Oct 29 2012 9:00AM

NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER


Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: The James Harden trade changed everything. The Thunder are no longer an elite team. OKC should get back to that championship-contending status once again, but as for now, Oklahoma City took one step backward to take two steps forward in the future. Kevin Martin will most likely play the majority of Harden's minutes this season. And once Martin's $12.4 million contract expires this summer, rookie Jeremy Lamb will be in position--along with OKC incumbent starter Thabo Sefolosha--to hold down the 2 spot. Add two more potential 2013 first-round rookies to next year's mix, and it is quite possible that the Thunder becomes a Top 5 team once again in the 2013-14 season. In the meantime, however, 24-year-old All-NBA scorers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook resume their night job as basketball marathon men, in an effort to keep OKC at 50-win status. It's almost like the Thunder was sent back three years in time to the 2009-10 season when Oklahoma City went 50-32 and was eliminated in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs. That was Harden's rookie season when he only played 23 minutes per game. Durant and Westbrook were the team's heavy minutemen then, along with Jeff Green, another former Thunder player who was traded--for center Kendrick Perkins--when he could not come to a contract agreement, ala Harden. Despite the Thunder having much firepower, it's going to be hard for them to still have the league's No. 2 offense without Harden, who was such a good scorer off the bench and such a good playmaker when playing alongside Durant and Westbrook. Don't be surprised if the Thunder trade its recently-acquired first-round picks for a player that fills a void on this team lacking its new identity at the moment. Durant and Westbrook are all-around studs, but outside of them, this team really does not have another playmaker, above-average three-point shooter or even a post-up threat. What they'll miss most is Harden's propensity to pick-and-roll foes until they dropped. With such a staple taken away, this 2012-13 team is going struggle to find its new identity right away because there is nobody on roster who can do what Harden did.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 48-34

NORTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 1st

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS Victory Value projection

SF Kevin Durant12.26
PG Russell Westbrook9.60
PF Nick Collison7.72
SG Thabo Sefolosha5.33
PF Serge Ibaka5.01
PG Eric Maynor3.06
SG Kevin Martin2.94
C Kendrick Perkins2.42
PG Reggie Jackson0.56
SG Jeremy Lamb0.49
PF Perry Jones*0.20
C Hasheem Thabeet*0.08

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

DENVER NUGGETS


Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: Everything revolves around the center position in the Rocky Mountains. You pretty much know what to expect from the other four starting and reserve slots--all supplied with a plethora of talent--but it is the center position that is most intriguing because you have three postmen who have an amazing amount of potential. Yet none of the three has established themselves yet as an NBA proven standout. First and foremost, you have JaVale McGee, who the Nuggets invested 4 years and $44 million into this summer. The 24-year-old shotblocking/rebounding force may be ready to play 30-plus minutes a night now. Then you've got 26-year-old, 7-1, 250-pound Timofey Mozgov, who showed in the Olympics he can pound in the paint with the best of them. And don't forget seldom-used 7-0, 265-pound Kosta Koufos, whose 17.35 Player Efficiency Rating and +1.1 Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus score both show the 23 year old should be playing more than 17 minutes a night. Just an abundance of size in Denver, to say the least. It should mesh well with their stellar backcourt of the boundless Ty Lawson and brilliant Andre Miller. They're both Top 15 NBA point guards who complement each other--and the team--so well. The rest of the Denver landscape is dotted with good players everywhere, from All-Star addition Andre Igudoala--who will shore up the 19th-ranked D big-time--to stretch forward Danilo Gallinari, who may garner All-Star consideration if the Nuggets start winning big. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention one last point: This Denver team has too much NBA talent. I do not see them stepping up into becoming a West power until they take much of this depth, and start making 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 trades to upgrade at various positions. You can win 50 games with 10 good players. But you need a few great players if you want to win NBA championships.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 47-35

NORTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 2nd

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS Victory Value projection

SG Andre Iguodala*8.92
SF Danilo Gallinari7.41
PG Ty Lawson6.96
PG Andre Miller6.88
SF Wilson Chandler5.59
PF Kenneth Faried3.42
SG Corey Brewer*2.72
C JaVale McGee2.39
C Kosta Koufos1.59
SG Jordan Hamilton0.96
C Timofey Mozgov0.92
PF Anthony Randolph*0.50
SF Quincy Miller*0.34
SG Evan Fournier*0.20

