07-08 NBA Preview--Northwest Division
We'll start our season preview out in the Northwest to mix things up (we're crazy & dangerous like that here at The Painted Area). This division should look about the same as last year, where you have Denver & Utah fighting for the NW title in the high 40s/low-50s win range, then a huge dropoff to the other 3 teams fighting just to get to 30 reg. season wins.
If there is one common link among the NW teams it's that none of them shoots from the perimeter particularly well, besides maybe Seattle. Outside shooting is a significant flaw for both the Nugs & Jazz, and can hold them back from advancing in the playoffs. The fans of the Minny, Seattle, & Portland should prepare themselves for 50-loss seasons, and getting familiar with names like OJ Mayo, Derrick Rose, & Michael Beasley.
*-last year's record, division finish, conf. finish appear after the team name.
NUGGETS: 45-37; 2nd in NW; 6th in West
Should be in a tight race with Utah all year for Northwest supremacy. Nugs should finish in the top 6 or 7 in the West and will fight Utah for the #4-seed awarded to the NW champ. Have 2 of the most potent pure scorers in the NBA in Melo & AI, and having Iverson from the start of training camp this year should make the Nugs even more dangerous.
The Nugs also need Nene to continue his upward progression. Nene's improved footwork has helped him improve his offensive game, and he showed he could be a reliable 3rd scoring option with his strong play in the playoffs. It would be nice to see Nene increase his board production (particularly his def. boards); something I think he's capable of. Nuggets' def. boardwork was surprisingly lackluster last year, but they have the bigs to turn that around, so I expect it to improve.
Perimeter defense is definitely a sore spot, especially with the probable starting backcourt of 5-11 Chucky Atkins & 6-0 Iverson. Melo's no stalwart himself, lucky for the Nugs that they have one of the best collection of interior defenders in the biz, and added to their defensive integrity with the underrated pick-up of Steve Hunter, who adds a viable back-up for Camby. And if Kenyon Martin can regain some of his old form, he adds another valuable defender to the mix.
The other main flaw holding this team back last year (and seemingly for the last 5 years) is its lack of outside shooting. The Nugs were once again one of the worst 3pt. shooting teams in the NBA. The acquisition of Atkins was the first step in the right direction. With the combo of AI & Melo on the floor, you'd better have a PG guard who can make all the double teams pay.
Really need bench players like JR Smith & Linas Kleiza to step up their play this year, and provide some offensive pop off the pine, specifically some consistent outside shooting help. Both guys shot the ball well in the reg season (Kleiza improved as the season went on), but came up short in the Spurs series when the Nugs needed their bench production most. Smith already causing drama is not a good sign for the Nugs because his outside shooting is an underrated factor the team's longterm prospects.
It would be nice if the Nugs could cut down on their turnovers, but I can't see that happening with AI & Melo heavily involved. They do temper their own TOs by causing a fair amount (3rd best in 06-07).
The Nugs should finish around the 50-win mark if they can stay relatively healthy, and should be neck-n-neck with Utah for the NW title. The goal is to try to advance past the 1st round. For them to do that they need to hope for some consistent shooting around AI & Melo to ease the defense collapsing in their laps.
TWOLVES: 32-50; T-3rd in NW; T-12th in West
Not sure I want to waste too much time breaking down the TWolves because all you need to know is they're gonna be sure-fire lottery-fodder. The recent trade does really nothing to improve their prospects this year, and basically is just a deal to create more financial flexibility.
The departure of Ricky Davis should open up the door for Randy Foye to establish himself as the main perimeter option for the TWolves. The one area where Minny looks good is at the wing spots. Have a lot of promising young talent stockpiled at the 2 & 3 with guys like C. Brewer, Gomes, G. Green, Foye, McCants fighting for minutes.
Actually, their 4 spot is in pretty good shape as well with Al Jefferson ably backed up by Craig Smith (a mild surprise last year). They also have Ant Walker & Juwan to plug in at the 4, not to mention Gomes can move over when needed. It's their bookend positions of PG & C that are giving the TWolves issues. They don't have a starting-caliber center on the roster and Doleac & Ratliff are just around for their expiring deals. Sorry, but I don't see Foye as point. Feel he's much more adept in creating for himself, not others. Telfair is their only true point on the roster, and it's pretty much a consensus he was just overhyped by the NYC media machine.
