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2013-14 NBA Preview: Will Thunder reign in Northwest?

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The timing of Russell Westbrook's return could affect the Thunder's division title hopes and more.

SI.com is previewing every division ahead of the 2013-14 NBA season. We've already looked at the Central, Atlantic, Southeast, Pacific and Southwest. Last but not least, the Northwest Division, where the Thunder aim to finish first for the fourth consecutive season.

Northwest Division: How They'll Finish

Over the last 12 months, the Thunder have traded James Harden, lost Kevin Martin in free agency, and witnessed Russell Westbrook undergo two knee surgeries. Somehow, they might actually strengthen their grasp on the Northwest Division in 2013-14, as none of their fellow members made up significant ground this summer. This year’s Thunder will ride and die with Kevin Durant like never before, at least until his All-Star teammate returns to the lineup. In the meantime, coach Scott Brooks will hope Reggie Jackson, who enjoyed a breakout 2013 playoffs, and 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb can help fill in some of the scoring gaps, and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Serge Ibaka should also enjoy an enhanced offensive role. After getting a taste of the Finals in 2012 and then taking a step back in 2013, this season might be the first time Oklahoma City deals with a real sense of urgency after living such a charmed existence.  

The skinny: The Durant/Westbrook combination survived the loss of Harden just fine last season, powering the Thunder to the league’s best point differentia. If Westbrook is back to 100 percent for the playoffs, Oklahoma City could well be the Western Conference’s team to beat. 

“Biggest loss; Andre Iguodala” doesn’t quite do justice to the Nuggets’ turbulent summer, which saw their defensive centerpiece bolt for the Warriors after the franchise parted ways with George Karl, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Year, and after Masai Ujiri, the NBA’s reigning Executive of the Year, took his talents to Toronto. What’s left? A first-time coach in Brian Shaw, a first-time GM in Tim Connelly, and a mish-mashed roster with underwhelming new additions (J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye) that will be tapping its foot as Danilo Gallinari recovers from a season-ending knee injury. The Italian forward teams with jitterbug point guard Ty Lawson, Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried and Wilson Chandler to give the Nuggets a solid talent base, but a repeat of Denver’s magical 57-win season in 2012-13 seems downright impossible. Denver’s legendary altitude-influenced homecourt advantage looms as one reliable leg on this franchise’s otherwise wobbly table, but will Shaw undercut this strength by slowing down the team’s trademark up-tempo style?

The skinny: The biggest challenge for Shaw, who can expect intense scrutiny in the wake of Denver’s offseason overhaul, will be to coax defensive stops out of his charges. Last year, Denver’s only year with Iguodala, was the first time since 2009 that the Nuggets finished with an above-average mark in defensive efficiency.

A summer of major change gives Blazermaniacs reason for some measured hope following two straight lottery trips. An injection of veteran talent (Mo Williams and Dorell Wright) and young intrigue (lottery pick CJ McCollum, who is sidelined with a foot injury, and Thomas Robinson) gives Portland a bench that is significantly stronger than last year’s reserve corps, which ranked last in the league in scoring. Swapping in the lumbering Robin Lopez for the undersized J.J. Hickson offers coach Terry Stotts a physicality that his starting unit was lacking last year, but this team will still butter its bread on the offensive end. Two-time All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge remains the workhorse, but a deep stable of shooters that includes 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and talented small forward Nicolas Batum gives the Blazers enough weapons to compete for a spot among the NBA’s top-10 offenses. This team will chuck up a lot of three-pointers, which should make for an entertaining season, but whether Portland makes a return trip to the playoffs relies heavily on Lillard’s second-year progress and the team’s ability to jump up closer to league-average on the defensive end.

The skinny: Demanding owner Paul Allen has remained dead set against undertaking a rebuild and spending into the luxury tax, creating a reality in which the best case for this Blazers roster is being a “tough out” -- rather than a real threat -- should they sneak into the playoffs.

The Timberwolves’ summer was notable for two reasons: oft-questioned president David Kahn was finally dumped, and Flip Saunders, his replacement, wasted no time handing out large stacks of cash in every direction. Saunders’ spending spree included re-signing Nikola Pekovic ($60 million), poaching Kevin Martin from the Thunder ($28 million), re-signing Chase Budinger ($15 million) and lifting Corey Brewer from the Nuggets ($14 million). With Budinger down with a knee injury, coach Rick Adelman will ask Martin and Brewer to provide some complementary offense/defense action to replace Andrei Kirilenko, who departed for the Nets. Minnesota’s starting five -- point guard Ricky Rubio, Martin, Brewer, All-Star power forward Kevin Love and Pekovic -- is quality across the board, with Martin looming as a crucial X-factor. If he can rekindle his 20+ points per game form that he enjoyed under Adelman while both were with the Rockets a few years back, Minnesota could make a run at its first playoff appearance since 2004.  

