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The Previews Of The Roundtable: Northwest Division

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NBA basketball is going to be here before you know it and the staff of Hickory-High is licking their chops. This is the first installment of our “Previews Of The Roundtable” series where we’ll take you division by division, through some of the things we’re most looking forward to. Today we’re staring with Oklahoma City, Denver, Utah, Minnesota and Portland in the NBA’s Northwest Division.

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1. What is the most intriguing storyline in the Northwest Division?

Ian Levy@HickoryHighChecking the swagger meter in Oklahoma City. Watching an NBA championship slowly slip out of the Thunder’s grasp in the Finals last season was difficult. This team dragged themselves to the top of the mountain with a youthful and brash aggressiveness that made them stand out against some of the league’s other top teams. As they playoffs progressed they seemed to tighten up, and that aggressiveness ebbed away. The Thunder are not the Spurs, and their efforts to beat the Heat with meticulous execution and precision ended up costing them. I’m eager to see if the Thunder respond to last season’s disappointment by continuing to try and remake themselves in the image of champions that can before, or if they return to their physically-dominating, face-stealing, soul-devouring roots, playing with the fury the brought them to the top of the mountain in the first place.

Matt Cianfrone@Matt_CianfroneWho will step up behind Luke Ridnour to help the Wolves stay afloat until Rubio’s return? The Timberwolves look like they can be one of those teams that fight for a final playoff spot and cause a high seed plenty of trouble come April; except for one question – Just how long can Luke Ridnour handle the pressure of being the only healthy true point guard on the roster? Newcomers Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko all provide some ball handling but the majority of it will have to come from Ridnour early in the season since he knows the team’s system best. While Ridnour is a nice player, he will need a break sometime and that is where the questions will come. Last season J.J. Barea was a disappointment and really is more of a scoring guard than a point guard. Roy and Kirilenko are both coming back to the league after a year away and both return with the same questions they left with. Will Roy be able to play extended minutes and be effective night after night? Will Kirilenko be able to bring the versatility he shows in international play and translate it to the NBA? Or will Shved be the one that steps up and creates for teammates when Ridnour is out of the game? If one of those guys steps up the Wolves should be able to hang around long enough to keep themselves in the playoff hunt for when their star Spaniard returns. If not things could get ugly in Minnesota.

Myles Ma@mylesmannjCan the Timberwolves make the playoffs? They improved just by shedding Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley and Michael Beasley’s tattoos, but they also made two of the most intriguing signings of the summer by adding Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko. Roy was an elite performer with an unguardable pull-up jumper until his knees crumbled. If his visit to Kobe Bryant‘s Lazarus Pit restores him to anywhere near his past level of proficiency, Minnesota could muck up the Northwest division. But there are too many questions, aside from Roy’s health, for the Timberwolves to be a safe bet. Will Ricky Rubio be healthy? Will Kirilenko be rusty after a year abroad? Will he give Nikola Pekovic hair tips? They are intriguing, though.

Kyle Soppe@unSOPable23How good is this division? We all know how good could the Thunder are going to be, but with the Nuggets making big moves in the offseason (both via trade and through the draft) and the Jazz full of young potential, this could be the best division in the NBA. Denver selecting Quincy Miller (38th overall) was great value, and George Karl figures to give him the chance to showcase his blend of skills. The Trailblazers might have the division’s second best player in LaMarcus Aldridge and the Timberwolves, assuming Ricky Rubio returns in mid December, could surprise people as well. The Northwest was represented with an NBA high 3 playoff teams last year and should be a safe bet to do so again this season.

Matt Swiman@MSwimanWill 3 teams out of this division go to the playoffs? Two are definite locks – the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets. But two other teams: the Jazz and the TWolves could potentially grab that 3rd spot out of the division to clinch a playoff berth. There are arguments for all 3 teams. First, the Twolves, led by All-Star Kevin Love. The Timberwolves have a strong core, with Love, and 2nd year point guard Ricky Rubio. Also Minnesota recently signed former All-Star Brandon Roy. If he can return to his old form, the Timberwolves will be a scary team in the West. In Utah it’s tough because their frontcourt is one of the best in league, but they lack perimeter scoring from a player like Monta Ellis or Kevin Martin. To really be successful they must create a package, sending away one of their bigs to fill that perimeter hole. With this trade, Utah would have a more balanced roster which could result in loads of success.

