Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part IV - Northwest Division


Northwest Division

Utah Jazz
Deron Williams is absolutely one of the best point guards in the league, but seems to be playing out his career in the shadow of Chris Paul. He's improved every year he's been in the league, and he's been healthy so far throughout his career. I expect him to have his best year yet, and make his first all-star team.

Recently, the Jazz, like the Lakers, have been considering moving a versatile, highly paid forward to the bench, and it looks like a good idea. Andrei Kirilenko has struggled a bit fitting in alongside a healthy Carlos Boozer, but really expanded his game last year in order to be more effective along the perimeter, particularly by improving his three-point shooting. Still, forcing a supremely talented athlete to adapt his game to become, at best, an average starting small forward seems like a waste. Kirilenko has shown the ability to be a unique game-changing force on both ends of the floor -- occasionally creating shots for himself and others on offense as well as exploiting weakside lapses by the defense, and on defense creating turnovers and blocked shots while roaming the halfcourt and surprising unsuspecting offensive players by arriving at wacky angles. For a sample of his uniqueness, notice that he and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only two players to appear on this list more than once.

Unfortunately, with Boozer and Mehmet Okur in the frontcourt, and Deron Williams taking over shot-creation responsibility, Kirilenko's been moved out of the spots where he's most effective. Replacing him with C.J. Miles (no, not the Pilipina softcorn star, the basketball player!) in the starting lineup gives him a chance to play to his strengths while coming off of a very strong bench along with Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. Who knows -- Kirilenko might even replace Matt Harpring's role of unskilled, bruising, energy white guy with his own funky brand of skilled, bruising (don't let his slender frame fool you), energy white guy.

Outlook: Deep, talented, experienced, and still young (every player who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last year was under the age of 28), this Jazz team has the ability to go deep into the Western Conference playoffs. They have some defensive issues, though, and I'm not confident they can overcome the lack of a shotblocker inside. Still, they should be fun to watch in the regular season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them win 60 games.

Players to keep tabs on: We've already discussed Kirilenko. C.J. Miles will also be relied upon for consistent production for the first time. Finally, Kyrylo Fesenko and possibly Morris Almond will be making the jump into the rotation this year, and were incredibly promising in the D-League last year. Fesenko in particular might find a few minutes a night for himself along Paul Millsap as part of a strong second-string defensive front-court, which could alleviate some of the defensive problems from last year. Also, Fesenko is a really silly interview (youtube him!), so it'd be great to see him on the court regularly.

Reasons to watch: I really can't think of the right words to describe Kirilenko's game.

Denver Nuggets
The big Nuggets storyline this summer was the Marcus Camby trade. It seems reasonable to assume that that move was the beginning of a rebuilding session, what with Allen Iverson in the last year of his contract and all. I'm not sure I see that interpretation, though, since Kenyon Martin and Nene are both untradeable and have contracts that run for several more years. In any case, a less heralded move was the acquisition of Renaldo Balkman, who adds a much needed dimension of pointy angularity to the round faces of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. He also provides chaos on the defensive end, which should help quite a bit in a defense that will be even more dependent on turnovers (the Nuggets were 6th in the league in creating turnovers last year, causing 14.1% of opponent possessions to end in a turnover) with the loss of Camby. It's generally not known or mentioned, but for much of last year the Nuggets were one of the better defenses in the league -- they fell apart defensively during the last quarter of the season or so, but still ended up 10th in the league in defensive efficiency. It's unclear how much that will change without Camby -- the defense often funneled players towards him for blocked shots and that strategy won't really be tenable with Nene taking over -- but I get the feeling that his loss might be overstated by those who are just focusing on his blocked shot and rebound totals.

In addition to his defense, Balkman, along with Kenyon Martin, might find themselves particularly important in an offense surrounded by skilled scorers (Carmelo, AI, Nene, Linas Klieiza), since they can get offensive rebounds and convert them into points, as well as run the floor and finish efficiently.

The attention early in the season will be on Nene -- when healthy he's the only Nugget who can create from the low post, but he hasn't been healthy often. I think he'll have a solid season, though.

Outlook: This team is absolute chaos, in both good ways and bad. A team composed almost entirely of one-dimensional scorers loses two of its better role players (Camby and Eduardo Najera) in the offseason. When this team wins, it will look transcendent, and when they lose, it will look dysfunctional. My best guess is that the two outcomes happen about equally often, and the team ends up 41-41 and misses the playoffs (that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch, though. The possibility of the transcendent win is too good to ignore). Sadly, this could result in new rounds of Iverson-bashing: check out the adjusted plus/minus, notice he's by far the most important player on this team.

