2009 NBA Preview: Northwest Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis. Be sure to check back over the course of the next couple of weeks for previews of each division.

Denver Nuggets (6)
The Nuggets are coming off a 54-28 record and a Northwest Division title. Of their top rotation players, they return all but Linas Kleiza (Olympiakos) and Dahntay Jones (Indiana). HC George Karl hopes that J.R. Smith can be a consistent starting shooting guard, but he won’t be afraid to use Arron Afflalo if Smith doesn’t play solid defense (or with his head on straight). Much of the credit to Denver’s fine season is given to Chauncey Billups, who provided steady play and leadership at point guard, but the health of Nene and Kenyon Martin should not be overlooked. The Nuggets re-signed Chris “The Birdman” Andersen to provide energy, rebounding and shot blocking off the bench. If the front line can stay healthy, Billups can stay productive at 33, and Smith can fulfill his considerable potential, then the Nuggets have enough talent to reach the Western Conference Finals for a second straight season. Even so, it’s hard to see Denver upending a healthy Lakers or Spurs squad in a seven-game series.

Portland Trail Blazers (8)
The Blazers finished with the same record as the Nuggets (54-28), but lost the tiebraker (divisional record) by one game. The team signed franchise player Brandon Roy to an extension, but is still negotiating with LaMarcus Aldridge. To date, this hasn’t become a major distraction, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t. The Blazers tried to make a splash in the offseason by courting Paul Millsap, Hedo Turkoglu and David Lee, but ended up with 33-year-old Andre Miller. While Miller is still productive in the twilight of his career, it’s not clear how he’s going to fit in with the grind-it-out Blazers. Portland was second-to-last in pace (possessions per game) and Miller is at his best when he’s pushing the ball. He’s also not much of an outside shooter, which could adversely affect the offensive spacing that enables Roy to be so devastating on the dribble. At press time, Steve Blake is still the starter, so Nate McMillan may have the same questions I do. One option would be to use Miller off the bench and have the second unit (Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, etc.) play at a much faster pace than the starters. Finally, the wild card is Greg Oden, who by most accounts is a changed man. If he taps into the potential that made him the #1 overall pick in 2007, the young Blazers may be ready to take the next step.

Utah Jazz (10)
Even though Utah returns most of its major pieces from a year ago, this is a team in flux. Carlos Boozer is in the final year of his contract, and this team can’t really move forward until his future is determined. Given the commitment that the team made to Paul Millsap, it is doubtful that Boozer is still with the Jazz after the February trade deadline. However, given the state of the economy, if the Jazz are in good shape heading into the second half of the season, they may elect to hold onto Boozer and let his contract expire instead of taking on salary in a trade. That said, this Utah team is going to play the same as they have for the last several years. They’ll push the ball, take good shots, and play hard-nosed defense. Jerry Sloan won’t live with anything less.

Oklahoma City Thunder (22)
For all the talk about how the Thunder improved last season, they only won three more games in 2008-09. However, the Thunder’s scoring margin dropped from -8.8 to -6.1, so they were far more competitive last season. Much of this had to do with the development of Kevin Durant, who shot almost 48% from the field in his second year after being a volume shooter (43%) in his rookie season. This was a direct result of his increased accuracy (42% vs. 29%) from long range. Meanwhile, rookie sensation Russell Westbrook showed flashes of becoming a star. He averaged 21/6/6 in the month of February, but he still has to work on his shot selection. The Thunder added the smooth and steady James Harden in the draft, and he should immediately start at shooting guard. Athletically, he’s better than people give him credit for, and he should thrive alongside Durant and Westbrook. This team is still a year or three away from the postseason, but they are headed in the right direction and have a ton of cap space over the next couple of years to add an impact player.

Minnesota Timberwolves (25)
Even though the T-Wolves lost their best player – Al Jefferson – for 32 games last season, they still managed to win 24 games, which is one more than the up-and-coming Thunder. Despite the Ricky Rubio debacle, Minnesota came out of the draft with two pretty good players in Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington. GM David Kahn also made a savvy signing by locking up Ramon Sessions for three years. Gone are Randy Foye, Mike Miller and Rashad McCants, and they will be replaced by Sessions, Flynn, Ellington and Damien Wilkins. Sessions and Flynn give the T-Wolves two good playmakers, and if the team can find some solid shooting to complement Jefferson’s low-post game, they should be competitive once again. Looking ahead, the team has a ton of cap space over the next couple of seasons, and with Sessions, Flynn, Kevin Love and Jefferson already on the roster, Minnesota would be a nice destination for a big-time wing like Joe Johnson, Manu Ginobili or (a healthy) Tracy McGrady. More likely, the team will continue to look to build through the draft and save that cap space for 2012, when one impact player could put the team back into the playoffs.

Fantasy Thoughts: If J.R. Smith does indeed start and get 30+ minutes on a nightly basis, then he should set career highs in points, rebounds and assists…Greg Oden has reportedly made great strides in his game, and is almost averaging a double-double in just 24 minutes in the preseason. If he can contain his fouls, he will be a surprise at center…Paul Millsap’s fantasy value may be depressed given Carlos Boozer’s absence, but if Boozer is traded by the February trade deadline, Millsap’s numbers will take a big jump as he gets more minutes. This could really help in a fantasy playoff run…James Harden should finish the season as one of the top fantasy rookies, assuming he utilizes good shot selection and can shoot 43%+ from the field…Nenad Krstic is slated to start for the Thunder, and if he can stay healthy, he should be able to post good numbers. He averaged 16/7 for the Nets three years ago and is only 26 years old…Ramon Sessions has all the talent to be a top 10 point guard in the NBA, but his upside in Minnesota is somewhat limited by the presence of Jonny Flynn.

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