Western Conference, Northwest Division: Season In Review
Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 Record: 47-19, 2nd in the Western Conference
2011-12 Draft Picks (Pre-Lottery): 28
Needs: C, SF, PF
Players Selected in Past Two Drafts on Roster: Reggie Jackson (2011 - 24th overall), Cole Aldrich(2010 - 11th), Lazar Hayward (2010 - 30th)
Overview: The Thunder's future is unbelievably bright as they have three-time consecutive NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant locked up for the long-run, as well running mate Russell Westbrook who signed a contract extension earlier this season; each superstar is just 23 years old with their best basketball ahead of them for Oklahoma City. Add into the mix James Harden, the team's sixth man, yet his offensive prowess makes him one of the top three or four shooting guards in the game today; as a reserve, Harden averaged nearly 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists per game. And then there is shot-blocking extraordinaire, Serge Ibaka, is only 22 years old with tremendous defensive potential and a still-hopeful offensive game, and this trio will anchor the Western Conference for years to come.
Rounding out the rotation are veterans Kendrick Perkins, a defensive intimidator, Daequan Cook, a jump-shooting wing and long, rangy wing, Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins and Sefolosha are signed for at least two more seasons, while, as valuable as Cook has been, is expendable with Harden's rise into the elite class of shooting guard. Combo-guard Reggie Jackson, the 2011 first-round pick of the Thunder is in the mold of a less-talented Westbrook, but has potential to expand his talents if he can better his perimeter shooting.
Needs: This team seems to have it all and should be NBA champion contenders for years to come. They have tremendous scoring and play-making coming from Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the ability to score from the perimeter, defend the wing with Westbrook and Sefolosha and lock down the paint with the shot-blocking of Ibaka and Perkins. They were the second most-efficient offense in 2011-12 and one of the top defensive teams as well.
There are two areas where the Thunder need to improve in decision-making and low-post scoring. Despite their incredibly talented wings, Oklahoma City ranked last in the league in assist ratio and turnover ratio; nearly twice as many possessions are ending in a turnover compared to ending in an assist. Most that has to do with the shaky play of Westbrook as a floor general, but at the same time, he's just 23 years old and still learning the position.
And then onto the frontcourt. Ibaka and Perkins are primarily defensive stoppers in the paint, ending possessions with timely swats and rebounds on the defensive glass, but neither offer much in terms of low-post scoring, making this team dangerously reliant on its perimeter scoring. It's not like this team settles for ill-advised jumpers with Durant's, Westbrook's and Harden's ability to get into the paint and score, but the wings could greatly benefit if there was some sort of post-presence on offense.
2011-12 Record: 38-28, 6th in the Western Conference
2011-12 Draft Picks (Pre-Lottery): 20, 38 (from Golden State Warriors), 50
Needs: SG, PF, PG
Players Selected in Past Two Drafts on Roster: Kenneth Faried (2011 - 22th overall), Jordan Hamilton (2011 - 26th), Julyan Stone (2011 - Undrafted)
Overview: Since trading star forward Carmelo Anthony last February, Denver had no need to re-build the team from scratch just as Cleveland and Toronto are doing without respective all-pros LeBron James and Chris Bosh; the Nuggets went 17-7 without Anthony last season and good enough to finish amongst the Western Conference's best teams without him this season.
Management has done an excellent job dealing with that saga and building a legitimate contender out West. They traded starting center Nene, acquiring a younger and potentially defensively-dominant center in JaVale McGee from the Wizards mid-season and was able to sign Wilson Chandler once he left playing professionally in China. Add in the steady play of rookie Kenneth Faried, a per-minute monster, averaging close to 10 points and 8 boards in just 22 minutes of play and Denver has to be happy with the development of their roster recently.
At the point, this team features a dual-headed attack of speedster Ty Lawson and aging, yet craft veteran Andre Miller; the duo combined for nearly 13 assists per game. Lawson led the charge with a team-high 16 points per game, while Miller was just shy of double-figures off the bench. Playing alongside them at shooting guard, Arron Afflalo, has exceeded his expectations, at least offensively, with a career-high 15 points per game, serving as the team's best perimeter shooter as well with Danilo Gallinari's injuries and struggles at small forward.
Needs: Denver ranked at the top of the league in most offensive categories, including points per game, tempo, offensive efficiency, true shooting percentage, assists per game and were close to that top spot in several more categories. Defensively, they certainly were not as good. Mid-season additions to the lineup in McGee and Faried helped, but it was more so because of the woes of the perimeter defenders; Denver was by far and away the worst defending team from the outside, allowing more than 550 3-point makes and allowing opponents to shoot a league-high .380 percent.
