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Gibberman: Northwest division preview

Denver Nuggets
Last Season: 54-28

Nuggets Head Coach George Karl deserves a ton of credit for the job he did with his squad last season. With the help of point guard Chauncey Billups he finally got Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith to buy into his program. Neither ever had a problem scoring, but both became team players and finally committed at the defensive end. I think one thing about the Nuggets that a lot of people forget is that they got Chauncey Billups mid-season. They didn’t even have a training camp together and it still meshed together well. They will be a very dangerous team now with the experience of playing with each other.

The Nuggets didn’t make any major changes, but they did let a couple key role players walk away in Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones. Jones will be replaced by Renaldo Balkman and Joey Graham (if he makes the team), not much of a drop off there. Kleiza was a great spark plug off the bench and it sounds like Karl plans on starting JR Smith once his seven game suspension is wrapped up, that will be more difficult to figure out. Aaron Affalo is a defensive presence and is more of a slasher on the offensive end. The key to Nuggets bench this season will be rookie PG Ty Lawson, Chauncey Billups prefers to walk the ball up the court and run half court sets, Lawson wants to go, go, and go. The two can also play together because of Billups size and ability to defend bigger guards.

I like the center combination of Nene Hilario and Chris Anderson. Both bring a defensive presence that is intimidating to opposing teams. Anderson struggled playing on the road last season; he needs to bring the same intensity no matter where the game is.

Portland Trail Blazers
Last Season: 54-28

The Portland Trail Blazers are in the same position they were last year, for them to take the next step the young players need to show great improvement. I was disappointed with the play of LaMarcus Aldridge last season, he puts up nice all around numbers, but he doesn’t have a defining impact on games. He averages less than eight rebounds per game, less than one block per game, and less than one steal. That tells me he is not active enough on the court.

Brandon Roy is on the verge of becoming a superstar. Currently he is a level below the top tier, but I expect that to change this season. What I love about Roy is that he is a great player and he makes everyone around him better. He will have to adjust to playing with newly acquired point guard Andre Miller. Miller needs to have the ball in his hands, but that should make things easier for Roy. He won’t have to work as hard for his points if moves without the ball well.

The key to Blazers season is the development of center Greg Oden. If Oden can avoid foul trouble and prove that he has the stamina to play 30-32 minutes a game he can be a game changer. He is a beast on the defensive end; I would guess that he has the longest arms in the league. Greg is an old school defender. When he blocks a shot, he doesn’t slap the ball out of bounds and yell and scream, Oden always attempts to control his blocks like Bill Russell did for the Celtics back in the day. That triggers fast breaks and easy scoring opportunities instead of giving the ball back to the other team. You never see players do that anymore.

If I was Portland I would try and package a couple of my young role players to add another key piece. They have Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster, and Nicolas Batum who all play a similar position. Stephen Jackson is unhappy in Golden State and one thing that this Portland team lacks is a little bit of an attitude. Jackson would definitely bring that plus he would open things up for Roy and Aldridge to attack the basket.

Utah Jazz
Last Season: 48-34

One thing we know about the Utah Jazz is that as long as Head Coach Jerry Sloan is there they will put a quality product out on the court. A player most are surprised is still with the team is power forward Carlos Boozer. The Jazz re-signed Paul Milsap and with Boozer in the last year of his contract most thought he would have been traded. He wasn’t and the Jazz go into the season with a log jam at the PF position.

The Jazz are led by their point guard Deron Williams. At the age of 25 Williams has already established himself as one of the best PG’s in the league, he can do everything. Utah surprised me when in the first round they selected VCU PG Eric Maynor, the back up point guard position for the Jazz has been a problem for the past couple of years, but I didn’t think it was worth using a first round pick on. I could see the two of them playing together, when Williams was at Illinois he played in the same backcourt as Dee Brown, so he has some experience there. With the injury to shooting guard CJ Miles that will open up some minutes.

The Jazz have a couple of interesting rookies in their camp. Paul Harris from Syracuse and Wesley Matthews from Marquette; Harris is a Jerry Sloan type player, he won’t take bad shots and he plays very physical defense. Wesley Matthews is a great shooter who can spread the court. They only have 13 players under contract and it wouldn’t surprise me if they kept both of them.

Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Season: 24-58

The Minnesota Timberwolves are an absolute disaster. The job that David Kahn has done since he took over as GM has been a disgrace. In the draft the T’Wolves gave up two key veterans in Mike Miller and Randy Foye for the #5 pick which turned into Ricky Rubio. With the #6 pick they took Jonny Flynn another PG who played his college ball at Syracuse. Rubio has decided to stay in Spain and my problem with the selection of Rubio isn’t basketball related. I have not seen enough of him to make a judgment on whether he is going to be a good NBA player, but I do know Kahn had two months to talk to him to see if he would have any interest in playing in Minnesota. The Timberwolves who are a bad basketball team have way to many needs to let their #5 pick rot away in Spain, that is a terrible job of preparation by GM David Kahn. I love the Jonny Flynn pick I think he has All-Star potential in the NBA.

Minnesota does not have a quality shooting guard or small forward on the roster so during free agency they felt it was necessary to add another PG in Ramon Sessions. If I was a Timberwolves fan I would really be scratching my head right now.

On the positive side the T’Wolves do have a nice 1-2 punch at the C/PF position in Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. If Jefferson stays healthy he can be a top 10 big man and Kevin Love will build off a solid rookie season where he just missed averaging a double-double.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Season: 23-59

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the complete opposite of the Minnesota Timberwolves. GM Sam Presti has done a phenomenal job rebuilding the team that was formally known as the Seattle SuperSonics. He has stockpiled draft picks and young talent. The question facing the Thunder is can they take the giant step forward this season?

SF/SG Kevin Durant is the type of player you can build a franchise around. He along with Kobe Bryant are the two best pure scorers in the NBA. SF/PF Jeff Green is a match-up nightmare. He can post up smaller players and take bigger players off the dribble. Point guard Russell Westbrook is a poor man’s Rajon Rondo, with the potential to be just as good. Westbrook must improve his shooting percentage and cut down on the turnovers.

With the #4 pick in the draft the Oklahoma City Thunder snagged Arizona State star James Harden and later in the 1st-round they picked Ohio State center BJ Mullens. Harden will have an immediate impact and will fit in great because he can do a little of everything. Mullens was a little bit more risky, he has tons of upside, but he only played one year of college and will take a couple of years to develop.