Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Off Season Needs: Northwest Division

     At the beginning of last season, most NBA analysts thought the Oklahoma City Thunder would reach the Finals. The Thunder proved worthy, and played extremely well during the condensed season. However, they lost to the Miami Heat in the Finals, and are returning with a vengeance. The Denver Nuggets played hard and were a fun team to watch throughout the season. They took the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of elimination in the first round, but unfortunately came up short in Game 7. The Utah Jazz went on a tear at the end of the season, but were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Their young players are continuing to develop and they'll only get better over time. The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off a disappointing season. With a new GM in Neil Olshey, Portland is expected to make a bunch of moves to get them back into the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves are coming off an average year, but suffered a major setback when they lost point guard Ricky Rubio last season. With him coming back healthy, can this team make a serious run for the playoffs next season?

A quick key of acronyms used in the entry: RFA = restricted free agent. PO = player option. TO = team option. ETO = early termination option.

1. Denver Nuggets

Players under contract for next season: Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Kenneth Faried, Al Harrington, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton, Corey Brewer, Julyan Stone, Chris Andersen, Kosta Koufos

Free Agents: Rudy Fernandez (RFA), JaVale McGee (RFA), Andre Miller

What they need: The Nuggets are a solid playoff team with a bunch of good players like Lawson, Gallinari, and Faried. However, they don't have that one All Star or superstar that will push them over the top. If they want to be serious contenders, they will need that star player to lead them. Head coach George Karl has been doing a phenomonal job with his players, and GM Masai Ujiri has made several good moves since he was given his current position. They have three picks in the draft, one in the first round and two in the second round. They might look to package the picks and players to get an All Star on their team, but no trades seem imminent.

McGee is expected to return to Denver this summer.
What to expect: I expect Karl to coach his team to the playoffs again. There is speculation the team might get rid of Al Harrington in some way because he has an expensive contract. I think Faried is primed to be a star, because of his high motor and intangibles. The team is expected to retain JaVale McGee, who has continued to develop under Karl. Andre Miller has fit well with the team, and plays great off the ball with Lawson, so I expect the team to try to keep him unless he is offered something out of proportion. Rudy Fernandez is a decent player but I don't expect the Nuggets to retain him. In the NBA Draft, there's not much known about who the Nuggets are looking at. They might look for a big man to play in rotation with Faried and McGee at #20 like Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie, and there are some rumors they will trade their two second round picks to move up in the draft. This team is set in stone for the most part though, and I expect to see them in the playoffs again next season.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves

Players under contract for next season: Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson, Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic, Wayne Ellington, Jose Juan Barea, Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster, Malcolm Lee, Chase Budinger

Free Agents: Michael Beasley (RFA), Anthony Randolph (RFA), Anthony Tolliver

What they need: This team is somewhat like the Denver Nuggets. They have a lot of good players, but I think they have more with star potential. Kevin Love is already an All Star, and I think Ricky Rubio will be an All Star one day. Derrick Williams showed flashes of the star he could become in his rookie season, but he still needs to develop. With that said, they'll need more veteran presence in the locker room. They can target players like Atlanta's Tracy McGrady, Cleveland's Antawn Jamison, or Los Angeles Clippers' Kenyon Martin. These players can contribute as well as make the players in the locker room more mature. The Timberwolves are on the upswing.

Can Rubio stay healthy
this upcoming season?

What to expect: The Timberwolves recently traded their #18 pick to the Rockets for forward Chase Budinger. I don't think it was a bad deal since Budinger is a nice role player, but this draft class is regarded as one of the deepest in years, so I don't know if I would have done it. There has been speculation that the Timberwolves are trying to trade some of their assets for star quality talent. Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington have expiring contracts that will be attractive to teams. Nikola Pekovic is also an expiring contract, but if he produces like he did this past season, Minnesota will try its best to sign him to a long-term deal. Wesley Johnson didn't perform as well as expected in his second season, so there's question about his future with the team. I think the Timberwolves will only make some minor moves to sure up their bench, but that's it. If the key players on this team stay healthy, then Minnesota will be in the hunt for the playoffs this upcoming season.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

Players under contract for next season: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, Reggie Jackson, Cole Aldrich

Free Agents: Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey

Can Durant and the Thunder return to the Finals next year?
If they add some veterans, I think they'll win it all.

What they need: Experience. Veterans. Any of that. There is only one player on the current roster for next season who is over 30 years old, and that's Nick Collison. I would not honestly be suprised if they bought Derek Fisher back. He has championship pedigree and seemed to fit well in the locker room. Also, they need head coach Scott Brooks back. He's not Doc Rivers or Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich but he is a very good young coach. He's done amazing with this team, and I think he can bring the championship to Oklahoma City. I like the way he runs the team and they will continue to grow with him as the head coach.

What to expect: In the NBA Draft, I expect the Thunder to select Michigan State's Draymond Green with the #28 pick. Green was the face of Michigan State basketball last year and played great for the Spartans, leading them again to the NCAA Tournament. He's a high character guy and is physical down low. He's more of a tweener but can be a solid back up behind Durant. Green reminds me a lot of San Antonio's DaJuan Blair, and I expect Green to be a nice role player in the NBA no matter what team he goes to. In free agency, the Thunder won't make any earth-shattering moves. They have a lot of young talent who I can see getting more chances during games. I can see them retaining Fisher and Mohammed but you never know what can happen. The organization has been run very well since GM Sam Presti took office, so I expect them to make the right moves that will get them back to the Finals next season.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

Players under contract for next season: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, Kurt Thomas

Free Agents: Nicolas Batum (RFA), J.J. Hickson (RFA), Jamal Crawford, Mehmet Okur, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Raymond Felton, Craig Smith, Joel Przybilla, Shawne Williams (PO)

What they need: After looking at the current roster, the Trail Blazers will need a point guard, small forward, and center. They made an extremely smart move by trading Gerald Wallace to the Nets for a lottery pick, Okur and Shawne Williams. They have two lottery picks in the draft, where I expect them to fill their needs. If Kaleb Canales remains the head coach, they have one hole filled. The Trail Blazers have four picks, two in each round, for this year's draft. In a deep class, Portland can really position itself well for next season if they draft the right players.