The two biggest free agent moves this summer will Andre Miller and JaVale McGee. Miller made $7.8 million to backup Lawson this season, so unless Miller is willing to take less money for his role, it's unlikely he will be back in Denver. McGee, on the other hand, has a qualifying offer of $3.5 million and was the centerpiece for the Nuggets in trading away McGee. With his length and explosive bounce, he is a perfect fit for this time offensively in an up-tempo system and is the interior defender they have lacked.
2011-12 Record: 40-26, 5th in the Eastern Conference
2011-12 Draft Picks (Pre-Lottery): 8 (from Golden State), 47
Needs: PG, SF
Players Selected in Past Two Drafts on Roster: Enes Kanter (2011 - 3rd overall), Alec Burks (2011 - 12th), Jeremy Evans (2010 - 55th)
Overview: Utah is in the unique situation that is normally somewhat disasterous for teams- they are somewhere in limbo between rebuilding-mode and win-now. Garnering most of the minutes are still-productive and sometimes dominant veterans like Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, while Devin Harris holds down the point guard spot and CJ Miles and Josh Howard split time at small forward. In waiting, the team boasts Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. Second-year wing Gordon Hayward has started nearly every game this season at shooting guard, playing over 30 minutes per game and ranking third on the team in scoring, and third in assists per game; the production has been great for Hayward, who's a young, athletic wing at 6'8" and the team figured he was still another year away offensively.
With CJ Miles as a free agent and is not expected to return, rookie wing Alec Burks is expected to handle a bigger load next season. He is an excellent slasher and finisher with his size and athleticism, but his perimeter shooting is still a major question mark. If he can solve that issue, he has lots of untapped potential in the future, but that's a big "if" starting next season.
In the frontcourt, Jefferson and Millsap have made Utah one of the best rebounding teams in the league, particularly on the offensive glass where they were second in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. It's a good thing both were so dominant because Utah finished in the middle-of-the-pack shooting the ball, but it was actually reserve Derrick Favors that led the team in offensive rebounds despite playing just 21 minutes a game; at age 20, the 6'10" Favors is already a great defender and rebounder due to his mobility and athleticism. He can carve out positioning in the low-blocks, but is still raw in terms of finishing around the rim with his scarce array of post-moves. There is no doubt that he is the future of this frontcourt when both Millsap and Jefferson are free agents in a year. The hope is that rookie center Enes Kanter will develop enough to play alongside of him in 2013-14; Kanter has hardly played the past two seasons (sat out freshman season at Kentucky and played just 13 minutes per game in his rookie year), but he has tremendous size and strength, built to bang inside on the low blocks and hit the glass hard.
Needs: Utah has a bright future stocked with the potential to win now with their mix of talent; two young frontcourt studs lie in waiting for the next step with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, while Gordon Hayward and Alex Burks appear to be the future of this team on the wing. So it makes logical sense that the Jazz would look to upgrade their depth and future with a point guard that will eventually unseat current starter Devin Harris, but at the same time, Harris is still quite productive as a penetrating guard that can get to the rim and constantly draw in the defense and get to the foul line. Harris' biggest problem is the team's biggest weakness- perimeter shooting. Utah was one of the least accurate teams from behind the 3-point arc, minimizing their weakness by making and attempting fewer than almost every other team in the league.
Defensively, Utah ranked near the very bottom in terms of defensive efficiency, hurt in large part by the fact that they gave up nearly 20 points per game at the foul line (26.3 free-throw attempts per game let up, 19.9 makes), giving Utah's opponents the second-highest points per shot in the league. Derrick Favors is going to be an absolute star when given more minutes and grow into the rim-protector this team needs.
2011-12 Record: 28-38, 11th in the Western Conference
2011-12 Draft Picks (Pre-Lottery): 5 (from New Jersey Nets), 11, 40 (from Minnesota Timberwolves), 41
Needs: C, PG, SG
Players Selected in Past Two Drafts on Roster: Nolan Smith (2011 - 21st overall), Luke Babbit (2010 - 16th), Elliot Williams (2010 - 22nd)
Overview: For the first time since 2007-08, the Trail Blazers find themselves out of the playoffs and in the lottery for the 2012 NBA Draft- let's hope they have a little more luck this year than in 2007 and 2008 where they ended up with Brandon Rush (traded for Jerryd Bayless) and Greg Oden. Their appearance in the lottery isn't unexpected though- Brandon Roy was forced to retire over a knee injury (and was thus amnestied), Gerald Wallace was traded mid-season to New Jersey, landing themselves a second lottery pick, Marcus Camby and Johnny Flynn were sent packing to Houston and JJ Hickson was a new member of the Sacramento Kings.
