Season Preview: Western Conference - Northwest Division
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Editor’s Note: Timberwolves.com will break down each of the NBA’s six divisions leading into training camp, highlighting the moves each team made and what to watch for during the 2012-13 campaign. Part I features the Northwest Division, home to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
2011-12 Season record: 47-19 record, 1st in division, 2nd in Western Conference, lost NBA Finals to Miami Heat (4-1)
Daniel Orton (from Magic), Hasheem Thabeet, Hollis Thompson, Perry Jones (via Draft)
Royal Ivey (to 76ers), Nazr Mohammed (to Bulls)
No one can argue with the winning formula the Oklahoma City Thunder have put together over the past four seasons. Since 2008-09, the team’s first year in Oklahoma when they finished 29-59, the Thunder have improved their winning percentage each season (going 152-78 in that span), reached two Western Conference Finals and played for the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June. This year, the next step in the team’s progression would be an NBA championship, and there’s no doubt they’ve got the talent to do it.
Leading the way is All-Star forward Kevin Durant, who led the NBA in scoring for a third straight year with 28.0 points per game a season ago. He’s an offensive threat from virtually anywhere, a 6-foot-9 sharpshooter who connected on 49.6 percent of his attempts last year. He gets to the rim, knocks down 38.7 percent of his 3-point attempts and is one of the game’s best clutch performers.
Point guard Russell Westbrook is just as difficult to stop. He averaged 23.6 points and 5.5 assists per game a year ago, knocking down 45.7 percent of his shots and showing on seemingly a nightly basis his rare athletic ability. James Harden won the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award thanks to his 16.8 points and 49.1 percent shooting off the bench, perfectly complementing Thabo Sefolosha’s strong defensive presence as the team’s starting shooting guard. Add in the Thunder’s big-time shot-blocker Serge Ibaka—who averaged 3.7 BPG in 2011-12—and veteran center Kendrick Perkins, and Oklahoma City is a handful across the board.
Coach Scott Brooks has tons of talent to work with, and as one of the youngest, most talented teams in the NBA the Thunder are likely to factor into the title hunt come June.
2011-12 Season record: 38-28, 2nd in division, 6th in Western Conference, lost Western Conference quarterfinals to L.A. Lakers (4-3)
JaVale McGee (re-signed), Andre Miller (re-signed), Anthony Randolph (from Wolves), Andre Iguodala (from 76ers), Evan Fornier (via Draft), Quincy Miller (via Draft), Izzet Turkyilmaz (via Draft)
Rudy Fernandez (to Real Madrid, Spain), Arron Afflalo (to Magic), Al Harrington (to Magic), Chris Anderson
The Denver Nuggets were a brilliant offensive team a year ago, leading the NBA in scoring with 104.1 points per game. The problem, however, was on the defensive end as the Nuggets were 29th among the 30 squads giving up 101.2 points a night.
That could change this year, as the Nuggets made a big splash this offseason bringing in Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia. He’s an active defender who could take the lead in changing the culture on that end of the floor in Denver. Iguodala plays strong individual defense, averages 1.7 steals per game and is a threat in transition who, when paired up with point guard Ty Lawson, should also be able to generate some points off turnovers this season.
Iguodala made the move to Denver as part of the four-team Dwight Howard trade, and the Nuggets gave up a pair of talented scorers in return. Both Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington were traded to Orlando as part of the deal—Afflalo was second on the team with 15.2 points and Harrington was fourth with 14.2 points per game last season. But the Nuggets still have Lawson, who led the team with 16.4 points and 6.6 assists a night, and a talented shooter in Danilo Gallinari.
On the boards, power forward Kenneth Faried was a force in his rookie season. He produced 7.7 rebounds per game and earned a reputation for being a hard-working presence on the glass. His development, along with the presence of JaVale McGee and his 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, will be important near the basket. The Nuggets also added forward Anthony Randolph from Minnesota, who can help in both shot-blocking and scoring capacities.
George Karl returns for his eighth season leading the Nuggets. Karl has led Denver to the postseason in each of his first seven years at the helm. He’s missed the postseason one time (2001-02) in his last 20 seasons as a head coach, spanning stints in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver.
2011-12 Season record: 36-30, 3rd in division, 8th in Western Conference, lost Western Conference quarterfinals to San Antonio Spurs (4-0)
Jeremy Evans (re-signed), Randy Foye (from Clippers), Shan Foster (from Mavs), Marvin Williams (from Hawks), Mo Williams (from Clippers), Kevin Murphy (via Trade)
C.J. Miles (to Cavs), Tradija Dragicevic (to Mavericks), Devin Harris (to Hawks), Blake Ahearn (to Pacers)
The Jazz finished up the 2011-12 season with a 16-8 record in their final 24 games, sneaking into the playoffs two games ahead of Houston before being swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. Heading into this season, the Jazz are hoping that a few tweaks to their roster will help them continue to climb up the Western Conference ladder.
