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2013-14 Northwest Division Preview

As a California native who always admired Colorado from afar, I was thrilled to experience the magic of Red Rocks Amphitheatre during a five-day road trip with a college friend this summer.

As I watched the sunrise over the park, I began thinking about the talented musicians who had performed within the outstretched arms of “Shipwreck” and “Creation Rock” over the years. That’s when it hit me: The NBA season is similar to a group of bands trying to find a way to play in the big show. With that in mind, I drew parallels between Colorado musical groups and the teams of the NBA's Northwest Division.

Here is a look at the offseason changes and expectations for the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz as they prepare to battle for supremacy in 2013-14.


Utah Jazz Logo

5. Utah Jazz - The Lumineers

Added: C Andris Biedrins (Golden State), F Richard Jefferson (Golden State), G Brandon Rush (Golden State); G John Lucas III (Toronto), G Ian Clark (undrafted rookie), G Trey Burke (9th overall pick), C Rudy Gobert (27th overall pick).

Retained: F Marvin Williams

Lost: F DeMarre Carroll (Atlanta), G Randy Foye (Denver), C/F Al Jefferson (Charlotte), F Paul Millsap (Atlanta), G Jamaal Tinsley (free agent), G Earl Watson (Portland), G Mo Williams (Portland).

2012-13 Record: 43-39, 3rd in Northwest Division, did not make playoffs.

Take The Lumineers. Now take away “Ho Hey” (Al Jefferson), “Stubborn Love” (Paul Millsap), “Flowers In Your Hair” (Mo Williams) … you see where I’m going. You are left with a group that leaves the casual fan begging the question, “Who?”

In allowing big names to leave Salt Lake in exchange for modest returns, the Jazz are bringing the organization back to basics. They still have a group of young and talented players with immense potential as a whole.

Utah has the athleticism, raw talent and the minutes available to develop its players, but finding a go-to guy to shoulder the offensive load will be a challenge for third-year head coach Tyrone Corbin.

The Jazz have one player, Richard Jefferson, who has averaged 20 points over the course of an NBA season. The last time R.J. produced those numbers was in 2007-08 when he played alongside point guard Jason Kidd with the New Jersey Nets. Outside of Jefferson, there is not a player on the Utah roster who has averaged at least 15 points in the NBA (Alec Burks averaged 20.5 in 2010-11 at Colorado).

One thing is certain: Corbin will not let youth be an excuse. He will demand that his team plays hard and plays together. With increased minutes, expect to see young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter grown into their defensive potential as a rough, paint-protecting duo. The Jazz will put forth the effort to compete in many games, but it could be a tough season filled with growing pains in Salt Lake City.


Minnesota Timberwolves Logo

4. Minnesota Timberwolves - The Fray

Added: F Corey Brewer (Denver); G Kevin Martin (Oklahoma City); F/C Ronny Turiaf (L.A. Clippers); G/F Shabazz Muhammad (14th overall pick); C Gorgui Dieng (21st overall pick).

Retained: F Dante Cunningham; F Chase Budinger.

Lost: F Andrei Kirilenko (Brooklyn); C Greg Stiemsma (New Orleans).

2012-13 Record: 31-51, 5th in Northwest Division, did not make playoffs.

Portland Trailblazers Logo

3. Portland Trail Blazers - One Republic

Added: C Robin Lopez (New Orleans); F Thomas Robinson (Houston); G Earl Watson (Utah); F Dorell Wright (Philadelphia); G C.J. McCollum (10th overall pick); G Allen Crabbe (31st overall pick).

Retained: None

Lost: F/C J.J. Hickson (Denver); G Eric Maynor (Washington); G Ronnie Price (Orlando); C Jeff Whithey (Draft rights traded to New Orleans)

2012-13 Record: 33-49, 4th in Northwest, did not make playoffs.

The Fray and One Republic are two bands that draw comparisons for similar styles, with a few minor differences. Minnesota and Portland are two teams built around their point guard-power forward combo, with a history of health problems and a lack of depth in the frontcourt. Both teams made moves this offseason to improve their weaknesses. Some seemed like all the right moves in all the right places, while others will keep fans befuddled with 8 seconds left in overtime.

At this time last year, there were whispers of the Timberwolves being a potential “surprise” team with an outside chance at sneaking into the playoffs. This year, they enter the season with added depth at nearly every position but without as much hype.

Minnesota has the weapons and system to put plenty of points on the board, but defense was a concern last season. The additions of Corey Brewer and Louisville defensive anchor Gorgui Dieng (who averaged 2.5 blocks and nearly a steal per game over his three college seasons) will help in that department, but the Timberwolves also must prove they can stay healthy. Ricky Rubio missed 25 games last year and forwards Kevin Love and Chase Budinger combined to play in just 41 games. Minnesota added depth in the draft and brought in efficient wing-scorer Kevin Martin. If their core players stay healthy, the Timberwolves have a chance to live up to the expectations from a year ago.

The Trail Blazers, like the Timberwolves, were busy in the offseason, and the additions in Portland look promising. Last year, the Blazers starting five of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson was solid. They could stretch the floor, score down low and cause problems defensively. Portland’s bench, however, was among the least productive in the league. The Blazers addressed that need by adding forward Dorell Wright, who led the NBA in 3-pointers in 2010-11, and guard Mo Williams. Both are excellent shooters who can help serve as mentors to incoming rookies C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe.

Losing a nightly double-double in Hickson will be tough. However, the defensive-minded Robin Lopez is a more conventional center to play alongside Aldridge. Additionally, expect second-year players Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard to improve and help collectively make up for low-post production lost in Hickson.

