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Northwest Division preview: Thunder are back to reclaim rightful spot

Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder hope to remain healthy and return to the top of the Northwest Division. 

After a nightmarish 2014–15 season, the Thunder are back to claim their spot atop the Northwest Division and they should face precious little resistance along the way. Oklahoma City’s streak of four straight division titles was snapped by Portland last season, in large part because injuries cost Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka a combined 88 games. Before the Blazers could even start dreaming about going back-to-back, their hopes evaporated during an offseason implosion that saw four of the team’s five starters scatter to new locations. While Portland did well to fashion a new core around Damian Lillard, returning to contention will be a multi-year process for a roster stocked with unproven and developing contributors.

With the Blazers joining the Nuggets and the Timberwolves at the early stages of rebuilding efforts, the Thunder’s toughest competition in the Northwest should be the up-and-coming Jazz. Honestly, Utah isn’t that far removed from bottoming out itself. After three straight lottery trips, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and the rest of the young Jazz would be thrilled with a playoff appearance, regardless of how long their postseason stay lasts.

Durant and Westbrook aren’t merely the Northwest’s two best players, they’re also the top duo in the entire NBA. If healthy, the pair has the chance to help Oklahoma City compete for the West’s best record. Barring truly extraordinary circumstances, everyone outside of Oklahoma City is playing for second in the Northwest: Utah is just beginning to turn the corner, Portland is still dusting itself off, Denver is settling in with new coach Michael Malone and rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, and Minnesota is wishing it had a fast-forward button to skip through the growing pains that will face promising No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

• More division previews: Atlantic | Central | Southeast

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

2014–15 results: 45–37 | Did not make playoffs 

Outlook: Durant appeared to reach peak frustration last season, thanks to three foot surgeries and ongoing rumors about the job status of former coach Scott Brooks. The good news: Durant returned to the court during the preseason and the coaching question was resolved this summer when Thunder GM Sam Presti replaced Brooks with Billy Donovan. The bad news: Durant will face free-agency rumors all year long, and the Thunder’s every success and failure will be viewed through the lens of how it impacts the organization’s ability to retain its franchise player come July 2016. The boom-or-bust long-term possibilities at play in Oklahoma City make the Thunder the single most intriguing team to watch this season.

This season will unquestionably be a reckoning for Durant, who at 27 is now the same age as Michael Jordan and LeBron James when they won their first titles. Although Westbrook and Ibaka are familiar faces, the rest of his supporting cast has undergone some changes. Most notably, Durant will get his first extended chance to play with midseason trade acquisitions Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin. None of these players have had particular success in the postseason, and their fits aren’t ideal: Kanter is a talented scorer but a massive liability on defense, Waiters’s shameless chucking makes him one of the NBA’s most polarizing players, Singler should be a nice complementary player but he must find better consistency, and Augustin is a prototypical undersized point guard who mixes the good with the bad. Importantly, though, Durant and Westbrook have a way of stacking up wins regardless of who is around them, and this year’s squad includes a go-to perimeter stopper in Andre Roberson and a scorching shooter in Anthony Morrow.

Aside from its top end talent, Oklahoma City’s lineup versatility might be the biggest cause of excitement. Center Steven Adams is a formidable paint presence, giving the Thunder the ability to roll out a long and physical frontline that also includes Ibaka and Durant. But, if Donovan wants to downsize for matchup reasons, Ibaka and Durant are fully equipped to shift up to the five and four, creating space in the lineup for an extra shooter. That ability to seamlessly shift from big to small, and back, will be crucial to the Thunder’s hopes of overcoming teams like the Warriors or Spurs, who might possess an advantage when it comes to postseason experience, depth and cohesion.

Presti has assembled enough pieces that this season ultimately comes down to whether or not Durant and Westbrook can deliver. Donovan will try to lighten their loads by increasing the ball movement and player movement on offense, thereby curtailing some of the predictable isolation situations that have undone the Thunder in years past. Will that be enough of a boost to help the Thunder over the top?

