|Kevin Durant leads the Thunder as they try to get over the hump. (Getty Images)|
Cream of the crop: Oklahoma City Thunder. Oklahoma City has managed not to splinter.
That's the hardest part. In the Thunder's climb from young pups to title contenders, there have been pitfalls. GM Sam Presti has had to have the patience to stick with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. He hasn't gone all-in with veterans, the type that you supposedly need to win. The result has been an improvement every single year.
But the cap is here; it's push-come-to-shove time. The Thunder were a fun team but not a playoff team. Then a playoff team but not a team that could win in the playoffs. Then a team that could win in the playoffs but not one that could make the Finals. They made the Finals, couldn't win the title. Now they either win the title or they regress.
But they have so much going for them. Durant's superb standard, Westbrook's incredible production, Harden's prolific support, Serge Ibaka's versatility, Kendrick Perkins'... Perkinsness? Scott Brooks has improved each season along with the team, and they have great depth that only got better in the offseason with the return of Eric Maynor.
There's no reason to think this team won't be back in the Finals ... except for maybe the Lakers. And that's going to be something we'll be talking about the whole year through. But this division? It's already wrapped up.
Sitting Pretty: Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets took a weakness, their wing defense, and turned it into a strength in Andre Iguodala. They've implemented more elements of the dribble-drive offense, which fits supremely well with their array of athletes on the edge in Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer and Jordan Hamilton.
They have their weaknesses, namely shooters, rotation defense and, of course, that pesky superstar question. They face a ridiculously brutal schedule to open, with 17 of their first 23 on the road. They're putting in new players with a new approach. It would not be shocking for this team to be under .500 entering the new year.
But they have too much talent with a coach who fits too well with the roster to miss the playoffs. They could wind up as high as third in the West; they could sneak in. But they have too much ability and areas of potential to miss the dance. It's just a matter of where the development comes from and how the cookies crumble for the Nuggets.
And JaVale McGee. That's always a question.
On the cliff: Utah Jazz. The Jazz could surge to sixth in the West; they could drop back into the lottery. They have maybe the most question marks in terms of just players and ability with no clear answer. We know how Minnesota will be if it gets healthy. We know Portland will struggle regardless. But Utah? This playoff team from last season could get much better or much worse, and neither would surprise.
Ty Corbin has done a fantastic job of balancing a winning approach with developing young talent. He managed to make a logjam of quality frontcourt players into a solid rotation. The Jazz enter the season with the benefit of both veteran help and internal development.
Mo Williams shores up their point guard position. Marvin Williams is lulling Jazz fans into following him off the cliff as he did with Hawks fans for four seasons. Enes Kanter looks like not only did he lose half a person in weight this summer (Kanter says he lost 51 pounds after balooning to 291) but like he gained a whole person upstairs and seems a much smarter basketball player, more aware and aggressive.
But the logjam could lead to a trade, and that comes with risks. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are in contract years, which is usually a good thing, but could lead to instability. They still need a bunch to go their way and have to have a player step up to be "the guy" whether it's Derrick Favors or Alec Burks or whoever. There's a lot that could go wrong for the Jazz, and a lot that could go right.
Waiting in the tall grass: Minnesota Timberwolves. If the Wolves can get themselves healthy (what is this, the Warriors preview?), they're going to be a playoff team, possibly a high one. Kevin Love's injury might be a blessing in disguise, lowering expectations for the team and allowing it to slip under the radar to develop and shore up some solutions without its star players, then get Love and Ricky Rubio back for the start of the year and peak at the right time in April.
The Wolves made great upgrades to their bench, bringing in veterans. Anything Brandon Roy gives them is gravy. Andrei Kirilenko shores them up at multiple positions. Derrick Williams has shown his usual flashes, but he's still a young player. Nikolai Pekovic was a stunningly good center last season, and J.J. Barea could bounce back this year.
The Wolves are a team you want early on your schedule and could be the kind of team you want to stay as far away from as possible in March.
Dead Meat: Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers could have the best record of any team in the division basements across the league, but it won't change much. LaMarcus Aldridge can't carry this team as far as it needs to go. Meyers Leonard will need some time, as most rookies do. Damian Lillard will be fantastic and a reason to watch the team, but can't do enough. J.J. Hickson is starting.
Luke Babbitt could realistically get significant minutes in the rotation. Jared Jeffries and Sasha Pavlovic are their veteran rocks off the bench. This team's in transition, and several of the players they've committed big money to are not big-impact players, even if they are exceptionally skilled and capable role players. The Blazers just don't have enough.
But, hey, everyone's mostly healthy, so there's that, right?
Division MVP: Kevin Durant will take this, and it won't be any sort of contest. His best competition comes from Russell Westbrook, who honestly played just as well last season but will never get that kind of validation because of the perception of him. Durant could shoot 50-40-90 this year. He's a 24-year-old-jumpshooter. Think about that. The question is not if Durant will win the division MVP but the league MVP.
Division ROY: Damian Lillard. There's not a soul who can touch him in a division with four possible-to-probable playoff teams. Lillard will rack up the assists and win some games on his own. It's a new era in Portland and yet another star point guard to add to the list.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: 62-20
2. Denver Nuggets: 51-31
3. Minnesota Timberwolves: 45-37
4. Utah Jazz: 44-38
5. Portland Trail Blazers: 27-55