This season, expectations run high for our Denver Nuggets, and we already know we're going to be in a dogfight with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division title. But of the dregs of the Northwest Division (the Portland Trailblazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz), who figures to be the dark horse among them?
2011-2012 Record: 36-30 (3rd in Division)
Divisional Record: 9-4
SBNation Blog: SLC Dunk
Somehow, the Jazz have remained competitive despite losing Deron Williams to the Nets, squeaking into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the West last year. Recently minted head coach Tyrone Corbin has reinvigorated the Jazz collective identity as a bruising low post team, constantly feeding the ball to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, the exceedingly disappointing Enes Kanter and near-Nugget Derrick Favors. The Jazz have always been a thorn in the side of the Nuggets, and playing in the incredibly loud Energy Solutions Arena is a very tough draw for a young team. Gordon Hayward and former Colorado Buffaloes standout Alec Burks shore up the wings and should provide a challenge for the Nuggets' perimeter defense all year.
Despite their perpetual overachievement, I see the Jazz slipping a bit this year. They have a solid collection of wings and guards (unless you look too long at Randy Foye and Jamaal Tinsley, who are like to slough off into a pile of ash), but their center and power forward rotation is very suspect behind Millsap and Jefferson. Jefferson is still a threat, but I don't think Kanter and Favors have anything to offer the Jazz other than 12 fouls and some mediocre rebounding numbers.
Predicted Divisional Standing: 4th
2011-2012 Record: 28-38 (4th in Division)
Divisional Record: 4-10
SBNation Blog: Blazer's Edge
Here's a few words that people associated with the Trailblazers during yesterday's SBNation team word thingermajig:
Unlucky. Snakebit. Injured. Cursed. Knees.
The Trailblazers have a very tough row to hoe. Just five years removed from selecting Greg Oden (currently a free agent) with the #1 overall pick over Kevin Durant, both Oden and the formerly promising Brandon Roy have departed a now-decimated Blazers squad. I don't think anyone needs to be reminded of the devastating number of season and career-threatening injuries the Blazers have endured in the last few years. After a disastrous 2011-2012 with Raymond Felton running the offense, the Blazers have retooled at the guard position and have brought in the relatively unknown Damian Lillard to take the point. Similarly, fellow unknowns Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland - rookies all - are the rotation at center for the Blazers this season. Saying that this team is a giant question mark would be an understatement, and other than the excellent LaMarcus Aldridge, not much else (aside from feisty Frenchman Nicolas Batum) on the Blazers' roster impresses me. Selecting the mediocre Terry Stotts as head coach was also a head-scratcher during the offseason, and with a slew of rookies and what will be essentially a brand-new coaching scheme, the Blazers are going to be in the cellar for a long while yet.
Predicted Divisional Standing: 5th
2011-2012 Record: 26-40 (5th in Division)
Divisional Record: 4-9
SBNation Blog: Canis Hoopus
Despite Timberwolves GM David Kahn's questionable decisions in the draft over the last few seasons (like keeping Jonny Flynn over Ty Lawson, or trading away picks for Chase Budinger, for example) and his apparent attempts to assemble an all-white basketball team, the Timberwolves seem to be turning into a potential threat to both the Thunder and the Nuggets for their divisional spots.
Anchored by scary Montenegrin man-mountain Nikola Pekovic - seriously, the guy is 6'11" and 290 pounds - the Timberwolves also have gold medalist and perpetually overrated Kevin Love at the power forward spot and the ghost of Andrei Kirilenko at small forward. Ricky Rubio, at point guard, has shown that he has nice chemistry with Love and Pekovic, but I'd like to see him play through a full season before I'm sold on him being a top flight PG in this league. Rounding out the starters at shooting guard is ... Brandon Roy! The Timberwolves decided to take a flyer on Roy after his "retirement" and are rolling the dice that his knees will not immediately collapse and take the knees of Pekovic and Love with them. If Roy still has any effectiveness, however, that is a solid cast that can compete effectively. They have size, outside shooting, and the capacity to bruise in the post. The Timberwolves bench seems most suspect to me, though, and outside of the starting-five the only other standouts are Budinger and Jose Juan Barea.
Rick "Sleepy the Dwarf" Adelman has also been one of my favorite head coaches for a long time. He seems to maximize the value of his rosters wherever he is, and I've always been impressed with his ability to maintain discipline and implement effective schemes. If he can keep Rubio and Love healthy, this team might be a lot tougher of an out than we think.
Predicted Divisional Standing: 3rd
Stiffs, other than the Thunder, what team in the Northwest do you think the Nuggets will be checking their rear-view mirrors for?