Best case: Oklahoma City’s star trio stays healthy all season and captures their first NBA title together. Kevin Durant announces he will re-sign with the Thunder during his Finals MVP acceptance speech.

Worst case: Injuries big or small prevent the Thunder from developing the necessary chemistry to take down the West’s elite. A disappointing first-round exit causes Durant to go silent for all of June as he contemplates his future in free agency.


2. Utah Jazz

2014–15 results: 38–44 | Did not make playoffs 

Outlook: The excitement around this year’s Jazz squad started brewing more than six months ago, as the midseason dumping of Enes Kanter set the stage for a 19–10 close to the 2014–15 season and a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league (by far) after the All-Star break. The core is made up of very traditional archetypes: there’s a talented all-around wing scorer (Hayward), a physical power forward (Favors) and a rim-protecting center (Gobert). Even in a league that’s getting smaller and faster seemingly by the week, these three possess enough combined talent and so few obvious weaknesses that they should be able to cause problems for just about everybody.

Utah faces its most obvious question at point guard, where Trey Burke sure bricks a lot of treys and Dante Exum was lost to an ACL injury over the summer. Although Hayward can handle some of the lead play-making duties, coach Quin Snyder will do his darnedest to coax improvement from Burke or squeeze production from the likes of Raul Neto and Bryce Cotton. If none of those prove to be a winning option, GM Dennis Lindsey might need to investigate midseason trade options.

Lost a bit in the talk about the Jazz’s point guard struggles and Exum’s injury is the return of Alec Burks, a shooting guard who brings good athleticism and an attack mentality but missed much of last season due to injury. Utah’s playoff formula involves riding Gobert’s excellent rim protection and Favors’s rebounding to an excellent inside-out defense while patching together an above-average offense through Hayward’s smooth multi-dimensional game, Burks’s off-the-dribble pressure, high-percentage looks around the basket for Gobert and Favors, and an unselfish team-wide approach.

That’s a realistic formula, and Utah has a good shot at improving its 38-win total from last season into the 46-win neighborhood if its key pieces avoid calamity.

Best case: Elite defense, a sneaky-good offense, and a midseason upgrade at point guard combines to catapult the Jazz to the playoffs, where they force their higher-seeded opponent to work hard throughout a seven-game series.

Worst case: Utah flat-lines to another No. 9 finish, as a quiet summer and the loss of Dante Exum prevent last year’s closing momentum from having the expected carry-over effect.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

2014–15 results: 51–31 | Lost in conference quarterfinals

Outlook: An incredibly busy off-season will prompt a host of “Who is that guy?” queries at the start of the season, but it won’t take long for observers to realize that the new-look Blazers lead the league in friskiness. Not only did Portland lose four of its five starters from last season, but it parted ways with 10 of its 11 oldest players from 2014–15. Blazers GM Neil Olshey traded experienced legs for bouncy ones, accumulating a host of young athletes to flank Lillard, the team’s All-Star centerpiece.

Right now, the intrigue outweighs the certainty. Center Mason Plumlee is affordable and mobile, but he is capable of handling full-time starting duties at both ends? Has Meyers Leonard, one of the league’s purest shooting stretch bigs, made sufficient progress from an awareness standpoint to handle big minutes? How far away is 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh? Is Ed Davis capable of a breakout year after bouncing around for five seasons? Will Al-Farouq Aminu grow from being a quality stopper into a legit 3-and-D wing? Is C.J. McCollum poised to launch himself into the Most Improved Player discussion like many expect?

That’s a long list of developmental questions already, and there’s probably a good five or 10 left to ask. The roster’s youth and all of this uncertainty will ease short-term expectations, allowing coach Terry Stotts plenty of time to decide which lineup combinations work best together. Stotts will be thankful that his projected core pieces are young enough that they won’t be put off by a losing season, and he’ll be glad that his rotation is stocked with quality athletes from top to bottom. For those reasons, some of the identity questions that often plague young teams should be avoided.

