The division prediction series continues with a look at the teams in the Northwest (for NBA purposes, Oklahoma City is in the Northwest, not the Midwest. Keep it straight.) The previous editions covered the Atlantic, Central, and Southeast Divisions.
Utah Jazz (2013-14 record: 25-57)
The Utah Jazz started their offseason by selecting the biggest question mark the draft had to offer: Dante Exum. Exum is raw, but has the upside and opportunity to develop into a franchise player, particularly on the defensive end with his disproportionately immense wingspan. Rodney Hood fell to the 23rd pick, giving the Jazz some welcome perimeter shooting (they were 25th in 3-point shooting last season). These two along with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks (if he stays), and Enes Kantor will form a fantastic core in a few seasons, but this year will be more about learning than anything else.
Predicted record: 20-62
Minnesota Timberwolves (2013-14 record: 40-42)
The 2013-14 season should have been the year Minnesota finally put the pieces together and warmed up their seat for a long-stay in the Western Conference playoff picture. For once, injuries were few and far between for the Wolves, and the players simply didn't enjoy playing together. Now that the Kevin Love drama is over, the Timberwolves can finally invest all of their attention to rebuild mode. It's take two of the Flip Saunders era in Minnesota, A much-improved Anthony Bennett, along with Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, Zach Lavine, Chase Budinger, Ricky Rubio, Glenn Robinson III, and Shabazz Muhammad is a hyper-athletic, electrifying young core. Like most of the young teams out there right now, the Wolves will be bad before they are in the West's top 8.
Predicted record: 24-58
Denver Nuggets (2013-14 record: 36-46)
Denver's consecutive playoff appearance streak that dated back to 2003 reached an abrupt ending after enduring a frustrating season. The Nuggets were so injury-prone that Wilson Chandler was one of the healthier players for the Nuggets last year. Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, and JJ Hickson missed most or all of the season knee ligaments, and JaVale McGee played five games before a season-ending tibia fracture. All of these injuries undoubtedly contributed to a divide between the players and Brian Shaw, which boiled over in a vicious diatribe after a crushing defeat. This is basically the exact same team as the 2012-13 team that was upset by the Warriors in the first round, with Arron Afflalo in place of Andre Iguodala. They should all be coming back healthy, and it'll be interesting to see if Kenneth Faried can channel the full-on Manimal we witnessed in the FIBA World Cup to help carry them to a spot in the playoffs.
Predicted record: 40-42
Portland Trailblazers (2013-14 record: 54-28)
The Blazers dictated the pace of their first round series against Houston from beginning to end - an end that is definitely worth another viewing:
That video will never not be fun. But then Portland "battled" the Spurs, their bench and defense were demolished, and Rip City became RIP City. It was a fantastic year for a fanbase that has dealt with so many consecutive years of agony, but they marched into the offseason with two major kinks to be ironed out if they seriously dreamed of title contention: the bench and rim protection. The Blazer bench was atrocious, ranking at or near the bottom in every single efficiency statistic. Steve Blake is a plus replacement for Mo Williams (who was terrible last season), and Chris Kaman is probably the closest thing to a rim protector Portland could get this offseason, but neither move is any indication to me that they are ready to be promoted to a serious title contender just yet.
Predicted record: 54-28
Oklahoma City Thunder (2013-14 record: 59-23)
At this point, it started to become increasingly clear that OKC's athleticism was too much, and we were heading back to a 2012 Finals rematch. But with the help of aggressive Boris Diaw, the Spurs took control of Game 5, and then eked out a heart-pounder in Game 6 to eliminate the Thunder. I know we hate to hear it, but we very well could have been a healthy Ibaka calf away from a drastically different postseason*. Nobody knows.
What I do know is that you can't help but respect the Thunder players, despite their iso-heavy sets. Kevin Durant is a helluva basketball player. So is Russell Westbrook. So is Serge Ibaka. Steven Adams is a solid role player (AKA at least 100 times better than Kendrick Perkins). It's all but certain the Thunder will be anticipating redemption against San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. Both teams are pretty much the same, and both teams are the NBA's finest.
Predicted record: 61-21
* At the same time, Parker didn't play the second half or OT of Game 6, and endured a bum calf of his own throughout the 2012 WCF. Patty played the entire season with a torn rotator cuff and Manu played with a broken leg that he got somewhere along the title run. Injuries suck, but they happen to everyone. If they didn't, we would currently be asking if the Blazers were going to seven-peat