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

UTAH JAZZ


Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: If you thought Denver had an abundance of bigs, it is nothing compared to the mountains in Salt Lake City, where Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are enough to make Utah want to change its nickname from Jazz to Giantz. Coach Tyrone Corbin is going to have to think outside the box if he wants to utilize four of his team's five best players. He stumbled on a winning combination last April late in the season--and in the playoffs--when he started playing Millsap at small forward to play alongside two of the remaining three bigs. It worked! Millsap's versatility as an inside-outside performer allowed the great rebounder to help Utah smash the boards against smaller foes. Even though the Jazz got swept by the Spurs in the first-round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, they did exhibit success when Millsap played at small forward alongside two bigs, beating San Antonio by a 121-116 margin in those four games combined. It is an experiment that is bound to pay dividends in 2012-13 because those four men are lock-down defenders when playing alongside their teammates' mass. Gordon Hayward's efficient play is another key component toward Utah's success. The 22-year-old shooting guard is starting to show the same kind of confidence he possessed at Butler when he was leading those Bulldogs to NCAA Final Fours. With Millsap and Jefferson entering their free-agent seasons, conventional wisdom had Utah trading one--or both--of them to make way for the youngsters in defensive dynamo Favors and the rebound-raiding Kanter. But if the Millsap-at-the-3 plan works, Coach Corbin may have just created a new way to play. Call it BigBall.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 39-43

NORTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 3rd

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS Victory Value projection

PF Paul Millsap11.53
SG Gordon Hayward6.39
C Al Jefferson5.65
PF Derrick Favors4.68
PG Earl Watson3.06
PF Marvin Williams*2.99
SG Alec Burks2.02
C Enes Kanter0.86
SG Randy Foye*0.77
SF DeMarre Carroll0.70
PG Mo Williams*0.59
PG Jamaal Tinsley0.57
SF Jeremy Evans0.56

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES


Dave Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: This was supposed to be Minnesota's breakout season. This was the year Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio were supposed to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett days, back when they lost in the 2004 Western Conference Finals to the L.A. Lakers. Well, Minnesota fans do know heartbreak and they all shed a tear or two when their aforementioned leaders went down with injuries in March and October. The bad news meant Minnesota wouldn't be at full strength until somewhere around Christmas time. That's a pretty deep hole--and a late timetable--for an up-and-coming team to climb from, especially if it wants to make the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Love (broken hand) and Rubio (torn ACL) will be temporarily replaced at their positions by Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour, but it will be incumbent on newly-acquired star Andrei Kirilenko to put this team on his back like he did with Russia at the 2012 Olympics (AK-47 and his countrymen won the bronze). Kirilenko, one of the NBA's most diverse talents, has the wherewithal to make everyone shine around him, whether it's Russia and CSKA Moscow teammate Alexey Shved or former Portland All-Star Brandon Roy or NBA Most Improved third-place finisher Nikola Pekovic. If the T-Wolves can be close to 12-12 at Christmas time, Love and Rubio's Christmas presence could be the greatest gift to this Timberwolves franchise.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 37-45

NORTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 4th

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS Victory Value projection

PF Kevin Love6.87
SF Andrei Kirilenko*5.91
PG Ricky Rubio5.25
PG Luke Ridnour4.05
SF Chase Budinger*3.98
C Nikola Pekovic3.13
SG Brandon Roy*2.82
PF Derrick Williams2.29
SG Alexey Shved*1.49
SG J.J. Barea1.46
PF Dante Cunningham*0.61
C Greg Stiemsma*0.57
SG Malcolm Lee0.38

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS


Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: Portland has so many new additions--from lottery hopefuls Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard to Euro prospects Joel Freeland and Victor Claver--that it's going to take a lot of patience to deal with the Trail Blazers' new identity. All I can say is good luck to LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, who all are used to playing with teams that had legit playoff hopes. Now they are surrounded by unfamiliar teammates who not only are new to the team, they are rookies of all ages to the NBA. I feel like putting on my Jeff Foxworthy voice when I write, "You know you are a lottery team when you have more rookies than NBA veterans on your team." That might not quite be true--most nights five Trail Blazer rookies will suit up. But still, you get my point. Alas, Aldridge's Daddy Day Care service is in for a long season. But if anyone is up for the challenge, it's L.A., who himself knows what it takes to develop on promising-star status. Now it's the 27-year-old All-Star's turn to groom Lillard, who had success in the NBA summer league and also preseason basketball, and Leonard, who has played a more limited role in Blazer rotations. Simply put, Lillard has to score and create, while Leonard has to deliver on his rebound promise, if Aldridge is allowed to play his game as one of the best offensive and defensive power forwards in basketball. But truth be told, Coach Terry Stotts and the organization would probably be happy with a 30-win season. Dream as they may, this team of rookies seems destined to acquire yet another high lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 29-53

NORTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 5th

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS Victory Value projection

PF LaMarcus Aldridge10.57
SG Wesley Matthews5.95
PF Jared Jeffries*3.05
SF Nicolas Batum2.51
PG Ronnie Price*1.40
PF Joel Freeland*1.19
PG Damian Lillard*1.09
PF Victor Claver*1.07
SG Elliot Williams0.97
C Meyers Leonard*0.80
SG Will Barton*0.70
SG Nolan Smith0.57
PF Luke Babbitt0.27
PF J.J. Hickson0.26
SG Sasha Pavlovic*0.25

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)