Assuming Lillard avoids major injury for the fourth straight year, Portland should finish the season with a solid offense and a forgettable (or worse) defense: Lillard is a legit alpha option, Portland’s spacing and shooting options are decent, and the Blazers’ bigs should be active on the glass and in transition. On the other end, heavy skepticism is warranted: Plumlee needs to take a step forward as a paint presence, Leonard will need to continue cutting down on his mental and positional mistakes, Aminu can’t be expected to handle the wings all by himself, and the Lillard/McCollum duo represents an invitation for opposing guards to attack the basket.

The Blazers should produce more than their share of flashes, but it’s not fair to expect consistently competitive play over an 82-game season from a roster with so few known quantities. It’s worth noting that no team is as dependent upon a single player as Portland is upon Lillard, who hasn’t yet missed a game through three seasons. If that Ironman streak happens to end, cover your eyes and run for the hills during his absence.

Best case: Damian Lillard turns in an All-NBA season and CJ McCollum makes the leap for a fun, but not especially dangerous, young Blazers team that manages to flirt with .500 before tailing off in early March.

Worst case: Portland’s many inexperienced pieces wind up sinking rather than swimming, forcing the Blazers to play the tank games down the stretch in search of a star partner for Lillard in the draft.

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4. Denver Nuggets

2014–15 results: 30–52 | Did not make playoffs

Outlook: It took more than two years, one obvious coaching change, one significant trade and one extraordinarily fortunate draft pick, but the Nuggets have finally fielded a team that’s worth watching. However, it remains to be seen whether this return to relevance will help or hurt Denver’s short-term record.

At least the painful housecleaning is largely complete. The Nuggets hired Michael Malone to replace Brian Shaw, whose two-year tenure was marked by locker-room tension, indecision and public pot shots at his players. Denver also traded away troubled point guard Ty Lawson, turning the franchise over to Mudiay, the No. 7 pick in last June’s draft. While transitioning from an experienced hand to a promising teenager will surely lead to some bumps, Mudiay gives the Nuggets something they haven’t had since the Carmelo Anthony trade: a potential superstar. The success or failure of Denver’s 2015–16 season will be primarily determined by the scope of Mudiay’s progress, and he looks like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate.

With Mudiay and fellow youngsters Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris slated for meaningful minutes, Malone will spend a good chunk of his time this season in nurturing mode. That said, there are other tasks at hand for the former Kings coach. Can he find the right way to make the most of Kenneth Faried’s athleticism and rebounding skills, while helping him take steps forward defensively? Can he craft the right lineup combinations that are capable of both stopping opposing offenses and maintaining adequate spacing on offense? Can he get consistent production from Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, who have both missed time with injuries in recent years? Can he restore Denver’s once-vaunted, altitude-influenced home-court advantage? Perhaps most importantly, can he keep his vets happy while also setting aside sufficient opportunities for his young core members?

Even with all of those questions, it’s conceivable that Denver finishes as high as second in the Northwest if Utah’s core takes a hit or two and Portland can’t quite figure things out. Malone did well to get the most out of a limited Sacramento roster before he was fired last season, and there are enough proven veteran pieces on hand (Gallinari, Chandler, Faried, Darrell Arthur) that the Nuggets might make a little noise if Mudiay hits the ground running from Day One. At the same time, a fifth-place finish is a possibility if Malone favors his young pieces with a long-term view in mind and management decides to ship out a piece or two at the deadline. The most likely result, given Denver’s undeveloped identity and the tough road Mudiay will face at his position in the West, leans towards the pessimistic side.

Best case: Emmanuel Mudiay settles in quickly at point guard, winning Rookie of the Year honors and keeping Denver on the outskirts of the playoff bubble all season long.

Worst case: Tension between hold-over veterans and a developing younger core prompts a sell-off at the deadline and 35 irrelevant games down the stretch towards the lottery.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

2014–15 results: 16–66 | Did not make playoffs

Outlook: The NBA’s most depressing franchise will try in vain to snap a streak of lottery appearances that dates back to 2004–05. Don’t bet on it.

