Posted Oct 18, 2012 3:34 PM
If you think the Atlantic Division is both deep and improved, take a look at the Northwest, which also has a chance of sending four teams to the postseason.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the clear rulers of the roost, but the Denver Nuggets might not be that far behind. The Minnesota Timberwolves seem to be everybody's Western Conference pick to go from the Lottery to the postseason, but not necessarily at the expense of the Utah Jazz, last year's No. 8 seed.
The key for Denver, Minnesota and Utah could be the changes they made over the summer. With the additions of Andre Iguodala, Andrei Kirilenko and Mo Williams, they each got stronger where they were weak. And if those three guys fit in on the court as well as they do on paper, this division could be the league's best.
Here's a deeper look at some key numbers from last season for each team in the Northwest Division, and how those numbers might change this year.
Pace: 96.7 (2)
OffRtg: 106.5 (3)
DefRtg: 103.4 (19)
NetRtg: +3.1 (9)
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Nuggets didn't have a real go-to player, but they had the league's third-best offense last season because they attacked the basket.
Denver took 45.2 percent of its shots from the restricted area, easily the highest rate in the league. The Sacramento Kings ranked second at 38.8 percent and the league average was just 33.7 percent.
The Nuggets also ranked second (behind Oklahoma City) in free throw rate, attempting almost 33 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. So even though they were the fifth-worst shooting team from outside the paint and turned the ball over more than the league average, only two teams were more efficient offensively.
New Nugget Andre Iguodala took a smaller percentage of his shots from the restricted area (25.8 percent) than old Nugget Arron Afflalo (30.6 percent), but Iguodala was among the best finishers in the league, ranking fifth in restricted-area shooting percentage (71.8 percent). So if Andre Miller and Ty Lawson push the ball and set him up, Iguodala should flourish in the Nuggets' attack.
Furthermore, Iguodala assisted on 111 baskets in the restricted area last season, eighth-most among non-point guards. And he also had a solid free throw rate (31.0 per 100 field goal attempts), though slightly lower than that of Afflalo (35.3).
Iguodala should make his biggest impact on defense though. In many ways, the Nuggets were a pretty good defensive team last season. They forced turnovers, kept their opponents off the free-throw line, and rebounded well. They weren't that bad at defending the paint, either. But they were pretty awful at defending the perimeter.
The Nuggets ranked dead last in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. Iguodala's Sixers, meanwhile, ranked sixth in 3-point defense (33.4 percent), and their opponents shot just 31.6 percent from 3-point range when he was on the floor.
Iguodala can really help the Nuggets where they need it most and if they continue to attack the basket, they can be one of the most improved teams in the Western Conference.
Pace: 96.0 (4)
OffRtg: 101.5 (18)
DefRtg: 103.6 (21)
NetRtg: -2.2 (21)
At 21-20, the Timberwolves were a half game out of a playoff spot when Ricky Rubio tore his ACL on March 9. Then, with Rubio on the shelf, they won just five of their final 25 games.
Rubio's brilliant passing is what filled the highlight reels, but his real impact was on the other end of the floor. And when he went down, the Wolves really fell off defensively. They allowed just 100.7 points per 100 possessions through the first 41 games and 108.3 in the final 25.
Rubio won't be ready to start the season, but the Wolves have an answer for their defensive issues, because Andrei Kirilenko is an impact player on that end. In his last three seasons in Utah, the Jazz allowed just 103.0 points per 100 possessions with Kirilenko on the floor, compared to 106.6 when he was on the bench.
The Wolves' biggest defensive issue after losing Rubio was their inability to force turnovers. They forced just 12.4 per 100 possessions over those last 25 games, down from 14.6 before the point guard got hurt.
Kirilenko has averaged more than 1.4 steals per game in his career, and in each of his final four seasons in Utah, the Jazz ranked in the top eight in forcing turnovers. In three of those four years, they ranked in the top five.
With Kirilenko able to hold them together defensively, don't expect these Rubio-less Wolves to be nearly as bad as last season's Rubio-less Wolves.
Pace: 95.7 (6)
OffRtg: 107.1 (2)
DefRtg: 100.9 (9)
NetRtg: +7.2 (4)
The Thunder had the No. 2 offense in the regular season and the No. 1 offense in the playoffs. But in The Finals, they just couldn't get the job done defensively, allowing the Heat to score 113 points per 100 possessions in the final four games.
