In the Northwest Division, one team is a near-unanimous choice as conference champion, one team is stunningly deep and has an incredible physiological home-court advantage, one team has been pounded upon by the clouds of misfortune, one team is rebuilding out of nowhere and one team is the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Basketball should be a blast in this set.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Oklahoma City Thunder did almost nothing this offseason and ... it was perfect. Why mess with a good thing? The Thunder lost in last season's playoffs because the Mavericks were on fire, because OKC was tired after a grueling series against the Grizzlies and because Dirk Nowitzki was unstoppable for the months of May and June. How do you fix that? Kendrick Perkins will be healthier, Russell Westbrook is a year wiser and James Harden has truly come into his own. This team is fine.
The Denver Nuggets should be, as well; the club retained Nene (a necessity) and Arron Afflalo (pretty important), and swapped out Raymond Felton for Andre Miller, who fits George Karl and this roster much roster. As John Hollinger has noted, the Nuggets have superior depth (legitimately 12 deep, even if Timofey Mozgov is a starter), which should help as the games on short rest pile up. Add in that tired teams will have to face that deep squad in Denver, where the Nuggets traditionally have a better than average home-court advantage, and things are looking good, even without a true star on the squad.
The Portland Trail Blazers figure to be in the playoff chase, despite a training camp of despair that saw Brandon Roy retire at the age of 27 (or 12 years younger than new Blazer Kurt Thomas), Greg Oden suffer another medical setback and LaMarcus Aldridge give everyone a scare with a necessary minor heart procedure. (There are minor heart procedures?) But Aldridge is OK, and the hydra of destiny -- Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace -- are in place. Who needs a center anyway? Who cares if Raymond Felton ate Nolan Smith and Armon Johnson? Who cares if there's no GM? This is Portland!
The Utah Jazz, like the Nuggets, traded their star in the middle of last season. Unlike Denver, Utah immediately fell apart and conceded a playoff bid that at one point seemed wrapped up. But while Denver won a package built for today, the Jazz took package prospects and picks that should pay dividends down the road. We hope. If not, watching Al Jefferson play center and Paul Millsap at small forward should be loads of fun for the Salt Lake faithful.
That the Minnesota Timberwolves have any faithful left is a miracle of loyalty. The Wolves have been completely awful for years, and went 32-132 over the last two seasons. Thankfully, they hired one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Adelman, and made a smart pick with Derrick Williams at No. 2. Ricky Rubio has arrived, and he will instantly become the most divisive player in the league. If nothing else, this team will be compelling, right?
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
Compelling can only get you so far when you can't shoot a lick, and most of the Minnesota roster can't shoot a lick. This was a transformative offseason for the Wolves, between the draft and free agency. And the team still figures to be one of the worst shooting squads in the NBA. The two backcourt additions, Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea, are inefficient scoring the ball. Michael Beasley is pure gunner. The center ranks remain depressing; the team's best offensive lineup likely puts Love at center, Williams at power forward and Martell Webster at small forward, and I think I just scored 20 points on that unit. To be good offensively, this team is going to be completely atrocious defensively. To be decent defensively ... well, there's probably no chance of that.
The Jazz crashed back to Earth so hard last season that it'll be amazing if they are able to climb from their crater within the next couple of seasons, let alone make it back to the top of the conference. I believe in Derrick Favors, but that rookie season was as deflating as a needle in an innertube store. Gordon Hayward is similarly a long ways away, and who knows what Alec Burks or Enes Kanter will contribute and when? Remember: rebuilding in the NBA is messy. You'll have some nasty seasons. Without knowing what Kevin O'Connor will do with those expensive veterans on the club, this figures to be one of the Jazz's messier seasons.
The Blazers are probably going to have to play Aldridge at center and Gerald Wallace at power forward, which actually worked pretty well last week. But there's no easy fix at point guard, and the team's deep shooting problems are as bad as ever now that Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez are gone. Jamal Crawford is going to play a ton of minutes for this team, many at the point. I'll let you judge whether that's a good thing.
The Nuggets are fine at point guard and have plenty of shooting, but Timofey Mozgov is a projected starter. Timofey. Mozgov. The other options are starting Chris Andersen or rookie Kenneth Faried (who, seriously, will make Darko Milicic look like Kareem, if his infamous performance at the Jimmer's All-Stars charity exhibition is any indication). The depth at just about every other position will help Denver survive and thrive, but few playoff teams have a hole as gaping at that one.
The Thunder are unimpeachable, and I have no grievances against them, except concerning Scott Brook's hair, but I have made those known in a personal letter to the coach, and I will not air our sartorial debate in public.
It will be miraculous if ...
Kevin Durant doesn't wear a halo during a game at some point this season.
Serge Ibaka doesn't lead the conference (if not the league) in blocks.
Blazers fans express joy at the Felton-Miller swap.
Rick Adelman is still giving Darko minutes in
Carmelo Anthony isn't roundly criticized based solely on the success of the post-Melo Nuggets.
Gordon Hayward doesn't at some point mistake Enes Kanter for a zombie and attempt to disable him.
Portland doesn't fall in love with Luke Babbitt.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. Oklahoma City Thunder*
2. Denver Nuggets*
3. Portland Trail Blazers*
4. Utah Jazz
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Division MVP: Kevin Durant.
Division ROY: Ricky Rubio.
Division DPOY: Serge Ibaka.
All-Stars: Durant, Westbrook, Nene, Aldridge, Love.
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