Still, things are looking up if you squint hard enough: Ricky Rubio returned to the court during the preseason after an ankle injury that wiped out his 2014–15 season, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins is back and another year closer to his All-Star potential, and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns joins the mix, injecting a badly-needed second dose of high-level talent. That sure looks like it could become a quality core, especially considering that Rubio has already been locked up long-term. Last year, Minnesota was a respectable 7–15 with Rubio and a horrific 9–51 without him. It goes without saying that the Spanish point guard’s health is this season’s top X-factor.

From a roster-building standpoint, the Timberwolves remain a mess. Minnesota has collected ultra-veterans Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince to provide the so-called “veteran experience,” which usually translates into taking minutes from young players with the sole hope of keeping the final score slightly more respectable. Garnett’s ability to mentor Towns has a degree of value, but the last thing needed on a young team loaded down with misplaced, injury-prone veterans like Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic was more flotsam. A positional logjam already led the Timberwolves to part ways with former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett who, while not a particularly promising prospect, nevertheless makes more sense on a rebuilding squad than someone like Prince, who is set to enter his fifth straight season of decline.

Minnesota’s coaching situation adds one more level of complexity. Unfortunately, the Timberwolves announced last month that coach Flip Saunders would step away from the bench as he battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Sam Mitchell will step into the head job on an interim basis, with a long list of tasks. Mitchell must develop Wiggins and Towns, manage Rubio’s comeback, keep his older pieces happy, prepare for the possibility that Martin gets traded, and ensure that newcomer Nemanja Bjelica and up-and-comers like Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones all get their opportunities to shine. That’s no easy juggling act, especially on short notice and especially when he’s inheriting the league’s worst defense and a space-deprived offense that ranked No. 26 last season.

Will the Timberwolves finish in the Northwest basement for the sixth time in seven years? The most likely answer is yes, although besting Denver and/or Portland could happen if the injury breaks fall their way.

Best case: Ricky Rubio plays all 82 games, stabilizing Minnesota’s defense and helping both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns become clear plus contributors. The Timberwolves claim 34 victories, more than doubling last year’s win total, while making real progress towards modernizing the league’s most backwards attack.

Worst case: The ultra-vets drop like flies, the youngsters can’t coalesce into a functional unit on either side of the ball, and the Timberwolves disappoint yet again. The countdown to Ben Simmons begins before Christmas.


Breakout player

C.J. McCollum, Blazers.This is a textbook set of circumstance for a breakout. Six of Portland’s top seven scoring options from last year left over the summer or are no longer part of the plans (Chris Kaman). Blazers coach Terry Stotts needs multiple players to step into those production and usage voids, and McCollum is right at the top of the list of candidates. Entering his third season at age 24, McCollum is an eager shooter and a capable shot creator. McCollum will see time off the ball alongside All-Star guard Damian Lillard and initiate offense when Lillard sits, and his playing time will likely double from last season’s 15.7 minutes per game average. His shot attempts (5.9 per game) and scoring average (6.8 points per game) should show corresponding spikes too.

The trick for McCollum will be to do more than simply scale his volume in a larger role: He’s been a popular preseason pick for Most Improved Player, and he’ll need to show progress as a finisher, foul-drawer, playmaker for others, and all-around defender for his breakout to significantly impact Portland’s prospects. Wesley Matthews left big shoes to fill. Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic and Jazz wing Rodney Hood are two others to watch.

Rookie to watch

There are four 2015 lottery picks in the Northwest Division—Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay, Utah’s Trey Lyles and Oklahoma City’s Cameron Payne—but only one truly controls his own fate as a rookie. That would be Mudiay, who will open the season as the Nuggets’ starting point guard after playing professionally in China last season. He’s got a pretty sweet gig: there are limited expectations in Denver, new coach Michael Malone knows what he’s doing, and the organization is fully invested in his immediate development following the Ty Lawson trade.