Players to keep tabs on: J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza, and Nene. Nene I've already explained. J.R. Smith just signed a new contract, so he's surely a part of the Nuggets' long term plans. He has all the ability to be a great 2-guard (not a star necessarily, but an exciting second scorer), but he's prone to the occasional inexplicable decision on offense as well as an inability to translate his athleticism onto the court at times. Despite that, he's already turned himself into an efficient scoring threat, particularly because of his shooting from the three-point line. There are several areas on offense that he still needs to improve, but the real focus for him -- and many Nuggets -- this year will be defensive rebounding. Smith is athletic enough to be able to average 5 or 6 rebounds a game, but with Camby down low he's been content, so far, to leak out in transition for easy buckets rather than crash the boards. So this is the year where we see if players like Smith and Anthony really can be solid rebounders who were just playing a role in a defensive scheme built around Camby's rebounding, or if they "are who we thought they were." Draftexpress' profile of Smith has more information, and reflects my feelings as well. The profile at shamsports is also pretty accurate, if a bit harsh. One last note: Smith and Iverson played well together in the backcourt last year -- could this lead to Smith starting with Iverson playing the point? That arrangement worked swimmingly last year, with Iverson shooting better, turning it over less, and getting more rebounds, assists, steals, and free throw attempts when playing alongside Smith and the team outscoring opponents by 10.1 points per 48 minutes (overall on the season, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 3.7 points per game, so the Iverson/Smith combo was a big improvement. The team started games with Iverson and Anthony Carter in the backcourt, with whom the team went +.6 points per 48 minutes).

The case for Kleiza is a little hazier here. The aforementioned Najera was a role-player extraordinaire last season, and he's gone now, but Kleiza has been improving his game each year he's been in the league. The problem is that his most developed skill is as a scorer, a skill which happens to be available in abundance on this team. For this team to improve despite the loss of Najera and Camby, Kleiza will have to become an effective defender and rebounder.

Reasons to watch: J.R. Smith and Chris Anderson could have a dunk competition at halftime. Smith is also good for an occasional 3-point bomb from 5 or more feet behind the three-point line. Anyone with the balls to keep taking that shot when he's playing alongside Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson is worth watching.

Also, we know their games well, but it still feels like there is something under-appreciated about the offensive games of Iverson and Anthony. Iverson, like many ballhandlers, can get anywhere on the court at any time. What makes him special, though, is his ability to finish in the paint over players much taller than he is, and to finish through contact. His mastery of Gallilean physics and trajectories, as well as 3-dimensional geometry and glasswork, is every bit as impressive as that of Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. Meanwhile, watching Anthony on offense it becomes clear quickly how skilled he is at getting the ball in the right place and using footwork, jab steps, and a quick first step to create space and score easily. He takes a moment to size up the defender, moves quickly to take advantage of any sort of incorrect positioning, and uses an array of fakes when necessary. It's really an intellectual approach, and we could all learn a bit from it. Anthony still hasn't developed as a passer, so a sort of two-man zone on him (with one player playing him close and another waiting back near the basket) is usually enough to stop the entire Nuggets offense, but he's still fun to watch one-on-one.

Portland Trailblazers
Easily the most hyped team of the year so far, and with good reason. Along with Detroit, Utah, and the Lakers, the Trailblazers are loaded with young players who look to have an excellent future. You already know about Brandon Roy (who is worth every bit of the hype around him, plus more) and Lamarcus Aldridge (who might not be, but whose game fits in well with new addition Greg Oden), and there's plenty of attention being given to newcomers Greg Oden and Jerryd Bayless. So let's discuss Spaniards Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. I've heaped praise on Fernandez already during the Olympics, but to recap: Fernandez is a great scorer who can shoot with range, create his own shot, and is excellent moving off the ball and finding easy baskets for himself. He's also a capable passer and a streakily good defender who has the length and quickness to become a top-flight defender. With Martell Webster slated to be out with injury until December, there's a good chance that we see Fernandez as a starter at the beginning of the season. Huzzah!

As for Rodriguez -- he's less of a known quantity, but he's exciting because of the flashes he's shown. He's a brilliant ballhandler and creative, talented passer, but he's yet to find any sort of consistent playing time or performance since coming to the NBA. Still, he's entering just his third season and is only 22 years old (the third season is particularly important for first round picks because they're eligible for their first contract extension at the end of the year). Further, he's playing with his countryman Fernandez, who he has experience with from playing on Spanish National Teams, so hopefully the familiarity will give him a bit of a foothold.

