2008-09 NBA Draft Kit: Northwest Division Preview
The 2008-09 RotoRob NBA Draft Kit continues its full court press today, as Herija rolls out yet another of his brilliant division reports.
We wrap up our tour of the Western Conference with a glance at the division that features perhaps the NBA’s most intriguing team in the young Trail Blazers, who finally get to have a look at last year’s No. 1 pick, Greg Oden. The Jazz and Blazers should fight it out for the top spot with the Nuggets lurking in the shadows. Meanwhile, Minnesota continues its rebuilding effort while Oklahoma City should bring up the rear, because as we all know…you can take the Sonics out of Seattle, but you can’t take the suck out of the Sonics.
UTAH JAZZ (54-28)
Lost in Conference Semifinals
The Jazz easily captured its second straight divisional title last season and again opened the postseason by ousting the Rockets. Utah then had a good chance to upend the Lakers and advance, but ultimately fell short. A big reason for that was the poor play of Carlos Boozer, who shrunk in the second round despite being considered one of the league’s top power forwards. All eyes will be on Boozer as he can opt out of his contract after the season, and the Jazz may look to move him before the trading deadline. He has assured Utah he’s not going anywhere, but, uh, that’s what he told Cleveland.
Regardless of Boozer’s status, Deron Williams is Utah’s resident superstar. He raised his game in the playoffs and was practically unstoppable, and his rivalry with Chris Paul could emerge as the league’s most exciting one-on-one showdown this side of Kobe/LeBron. Ronnie Brewer starts opposite Williams and is a high-percentage shooter, but lacks a long-range touch. His backup, Kyle Korver, is among the NBA’s best pure shooters, which gives them multiple options at shooting guard.
In the front court, Mehmet Okur is a solid scorer and rebounder, though he prefers to operate outside the key, while backup Paul Millsap is an absolute animal on the boards. Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring handle the small forward duties, though AK-47’s versatility allows him to play multiple positions. Kirilenko flashed a deep spot up J last year, and if he can improve on that he could post better numbers offensively this season. The Jazz is the favorite to repeat, though it will face a challenge from Portland.
Guy I like…Millsap – A force on the glass, Millsap is stuck behind Boozer entering the season, but with Boozer able to walk after this year, a trade wouldn’t be surprising. I don’t expect Millsap to post big numbers early on, but he’s someone to consider stashing on your bench in case a move is made.
Guy I hate…Kirilenko – There are relatively few certainties in life – death, taxes, me hitting the restroom at least five times after a bowl of Cracklin’ Oat Bran – but one of them is that somebody will overvalue AK-47 in the hopes that he’ll return to his 2003-06 form. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not happening. He has value later in drafts, but don’t reach.
DENVER NUGGETS (50-32)
Lost in First Round
As if “defense” wasn’t enough of a four-letter word in Denver, the Nuggets got even shakier defensively during the offseason by trading Marcus Camby (Clippers) and allowing Eduardo Najara (Nets) to leave via free agency. You’ll excuse my skepticism after the Nuggets were swept in a non-competitive first-round loss to the Lakers in which they allowed more than 100 points in all four games. They did land Renaldo Balkman, who carries a reputation as a solid defender, but he’s penciled in behind Carmelo Anthony so it remains to be seen how many minutes are even there to be had.
Offensively, the Nuggets are among the best with Allen Iverson joining Melo to form one of the game’s top 1-2 offensive punches. They also bring a pair of potential high scorers off the pine in J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza, both of whom can carry an offense on any given night. Kenyon Martin is back at the power forward with Nene Hilario replacing Camby at centre. Both men have extensive injury histories, and it seems like a lot to ask those two to hold down the most physical spots on the floor over an 82-game schedule. While there are health concerns at the four and the five, there are just plain old-fashioned concerns at the point where journeymen Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins sit alone on the depth chart. Iverson is still capable of running the offense, but those guys will need to knock down some open looks this year or teams will just sag off of them and play five-on-four defensively. Look for Denver to fall out of the playoffs in 2008-09.
Guy I like…Kleiza – OK, just let me make sure I understand this correctly…I’m supposed to be sold on K-Mart and Nene holding down the fort 30-plus minutes a game for 82 games? Riiiiiiight…Kleiza. Sleeper. ‘Nuff said.
Guy I hate…Smith – His time is coming, but it’s not here yet. Iverson is in the final year of his contract and if you don’t think he’s dialing it up for one more payday, you’re insane. A.I. played nearly 42 minutes a game for all 82 a season ago – does he even come off the floor this year?
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (41-41)
This club has done a tremendous job of reshaping its image in a short period of time. Gone are the days of the “Jail Blazers,” with charter members like Darius Miles and Zach Randolph plying their trade elsewhere, and in their place is perhaps the best collection of young talent in the NBA. Of course, all eyes will be on Oden, the 72-year-old rookie who missed all of last year with osteoporosis (or something like that). Adding Oden to a young nucleus that includes Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster gives them huge upside at four positions, and they could add a fifth depending on how first-round pick Jerryd Bayless does behind veteran point guard Steve Blake.
