NBA Northwest Division Preview: Kevin Durant, Thunder At Crucial Juncture

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With the 2015-16 NBA season set to begin, NESN.com is breaking down each of the league’s six divisions. This time we’re focusing on the Northwest, where a finally healthy Oklahoma City Thunder squad faces a make-or-break season. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish (last year’s record and result in parentheses).

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-37, second in division)
Key additions: Cameron Payne (draft), Dakari Johnson (draft), Tomislav Zubic (trade)
Key departures: Jeremy Lamb (trade), Perry Jones III (trade)

As it has since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, the fate of the Thunder rests on two players: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. New head coach Billy Donovan has a decent supporting cast in the likes of Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison and Dion Waiters, and the motivation certainly is there after last season’s disappointing, injury-plagued campaign. But with Durant in a contract year, there’s also a ton of pressure on this team to return to the ranks of the Western Conference elite. If Durant really wants to prove he’s the best player in the world, there’s no better time than now to do it.

2. Utah Jazz (38-44, third)
Key additions: Trey Lyles (draft)
Key departures: None

Don’t look now, but the Jazz could be a legitimate playoff team this season. Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert and Derrick Favors lead an exciting young frontcourt that’s excellent on the defensive end, while Gordon Hayward has developed into a dependable all-around scorer. Utah still is an inexperienced squad, however, and the likelihood of Dante Exum missing another full season leaves a pretty weak backcourt led by third-year guard Trey Burke. The Jazz will have their work cut out for them in a loaded Western Conference, but they’re moving up the ladder quickly.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (51-31, first)
Key additions: Mason Plumlee (trade), Gerald Henderson (trade), Noah Vonleh (trade), Al-Farouq Aminu (free agent), Ed Davis (free agent)
Key departures: LaMarcus Aldridge (free agent), Robin Lopez (free agent), Wesley Matthews (free agent), Nicolas Batum (trade), Arron Affalo (free agent), Steve Blake (trade)

Don’t recognize anyone on this Blazers team? You’re not the only one. Portland parted ways with four of its five starters this offseason, leaving All-Star point guard Damian Lillard to pick up the pieces. The good news, if any, for Blazers fans is that the team is going young. Third-year forward C.J. McCollum could be poised for a big season after an encouraging performance in last season’s playoffs, while big man Meyers Leonard provides reason for optimism in the frontcourt. The fact remains, however, that Portland is a shell of its 2014-15 self, and even another spectacular season from Lillard might not be enough to put this team in the playoffs.

4. Denver Nuggets (30-52, fourth)
Key additions: Emmanuel Mudiay (draft), Kostas Papanikolaou (trade), Nikola Jokic (free agent)
Key departures: Ty Lawson (trade)

Replacing the troubled Ty Lawson with seventh overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay is a big upgrade at point guard that should give Nuggets fans something to get excited about this season. New head coach Michael Malone also should bring some stability to Denver after a tumultuous two seasons under Brian Shaw. This team doesn’t have much else, however, and a third consecutive season without a postseason appearance seems likely.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66, fifth)
Key additions: Karl-Anthony Towns (draft), Tyus Jones (draft)
Key departures: None

There’s plenty of young talent to go around in Minnesota, as young studs like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio should make several appearances on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays.” The NBA’s worst team in 2014-15 still has a long way to go, however, and the organization enters the season with heavy hearts after the passing of head coach Flip Saunders. The Timberwolves might not repeat as the worst team in the league, but they’ll still be right near the bottom.

Other division previews: Pacific Division | Southwest Division | Southeast Division | Central Division Atlantic Division

Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and forward Kevin Durant (35) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center.

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