LaMarcus Aldridge is a budding star in this league, possessing an elite-mid-range game featuring an unstoppable 15-18 jump shot to go along with his stellar low-post game. He poses matchup concerns whether he plays the 4 or 5 (although he is much better suited at power forward) due to his quickness, mobility and athleticism. Starting next to him is small forward Nicolas Batum, just 23-years old and can be a real stat-sheet-stuffer; averaging 14 points, 4.5 rebounds, a steal and a block per game and his perimeter jumper is steadily improving. If he can stay healthy and continue to develop his perimeter shot, he should be a mainstay in the Trail Blazers' starting lineup. And finally, shooting guard Wesley Matthews is signed for the long-term. He is developing nicely, showing improvement from a solid role player to a very good scorer; Matthews' shooting numbers are down this year, but he has a sweet stroke when set and proves to be unreliable off the dribble.
Needs: Next season, with a new GM in place, this team could look drastically different with several key free agents including sixth man Jamal Crawford and point guard Ray Felton. The frontcourt was overhauled during the season via trades and now the backcourt could experience more of the same this offseason. The Trail Blazers, led by these two guards, posted a high assist rate and one of the five or six lowest turnover rates this season, so management should do what it can to at least get Felton back in uniform next season.
Portland needs to add a true-center, which would allow Aldridge to move to his more natural position of power forward. Shooting guard should also be addressed with a player that can create for himself, as well as others, a role the team has tried to fill with various combo-guards like Jamal Crawford, Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Nolan Smith over the past few seasons. With two lottery picks, they are in a very good position to address both areas of need.
2011-12 Record: 26-40, 12th in the Western Conference
2011-12 Draft Picks (Pre-Lottery): 17 (from Utah Jazz), 58 (from Oklahoma City Thunder)
Needs: SG, SF, C
Players Selected in Past Two Drafts on Roster: Derrick Williams (2011 - 2nd overall), Malcolm Lee (2011 - 43rd), Wesley Johnson (2010 - 4th)
Overview: Although the present continues to be a muddled mess, the future is looking bright in Minnesota for the first time since Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury were members of the team. Kevin Love. Ricky Rubio. Nikola Pekovic. Derrick Williams. All young and rising players in this league.
You can't look at Minnesota's record as a baseline of this up-and-coming talent though- Rubio missed the final 22 games of the season after tearing his ACL and the team won just four games in his absence. Love missed time with various ailments and the Timberwolves accumulated only one win in eight tries. Pekovic, the 26-year old center, barely sniffed the floor from his spot on the bench early-on, but took the league by a semi-Jeremy Lin-like storm since joining the rotation.
The frontcourt will be a dominating unit for years to come: Love is locked up for the long-term, Pekovic is under contract for one more year, but will likely re-sign, Derrick Williams is on his rookie contract, Michael Beasley seems like he could continue to turn his career around in Minnesota. And lost in the mix, there's the versatile 6'11" wing, Anthony Randolph who has four years under his belt and is just 22 years old.
The 6'10" Love may just be the NBA's most underrated player- he's a dominant rebounder on both ends of the floor, utilizing his size, strength and girth as well as any player in the game today. He has added range and consistency on his jumper out to the 3-point line, forcing defenses to play him 22-feet away from the basket. His starting-mate, Nikola Pekovic, is a near 300-pound bruising beast that plays with the utmost physicality; when he can stay out of foul trouble, he is a scoring force around the rim, finishing around the basket and drawing fouls on opposing bigs.
Off the bench, rookie Derrick Williams is an intriguing talent- an aggressive combo-forward who can score inside and out. He'll develop slowly, but effectively in his role as a back-up. He plays a similar brand of basketball to that of Michael Beasley, another "tweener" forward, who can shoot the mid-range jumper and relies on it too much at times. But Beasley had a career-resurgance this past season, at least offensively. Defensively, he was still lackadaisical and disinterested. Lastly, the 22-year old Randolph missed most of the year's action, but came up with some big performances late in the season when Love and Rubio were out healing injuries; although he is commonly labeled a "bust", his future is still bright if he sticks to rebounding, shot-blocks and stretching the defense with his point-forward skills.
Ricky Rubio highlights the backcourt, although there is some cause for concern as a player who relies heavily on his speed and quickness to hit the open man, is coming off of ACL surgery. Prior to his knee injury, Rubio posted a high assist rate, combined with an excellent turnover rate given the amount he handled the ball. His jump shot is, and probably always will be, a work in progress. Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea have been solid, yet unspectacular second-fiddle guards. And it looks like the team is ready to give up on former lottery pick Wesley Johnson.
Needs: Again, the frontcourt rotation is a thing of beauty- bruising physicality, dominating rebounders and versatile inside-out scorers. The backcourt could use an upgrade, particularly at the shooting guard/small forward positions; Wesley Johnson, a starter for almost of the season's games has been underwhelming, as has backups Wayne Ellington and Martell Webster.