It all starts in the middle with Oden, who has the tools to become an immediate force, though they might not give him as many minutes as you think given Oden’s injury and more-than-capable Joel Pryzbilla available off the pine. Aldridge looks like a future star at power forward and Channing Frye is another excellent reserve. Outlaw and Webster (when healthy) should split time at the three while Blake and Bayless hold down the fort at the point. Roy is the team’s best player, but the Blazers still added depth as highly regarded Spaniard Rudy Fernandez has made the jump to the NBA and is set to back up Roy. With a group that is both deep and talented, Portland should make the playoffs this season and push for a division crown. And hell, with new found success, maybe the Blazers will finally be able to afford to redesign their god-awful logo. Every time I look at that damn thing, I get a ’70s flashback.
Guy I like…Oden – Yes, he looks 20 the same way Luke Perry looked 17 on Beverly Hill 90210, but he instantly steps in as one of the game’s top centres. He should average a double-double in his sleep and rank among the league leaders in blocks. Expect him to shoot a high percentage, too.
Guy I hate…Webster – A stress fracture in his foot is going to keep him out two months, and who knows how long it’ll take to get back to speed. With so much depth on the roster, Webster could find himself returning to a less significant role than the one he left.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (22-60)
After missing the playoffs three straight years with Kevin Garnett, the T-wolves decided it was time to switch gears and go into a full rebuild. They nabbed budding star Al Jefferson along with four other players, most notably Sebastian Telfair, and two first-round picks in the KG deal. With point guard Randy Foye out more than half the year the Timberwolves proceeded to lose early and often. In fact, they dropped 48 of their first 60 games before flashing some promise down the stretch by closing the season 10-12. The team then selected talented but controversial O.J. Mayo in the first round, but almost immediately sent him to Memphis for Kevin Love and Mike Miller.
The most interesting dynamic in Minnesota is in the front court with Love and Jefferson. Love looked tremendous at UCLA and has the type of big-man passing skills that some liken to a young Bill Walton. Meanwhile, Jefferson is a stud, showing an array of low-post moves to complement his tireless work on the glass. His efforts may have been overlooked because of how bad Minnesota was last year, but he’s already an All-Star caliber talent. Craig Smith provides depth off the pine.
Foye and Rashad McCants should start in the backcourt with Telfair in reserve. Foye has breakout potential and could rack up a lot of assists feeding Jefferson and Love in the post. Miller should start at small forward and gives them a knockdown shooter that their big men can kick out to when doubled. They’ll need to find minutes for Ryan Gomes, while lanky swingman Corey Brewer should see time behind Miller and McCants. I like the Wolves’ direction, but I don’t see any way they’re climbing out of fourth place this year.
Guy I like…Foye – He looked out of sorts when he first returned from a kneecap injury last year, but he put things together and improved as the season wore on. He averaged better than 18 PPG in April and should post solid assist totals with better offensive options around him.
Guy I hate…Brewer – Some might see the name and remember his contributions to Florida, which led to him being selected seventh overall last year. However, Brewer really struggled as a rookie and the addition of Miller should severely cut into his minutes. He’s not even worth drafting.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (20-62)
The Seattle Supersonics were strip-mined of their talent before last year and were essentially dead men walking as the franchise (and fan base) knew it was relocating to Oklahoma City. The only truly marketable name on the roster is Kevin Durant, who did an admirable job of carrying the offensive burden as a rookie. He struggled a bit in the winter months, but thawed out nicely in March and April, averaging 22.6 PPG down the stretch. With a bit more help his rebounding and assist numbers should climb, though it’s debatable if said help with be forthcoming this year. The team drafted UCLA point guard Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall pick, and he should be given every chance to see extended minutes after they shipped Luke Ridnour to Milwaukee, but the Thunder added little else.
Earl Watson remains to help take pressure off Westbrook, but he has topped out as a borderline starter. Desmond Mason (acquired in the Ridnour trade) should provide energy off the bench and be a hometown favourite, though Jeff Green’s effectiveness may dictate Mason’s minutes. Chris Wilcox is talented, but can get muscled around and is disinterested defensively. His contract is up after this year, making him a heavy favourite to be dealt. Backup Joe Smith could also find his way out of town in a similar manner to what happened with Kurt Thomas a season ago. Nick Collison rounds out the starting five as a steady presence in the post. An enthusiastic collegiate atmosphere at home should help the Thunder claim a few more victories this season, but this team won’t even sniff third place.
Guy I like…Green – Like might be a little strong here, but outside of Durant there’s nobody on Seattle that excites me. Green has upside and is one of the few players on roster that is a definitive building block for the future, so he should get his minutes. He averaged 15.6 PPG and 6.3 RPG last April, which is solid production.
Guy I hate…Westbrook – Everyone loves rookies, and when you see all that’s between that rookie and a starting gig is Earl Watson, you might tend to overvalue. I expect that to be the case with Westbrook, whose signature skill is defense. Just ask last year’s No. 4 pick, Mike Conley, how easy the transition to the NBA is.