Can't see this team improving much defensively, and expect them to still do a poor job on the boards. Also, Minny really lacks any players with natural shooting ability, and I could see their 3pt% dropping with the loss of Ricky Davis & Mike James, replaced by Antoine Walker's chucker ways.
Just think they will have a bad locker room situation with disgruntled vets who don't want to be in town paired with a collection of inexperienced young players. Just expect bad times all around. 25 wins would be a major accomplishment. The one good thing - the only good thing for Minny this season - is that they are positioning themselves to be a major player in free agency next summer.
BLAZERS: 32-50; T-3rd in NW; T-12th in West
Blazer fans just have to sit tight for the next 2-3 years, and get used to the losses piling up for now. If Oden was healthy, felt that the Blazers would've had an outside chance at a 8-seed, but with Greg on a year-long sabbatical, Portland should be prepared for another trip to beautiful Secaucus in late May.
Imagine Portland is going to have some issues trying to put points on the boards, and I could see them in the bottom five in offensive efficiency. With Randolph's departure, Brandon Roy becomes the #1 scoring option, and I'm not sure he's quite ready for that role this early in his career. And with Roy already experiencing some foot problems, the offense could possibly project even worse than expected. I guess Aldridge becomes the 2nd offensive threat. I like Aldridge's potential, but I'm not sure he will give you more than 15-17 ppg this year. And I think you will need something more potent from your #2 guy considering I can't see Roy giving Portland more than 22 ppg.
This squad did not shoot the long ball well last year and not sure that will change much this year unless Martell Webster can find consistent burn in the rotation. Webster maybe should get some run at the 3-spot since this position is Portland's biggest question mark, with erratic options of James Jones, Travis Outlaw & Miles to choose from.
Still not sure why they wasted cash on re-acquiring Steve Blake when they had a better option in-house with Jack. And Blake's presence could possibly stunt the growth of the promising Sergio Rodriguez. Even with Oden out, think the Blazers should be decent upfront with a serviceable frontcourt rotation of bigs of Aldridge, Frye, LaFrentz, & Pryzbilla. Not great, but alright.
I think if the Blazers win 30 games this year they should feel satisfied. This team was not very good on either end of the court last year. I could foresee the defense improving somewhat, but I just can't see the offense breaking out at all.
SONICS: 31-51; 5th in NW; 14th in West
Sonics are one of the teams I really can't get a good read on. Even though they have 9 players returning from last year's squad, this team has been overhauled in a sense with the dumping of their 2 best players in favor of 2 rookies in their place. You have to wonder how this team will replicate the point-production loss with Allen & Lewis gone to the East.
Actually, think Durant could basically cover for what was lost with Rashard, and maybe even offer more rebounds. And Durant is gonna have to produce at an All-Star level, because he immediately becomes Seattle's #1 scoring option. I have to think Wilcox becomes the 2nd option, which you can't be too enthused about. I guess he's alright, but probably better suited as a 3rd option at best. After him, what do they have offensively? Collison is underrated & solid but I can't see him giving you more than maybe 13 ppg. Ridnour is alright, but just like the others, he's just alright.
And this is why I wonder how good this team's offense is going to be. I know they plan to go more up-tempo with the addition of Paul Westhead to the coaching staff, but I'm not sure they have the horses to pull it off. Like rookie Jeff Green's multi-dimensional talent, but I wonder what he can give you this year. Delonte West & Wally are decent pickups from Boston, but both are really just solid back-ups at best, and Wally is strictly just a SF at this point, so I don't them helping at the 2-spot.
Not really feeling Durant at the 2-guard. Here's the deal: he already creates tremendous matchup problems at the 3. Why do you want Durant chasing around opposing 2-guards, especially chasing smaller guys around the phalanx of screens many shooting guards see? I guess this just a temporary fix considering the Sonics don't have a true starting caliber 2-guard on the roster.
Once again they go into the season without a firm answer to their center woes. It's seems a lot of people are always high on Robert Swift, but the kid is unproven, and it seems Seattle has already decided to go with Collison.
