I've been asked by Jeff Clark of SBN's Celtics Blog to preview the Northwest Division. Is it too early to blame the NBA schedule makers?
Since I already managed to piss off Avalanche fans this week, the last thing I want to do is upset my fellow Stiffs who root for Denver's second oldest professional team, our beloved Nuggets. But being the wannabe NBA pundit that I am, I have to evaluate the Nuggets chances of repeating as Northwest Division "Champions" with some level of objectivity. This line of thinking got me into trouble last Spring when I predicted the Lakers to beat the Nuggets in seven games in the Western Conference Finals, and then had to write a retraction and changed my pick. But entering 2009-10 and taking into account what happened within the Nuggets division over the summer, my conscience is pretty clear this time: the Nuggets will finish second behind the Portland Trail Blazers.
I've mentioned this many times on this site throughout the summer, but I remain perplexed by how Nuggets fans are writing off the Blazers already. Yes, the Blazers showed their inexperience in the 2009 playoffs while the Nuggets marched confidently to the conference finals and came within a few bad in-bounds plays of going to the NBA Finals. But prior to the postseason, the Nuggets and Blazers finished dead even in regular season record (the Nuggets won the tiebreaker due to a better division record) and a healthy six games ahead of the Utah Jazz, even though the Jazz had pulled ahead of their division rivals about six weeks or so before the 2008-09 season was over.
And while the Nuggets commendable offseason moves have enabled them to - in theory - repeat their success of last season and the Jazz essentially stood pat, not only did the Blazers upgrade at point guard but they have substantial room to grow and yes, I'm saying it already, have a more favorable schedule in 2009-10. Before throwing the "How can you blame the schedule! Over an 82-game season, everything evens out!" argument at me, consider the facts:
...the Nuggets will play in a Western Conference high 22 back-to-back games. Comparatively, the Blazers and Jazz have 19 back-to-back outings apiece.
...of the Nuggets 22 back-to-backs, 17 are on the road with eight of those 17 being played against teams presumably to be well over .500 this season. We're talking at Portland, at Utah, at Washington, at Boston and at Dallas among those games. Yikes.
...of the Blazers 19 back-to-backs, 15 are on the road and only six are against teams presumed to be above .500.
...of the Jazz's 19 back-to-backs, 12 are road dates and nine of those are against teams that will be above .500.
Moving beyond the schedule issue, for an assortment of other reasons I foresee Portland leaping ahead of Denver this season, but not by much. Let's dive in...
Why the Blazers Could Win the Division: The Blazers have all the elements of a team ready to take over the division crown. They have one of the NBA's greatest clutch players and boldest leaders in Brandon Roy, depth at every position, size, youth, a good coach and, perhaps overlooked, they had their humble pie last year when Houston made quick work of them in the playoffs. Like the Nuggets of 2008-09, the Blazers of 2009-10 will play hungry and angry this year. And I don't see the young Blazers pulling a Nuggets and losing in the first round for five straight years before figuring out how to win a playoff series.
Why the Blazers Might Not Win the Division: As good as Roy is and as good as the signing of Andre Miller might be for Portland, the Blazers ultimate success rides on the health and improvement of center Greg Oden, who's looked great in the preseason thus far. Oden had a rough season in 2008-09 as he recovered from microfracture surgery. But as Nuggets fan know all too well with our own microfracture victim, Kenyon Martin, it takes at least two years to fully recover from the procedure. So far so good for Oden, but if he goes down again for a substantial amount of playing time, the Blazers could find themselves finishing second or third.
The Verdict: 53-55 wins. The continued growth of Roy combined with the free agent signing of Miller (because, really, the Blazers weren't deep enough), Greg Oden playing vastly improved this preseason and a more favorable schedule than their division rivals in Denver and Utah, and the division title is set up for Portland to take it.
Why the Nuggets Could Win the Division: The Nuggets are as good, if not better, than anyone in their division. While we've probably seen the best we can expect from veterans like Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin, young stars Carmelo Anthony, Nene and J.R. Smith still have plenty of room to improve. But I think it's fair to question whether or not Melo (now entering his seventh season), Nene (his eighth) and J.R. (his sixth) will make substantive leaps. That being said, if that trio can play at the All-Star level they're capable of, I'll be rightly mocked all season for predicting the Nuggets to finish second in their division.
