1. Denver Nuggets
2. Utah Jazz
3. Seattle Supersonics
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
5. Portland Trailblazers
They might as well call this the Question Mark division. Is Denver really as good as the last half-season would attest? How much did Coach McMillan mean to Seattle? Can a rookie point guard return the Jazz to the playoffs? How long until Portland trades Darius Miles? Is that how you really spell Tskitishvili?
Talent-wise the Nuggets are the best team in the Northwest; there's no use in denying it. The problem is that this team rarely does things that are expected of them. Two seasons ago they were supposed to stink and they clawed their way into a playoff spot. Last year was supposed to be a big leap forward but they ended up stinking early which got their coach Jeff Bezdelik fired. Interim coach Michael Cooper didn't exactly inspire the troops and the team actually played worse. Just when the Nuggets were written off last season Coach Karl took over and they became the hottest team over the second-half of the season, squeezed their way into the final playoff spot in the West and instantly became the team no one wanted to play. What happened then? The Spurs routed them in 5 games while Coach Karl cried about the officiating as Manu Ginobli literally ran them over. So please excuse me if I offer a very guarded prediction about this group of misfits.
The talents of star forward Carmelo Anthony are undeniable but if the Nuggets are to succeed he's going to have to become a team player (i.e. learn how to pass to the open man). Some defensive effort might help as well. Anthony's attitude is questionable. Not that he seems like a bad guy, it just feels like his heart isn't always in it and he definitely didn't respond well to the Dirty Whore's coaching style during the Olympics. Coach Karl isn't much easier on his players but it looks as if Anthony has turned it around and is committed to winning.
The other problem this team has is the point guard situation. This is a team built to run and, really, when a team has the built in advantage of playing a mile above sea level it should run and run some more. Unfortunately, the Nuggets most talented point guard is Andre Miller, a guy whose pulse seems to operate at around 10 beats per minute. Miller's best work happens in the half court; he's not a push-it-up-the-court kind of guy. The guy who should be operating this team is Earl Boykins. Unfortunately, Earl is somewhat of a defensive liability to do his height and I find that he sometimes shoots too much. Still, he has regularly killed the Raptors no matter what team he's played on so who am I to pick on him. The point guard situation gets muddier still when you consider that Denver spent $29 million in the off-season on free agent Earl Watson. That's a lot of money for a guy who will start the season as the third point guard. Neither Boykins nor Miller are shooting guard material and this team is dying for a long-range bomber to give Anthony and Kenyon Martin more room to operate down-low -- Greg Buckner and Voshon Lenard aren't scaring anybody.
Basically, the Nuggets are a trade away. I'm not sure how it's going to work. Obviously a point guard should be shipped out and a shooter brought. I'm guessing Dirty Whore will be tired of Quentin Richardson's limitations right about mid-December so let's start an Andre Miller for Richardson rumour right now. It even works according to the RealGM Trade Checker. Sorry, Mr.Vecsey, I beat you to it.
Surely Greg Ostertag is the answer. It all makes perfect sense. Last season, Ostertag leaves and the Jazz suddenly suck. Obviously, re-obtaining Ostertag was all they needed to do to get back into the playoffs.
Andrei Kirilenko is the straw that stirs the non-alcoholic drink in Salt Lake City. If he stays healthy this team will be far, far better than last season. Utah busted out of the gates last year and then took a nosedive as soon as AK47 got hurt. Once this team started sucking Carlos Boozer mailed it in (the only 18ppg/9rpg disappointment in NBA history) and Coach Sloan lost all confidence in any of his point guards, including one who single-handedly destroyed the American Olympic team.
This season Kirilenko is ready to play, Boozer is in far better shape than last year and Coach Sloan has a hard-on for Deron Williams. Williams can already play NBA defense but I'm just baffled he went ahead of Chris Paul in the draft. You'd think Coach Sloan would just love a guy who would go so far as to punch a guy right in the balls to win a game. He had noted cheap-shot artists Karl Malone and John Stockton for so many years that drafting Paul would be natural.
Despite being more offensively limited than Paul, Williams already plays NBA caliber defense. While his offence lags some, that's probably a good thing as this means he'll look to pass first to the more established offensive threats like Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. Back point-guard Milt Palacio better quickly learn to pass first too because I'm certain Coach Sloan won't be as impressed with The Milt Palacio Missed Lay-Up Follies™ as I was.
Maybe one off-season it will finally sink in for Kevin Garnett. Someday he might actually realize that his contract is killing this team. Doesn't he see all the other players in the league sacrificing in order to win? Shaq took a $5 million pay cut to help get more players for the Heat. Both Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel spurned the Timberwolves to take less money and more wins in San Antonio. Yet Garnett wonders what Minnesota management is doing to improve the team. The owner has already broken the bargaining agreement in order to satisfy Garnett so he has nothing to really prove. I hope Garnett can live with himself while Latrell Sprewell's family starves to death this year.