Not sure where I fall on this team's defensive prospects either. Seattle has been horrible on the defensive end for about 5 years now, and last year was no different. They really did nothing well on the defensive end of the court, and compounded this by being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA. You would assume the Sonics would still be fairly porous defensively given similar personnel, but they did add Kurt Thomas, who can help in the interior. I think the Seattle should be somewhat better defensively just by the presence of PJ Carlesimo, who I'm sure will bring some of the Spurs' mentality over.
I expect the Sonics to be slightly better than the Blazers or Wolves, and just maybe have a sliver of a chance of getting the 8-seed if the Warriors or Hornets have massive injury problems. I'm just not seeing where this team will generate the kind of offense they need to make a serious push.
JAZZ: 51-31; 1st in NW; 5th in West
Not sure too many people predicted that the Jazz would end up in the Conf. Finals last fall, but they avoided major injuries, and Boozer & Deron blossomed into young studs. They should be back in the thick of things out West once again.
Some folks don't realize how good an offensive club the Jazz are overall, but they have always been a highly efficient bunch under Sloan, and Utah's collective shot selection is as good as any team year-in, year-out. Not to mention they move the ball like few other teams can. And they aid their strong offensive execution by pounding the offensive glass for extra possessions (1st in off reb. last year, 1st in overall reb.).
Have to try to find a way to cut down on their fouling. But can't see it happening since it's so ingrained in Sloan to play a physical brand of basketball. At their core, they play fairly solid halfcourt defense. The issue that hurts them is they just foul too much. Some teams foul too much because they are out of position or slow on rotations, but the Jazz foul too much because they are overtly physical. Their def. FG% was pretty solid last year at 45%, but they sort of wash it away by leading the league in fouls.
The other main bugaboo is that their deep shooting is a concern (2nd worst in 3pt% last year), and the situation made worse with the loss of Fisher--I'm sure they hope rookie Morris Almond can step up quickly. Directly tied in with the poor 3pt. shooting is that the weak link in the Jazz lineup has to be the 2-guard spot--a position they have had a hard time trying to fill since Hornacek left. They drafted Almond to hopefully fill the void and provide much needed relief in the long-ball department.
Right now it looks like Sloan is handing the starting assignment to defensive-minded Ronnie Brewer, who has played well so far in preseason. But if Ronnie has one main weakness, it's his outside shooting. However, the 6-7 Brewer could allow the Jazz to put him on the opposition's best wing threat, and allow AK47 to roam around more as the ultimate help defender. I think it's an option the Jazz could explore.
Not quite as adamant as others that AK has to be moved to the 4--not sure I want him trying to body guys on the block. I think you have to find a way to allow AK to freelance on the defensive end, sort of like a free safety.
Utah possesses one of the better inside/outside punches in the NBA, Booze & Deron. Boozer was one of the most consistent & efficient players week-in & week-out last year. A multi-dimensional offensive threat who can face you up or work you over down low with his clean footwork, and can finish with either hand. Also an underrated passer who shoots a high percentage. Works great with Deron in the high screen--Booze is adept at the elbow jumper, and is a solid ball-handler so he can drive the ball well from the high post.
Deron has turned himself into one of the top young PGs in the NBA, and already one of the top assist men in the NBA. Said early in the reg. season last year I loved how Deron ran the Jazz offense & used the high pick. Sweet step-back jumper, & much better athlete than his pudgy physique would indicate. Though a good pull-up shooter, Deron has to improve his long-ball accuracy, especially with lack of shooters surrounding him.
They're gonna need Memo Okur to have a repeat of his strong regular season play after disappointing in the playoffs (particularly the Conf. Finals) & subpar play at the Euros. They really need his outside shooting touch, especially if they plan to start Brewer alongside AK47 on the wings. The one thing that was a revelation last year was Okur's strong defensive play on the ball. Harpring's early-season injury is an underrated blow. Matt provides a nice lift off the bench, physically punishing opposing defenders, and being a master at using the baseline screens/cuts of the Utah offense.
Don't see much separating Utah from Denver, and expect them to fight with Denver for the 4-seed. But if this squad wants to get deep in the playoffs like last year, they will need to curb their propensity for physical play and improve their collective outside shooting.