The skinny: In all the hype surrounding Derrick Rose’s return and Kobe Bryant’s impending return, Love has gotten lost in the shuffle. A two-time All-Star who was on the outskirts of the 2011 MVP discussion, Love could very well be the league’s biggest sleeper as he looks to move past a discouraging 2012-13 season that was compromised by hand injuries.  

Whether you want to call it “tanking” or “rebuilding with passion and intellect,” the Jazz will likely be among the league’s worst teams this season and it’s at least partially by design. Four of the 2012-13 team’s top-five scorers left this summer -- Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye -- and Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey made no real effort to replace them. Instead, he took on the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins to acquire draft assets, and he elected to turn over the bulk of the minutes to a talented, but largely unproven, young core made up of five lottery picks: Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke. Unfortunately, Burke, the team’s projected starting point guard, was lost for the beginning of the regular season with a finger injury. That’s an ominous start for what figures to be a long and rough road to the 2014 lottery.

The skinny: This year will be labeled a success if Favors, who was recently handed a four-year extension, Hayward and Kanter all show they can be impact starters when given the largest roles of their young careers. A top-three pick in this year’s draft would be pretty great too.

Players To Watch
  • F
  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Kevin Durant
  • 2012-13 Stats: 28.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 4.6 APG
  • Career Stats: 26.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.1 APG

Durant’s reward for raising his game to new heights in virtually every possible way last season? A demand for more, more, more. His 50/40/90 shooting splits got all the headlines, and rightfully so given his shot volume, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Durant totaled career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks too. Only LeBron James can match Durant’s virus-like ability to seek out his own weaknesses and destroy them. Two challenges will define Durant’s 2013-14 season. One, finding a way to singlehandedly break opposing defenses night after night early in the season. Two, rediscovering the give-and-take, one/two chemistry with Westbrook on the fly once he’s back.

  • G
  • Denver Nuggets
  • Ty Lawson
  • 2012-13 Stats: 16.7 PPG, 6.9 APG, 1.5 SPG
  • Career Stats: 13.2 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.1 SPG

Although fellow Northwest Division point guards Damian Lillard and Ricky Rubio might generate more buzz, Ty Lawson has both beat when it comes to playoff appearances and team-wide success. Denver will likely need Lawson to score more than ever, especially in the early going, as Gallinari (injured), Iguodala (gone) and Brewer (gone) combined to average 41 points per game last year. This is a bit of a make-or-break year for Lawson’s reputation, as he will be carrying his heaviest load yet in his first season without George Karl’s guidance.

  • G
  • Portland Trail Blazers
  • Mo Williams
  • 2012-13 Stats: 12.9 PPG, 6.2 APG, 1.0 SPG
  • Career Stats: 13.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 1.0 SPG
If Damian Lillard is the straw that stirs the drink in Portland’s backcourt, Mo Williams is the guy who will line up the ice cubes. Signed to a bargain deal ($5.4 million over two years, with a player option), Williams arrives from Utah to give Portland a second ball-handler it desperately needed last season. Starting two guard Wesley Matthews is most effective as a spot-up shooter, and small forward Nicolas Batum struggled with turnovers as his touches increased last year. Williams can draw defensive attention by getting into the paint and he can make teams pay for over-loading on Lillard. Most importantly, he can run the offense for long stretches -- something none of Portland’s reserves could do last year -- and that could help Lillard stay fresh and improve his efficiency numbers.
Burning Questions
  • When will Russell Westbrook return? Everyone originally assumed that Westbrook would be good to go for training camp, but a surprise second surgery on his knee now has him sidelined until early December. If he hits that timeline, the Thunder should be fine, but any calendar slippage will weigh heavily with the Clippers, Spurs, Warriors, Rockets and Grizzlies all angling for homecourt in the West.
  • Will LaMarcus Aldridge remain happy? Trade rumors surrounded Aldridge all summer, but he professed a level of happiness with his new band of teammates. With two years left on his contract, the 28-year-old Aldridge is entering his eighth season and has yet to win a playoff series. What’s his mindset like if Portland’s season ends in mid-April, and will any cracks show between now and then?
  • Is this the year Ricky Rubio makes his mark? The Spanish magician was dazzling the league until March 2012, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury that sidelined him until December. Rubio deserves full credit for getting back on the court as quickly as possible last season, but this year he will face questions about his shooting ability and whether he’s capable of utilizing his incredible vision and instincts to run an offense that whirs at an above-average efficiency.    
Bold Prediction

Picking up the slack while Russell Westbrook is sidelined, Kevin Durant will win the fourth scoring title of his career and become the first player to average 32+ points since Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson accomplished the feat in 2005-06.

Mannix's NBA Fast Breaks: Oklahoma City Thunder
Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix previews the 2013-2014 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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