Monday October 13th, 2014

A division that has been dominated by Kevin Durant and the Thunder the last four years was turned upside down Sunday when Oklahoma City announced the NBA’s reigning MVP is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a foot injury. The shocking news came with challenging timing: Durant, a four-time scoring champ, has enjoyed nearly perfect health during his seven-year career, and coach Scott Brooks has just over two weeks to reconfigure his roster for life without his centerpiece.

Meanwhile, the Blazers – with their roster virtually intact after a 54-win season and a dramatic first-round playoff series victory -- are suddenly presented with an opportunity to claim their first outright division title since 1999. This figures to be a two-team race between franchises that were formerly Interstate-5 rivals.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

2013-14 record: 59-23 | Lost in West Conf. finals (4-2) to Spurs

Top addition: Anthony Morrow: Oklahoma City signed the veteran sharpshooter to help fill a minutes void created by the departures of Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler.

Biggest loss: Thabo Sefolosha: The Thunder’s longtime starting two-guard struggled during the 2014 playoffs before departing for the Hawks in free agency.

Outlook: The Thunder are probably feeling a little cursed by the injury gods of late, what with Russell Westbrook undergoing three recent knee surgeries, Serge Ibaka missing key portions of the Western Conference finals and now Durant going down with his foot injury.  There’s no understating the importance of Durant to everything Oklahoma City does: the entire franchise revolves around his play and his personality, and there are no easy answers when it comes to compensating for his absence.

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Westbrook will likely relish the opportunity to serve as the undisputed lead option of the offense, and coach Scott Brooks will surely value his All-Star point guard’s ability to create shots and get to the line. At the same time, Westbrook will face more defensive attention than ever, as Oklahoma City’s auxiliary options on offense are mostly young, unproven, or both. This is Westbrook’s chance to prove he can carry a team like Durant did last season.

If Durant returns on schedule, there’s a decent chance his absence winds up being a long-forgotten memory by April. The Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka trio remains as talented as any in the league, and it should be able to sneak the Thunder past the Blazers and the rest of the division, even if its headliner misses a quarter of the season. 

Best case: Russell Westbrook plays like an MVP candidate in Kevin Durant’s absence, keeping Oklahoma City within striking distance of the division lead. Durant returns earlier than expected and avoids re-injury, powering the Thunder to their fifth straight division title and a Finals showdown with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Worst case: Durant is slow to return and Oklahoma City’s offense struggles to make due without his efficient volume scoring. The Thunder miss out on home-court advantage as the Spurs, Clippers, Blazers and Warriors scorch up the charts in the loaded West.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

2013-14 record: 54-28 | Lost in West Conf. semis (4-1) to Spurs

Top addition: Chris Kaman: The journeyman center battled injury issues former Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni last season, but the Blazers’ bench is desperate for any offensive punch he can provide.

Biggest loss: Mo Williams: Portland’s 2013-14 sixth man spent just one season in the Rose City, opting to take a higher per-year salary from the Timberwolves rather than return to a second-tier team on the upswing.

Outlook: Portland’s offseason approach is summed up simply: don’t mess with a good thing. The Blazers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2000 when Damian Lillard drained a series-clinching, buzzer-beating winner to down the Rockets. GM Neil Olshey made only small moves around the edges this summer. The entire starting five -- Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez – returns, as do key reserves Will Barton, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright.

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That group, while talented and overachieving, wasn’t enough to seriously push the Spurs, as the Blazers bowed out in five games and suffered multiple blowout losses to the eventual champions. The question facing Portland now: Are the additions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman – weighed against the loss of Mo Williams – enough to provide a meaningful boost, or will the summer prove to be a case of treading water?

Best case: Portland rekindles its magical formula from last season – impeccable health, a hot start, and an elite offense led by All-Star play from both LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard  -- and staves off Oklahoma City to claim the division title.

Worst case: The Blazers’ major depth concerns become an issue when an injury breaks up a well-balanced starting five. Portland takes a step back and finds itself in a crowded race for the West’s No. 8 seed

3. Denver Nuggets

2013-14 record: 36-46 | Missed playoffs

Top additionArron Afflalo: Denver reacquired its starting two guard from Orlando after shipping him out in 2012.

Biggest loss: Evan Fournier: The French guard was moved to the Magic in exchange for Afflalo; he is the only member of the 2013-14 Nuggets who logged at least 850 minutes and won’t return in 2014-15.

Outlook: Denver’s 2013-14 season was more or less over before it even began, as major organizational changes and multiple long-term injuries pushed the Nuggets off a cliff. The 36-win season marked the first time Denver failed to finish above .500 since 2003 and saw a 10-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances snapped.

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The Nuggets’ current prospects are unquestionably brighter than they were 12 months ago. Starting small forward Danilo Gallinari returns after missing all of last season, and starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo is back after a two-year hiatus with the Magic. Together, they make for a talented combination on the wings, and they should help open things up for speedy point guard Ty Lawson, who is at his best in the open court and collapsing defenses off the dribble. Something (or some things) will have had to go seriously wrong if this reloaded squad falls to produce a sizeable bump in wins; oddsmaking service Bovada set the over/under at 41.5, which seems neither particularly generous nor insulting.

How much improvement Denver shows this season will be determined in part by coach Brian Shaw. Following the 2011 trade of Carmelo Anthony, former coach George Karl made up for a lack of superstar talent by relying on depth, up-tempo play and a strong home-court advantage. Although Shaw didn’t get much of a chance to prove he could create a similar formula last season, his task is the same as the one that faced Karl, and not an easy one to pull off. 

Best case: Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson all make productive returns from injury. The vastly underrated Ty Lawson/Arron Afflalo backcourt takes full advantage of that reintroduction of talent, uber-athletic power forward Kenneth Faried takes a major step after inking a recent contract extension, and Denver make a real run at the postseason.

