When are folks going to stop picking on Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti and Clay Bennett for trading James Harden? Not any time soon around here. Exhibit A is this outstanding column by Chris Bernucca, and Exhibit B will be seen nearly every week in my Power Rankings.
Perhaps sometime in the next 5-10 years, we’ll let it go.
But to break up a championship-caliber team and end up with nothing but Jeremy Lamb in return is borderline nauseating. Let’s face it: If Kevin Durant hadn’t fallen into Presti’s lap when the Trail Blazers drafted Greg Oden, there would be a lot fewer people calling him Boy Genius.
Anyhow, the geography of the past has placed Oklahoma City in the not-so-aptly-named Northwest Division, which the Thunder will undoubtedly win now that their closest competitor from a season ago, the Denver Nuggets, lost the Executive of the Year, Coach of the Year and one of the best defensive stoppers in the NBA. Yes, we all know that things change quickly in the NBA. But that quickly?
It is almost fair to say that this will be the worst division in the entire NBA, but that would be giving the Southeast a little too much credit. Aside from the self-destructive Nuggets, the Jazz are rebuilding, the Blazers are amassing depth and the Timberwolves are healthier – at least for now.
So we could see a No. 7 or a No. 8 seed climb out of this pack, which is something that cannot be said for the Southeast (sorry, Bobcats fans). Who knows? One of these teams (aside from the Thunder) could be flying completely under the radar as a legit contender, sort of like the Golden State Warriors of last season.
That’s what makes this division so interesting.
Onto the previews …
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
By Zebulon Benbrook
We’re entering Year Six of Thundermania here in Oklahoma City, and the level of expectation surrounding the team is as high as it has ever been. But with that expectation comes a certain degree of uncertainty.
After all the years of hearing about how the Thunder were an organization based around a true “team” concept, fans are now coming to accept that the Thunder are a two-headed horse. There’s simply no way that this team could hoist a championship banner without a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But last season’s collapse in the conference semifinals can’t be blamed on Westbrook’s injury alone. Serge Ibaka was a huge part of it, disappearing offensively once he didn’t have anybody to feed him the ball. Kevin Martin also played a large role, perpetually disappointing Thunder fans with his inconsistent shot. And I would be remiss to forget the performance of Kendrick Perkins, who went from serviceable to useless, even when he was in his element against the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Grizzlies.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
By Mike Acker
Forget the NBA Rookie of the Year Award given unanimously for only the fourth time in history to Damian Lillard. Forget, too, the second straight All-Star nod for LaMarcus Aldridge. Also forget that Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews comprised the top four-man lineup in the league. Portland finished the campaign on a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak and wasn’t competitive in a game for more than a month.
This season is shaping up to be a very different one for the Blazers. Clearly a lottery team as the months wound down on last season, the 2013-14 Blazers are primed to make a splash after a few free agent signings and a couple of one-sided trades bolstered arguably the thinnest roster in the NBA. However, with renewed positivity comes expectations; and with expectations comes the possibility of extreme disappointment.
It doesn’t seem fair to slam a team that had to throw rotation minutes at Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith, two Blazers from last season’s roster likely to be out of the league come Opening Day. After adding some players and operating with a “win now” attitude, the Blazers should not be considered a rebuilding team.
By Tim Faklis
From injuries to frequent coaching changes to frequent front office switches to Darko Milicic, the Timberwolves have had quite an interesting little decade.
This season is a special one. It marks the 10-year anniversary of their 2003-04 run to the Western Conference finals. That was also the last time they managed to make the playoffs at all.
Aside from the 2004-05 season, this year’s squad is probably the team with the highest expectations in the last 10 years.
While it isn’t clear how much Wolves president Flip Saunders’ moves will help for the upcoming season, there is little doubt that the current roster is an improvement over years past. For now, that is enough to provide optimism for the majority of Wolves Nation.
By Amar Smith
Under power-behind-the-throne GM Kevin O’Connor, the Jazz reached for marginal veterans in hope of maintaining the illusion of being a playoff team. Instead, mercenaries came to Salt Lake City, were rewarded with playing time they would not have received elsewhere, then left for greener pastures or larger paydays. There was a playoff berth in 2012, but that model was unsustainable.
Enter new GM Dennis Lindsey, who has jazzed things up by doing things opposite to O’Connor. This season, the team looks to put the focus on development and learning from experience – as opposed to desperately clinging to the hope that also-rans will help you make the playoffs. Lindsey is looking at that very “future” the Jazz traded for, because it is now the “present.”
By Cameron Adamczyk
Brian Shaw will be running the triangle offense for the Nuggets. Find one person on planet Earth who would have uttered those words in April, and I will show you an alien … or a time-traveler.
The 2012-13 season was a tale of two beings for the Denver Nuggets. The first being was the regular season, where they won an NBA franchise-record 57 games. The other was the playoffs, where they were abruptly taken out by the Golden State Warriors in six games.
This offseason was a shocking one for many Nuggets fans. GM Masai Ujiri, the NBA Executive of the Year, walked away and was replaced by Tim Connelly. Long-time coach George Karl was fired and replaced by rookie coach Brian Shaw. And free agents Andre Iguodola and Corey Brewer were not re-signed.
There is some new blood in the form of free agents J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye and Nate Robinson, further adding to the mystery of the 2013-14 season for the Nuggets. Nobody is sure what to expect out of them.