Interestingly, the Thunder starters were excellent defensively, allowing less than 93 points per 100 possessions, in the regular season. But they really regressed in the playoffs, allowing more than 105. In The Finals, the Thunder starters were downright awful defensively, allowing almost 118 points per 100 possessions.
The Thunder didn't make any significant additions this summer, but they will be getting back guard Eric Maynor, who played just nine games before tearing his ACL last season. And when Maynor was on the floor two years ago, the Thunder were an excellent defensive team.
Maynor's return will help, at least with the Thunder's issues in the regular season. James Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year and gave OKC a huge offensive boost, but they were at their worst defensively when he was on the floor. The previous season, however, Harden and Maynor were a very good defensive combination.
Of course, Maynor is still a back-up and unlikely to take Russell Westbrook's place on the floor late in games. In the playoffs, his minutes will likely be more limited than they are in the regular season. So if the Thunder are to really improve defensively, especially in the postseason, they'll need their starters to step up.
Pace: 93.7 (14)
OffRtg: 102.8 (12)
DefRtg: 103.7 (22)
NetRtg: -0.9 (20)
Like the Timberwolves, the Blazers fell off defensively late in the season. In fact, in March and April, Portland was the worst defensive team in the league. That's quite an accomplishment, considering how awful the Bobcats and Nets were defensively all season.
Though the slide began before he was traded, the departure of Gerald Wallace really hurt the Blazers defensively. Before the deadline deal, they allowed just 97.1 points per 100 possessions with Wallace on the floor and 108.3 with him on the bench. Nicolas Batum may be the younger small forward, but he's not the defender that Wallace is.
This summer, the Blazers did acquire a guy who can make a defensive impact. Jared Jeffries, acquired in the Raymond Felton sign-and-trade deal, has been a plus defender with the Knicks. But he's an offensive liability and might not get much playing time with LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard also on the frontline.
Hickson's playing time (or lack thereof) may be more important than Jeffries', because Hickson has always been an awful defender. In his 1,244 combined minutes last season, the Kings and Blazers allowed 108.8 points per 100 possessions. Of the 227 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last year, only six had a higher on-court DefRtg.
Portland is rebuilding, of course. And they'll likely have four rookies in their rotation (though two are European vets). That typically doesn't bode well for team defense, so don't be shocked if the Blazers are the league's worst defensive team for the whole season this time.
Pace: 93.9 (13)
OffRtg: 103.7 (7)
DefRtg: 103.6 (20)
NetRtg: +0.2 (17)
The Jazz were the surprise team in the Western Conference last season, earning a playoff spot with a very good offense and a defense that was decent enough at home.
They were not a very good shooting team, but the Jazz took care of the ball, got to the free-throw line, and crashed the glass. They ranked second in the league (behind Chicago) with 1,021 second-chance points, which comprised about 16 percent of their total scoring.
This summer, the Jazz replaced Devin Harris, C.J. Miles and Josh Howard with Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye. Changes on the perimeter won't affect Utah's ability to grab offensive boards, but the point guard switch could affect their turnover rate and shooting.
Harris committed 16.4 turnovers per 100 possessions used last season, not a great rate, but better than average for starting point guards. Mo Williams actually had a lower turnover rate (12.1), but wasn't playing the point much with the Clippers. If you go back to his last two years as a starting point guard, his turnover rate was in the same range as Harris'.
Mo Williams, of course, is a much better shooter than Harris, especially from 3-point range (40.1 percent vs. 31.6 percent over the last five seasons). And that's where the Jazz need the most help offensively. They ranked 27th in 3-point percentage and 28th in total 3-pointers last season.
Foye and Marvin Williams have both been pretty inconsistent from beyond the arc over the course of their careers, but they each shot 39 percent last season. And if the Jazz can complement their interior dominance with improved shooting, they can be an elite offensive team.
Utah's defense will improve if Derrick Favors takes more minutes from Al Jefferson. The Jazz allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions in 466 minutes with Favors and Paul Millsap on the floor together last season, vs. 104.9 in 1,818 minutes with Jefferson and Millsap on the floor.
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