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Northwest Division Preview

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Good News: Kevin Durant is 24. Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are 23. Eric Maynor will take the minutes Derek Fisher squandered in last year’s playoffs. A good eye for talent is the ultimate market inefficiency, and the Thunder have been the NBA’s premier drafting outfit for years. Perry Jones III should have been a Top-5 pick and they picked him up at No. 28.

The Bad News: Erik Spoelstra coached rings around Scott Brooks in the NBA Finals, as he shuffled his rotations while Brooks stubbornly kept pounding a circle into a square hole. The Thunder can out talent 27 other NBA teams, but a potential seven-game series with the Lakers or the Heat could very well be decided by the types of in-game and between game strategic adjustments Brooks has never been comfortable making.

Real Talk: If Harden agrees to a below-market deal, the Thunder could field a crunch-time lineup in a few years of Ibaka/PJ3/Durant/Harden/Westbrook. That’s a lineup that goes 6’10/6’11/6’11/6’5/6’3 with elite athleticism at every position and shooting and playmaking all over the floor. That could be a historically great team.

Denver Nuggets

The Good News: I was critical of Denver’s initial post-Carmelo Anthony reloading plan, but they may have been able to thread the needle and pull it off. They successfully rolled the dice on Javale McGee (so far) at the deadline and dealing Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Andre Iguodala this offseason was an absolute heist. They’ve got size, skill and athleticism at all five positions, which will allow them to match up with anyone in a seven-game series.

The Bad News: Ty Lawson is their only player who can take over a game offensively and he’s only 5’11 180. If a team can slow the pace down and feed an indefensible 1-on-1 player like Durant or Dirk, the Nuggets don’t really have an answer. They’ll give a lot of matchup problems to an older Lakers team, but they could become the Cavs/Knicks to Durant’s Bulls over the next few years.

Real Talk: Kenneth Faried was one of the steals of the 2011 Draft, but he’s still better off as a bench player. He’s an undersized 6’8 230 power forward who can’t create his own shot or stretch the floor. The NBA is not Aesop’s Fables; hard work isn’t enough to beat out talent or size. See: the effort levels of Bynum and Faried in the Nuggets first-round loss last year.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Good News: David Kahn may not be very good at drafting, but he was able to work around that this summer. He turned his first-round pick into Chase Budinger and he signed Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, fresh off a great run for Team Russia in the Olympics, as international free agents. If Ricky Rubio can return from an ACL injury at 100%, they should have one of the most exciting and uptempo attacks in the NBA, which isn’t what you would expect from looking at them in warm-ups.

The Bad News: Who is playing defense for this team? Minnesota was rated in 25th in defense last season and there’s no reason to think it will be much better in 2013. They’ve got no shot-blocking in the paint and a lot of players who will struggle to stay in front of their men. They’ve also done a phenomenal job of ruining the trade value of Derrick Williams, their only movable piece.

Real Talk: Championship experience is nice, but it’s more important to acquire players who can put championship-caliber performances on the floor. JJ’s Barea’s success with Dallas was as much a product of the players and system around him as his own talents. You can find sub-6’0 shoot-first PG’s in the D-League; you don’t need to give them four-year $20 million contracts just because they started 3 games in the NBA Finals.

Utah Jazz

The Good News: The Jazz have an excellent young core -- Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks -- to build around and a solid group of veterans -- Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Marvin Williams, Mo Williams -- to keep them competitive on a nightly basis. After a surprising playoff berth in 2012, Utah is one of the NBA’s rising young teams.

The Bad News: This may be the year that their decision to built two different cores at the same time may come back to bite them. Jefferson and Millsap are both playing for a new contract, which doesn’t bode well for them stepping aside for Utah’s young big men. There could be a lot of chemistry issues in Salt Lake City, especially with a combative coach like Tyrone Corbin.

Real Talk: Favors could be a future Defensive Player of the Year. He has a phenomenal amount of athleticism at 6’10 250 and Utah is going to have a hard time keeping him off the floor. He’s ready to play 30-35 minutes a night and if he doesn’t fit with some of their veterans, those vets need to be moved down the road.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Good News:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews are still an excellent young defensive trio to build around. Dealing a half season of Gerald Wallace for the No. 6 overall pick was a massive heist and Will Barton at No. 40 overall could be a steal as well. With a lot of young talent and cap space going forward, Portland has a chance to rebuild very quickly.

The Bad News: Aldridge is the only player in the Blazers' rotation who can consistently create his own shot. That’s going to put a lot of offensive pressure on Damian Lillard, who is more likely to have an adjustment process closer to Brandon Knight than Kyrie Irving as a rookie. Lillard was the best point guard in the draft, but I don’t think he’ll be an All-Star in the NBA.

Real Talk: Lillard has gotten most of the publicity, but Meyers Leonard is the lottery pick who should excite Portland fans. There aren’t many athletic 7’1 250 centers who can shoot 78% from the free-throw line in the NBA. He’s still a long way from a finished product, but the Blazers will have the chance to develop him into a Top-5 center over the next few years.

 

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