Thursday, October 21, 2010

2010-11 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

If you haven't done it already, you probably shouldn't bother
buying a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey.

The Denver Nuggets

The 2009-10 team wasn't the Enver Nuggets of the past, but they ranked a "meh" 16th in the league with a Defensive Rating of 107.5.

For the record, the league average was 107.6.

However, the Nuggets were a pretty strong offensive squad -- 3rd in Offensive Rating at 111.8 points per 100 possessions -- and they led the league in free throws per field goal attempt (.290). Still, this team had problems even before losing George Karl left the team to have cancer treatments. And I'm not just talking about Kenyon Martin's knee injury and cattle brand sexy lips tattoo.

Outside of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Nene, Denver simply wasn't all that talented (relative to contending teams) and the front office had squandered away all their cap space. There weren't many ways for last year's squad to get better. Or this year's squad for that matter.

Still, the Nuggets used their full mid-level exception on Al Harrington over the summer. Which should help, I guess. Oh, and they picked up Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams for the veteran's minimum. Those were decent bargain moves. Unfortunately, Martin is still on the mend and the Birdman is out with a knee injury of his own. Believe it or not, both of those guys were reasonably important.

However, Denver's biggest problem is the money they failed to spend, specifically what they offered Anthony in the form of a three-year contract extension.

As Tourettes Guy would say: The Nuggets are going to be out of the butt and into the f*** if they don't lock 'Melo into an extension. Which probably isn't going to happen. Ever. By all accounts, Anthony wants out of Denver. For all we know, he may be dreaming of teaming up with Amar''''''e Stoudemire and Chris Paul in New York. Whatever the case, Denver will most likely lose him one way or another, which radically increases the probability that he'll be dealt before February's trade deadline (assuming the Nuggets haven't somehow morphed into contenders).

If 'Melo finishes the season in Denver, the Nuggets will probably end up in the mid-to-upper 40s in terms of wins. If he doesn't, they'll finish in the mid-to-upper 40s in terms of losses. A trend that will likely continue unless they flip Anthony for some serious talent...something that rarely ever happens when a superstar is traded.

All of which means Nuggets fans will soon be joining a support group with Cavaliers and Raptors fans. I know it sucks, folks. Just hold hands and cry it out. It'll get better some day. I promise. (But not really.)

The Minnesota Timberwolves

At 15-67, the 2009-10 T-Wolves were the second-worst team in the NBA, barey ahead of the 12-70 Nets. And remember: New Jersey was one of the worst teams in league history.

Minny ranked 29th in Offensive Rating (ahead of only the Nets) and 28th in Defensive Rating (in front of only the Warriors and Raptors). I could quote many other factoids that highlight their woeful inability to play the sport of basketball -- like the fact that they had a worse point differential than the Nets and went freaking 2-27 after the All-Star break -- but let me just sum this up by saying the Timberwolves sucked serious hind end. I doubt anybody on last year's team will get the taste of sour ass out of their mouth for many years to come.

So how did GM David Kahn try to "fix" this mess over the summer? By giving away All Jefferson for nada and waaaaay overpaying for Darko "Manna from Heaven" Milicic ($20 million) and Luke Ridnour ($16 million). Holy crap, man! Why did owner Glen Taylor bother to fire Kevin McHale is he was going to let Kahn flush hundred dollar bills down the toilet one-by-one?!

That said, Kahn wisely hung onto Kevin Love, signed Nikola Pekovic (a talented overseas prospect) and Anthony Tolliver, and acquired Michael Beasley for a couple meaningless second round draft picks (read that: "for nothing"). Unfortunately, a small handful of moves that could be rated as "mildly kinda-sorta okay" won't change much on this moldering cess pool of a team. The reality is, a monkey could log onto ESPN's Trade Machine and immediately poop out a better team than this.

This team might be able to win 20 games or so. That's their ceiling.

Sorry, Minnesota fans.

The Oklahoma City Thunder

This young team is going to be really good for years to come. Which must feel like a groin punch to Seattle basketball fans everywhere. When their Sonics were raped away from them, at least they could take some solace in the fact that the team was terrible. Now? They're a top four team in the Bestern Conference.

Sorry, Seattle fans.

Last season, the Thunder won 50 games behind a solid defense (9th in Defensive Rating) and Kevin Durant's offense. The biggest concern for this team is the fact that they didn't do much of anything during the offseason. Instead of overspending for a free agent, management held onto their cap space, stockpiled draftees and draft picks, and acquired Mo Pete.

Okay, well, that's foward thinking. Or something. But the "tread water" approach rarely works for championship caliber teams, and it's hard to imagine it doing much for the Thunder.

