The Favorite: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Even with Russell Westbrook out for the first 4-6 weeks of the season, due to another knee surgery, the Thunder will be just fine. They may have offensive pains to the start the season, similarly to when they played the Grizzlies in the second round and the defense shifted to Durant’s side of the court every possession, however the Thunder won’t be playing be juggernaut defenses every game to start the season. The game Westbrook returns, look out Western Conference. Oklahoma City returns a top-5 defense, led by Ibaka’s weak side shot blocking and Selfolsha’s pesky perimeter defense. Durant has made major strides as a defender, becoming smarter defending the ball and knowing when to rotate during help situations. The offense will be top-5 again, the duo of Westbrook and Durant is scary and few teams have the correct personnel to defend them. There isn’t anyone in the division that’s going challenge their spot.
The Tanker: UTAH JAZZ
After trading away Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, letting Mo Williams walk in free agency, the Utah Jazz are in “tank” mode and gearing up for the 2014 Draft. This a big year for a lot of players on Utah–Gordon’s Hayward and Alec Burks’ development as offensive players along with the duo of Kanter and Favors playing starter minutes. Jeremy Evans’ development also. Even with the young talent influx, the Jazz are going to stink. Who is the offense going to flow through since Millsap and Jefferson are gone? Can either Favors, Kanter or Hayward bear responsibility as the focal point? Will Jazz get better defensively with Jefferson gone? We’ll see.
Division MVP: KEVIN DURANT
The second best player in the world. Durant quietly had one of the greatest shooting seasons ever in 2013–shooting 50% from the field, 40% from three, and 90% at the foul line. He also posted a career high in steals, blocks and assists. Durant is by far the best player in the division.
The “Real” Division MVP: KEVIN DURANT
Besides Russell Westbrook, there isn’t another player in the Northwest Division that is as valuable as Kevin Durant. Durant is not only the Division MVP, also a contender for the League MVP.
Team To Watch: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Kevin Love was limited to 18 games because of a broken hand. Ricky Rubio missed 25 games. Nikola Pekovic missed 20. Barring injuries, the core of Love-Rubio-Pekovic will lead the Timberwolves to playoffs–accompanied by three point shooting from Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger. They also have a solid bench. Derrick Williams can play either small forward or power forward. Corey Brewer is a capable defender, and a solid shooter from the left corner but for some reason is horrific everywhere else. They drafted super athletic center, Gorgui Dieng, who can defend the rim and a nifty passer in the post. Alexey Shved is a solid player off the bench who can play either guard position. Again, barring injuries, the Timberwolves will make the playoffs.
Player(s) to Watch: JEREMY LAMB AND REGGIE JACKSON
It’s easy to pick the best or second best player on either the Blazers, Nuggets, Jazz or T’Wolves. The Thunder are extremely thin in the perimeter scoring department. Jackson showed he can step up and provide offense, however that was only for a short amount time in late April and the playoffs.
Jeremy Lamb had a great offseason–averaging 18.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and shot 90% from the foul line during Summer League. He also shot a quite good 39% percent from distance during Summer League. If Lamb can shoot near 39% in the season, that’d be terrific for floor spacing.
Neither of these guys are going to replace James Harden or Kevin Martin’s offensive production, but if they can protect the ball, shoot efficiently from the three point line, play within the offense and defensive flow, they’ll be fine and the Thunder will be fine.
SCIC’s Division Champ: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Expect a fourth straight division title banner to be raised in Oklahoma City.