Season Preview: Western Conference - Northwest Division



WESTERN CONFERENCE — NORTHWEST DIVISION



Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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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 2013-14 campaign. Part I features the Northwest Division. The revamped Timberwolves are optimistic this is the year they'll end their postseason drought, but they'll have a collection of playoff-caliber teams standing in their way within their own division.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

2012-13 Record: 60-22 (1st Northwest Division, 1st Western Conference—Lost Western Conference Semifinals to Grizzlies 4-1)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-2

Additions: Szymon Szewczyk (trade), Ryan Gomes (free agent), Derek Fisher (re-signed), Steven Adams (draft), Andre Roberson (draft)

Losses: Kevin Martin (trade), Ronnie Brewer

2013-14 Outlook: Last season’s Thunder squad had two major shake-ups that really changed the dynamic of the team. The first came when OKC traded sixth man James Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin just before the start of the season, and the second happened during the postseason when All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook suffered a season-ending torn right meniscus. The Thunder rolled through the regular season and was the lone Western Conference team to post 60 wins, but Westbrook’s injury was too much for the Thunder to overcome, and they fell to the Grizzlies in five during the postseason.

This year, reports indicate Westbrook plans to be back near the beginning of the season. He and Kevin Durant pose one of the most intimidating and athletic twosomes in the league, and the Thunder still have block-master Serge Ibaka coupled with Kendrick Perkins up front. Defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha at the 2 gives them a well-rounded starting five. But with Kevin Martin now gone, the Thunder lack the shooting depth off the bench they once enjoyed with him or Harden as their sixth man. OKC will again be atop the conference, but how coach Scott Brooks maneuvers his bench will largely determine their postseason run.


DENVER NUGGETS

2012-13 Record: 57-25 (2nd Northwest Division , 3rd Western Conference—lost Western Conference Quarterfinals to Warriors 4-2)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-2

Additions: Randy Foye (trade), Darrell Arthur (trade), J.J. Hickson (free agent), Nate Robinson (free agent), Timofey Mozgov (re-signed)

Losses: Andre Iguodala (trade), Kosta Koufos (trade), Corey Brewer, Julyan Stone

2013-14 Outlook: This Nuggets team looks much different than it did five months ago. Starting at the top, first-time head coach Brian Shaw replaced George Karl. In the starting lineup, their lineup that started 62 regular season games last year now is without All-Star wing Andre Iguodala and center Kosta Koufos. And off the bench, Corey Brewer made his return to the Wolves—ending his two-year stint in the Mile High City.

What does that mean for a Nuggets team coming off a 57-win season? They’ll undoubtedly miss the defensive presence of Iguodala on the perimeter and the in-game experience and offensive ingenuity of Karl. But the reason for replacing Karl is his postseason record: Seven of his eight straight playoff appearances ended in first-round exits. They’re looking to get new leadership, and Shaw will provide that. He was a highly-coveted top assistant for teams looking to make a head coaching change, and his playing career included four Finals trips and three rings. They’ll still have the dynamic Ty Lawson running the point, they should have a healthy Danilo Gallinari back from injury and they will continue to own the boards thanks to Kenneth Faried’s progression as a top-notch power forward. This Nuggets team looks different and should have a different vibe, but it still has a solid core of young talent still growing together.


UTAH JAZZ

2012-13 Record: 43-39 (3rd Northwest Division, 9th Western Conference—missed playoffs)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 4-0

Additions: Richard Jefferson (trade), Andris Biedrins (trade) Brandon Rush (trade), Ian Clark (free agent), John Lucas (free agent), Trey Burke (draft), Rudy Gobert (draft), Raul Neto (draft)

Losses: Randy Foye (trade) Kevin Murphy (trade), Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, DeMarre Carroll

2013-14 Outlook: Speaking of shakeups, the Jazz changed the complexion of their front court leading into this season with hopes that it will open up a path for some of their younger players. Center Al Jefferson joined the Bobcats and power forward Paul Millsap signed with Atlanta. That opens the door for Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, both of whom have fewer than three years experience in the league. Last year they each played in more than 70 games, although neither averaged more than 23 minutes per contest. That should change this season.