For Mudiay, that means lots of minutes, lots of touches and a loose leash—a combination that should make him a frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award. Mudiay has the size, quickness, athleticism, vision and pick-and-roll comfort to develop into a top 10 point guard in the fairly near future. The key question to ask in 2015–16 is whether Mudiay, who is still just 19, will get there sooner or later. A good statistical target for Mudiay is Brandon Jennings, who averaged 15.5 points and 5.7 assists as a rookie in 2009–10 following a year playing professionally in Italy.

Coach with most to prove

No coach in the NBA faces more pressure than Donovan, 50, who is making his NBA debut after winning two titles during a storied tenure at the University of Florida. This isn’t a matter of Donovan proving his competence, but rather a test of his ability to make an immediate impact under a gigantic magnifying glass. With Kevin Durant’s free agency looming, the stakes are enormous. A deep postseason run could encourage Durant to return and open up another half-decade of contention. A rockier campaign could hasten Durant’s exit and send the Thunder on a spiraling course that could see the departures of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2017. This is the ultimate “make or break” season for Oklahoma City, and Donovan opens the year with a career record of 0–0. When it comes to coaches with the most to prove, Donovan belongs right next to 2014 David Blatt and 2011 Erik Spoelstra.

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Potential trade target

As mentioned above, Portland parted ways with 10 of its 11 oldest players over the summer. The last (elderly) man standing is Kaman, who at 33 has been in decline for five seasons. Last year, Kaman managed to chip in here and there as Robin Lopez’s backup last year, averaging 8.6 points and 6.5 rebounds before playing sparingly in the playoffs. Portland nevertheless elected to guarantee his $5 million contract over the summer, a decision that looks entirely influenced by his potential value as a trade piece. Kaman has played sparingly during the preseason, and Portland has a host of young bigs (Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh) who need time. The well-traveled Kaman has played for five teams since the start of the 2010–11 season, and he’ll almost certainly be on to number six before the February trade deadline. Although he’s nothing to get excited about, Kaman is a serviceable plug-and-play rotation guy who would make sense for a win-now team that encounters frontline injury issues early in the year.

Bold prediction

Gordon Hayward will be an All-Star. Let’s be clear up front: this won’t be easy. There are at least 11 strong returning candidates in the West (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard) before you even consider Kobe Bryant (fan vote favorite), Dwight Howard (if he stays healthy), and the possibility that San Antonio will land two out of its three strong candidates (LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan). Realistically, Leonard is first in line among West first-timers given his postseason success and individual awards (Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP), pushing Hayward, Memphis’s Mike Conley, L.A.’s DeAndre Jordan, Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe and others down the list.

Still, there’s a case to be made for Hayward, whose 19.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists last season would have made him an easy All-Star pick in the East. His formula for selection to the All-Star team looks like this: Utah pushes into the West’s playoff picture as many expect; he retains his status as the Jazz’s leading scorer and maintains or improves his all-around production; and he builds some buzz as the face of a franchise that’s making the leap.

That would set up Hayward with one of two options for selection. First: the coaches could pick him as one of the final reserves out of respect for Utah’s growth and winning record. Second: his strong overall case could make him one of the coaches’ top snubs, putting him on commissioner Adam Silver’s radar when it comes time to name injury replacements. That backdoor route worked for Cousins and Lillard last year, and it could wind up being Hayward’s most realistic scenario if guys like Bryant and Duncan are selected but don’t make the trip to Toronto.

There’s one final wrinkle to consider: although Utah hasn’t had an All-Star since Deron Williams in 2010–11, Hayward, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are similarly valuable and all three could wind up in the “snubs” discussion. From a conventional wisdom standpoint, Hayward is the most likely to emerge from that three-man Battle Royale because he’s Utah’s alpha dog, but there could be some fun rock/paper/scissors-style debates over their relative merits come January.