Finally! Last stop on the NBA season preview express! The Northwest Division.
Utah Jazz. First off, congrats on finally getting out of the Northwest Division's cellar and becoming division champs. No, really, that's awesome. While Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer aren't quite on par with Stockton and Malone (yet), both young players show a lot of talent and poise. The Jazz also have a shutdown defender in AK47, and a big man whom you can't really classify (Okur). The biggest question mark with this team is how long is their window of opportunity going to stay open. 3 teams in their division are in all-out rebuilding mode, and two of those teams have the most highly-touted prospects since King James himself. Fortunately, they have the longest-tenured coach in the NBA, so he must be doing something right.
I think this team will compete for the division title once again this year, along with the Nuggets. The Jazz have their work cut out for them though - aside from the players already mentioned, they have few solid veterans outside of Matt Harpring. He won't be enough, but Deron appears to be a high-IQ basketball player, so if he and Boozer continue to develop chemistry, they will be one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.
Denver Nuggets. George Karl has a tendency to wear out his welcome around his third season with a team, so we'll see how they react if they drop a few games near the beginning of the season. This team is fairly stacked, and has good depth surrounding its high-scoring combo of AI and Carmelo. Thinking long term though, they're not in a position to make many moves. They signed an injury-prone Kenyon Martin to a max deal and overpaid to retain Nene, so they may be looking to unload some salary unless they can win at least 50 games this year. This is a distinct possibility considering the weakness of the division this year, but they may not be so lucky in future seasons.
Seattle Supersonics. Hoo boy, here we go. There's so much to like with this team, but like all young teams, I don't see them competing right away. The drafting of Kevin Durant was huge, and to trade Ray Allen for the #5 overall pick (Jeff Green) was also a big move. Not only that, but they added PG Delonte West (underrated considering how bad the Celts have been) to back up Ridnour (who I'm also a big fan of), and Wally World.
Then, a month later, an almost bigger trade - they get the Suns 1st round picks in 2008 and 2010 and acquire Kurt Thomas in exchange for a second-round pick. WTF.
The Sonics also return Nick Collison, whose role was reduced with Rashard Lewis in the lineup, and have 3 very young (under 22) prospects at the center position from each of the previous 3 drafts. At least ONE of them has to make some progress, right?
Well, that said, rookies don't win games at this level, but this team does have some veterans to show leadership, and enough prospects to have a bright future. In fact, their current crop of youngsters is only matched by the...
Portland Trail Blazers. I would say that this team, as it currently stands, has even more potential than the Sonics. First off, they have Greg Oden, who is perhaps more ready to play in the NBA than Durant. They traded Zach Randolph to acquire Channing Frye (one of the few versatile threats the Knicks had) and to make room for PF LaMarcus Aldridge, last year's #2 pick overall. They've got 2007 Rookie of the Year SG Brandon Roy. They have a bonafide pass-first PG in Steve Blake, and a flashy backup PG named Sergio Rodriguez (in addition to NCAA champion PG Taurean Green and last year's starting PG, Jarrett Jack).
They also have 2 players who are just 2 years out of HIGH SCHOOL (Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw), and a couple of vets who are good players, but probably out the door (Miles and Pryzbilla). This team is bursting at the seams with young talent. It may take time, but Nate McMillan can get the job done with this group. Their potential is limitless, and this will be a fun team to watch, provided they can limit rookie mistakes.
Minnesota Timberwolves. KG is gone. Not cool. But since the rest of our division is rebuilding, I guess we'd better follow suit, eh?
So our new franchise player is Al Jefferson, who averaged 16s point and 11 rebounds per game last year, his 3rd as a pro (he was drafted out of high school). Technically, these are even better numbers than KG had at a similar point in his career. We also pick up PG streetballer Sebastian Telfair, who has had his share of trouble off the court, a high school phenom whose stock dropped in the draft 2 years ago (Gerald Green), and a Craig Smith style F in Ryan Gomes. Every publication is gushing over what a nice young man Gomes is, by the way. I've never seen him actually PLAY, but I'm glad we have a friendly guy on our roster, I think.
When you combine these players with our current young roster, it doesn't look half-bad. Foye had a great season last year, and Craig Smith was an absolute monster. Smith has lost some weight in the offseason and also had an outstanding summer league, so I'm expecting big things out of him. Add our lanky defender Corey Brewer with the #7 pick overall, and that's a pretty decent roster of youth.
Unfortunately, we've still got some bad apples on this squad. It's a contract year for Ricky Davis, so he'll be looking to score early and often. The lackadaisical defense of Davis really pissed me off last year, and I expect more of the same this year.
We're also saddled with another bad contract and general loafer in Mark Blount. A spot-up shooter trapped in a center's body, Blount simply cannot rebound the basketball and does little in the post. Word on the street is that his work ethic is questionable, and I don't want that kind of player around my youth movement at all.
My overall take on the Wolves this year has fluctuated from completely pessimistic (Seattle and Portland appear to have more talent), to optimistic (hey, our young talent has more experience than theirs!). At this point, it's going to be tough watching any basketball without KG. And don't get me started on the competency of our front office. But hopefully we'll sort out the good from the bad and this season won't be a complete wash. At the very least, we'll get to watch Oden and Durant progress as their teams destroy us.