Portland does not want to mess up in this draft, so does that mean
they will pass up on the inexperienced Drummond, despite his high potential?
What to expect: In free agency, I expect the team to retain Batum and Hickson. Batum was an integral part of the starting five of the Trail Blazers, and the franchise adores him. I don't think he'll get the biggest payday, but he is worthy of some money I'm sure the team will give him. They reportedly extended him a qualifying offer, so we'll have to see if he accepts it. Hickson played well down the stretch for Portland and was a sensational back up for Aldridge, so I wouldn't be suprised if Portland keeps him too. I don't think Portland will keep any of their other free agents though, except Przybilla since he's been there forever so if he's willing to accept somewhere close to the veteran minimun salary, then the team will probably keep him. What they do in the draft depends on what they do in free agency. I think Portland will select UConn's Andre Drummond with the #6 pick, and Duke's Austin Rivers with the #11 pick. In Drummond, they have the franchise center they desperately need. He's a bit raw offensively, but has aspirations to be like Dwight Howard. Scouts say he's just as athletic as Howard, but his motor and intensity are questionable. If he maintains a high level of energy to become like Howard, then he will not turn out like Greg Oden. In Rivers, they get a kid who has a high motor and is one of few in the draft who can create his own shot. They have a lot of shooting guards right now, but drafting Rivers makes players like Wesley Matthews and Nolan Smith expendable to possibly trade for solid starting point guard. I think Rivers has a high ceiling, and can become like Monta Ellis one day. In the second round, they have the #40 and #41 selections, which I expect them to use on Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn and Iona's Scott Machado. If you watched the NCAA Tournament closely, O'Quinn was the player who led his team in a huge upset over Missouri. He's a smaller center who has decent range, and would be solid in a rotation with Drummond, Aldridge, and Hickson. Machado is a pass-first point guard and would be an efficient reserve during the beginning of his career. If the Trail Blazers select Drummond and Rivers in the first round, they will have to get a starting point guard in free agency. Their best, most realistic options are Houston's Goran Dragic, Los Angeles Lakers' Ramon Sessions, and Phoenix's Steve Nash. They could even try swinging a trade for Toronto's Jose Calderon. This team has a lot of free agents but I think they'll make some good moves in the summer which will propel them back to the playoffs next season.

5. Utah Jazz

Players under contract for next season: Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson, Raja Bell, DeMarre Carroll

Free Agents: Blake Ahearn (RFA), Jeremy Evans (RFA), Josh Howard, C.J. Miles, Jamaal Tinsley (TO)

What they need: The Utah Jazz are a borderline playoff team, but they have a lot of younger players who will be critical to the future success of the franchise. This includes Kanter, Favors, Burks and Hayward. These players will have to develop quick if this team wants to go deep in the playoffs next season. The Jazz will need a small forward, which will probably be easier to find in free agency since they are without a first round draft pick and the immediate talent they need is probably not available in the second round. Devin Harris is an expiring contract and has not worked out great so far in Utah, so they might need a point guard for the future too.

Can Harris' tenure as the Jazz starting point guard
be coming to a close soon?
What to expect: In the NBA Draft with their #47 pick, I expect the Jazz to select either a point guard or small forward. I think their best options are Iona's Scott Machado and Marquette's Jae Crowder. Machado, I had previously explained, is a pass-first point guard who has an impressive all-around game I believe will translate nicely to the NBA. Crowder is a high-octane motor kind of guy, and was a leader for Marquette throughout his career there. He's not extremely tall, but he is tough and has an NBA body. I think if put in the right system, Crowder can produce and succeed as a role player off the bench. In free agency, I think the Jazz might try going for a point guard, but they should probably trade Devin Harris first. Harris has some value, so they could probably get a first round pick for him if they wanted to. I wouldn't be suprised if they traded Harris for a late first round pick in this year's draft instead of for a future first round pick. If they happen to get a first round pick in this year's draft for Harris, they should target Kentucky's Marquis Teague. I think Teague has a lot of potential like his brother Jeff, who starts for the Atlanta Hawks. Marquis plays a different kind of style from Jeff's however. I think with time, Marquis Teague can develop into a solid distributor for any team. If they go for a point guard in free agency, they can target players like Charlotte's D.J. Augustin or Los Angeles Clippers' Chauncey Billups. However, if I were the GM of the Jazz, I would wait until next year to get a point guard for the future, in either the 2013 NBA Draft or free agency, where there is a talented group including the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul, Golden State's Stephen Curry, Toronto's Jose Calderon, and Denver's Ty Lawson. This team has more questions heading into next summer than it does now, but I expect the Jazz to be around .500 this year, and in contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

     That does it for my "Off Season Needs" series. I've covered each team from each division, and you can look for analysis on your favorite team on the right side of the main page. Just click the division in which your teams plays in, and read away! Next I'll be putting up my NBA 2012 Mock Draft. Kentucky's Anthony Davis is going #1, but how will everything else turn out after he's selected? I'll tell you who I think will go where. Tomorrow is going to be a great day for 60 young men, and I'm glad to say I'm going to the NBA Draft. I'm going to try to interview any players that will be there, and if I do, I'll post the interview(s) on here. Enjoy the draft tomorrow everybody!

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