Outlook: If all goes well, this is a very deep team -- they're adding Oden, Fernandez, and Bayless to a team that won 41 games last year. That's three players who could possibly contend for rookie of the year (I would put more money on Oden or Fernandez, but Bayless isn't exactly chopped liver). With health, they could win 48-52 games. But we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, we need to actually see the team play a regular season game . . ..

Players to keep tabs on: Travis Outlaw has improved every year he's been in the league, and had a bit of a breakout season last year as a scorer off the bench, playing an important role in the Blazers' success. Unfortunately, his ideal role is as a sixth man providing offense off the bench, and on this team, with the depth that they have, it's not certain that Outlaw will get the minutes or shot attempts that his skills demand. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to his changing role, and whether he can be effective in different situations. Can he become a consistent defender? Cut more to the basket on offense? Become a better finisher?

Reasons to watch: Rudy Fernandez is Spanish for sexy. Sergio Rodriguez is the reason youtube exists. Jerryd Bayless spends as much time above the rim as he does below it. Greg Oden makes his own teammates' jaws drop:

Minnesota Timberwolves
Picking up the pieces after the Garnett trade, Minnesota made a bit of a splash by trading to acquire Mike Miller and Kevin Love at draft time. Mike Miller, with his ability to get to the basket off the dribble as well as move off the ball and get to open spots along the three point arc, should fit in nicely in the backcourt with Randy Foye (who can create jumpers off the dribble and shoot the three but doesn't really get to the hoop) as well as help space the floor for Al Jefferson down low.

This team was absolutely awful defensively last year, though, and neither Miller nor Love really helps with that. Al Jefferson, while a decent on-the-ball shotblocker, doesn't really get any blocks coming from the weakside, and Kevin Love doesn't seem to be the answer in terms of help defense down low. Both lack the height to guard true centers (last year, opposing centers shot 55% against the Wolves). Behind them, the third big in the rotation is Craig Smith, at 6'7", and even Ryan Gomes (also 6'7") spent time at the 4 last year. So, really, this team is not equipped at all to defend the paint. Furthermore, all of the bigs lack the sort of quickness required to effectively guard the screen and roll. On the perimeter, of the top four guards on the team (Foye, Sebastian Telfair, Mike Miller, Rashad McCants), only McCants has shown the ability to be an above-average defender (Miller is about average, Foye a little below average, and Telfair has been horrendous so far in his career). The team's "best" defenders both play the small forward position, and it shows, as the 3 was the Timberwolves' best defended position as a team last year. Without help down low from the 4 and 5, though, it doesn't matter much.

Outlook: An average at best (the addition of Miller might bring them up to average at this end) offensive team who might have the worst defense in the league? That sounds like a recipe for 25-28 wins.

Players to keep tabs on: I'm done waiting for Sebastian Telfair to become something. So I guess I'll say Al Jefferson here. He already had his breakout season last year, he has a well-developed offensive post game and he does a good job getting offensive rebounds. But now, he needs to prove he can perform at the defensive end as well. Last year, he gave back all of his offensive production and then some at the defensive end. If he can improve that effort, then that 25-28 wins projection will be far too low. Also, Corey Brewer needs to show he was worth that lottery pick.

Reasons to watch: Mike Miller's ongoing gross hair contest with Sasha Vujacic.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Boooooo!!! Stole a team from Seattle, stole a team name from Golden State's mascot! Boooooo! Boooooo!!

This team has hella first round draft picks in upcoming years. They also have Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook. They also spent their lottery pick on centers in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, and have, so far, nothing to show for it. This is all to say that this team will probably not be very good this year, but might be better in the future.

Outlook: This team played at the fifth fastest pace in the league last year, which covered up a lot of offensive shortcomings. I would bet that they run even more this year, and hopefully move Durant to the forward position. A year of development from Green as well as the addition of Westbrook along with a full healthy year from Chris Wilcox should open things up for an older and more experienced Durant. He was extremely inefficient last year, but he showed some improvement near the end of the year, and has the practice habits and ability to grow into the star he's supposed to be. A lineup of Westbrook, Green, Durant, Desmond Mason, and Chris Wilcox, while sporting some serious defensive holes, could definitely run the floor and put a lot of points on the board. Still, it's hard to see them winning many more than the 20 games they won last year.

Players to keep tabs on: This team might as well be called "The Oklahoma City Kevin Durant and other guys." Meaning: This season could be considered a success if Durant improves and shows he can be a star in this league, even if the team flounders.

Reasons to watch: Kevin Durant is the anti-Maurice Jones-Drew. If you don't believe me, try Google-Imaging each of them.

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