That said, Oklahoma City did sign Durant to a five-year contract extension, and for all we know this kid could blow up again this season. If Durant plays like an MVP on steroids, the Thunder could certainly win another 45-50 games, qualify for the playoffs, and give some team a scare in the first and/or second round.

However, 2010-11 could also be a rude awakening for this team on the rise. I mean, will the Thunder stay as healthy as they did in 2009-10, when four of their five starters played all 82 games and all nine rotation players played at least 73? Will they be able to stand up to all the sky-high expectations now that opposing teams will be gunning for them? Can Kevin Durant really make a Second Leap right after last year's First Great Leap? Aren't we making a lot of assumptions about a team that overachieved and didn't improve at all over the summer?

The Thunder are getting a lot of buzz. But me, I'm wary. Very wary.

The Portland Trail Blazers

Ttttthhhheeee Trrrraaaaaaaiiiiillll Bllllaaaazzzeeeerrssss aaaarrrree aaaaa sllloooooowwww ttteeeeaaaaam.


Last season, Portland ranked dead last in Pace Factor, averaging a feeble 87.7 possessions per 48 minutes. You'd think they were using canes and walkers or something.

You want their offensive formula? The Blazers isolate Brandon Roy, crash the boards, and take care of the basketball. That's what they do. It's actually really similar to what the Atlanta Hawks did with their iso-Joe offense. And I guess it worked well enough: Portland ranked 7th in Offensive Rating at 110.8 points per 100 possessions.

But, honestly, that system isn't going to win many playoff series. Sure enough, the Blazers were eliminated in round one by a well-balanced Phoenix Suns team.

Don't get me wrong, people. I'm not naysaying the Blazers. Just point out some facts, which most people just discard anyway. On the up side, Portland is young, deep and very talented. And don't forget: The Blazers managed to win 50 games last year despite an ongoing series of freaky-freak injuries, which included Joel Przybilla blowing out his knee twice (the second time while taking a shower) and coach Nate McMillan

What's more, the Blazers have $15 million in expiring contracts (assuming they don't pick up team options on Jerryd Bayless, Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum), two first round draft picks and trade bait in Fernandez (who wants off the team and could be considered a difference maker by potential contenders around the trade deadline).

You're telling me this team can't get better? You're telling me that, assuming nobody suffers a major injury, that they couldn't win 50-55 games? Or put up a serious fight in the playoffs? And if Greg Oden stays healthy...

...buh...buh...buhbwahahahahahaha!! I keed, I keed. That's not going to happen.

Sorry, Blazers fans.

The Utah Jazz

During the offseason, Utah took a big hit when they lost Carlos Boozer, who's now busy being injured for the Bulls instead of the Jazz.

Still, they pulled of a major coup by getting Al Jefferson for next to nothing. Big Al can almost certainly cover most of what Boozer gave them: Namely, 20 points, 10 rebounds, and a porous defense that consists of either reaching matador-style or simply hacking first and asking questions later.

This highlights Utah's biggest problem: Interior defense. Asking Boozer and Mehmet Okur to protect the painted area is like handing Lindsay Lohan a bottle of Jack and a bag of drugs and asking her to keep them safe. It ain't gonna happen. And it didn't. Therefore, the Jazz had to rely on a slap-happy defense that ranked second in personal fouls (1,859) and a league-worst in opponents free throws per field goal attempt (.269).

Of course, they ranked 5th in defensive rebound percentage and 6th in opponents turnover rate. And they did rank 10th in Defensive Rating. so it wasn't all doom and gloom on the defensive end. If the Jazz can stop hacking, they could be a top five defensive squad.

And there's not much wrong with them offensively. They were tops in percentage of assisted field goals (67.8) 4th in effective field goal percentage (.524), 4th in Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt (.252) and the 5th-best team in terms of turnover percentage (.142). That's a Jerry Sloan offense for you. It helps that Deron Williams is freaking awesome, and maybe the best or second-best point guard in the league.

On the downside, Okur is still recovering from a torn Achilles and Kyle Korver is playing for the Bulls, so Utah will begin the season minus their two best long-range shooters. That could hurt the offense. Plus, Al Jefferson -- who is still learning the system -- hurt his hand against the Lakers the other night. The team has little depth and less interior defense.

Still, this is the Jazz we're talking about. Sloan will get them to execute like crazy and play hard almost every night. They'll win 45-50 games and make the playoffs, where they'll probably make a first or second round exit. Unless they make some sort of deal to shore up their bench and/or add some beef up front, they won't be able to handle big teams like L.A. and Portland.

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