On one hand we have the Timberwolves (The Fray), a little deeper and softer than the Trail Blazers (One Republic), who are a bit more upbeat. Both teams could compete for the final playoff spot in the West.


Denver Nuggets Logo

2. Denver Nuggets - Pretty Lights

Added: Coach Brian Shaw; F Darrell Arthur (Memphis); G Randy Foye (Utah); F/C J.J. Hickson (Portland); G Nate Robinson (Chicago); G Erick Green (46th overall pick, to play in Italy); F Joffrey Lauvergne (55th overall pick, to play in France).

Retained: C Timofey Mozgov.

Lost: Coach George Karl; F Corey Brewer (Minnesota); F Andre Iguodala (Golden State); C Kosta Koufos (Memphis)

2012-2013 Record: 57-25, 2nd in Northwest Division, 3rd seed in West (lost first round).

Denver lost Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri and took a risk by dismissing Coach of the Year George Karl in favor of first-year coach Brian Shaw. I understand the reason for skepticism, but if there is one thing I’ve learned about Nuggets ownership and management over the past few years, it’s just sit back and take in the entire experience. You may be pleasantly surprised at how it all comes together.

Shaw knows what it takes to win in the NBA. As a player, he won three championships with the Lakers and added two more as an assistant. Shaw most recently was part of two impressive playoff runs while working alongside Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel. He plans to slow the pace in Denver, focusing on defense and half-court execution on the offensive end – two areas that have been troublesome for the Nuggets in the playoffs.

Playing at breakneck pace, the Nuggets gave up 101.1 points during the 2012-13 seasons, and they allowed Golden State to shoot 49.4 percent from the field in the playoffs. The only team to relinquish a higher field goal percentage in the playoffs was the Milwaukee Bucks during their first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual-champion Miami Heat.

With Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer and starting center Kosta Koufos gone, they lost three strong defenders. For the Nuggets to be successful, team defense and valuing possessions must be the top priorities. With athleticism and depth from top to bottom, they should be able to pressure the ball, help off the ball and rotate aggressively. Fatigue and foul trouble shouldn’t be a problem because the coaching staff will have the luxury of making quality substitutions at every position. The interior defense is solid. Despite averaging only 18 minutes a contest, JaVale McGee finished eighth in NBA in blocked shots last season. In an expanded role, he has the ability to finish in the top-five while playing with strong rebounders Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson.

At the other end of the court, Denver was the most potent scoring team in the league, averaging 105.9 points last season. Slowing the pace slightly could help budding young stars Ty Lawson, Faried and McGee. As a team, they turned the ball over 14.7 times a game, sixth most in the NBA. They are too skilled to continue making unforced errors and could remedy the problem by simply slowing down in the half court. Although a slower pace means fewer possessions, a focus on offensive execution and reducing turnovers should help improve overall efficiency.

Denver lost some key players in the offseason, but I really like the quick recovery of new general manager Tim Connelly. He added two solid young players late in the draft and acquired free agents that provide roster flexibility. There’s plenty of reason to believe the Nuggets will continue their electrifying play and reach the playoffs for the 11th straight year.


Oklahoma City Thunder Logo

1. Oklahoma City Thunder - Earth, Wind & Fire

Added: F Ryan Gomes (free agent); C Steven Adams (12th overall pick); G Andre Roberson (26th overall pick)

Retained: G Derek Fisher (Oklahoma City)

Lost: G Kevin Martin (Minnesota)

2012-13 Record: 60-22, 1st in the Northwest Division, 1st seed in West (lost in WCS).

You may have noticed that every musical group in this countdown was from Colorado. While Earth Wind & Fire were not, their versatile musician and vocalist Philip Bailey is. With the loud fashion statements during press conferences, flashy smooth play and nature-based nickname, Oklahoma City fits the description.

One year after the Thunder said goodbye to James Harden and his glorious beard, they parted ways with Kevin Martin this summer. But the funk isn’t dying in OKC. The Thunder has enjoyed success by building through the draft. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are shining stars. Serge Ibaka is a top rim protector, and his offensive game has improved in recent years. There is something to be said for steady development and continuity (just ask the Spurs).

Are the Thunder weaker than last year without that coveted, consistent “third” scoring option? Perhaps, but coach Scott Brooks has proven capable of finding scorers to complement Durant and Westbrook. When Westbrook went down last year, guard Reggie Jackson played some of the best basketball of his young career. He showed confidence while averaging 13.9 points and shooting a team-high 47.9 percent during the playoffs.

With Westbrook again recovering from knee surgery, look for Jackson to take advantage of the extra playing time and round out his game. Forward Perry Jones and guard Jeremy Lamb could also have the opportunity to step into larger roles offensively.

At the end of the day, there is not much to analyze in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are a well-oiled machine with two perennial all-stars in Durant and Westbrook and a defensive stopper in Ibaka. Steady veterans Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha will play with high-energy and consistency. Oklahoma City is the odds-on favorites to repeat as Northwest Division champs and likely will compete for the top spot in the West.


Summary

This summer I was given a great gift. I embarked on a road trip that allowed me to broaden my horizons, catch up with friends and family and enjoy quality music along the way. Looking back on it, I will draw one final comparison. Music, like basketball, is played by a group of individuals, each with their own separate talents and convictions. We can predict how we think it will sound, but only after the collective efforts of a group is realized can a fan truly enjoy the celebration song. It just remains to be seen who will end their journey atop the Red Rocks of the Northwest Division.