As the 2014-15 NBA season approaches, NESN.com will be taking a preseason look at each of the league’s six divisions. We begin with the Northwest, where Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will attempt to claim their fifth straight division crown.
Teams are listed in predicted order of finish (last year’s result in parentheses).
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (first)
Key additions: PF Mitch McGary (draft), SG Anthony Morrow (free agent), PG Sebastian Telfair (free agent)
Key departures: PG Derek Fisher (retired)
OKC has failed to reach the conference finals just once in the past four seasons, and with the nucleus of last season’s squad returning, many experts have the Thunder pegged as the favorites in the Western Conference. None of the team’s new additions project to be game-changers, but if the Thunder’s stars can remain healthy — injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka helped derail each of the last two campaigns — there’s no reason to doubt that prediction.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (second)
Key additions: PG Steve Blake (free agent), C Chris Kaman (free agent)
Key departures: PG Mo Williams
I have the Blazers repeating their second-place finish in the Northwest from a season ago, but I would not at all be surprised to see them give the Thunder a run for their money. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are developing into a legitimate superstar combo, and the additions of Blake and Kaman add to a deepening crew of role players. Plus, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez are set to hit free agency next summer, so this could be the Blazers’ best chance at a deep playoff run.
3. Denver Nuggets (fourth)
Key additions: SG Arron Afflalo (trade), SG Gary Harris (draft), C Jusuf Nurkic (draft)
Key departures: SG Evan Fournier
After a decade of “meh” basketball — making the postseason in 10 consecutive seasons but advancing past the first round just once — the Nuggets fell off a cliff last season, posting their lowest win total since 2002-03. Injuries played a large role in that nosedive, though, so expect improvement in the second year of the post-George Karl era. Afflalo is back after two years in Orlando and fills a need at shooting guard. He led the Magic with a career-high 18.2 points per game last season and could do the same for a Nuggets team that saw its usually scoreboard-busting offense take a step back in 2013-14.
4. Utah Jazz (fifth)
Key additions: PG Dante Exum (draft), SG Rodney Hood (draft), SF Steve Novak (trade)
Key departures: SF Richard Jefferson, PF Marvin Williams, coach Tyrone Corbin
The Jazz made a number of personnel moves during the offseason, including bringing in a new head coach in Quin Snyder, but their most important decision of the summer was to re-sign Gordon Hayward. Hayward is Utah’s most complete player — averaging 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game last season — but he’ll need help to fix the Jazz’s anemic offense, which ranked 29th in scoring in 2013-14.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (third)
Key additions: G Andrew Wiggins (trade), SF Thaddeus Young (trade), PF Andrew Bennett (trade), G Zach LaVine (draft), PG Mo Williams (free agent), Glenn Robinson III (draft)
Key departures: PF Kevin Love, PG Alexey Shved, PF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Losing one stud player can cripple an NBA club, and the loss of Love means back to the bottom for the T-Wolves. Minnesota brought in youth and promise by the truckload this summer — with top pick Wiggins driving said truck — but it’s hard to see this season being anything more than a total rebuild.
Up next: Pacific Division
Photo via Steve Dykes/USA TODAY Sports Images