Utah drafted Michigan guard Trey Burke via a Draft night deal with Minnesota, and they still have the athletic Alec Burks at the 2 and a combination of Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Evans, Marvin Williams and now Richard Jefferson at the 3. There will be some growing pains involved for Tyrone Corbin’s squad given their youth, and after hovering around .500 and missing the playoffs by one spot last year, 2013-14 might be a year where the Jazz take a step back before they move forward.


PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

2012-13 Record: 33-49 (4th Northwest Division, 11th Western Conference—missed playoffs)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 4-0

Additions: Terrel Harris (trade), Robin Lopez (trade), Thomas Robinson (trade), Earl Watson (free agent), Mo Williams (free agent), Dorell Wright (free agent), C.J. McCollum (draft), Allen Crabbe (draft)

Losses: J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic

2013-14 Outlook: Portland might have had the biggest parity between starter strength and bench weakness out of any team in the league last year. Their starters scream playoffs, but their bench had little to offer. Portland’s starting five of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson averaged between 12.7 and 21.1 points per night. Of the remaining 10 players who registered minutes last year, none averaged more than 6.9 points and eight of them averaged 4.0 points per game or fewer.

The Blazers tried to combat that this year by shaking things up. They let Hickson go and plan to replace him with a combination of Robin Lopez and Meyers Leonard. They added Thomas Robinson to their front court, then picked up Mo Williams to back up Lillard and drafted the sharp-shooting C.J. McCollum out of Lehigh as a combo guard. If the Blazers get production off their bench, Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge have the talent and muscle to get this team into the postseason. But they can’t do it alone, and coach Terry Stotts will be tasked with finding a way to best get productivity out of that second unit.


MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

2012-13 Record: 31-51 (5th Northwest Division, 12th Western Conference—missed playoffs)

Additions: Corey Brewer (free agent), Ronny Turiaf (free agent), Kevin Martin (trade), Chase Budinger (re-signed), Nikola Pekovic (re-signed), Shabazz Muhammad (draft), Gorgui Dieng (draft), Lorenzo Brown (draft)

Losses: Luke Ridnour (trade), Malcolm Lee (trade), Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Gelabale, Brandon Roy

2013-14 Outlook: The Wolves entered last season with renewed optimism and the expectation of reaching the playoffs despite guard Ricky Rubio missing the first month and a half rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee. Things quickly detoured, however, as a severe string of injuries all but ended Minnesota’s chance of contending. The team as a whole [headlined by Brandon Roy (76), Kevin Love (64), Chase Budinger (59), Ricky Rubio (24) and Nikola Pekovic (19)] totaled 341 man games lost during the year. By late-January, they were out of serious contention.

This offseason brought change in personnel while maintaining that same optimism. At the top, the Wolves brought back Flip Saunders as their President of Basketball Operations. They added Kevin Martin at the 2, Corey Brewer at the 3 and Ronny Turiaf at center through trades and free agency. They re-signed Pekovic and Budinger, and they drafted Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad for depth. Rubio looked better than ever by the end of last year, Love was healthy by late-May and the Wolves look as healthy and as balanced as they have in years.

Does that equate to the team’s first playoff berth since 2003-04? That’s to be determined. Health, perimeter efficiency and this team’s defensive acumen will be the three primary factors. Health is uncontrollable but certainly a major necessity. With both Love and Budinger healthy, Martin added, Alexey Shved a year older and J.J. Barea focusing on a more traditional bench role behind Rubio, this team should be better from behind the arc than last year (Minnesota had the second worst 3-point percentage of any NBA team in the past 10 years in 2012-13). And defensively without Andrei Kirilenko and assistant Bill Bayno (who moved on to Toronto), the Wolves must rely on forging a defensive identity as a whole. Brewer will help with that on the wing, and Rubio is always a pesky player on the defensive end. Big things await this team if the pieces fall into place, and the players certainly share that optimism of a postseason berth right around the corner.


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