Worst case: All the juggling of health issues proves too much for Shaw to handle, and the Nuggets slog through another middling season that fails to produce a truly desirable lottery pick.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

2013-14 record: 40-42 | Missed playoffs

Top addition: Andrew Wiggins: The Timberwolves were able to land one of the most-hyped draft prospects in recent history, but it cost them Kevin Love, a bonafide All-Star who is entering his prime.  

Biggest loss: Kevin Love: Minnesota decided to trade the disgruntled Love to Cleveland rather than face the prospect of his uncompensated departure as a free agent next summer.

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Big change awaits. That’s the overriding feeling around the Timberwolves, who plunge into year one without Kevin Love. Thaddeus Young is clearly pegged as Love’s replacement, but he is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and, to be frank, he offers only a fraction of the perennial All-Star ability that Love brought to the table. Adding Young sure looks like a short-sighted face-saving attempt to help Minnesota remain somewhat competitive, and it’s fair to wonder how far a team led by Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Young can go in the deep West.

It sure seems like something has to give. Why keep so many veterans – especially those with sizeable contracts on the books -- when there are so many younger players that need minutes to reach their potential? In a healthy and nurturing rebuilding environment, Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, 2014 lottery pick Zach LaVine, 2013 lottery pick Shabazz Muhammad and 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng would all receive copious amounts of playing time, allowing the cream to rise and the chemistry to develop. Will Minnesota get to that point this season? Will it evolve naturally or will it require an active trade deadline season?

Cause for concern about the Timberwolves extends past the roster. Is it really smart for Minnesota to have the same man, Flip Saunders, serve as both president and coach? Potential conflicts of interest are unavoidable, particularly when it comes to managing minutes and balancing short-term and long-term priorities. With any luck, the 2014-15 season will produce lasting answers to those pressing roster and organizational questions, even if the Timberwolves are unable to avoid a major step back following the loss of Love.

Best case: The elder members of Minnesota’s roster fail to gel. As the losses stack up, coach Flip Saunders takes the plunge on a youth movement, providing key development time to his young lottery talent while also setting the stage for a quality pick in the 2015 draft.

Worst case: The allure of .500 proves too great for Saunders to resist, but his post-Kevin Love roster just isn’t talented enough to make it happen. Minnesota therefore finds itself stuck outside the playoff chase and top-five pick contention.

5. Utah Jazz

2013-14 record: 25-57 | Missed playoffs

Top AdditionDante Exum: Like many top lottery picks, this 19-year-old point guard offers plenty of intrigue down the road, even if his immediate impact is likely to be limited.

Biggest loss: Marvin Williams: The veteran forward’s decision to sign with Charlotte was likely an easy one: Williams gets to play for a team that is built to win, while also returning to North Carolina, where he won an NCAA title with UNC in 2005.

Outlook: The major indicators suggest that this should be another year of heavy losing in Utah. The Jazz are not only extraordinarily young, but their roster composition is such that first-year coach Quin Snyder has every reason to lean heavily, if not almost exclusively, on his younger guys. Why cling to veterans when you can start an entire lineup of recent lottery picks? Why not play an entire rotation filled with under-25 prospects if there’s no major pressure to win?

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Even in a best-case scenario, in which Snyder gets marked improvement from all of his prospects, youth and inexperience will necessarily hold the Jazz back, both in the division and in the conference as a whole. Even the hottest of upstarts – think the 2014 Suns – found themselves on the outside looking in when it came to the postseason. To make some Phoenix-like noise, Utah will first need its two core building blocks -- Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors – to progress towards star-type contributions. Two-way growth and improved from point guard Trey Burke are also necessities if the Jazz want to pus out of the division basement.

As challenging as the Jazz’s position is this season, their clear-the-decks approach is exhilarating too. Favors and fellow bigs Rudy Gobert and Enes Kanter could one day make up one of the league’s better frontlines. Dante Exum could develop into a superstar. Rodney Hood has the potential to be a 10-year pro, getting in where he fits in around bigger name players. Gordon Hayward has shown enough steady improvement that he was a popular target in free agency this summer, and he could become one of the best players at his position in the West sooner rather than later. All of those optimistic projections could pan out, or they could fall flat; watching those uncertainties shape into a clearer picture will be the best reason to watch the Jazz this season.

Best case:  Both Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert enjoy strong second-year leaps, filling out a promising core that can serve as the basis of their developmental plans.

Worst case: The extra minutes created by the departure of veterans Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams don’t lead to hope-inspiring performances from Utah’s younger two guards and forwards. Instead, the Jazz find themselves waiting for someone to help Gordon Hayward carry the load, to no avail, raising questions for next season and beyond.  

X-factor: Northwest division

Russell Westbrook, Thunder: Last year, Westbrook’s ability to recover his explosiveness after multiple knee surgeries was a major factor in deciding the Northwest Division and helping Oklahoma City advance to the Western Conference finals. This year, the Northwest will hinge on how Westbrook steps up when Durant is out. And, importantly, how he falls back once Durant is back in the lineup.

Dark horse team

The Jazz are still so young that it’s hard to envision them making real noise in the standings, but there are so many prospects in the growth stage – Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert, Enes Kanter, Dante Exum and even foundation pieces Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors – that the arrival of new coach Quin Snyder could easily oversee a breakout season (or two).

Bold prediction

Despite his foot injury, Thunder forward Kevin Durant leads all Western Conference players in All-Star voting for the second consecutive season. Durant’s reward? A 2015 All-Star Weekend in New York City filled with rumors that suggest both the Knicks and Nets will be positioning to sign him come the 2016 free-agency period.   

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