This year's version of the Timberwolves certainly isn't as talented as last year's. Proof? Wally Szczerbiak went from being the 4th option to the 2nd option on offence over the summer. But at least they might be more durable, less volatile (Rashad McCants notwithstanding) and definitely younger. The Timberwolves problem is that their lack of draft picks over the past few years has really come back to haunt them as they are reduced to reclaiming other teams' flameouts for their youth movement like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Ndudi Ebi. Whoops! The Timberwolves actually picked that guy.
The Timberwolves do seem set at point guard with Marko Jaric and Troy Hudson but Hudson hasn't been the most sturdy of players lately. Current starting shooting guard Trenton Hassell can't shoot so Rashad McCants had better grow up really quick. Center duties will be shared by Michael Olowokandi and Michael Madsen once again. No punchline needed for that one.
Still, the Wolves will be in the playoff mix because Garnett has the ability to carry them. He might earn a ludicrous paycheck but no one can ever claim he doesn't work his ass off in the attempt at earning it. Now if only he'd start listening to his heart more than listening to his wallet he'd really do himself a favour.
If is wasn't for Phoenix's regular season dominance Seattle would have been the surprise team of last season. Few picked them to make the playoffs let alone winning 52 games and taking the division. Then they put up a far better fight in the playoffs against San Antonio than anyone could have expected. Yet, Coach McMillan couldn't get out of town fast enough.
Sure $6 million a year would make me back my bags too but there is a sneaking suspicion that McMillan had nowhere to go but down in Seattle if he stayed so he jumped to greener pastures. There was no way Seattle would be able to retain all 7 of its free agents and this time everyone would be expecting them to put up another 50-win season in a division that is far stronger than last season would lead you to believe.
The key free agent returning to Seattle is Ray Allen. Funnily enough, Allen had a resurgent year while playing for a new contract so it's probably not cynical to say that he's not going to give it that 110% this season. Coach Weiss is keeping Allen happy by promising the team will run more but even though McMillan focused on defense more the Sonics were one of the worst defending and worst rebounding teams in the league. If they start off poorly it will be fun to watch Vladimir Radmanovic try to fill up the stat-sheet as he plays for another (and much bigger) contract this season. The end result is that Seattle will be fun to watch this season, but they won't win as many games.
Despite these problems kudos should go out to GM Rick Sund for managing to keep most of this team intact without a huge increase to the payroll but clearly the pressure got to him over the summer. Not only did he become the first NBA GM to ever pick two Frenchmen in the same draft but he also became the first person to ever give a guaranteed contract to Rick Brunson.
Of course if you're ESPN writer Ric Bucher this contract was richly deserved by a hard-working guy. Maybe Ric Bucher should go out and see how hard people work just to earn minimum wage.
The Portland Trailblazers are proof that a time machine will never be invented. If so Paul Allen would have put his Scrooge McDuck-like fortune to work on somehow never giving Zach Randolph that big fat contract. Perhaps Allen doesn't mind that the cornerstone of his franchise is a lazy bum, has the maturity level of a 13-year old and a brother who fires shots into crowds. Allen also gave $6 million a year to a coach who had exactly one good season.
The Trailblazers shed a lot of salary and veterans in the off-season. The most important one being Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Not that I think Shareef is a bad player, in fact he may be the 2nd greatest player with a hyphenated Islamic last name in NBA history, but he just never plays on a good team. No team that Shareef has played on been any good. He's kind of like the Bizarro Horry. (And what do you know, the Sacramento Kings get pasted by the Hornets on opening night.)
This purge was destined as soon as the Blazers selected Sebastian Telfair in last season's draft along with T.A.T.U. (you know, they're young, Russian, possibly gay). With management practically writing off last season the players decided to as well. Darius Miles openly shat on his coach. Randolph got hurt. The season's one true success story was the emergence of Joel Pryzbilla as a solid starting center.
This year's draft was no different as the Blazers took another high schooler with their top pick. This means that 7 of the 15 players on the roster never spent a single day at university. I fear for any team where Ruben Patterson is one of the enlightened players.
The most curious off-season move was the trade for rookie guard Jarrett Jack. The Blazers already have their point guard of the future so why bring in another one? Usually "thinking out of the box" is a good thing but I'm more agreeable to the conventional thinking that says you bring in a solid pro as a back-up to provide steady leadership. Steve Blake isn't the answer here folks. Portland is moving towards something like those post-MJ years in Chicago except they don't have 6 championships worth of goodwill to waste on the fans who have grown accustomed to special episodes of Cops dedicated to their favourite players.
Of course this unconventional thinking will also help eliminate the "Jailblazer" stereotype surrounding the team. By drafting them young, their arrest records are sealed from the public.