Utah was active in free agency this summer, picking up guards Randy Foye and Mo Williams to help shore up their backcourt depth. Williams, who comes over from the Clippers, enters camp as the projected starter at point guard while Foye will likely help add depth behind Gordon Hayward at the shooting guard spot. Utah also picked up forward Marvin Williams and re-signed Jeremy Evans.
All of those moves on the perimeter are set up to help complement the production Utah gets consistently from its front court. Led by center Al Jefferson, who produced 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game a year ago, the Jazz have a big presence inside who should once again be a focal point of their offensive production. Power forward Paul Millsap was the team’s second leading scorer with 16.6 points per night, and he was one of the team’s most efficient scorers a year ago connecting on 49.5 percent of his shots.
Like Denver, Utah didn’t have trouble scoring a year ago as they finished fourth in the NBA with 99.7 points per game. the trouble was on defense, where the Jazz were 23rd in the league in opponents points per game.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
2011-12 Season record: 28-38, 4th in division, 11th in Western Conference, missed playoffs
Nicolas Batum (re-signed), J.J. Hickson (re-signed), Ronnie Price (re-signed), Jared Jeffries (from Knicks), Kostas Papanikolaou (from Knicks), Sasha Pavlovic (from Celtics), Giorgos Printezis (from Knicks), Damian Lillard (via Draft), Meyers Leonard (via Draft), Will Barton (via Draft), Victor Claver (via 2009 Draft), Joel Freeland (via 2006 Draft)
Jamal Crawford (to Clippers), Joel Pzybilla (to Bucks), Craig Smith (to Hapoel Jerusalem, Israel), Raymond Felton (to Knicks), Jon Diebler (to Rockets), Kurt Thomas (to Knicks), Dan Gadzuric (waived, from Knicks), Shawne Williams
The Portland Trail Blazers entered the offseason with a pair of first round picks in the 2012 NBA Draft last June, and they might have come away with two key components for the upcoming season. The Blazers drafted Damian Lillard No. 6 overall out of Weber State, a dynamic point guard who averaged 26.5 points en route to co-MVP honors at Summer League in Las Vegas, and No. 11 pick Meyers Leonard is a 7-foot-1 center who adds size, scoring and shot blocking. Both could become pivotal parts of Portland’s game plan immediately.
Already in place is All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who averaged 21.7 points per game last season before undergoing right hip surgery in April. Aldridge shot 51.2 percent from the field a year ago and pulled down 8.0 rebounds per game. Small forward Nicolas Batum will also be back. Batum signed an offer sheet with Minnesota as a restricted free agent this summer, an offer the Blazers matched to keep him in Portland. Batum averaged 13.9 points per game a year ago and, at 23, is a versatile wing player who shot 39.1 percent from 3-point land last year. The Blazers also return shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who averaged 13.7 points per game a year ago.
Terry Stotts takes over as the Blazers head coach this season, taking over for interim coach Kaleb Canales, who went 8-15 after replacing Nate McMillan. Stotts, a longtime assistant who joins the Blazers from Dallas, has been the head coach in Milwaukee (2005-07) and Atlanta (2002-04). He was a longtime assistant for George Karl, most notably with the Super Sonics in the 1990s.
2011-12 Season record: 26-40, 5th in division, 12th in Western Conference, missed playoffs
Chase Budinger (from Rockets), Dante Cunningham (from Grizzlies), Andrei Kirilenko (from CSKA Moscow), Brandon Roy, Alexey Shved (from CKSA Moscow), Greg Stiemsma (from Celtics), Robbie Hummel (via Draft)
Michael Beasley (to Suns), Wayne Ellington (to Grizzlies), Wes Johnson (to Suns), Brad Miller (to Hornets), Martell Webster (to Wizards), Darko Milicic
The Timberwolves won 17 games in 2010-11, but in coach Rick Adelman’s first season at the helm in 2011-12 he helped orchestrate a turnaround that had the Wolves in the postseason picture through early March. A collection of injuries—most notably Ricky Rubio’s torn ACL—sidelined their playoff hopes a year ago, but optimism from last year mixed with a revamped lineup have the Wolves ready to make a run this winter. Minnesota significantly upgraded its wing play this offseason, adding former All-Stars Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko to the mix. Those two, along with Chase Budinger, should improve the team’s perimeter defense and 3-point shooting this season. The Wolves struggled with consistency from their shooting guard and small forward positions a year ago, and if this group remains healthy Minnesota should have a formidable combination of players available on the perimeter.
Inside, the Wolves have one of the best power forwards in the NBA in Kevin Love. Love continues to be a threat as a scorer and on the glass, finishing last year fourth in the NBA in points (26.0 PPG), second in rebounding (13.3 RPG) and first in double-doubles (48). He’ll be joined again by center Nikola Pekovic, who enjoyed a breakout year in 2011-12 with 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
While the Wolves wait for Rubio’s return, they still have a collection of capable point guards in Luke Ridnour, JJ Barea and Malcolm Lee on the roster. Ridnour, who has worked on his strength in the offseason, was a consistent force for Minnesota last year particularly with his perimeter shooting. The Wolves’ offense should be in good hands until Rubio, who averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists as a rookie, returns to action.