. Top draft pick from a few years ago Ricky Rubio, comes in as the team's starting point guard and with his terrific passing ability hopes to turn fortunes around for the lowly Timberwolves.
Player to Watch - Ricky Rubio
Considering how this guy had so much praise coming into the league when he entered his name into the draft in 2009, you'd figure he would be good right. Right? *sigh* He has great passing ability, he can pick your pocket on a nightly basis while his shooting ability and overall scoring ability leaves room for much improvement. He has a lot of room to grow and has good size for the position but his attitude has managed to rub people the wrong way. Not only that but Rubio has failed to improve upon his game since the draft which has discouraged scouts and the team alike.