Why the Nuggets Might Not Win the Division: I'm concerned that everything that made this team special last season isn't going to be there this season. All the key components to the Nuggets 2008-09 success - from Melo to Chauncey to head coach George Karl to Nene to K-Mart to Chris Andersen and so on - had something major to prove and play for, be it pride, new contracts, living up to contracts, and so forth. Will the underdog, no-one-believes-in-us mentality be there again? (Maybe having the number one Nuggets blog pick against you will help!)
The Verdict: 50-52 wins. With the Blazers, Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks all upgrading plus the onerous 22 back-to-back games schedule, I just don't see the Nuggets replicating their success from last season. But this is just a regular season prediction. I still foresee the Nuggets winning a playoff series and playing deep into the second round, but we'll get to that when I write my Western Conference Preview in the days to come.
Why the Jazz Could Win the Division: Let's be clear about this: the Jazz could absolutely win the Northwest Division. Beset by injuries and a tough schedule down the stretch in 2008-09, the Jazz uncharacteristically folded last season and dropped from a sixth seed to an eighth seed like a sack of potatoes. But the Jazz still possess the division's best point guard in Deron Williams, two bruising power forwards in Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap and perhaps the best coach in the division in Jerry Sloan. Don't sleep on Utah.
Why the Jazz Probably Won't Win the Division: For all that Utah has going for it, they're missing a gunner who can put the team on his back and finish a game offensively (sorry Kyle Korver, you don't count). Williams can score in bunches and is a lethal offensive threat, but he's a point guard at the end of the day. In an offensive pinch, the Nuggets can turn to Melo or J.R. to create their own shots, the Blazers have Roy and the Thunder have Kevin Durant. Utah just doesn't have that guy and I see them losing out in the division as a result.
The Verdict: 48-50 wins. Over the summer, the small market Jazz saw their payroll skyrocket to the NBA's second highest, thanks to matching the offer Millsap received from the rival Blazers. More cash strapped than the Nuggets, the Jazz will have to make due with what they have and wait until 2010 to find some offensive firepower.
Why the Thunder Could Win the Division: If Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Andre Miller, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur all succumbed to swine flu for the entire season, the Thunder actually have enough talent to take the division crown. Kevin Durant continues to amaze offensively, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green will only get better and rookie James Harden should be a nice addition. There's only upside for OKC.
Why the Thunder WON'T Win the Division: Forgetting that they have no depth and remain woefully inexperienced for a moment, I question how good Durant really has been for them. He's been a stud offensively, no doubt about it. But two years in, Durant simply doesn't win games. For all of his faults, Melo wins games. And while Melo has indisputably been surrounded by more talent than Durant, winning just 20 and then 23 games in two seasons feels unacceptably low for a player of Durant's caliber. If you were to swap Durant for Melo, don't you think those Thunder teams would have won at least 30-35 games? What am I missing here?
The Verdict: 32-34 wins. Having just talked some trash about him, I do see Durant making the "leap" this year and getting the Thunder into the 30-plus win range. But until this team grows up more and adds a true center and a real power forward, they'll remain lottery denizens.
Why the Timberwolves Could Win the Division: Remember my sentence above about how if all the Northwest Division stars succumbed to swine flu the Thunder would have enough talent to take the division? Now apply that same sentence to the T'Wolves and guess what? They still wouldn't have enough talent to take the division. The T'Wolves continue to pay the price for several of former GM Kevin McHale's atrocious decisions, notably drafting and then trading Brandon Roy for Randy Foye, who's no longer with the team.
Why the Timberwolves WON'T Win the Division: The jury is still out, but from the looks of it so far owner Glen Taylor double-downed on stupid by replacing McHale with David Kahn. After botching the Ricky Rubio draft situation, Kahn's four best assets - Al Jefferson and Kevin Love at power forward and Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions at point guard - only cover two of the five positions on the floor.
The Verdict: 20-22 wins. The T'Wolves should be better than the beyond dreadful Sacramento Kings, but I see them finishing behind the Thunder, Warriors and Grizzlies to take the title as the Western Conference's second worst team.
Photos courtesy of LM Otero (AP), Sam Forencich (NBAE/Getty Images), John Leyba (AP), Daniel Ochoa de Olza (AP), Sue Ogrocki (AP) and Jim Mone (AP)