TheSportsNotebook’s preseason NBA coverage continues with a look at the Northwest Division, home to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Injuries and personnel changes have affected this division for the worse, and while OkC is not immune, they look like a top-heavy favorite in the NBA Northwest Division.
We’ll run through the basics of each team’s lineup, and then compare them to their projected Over/Under win totals on the Las Vegas win props…
Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook is not all the way back from the knee surgery that ended his season in 2013, and might have swung the West–even the entire NBA playoffs–in another direction. Westbrook is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
For the short-term, the Thunder have plenty on hand, starting with the immense offensive skills of Durant, the aggressive defense by Thab Sefolosha on the perimeter and Serge Ibaka down low. It’s possible that Westbrook missing some time could allow promising young guards Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson to develop and give the team some depth come playoff time.
OkC is projected at 53.5 wins. With a weaker division, and presumably a healthy Westbrook by the New Year, that seems a little low for me. Remember, they did win 60 games a year ago, and I think they at least get 54 this time, and perhaps more.
Denver: A postseason disappointment got head coach George Karl let go, and while I like new hire Brian Shaw, he’s never been the head man before, so this introduces some uncertainty. The health of Danilo Gallinari is also uncertain, as the small forward an leading scorer was another victim to the season-ending knee carnages that marred so much of the 2013 NBA season. He is expected back by late November.
The Nuggets have the perfect combo at point guard to run what’s been a high-octane offense, with in-his-prime Ty Lawson, and then clutch veteran Andre Miller stepping in for key minutes. Javale McGee is a sound presence in the post, and Kenneth Faried is one of the league’s underrated players at power forward. Denver further strengthened its backcourt by picking up Randy Foye, who will join Gallinari as the lineup’s best three-point shooters.
Las Vegas says 46.5 is the number and that looks right to me. Even on the likely range out of outcomes, it’s about in the middle, as I see Denver between 42-50 wins. I’m going to go Under just because of the uncertainty that comes with the coaching change.
Minnesota: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are healthy, and if they can stay that way the entire season, they can make the Timberwolves a fun team to watch. I like the pickup of Kevin Martin at the two-guard spot, and J.J. Barea provides quality depth.
The problem the T-Wolves have is support for Love down low, especially given that the star forward is also a player most comfortable stepping out and making plays on the perimeter and from behind the arc. Love gets his rebounds, so I’m not suggesting he’s soft, but a team needs at least one true interior presence to be effective.
Minnesota is getting a lot of love in Vegas, with a win prop of 41. That means if you want to cash an Over you have to bet them to have a winning season. I’m intrigued by this team and would like to see them do it, but I have go Under for three reasons–the lack of frontcourt depth, the quality of the Western Conference and the fact that asking for Rubio and Love to play a full season together healthy is asking for the stars to align just perfectly.
Portland: The Trail Blazers should be a better team than they were last season, not because of any significant personnel improvements, but simply because they had no business falling to irrelevance in the first place, a tumble that had taken place even prior to Lamarcus Aldridge’s season-ending knee surgery.
Damian Lilliard was Rookie of the Year and runs the offense, and has a nice veteran backup in Mo Williams. Aldridge and Nicolas Batum make for a good forward combination. The bar for making the playoffs in the West is high, but Portland should at least be in the discussion. Aldridge looks ready to go for the start of the year, so I’m going to take the Blazers to go Over their 38.5 win prop.
Utah: This is a major rebuilding project going on here. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are gone, depriving the team of its identity as a physical, inside club. Derrick Favors is back and can hit the boards, but he’s a lonely presence down low. Trey Burke was a good draft choice, but the guard from Michigan who can bury three-point shots from anywhere in the gym has a broken finger and will miss a few weeks to start the year. Gordon Hayward is a nice supplementary player, but is unfit for the prominence he’ll have to take in this Jazz offense.
Las Vegas has no expectations for Utah, with a win prop of 25 and I think even that’s a little on the sunny side. Go Under.
TheSportsNotebook.com’s NBA commentary will tie all six divisional previews into one final preseason overview and prediction just prior to the October 29 tipoff to the regular season.