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2. Who will be the top newcomer in the Northwest Division?

Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Andre Iguodala. This one was pretty easy. Iguodala is an elite defender, a great passer and a tremendous finisher who should fit right into the Nuggets up-tempo style. The biggest positive of his new situation is that it doesn’t force him to continue to try and play the role of superstar isolation scorer as we saw him forced to do time after time in Philadelphia. Instead he will be able to play alongside Ty Lawson and take the opportunities available to him in the flow of an offense. The addition also provides countless lineup possibilities from the super-sized Lawson-Iggy-Wilson Chandler-Danilo Gallinari-JaVale McGee look, to the Lawson-Andre Miller-Iggy-Kenneth Faried-JaVale alley-oop super lineup. All-in-all the move seems perfect for Denver who finally get a defender to combat the super scorers of the West in Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Andre Iguodala. With apologies who Adam Morrison, who makes his triumphant return to the NBA with the Portland Traiblazers this season, Iguodala is the top newcomer to the Northwest division. He’s coming off one of his best seasons, one in which he provided his typically stout defense but also improved his efficiency on offense, particularly from three-point range. Iguodala even led the 76ers in assists per game. If he plays like that this season, the Nuggets won’t miss Arron Afflalo too much. Well, except on rainy nights, when the show he likes is on TV and the wind seems to whisper his name.

Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Andre Iguodola. He was the heart and soul of the 76ers for eight years and should bring that passion and energy with him to Denver. It’s more than his 15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals on a nightly basis, it’s his ability to bring tenacity that the team has been lacking it. It remains to be seen if a team can win big with Iggy as its best player, but I think it could happen with this collection of talent. His leadership also led to a strong youth movement in Philadelphia, and Quincy Miller figures to be the beneficiary this time around.

Matt Swiman - @MSwiman -  Andre Iguodala. As a diehard Sixers fan, I know exactly what Iguodala is capable of doing. It’s not his stat line that will make the big difference it will be his overall defense, his lock down efforts against other elite small forwards. Last year in the playoffs against the Celtics, one of the main reasons why Philly took Boston to 7, was because Iguodala locked down Pierce. In addition to all this, it amazes me that Denver was able to snag Iguodala without giving up any of their other crucial pieces. The Nuggets starting lineup with Lawson, Iggy, Gallinari, Faried, and McGee will be great, but out of that 5 expect Iggy to make the biggest impact.

Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Damian Lillard. The obvious answer is Andre Iguodala, but his contributions will be more subtle against the backdrop of the deep and talented Nuggets roster. In Portland, Lillard is going to be asked to handle the ball from the first minute of the first game, creating shots for his teammates and carrying more than his share of the scoring load. The Trail Blazers are a team in transition and probably won’t make the playoffs this year. But much like Kyrie Irving last in Cleveland, Lillard is going to be a bright light in a dark season, keeping the Blazers competitive and giving their fans hope for a return to dominance in the near future.

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3. Who has the most to prove in the Northwest Division?

Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - James Harden. If Harden wants to continue having outrageous yacht parties, he’ll need to have another great season. Harden is the only member of Oklahoma’s big three who hasn’t secured a lucrative long-term contract. If Oct. 31 passes and the Thunder still haven’t given him an extension, this season will serve as an 82-game audition for what will probably be a max contract. Harden deserves such an offer based on the skill and potential he’s shown in his first three years in the league, but the NBA is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Harden needs to prove he’s worth the money, so he can finally afford a razor.

Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - James Harden. Many people think the Thunder proved all they needed to last season, blazing through the Western Conference before running into the buzzsaw that was the Miami Heat. But Harden disappeared in the Finals after the first game and was rumored to be on the trading block due to his expiring contract. With a new contract on the horizon for Harden, he’s got to prove exactly what he is worth. Is he a nice role player that you can win with or is he a player you can build a winner around? If he’s tired of being the third banana in OKC, this is the season to prove to other Sam Presti and every other general manager that he is a franchise player deserving of a franchise deal.

Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - James Harden. This is my choice because he has two reasons to prove he is elite this season. First, he is going into his contract year and the Thunder have yet to ink him to a long term deal, having extended Serge Ibaka first. If Harden wants to be paid the big bucks he’ll have to contribute the way he did during the regular season and not repeat his no-show in the NBA Finals. Second, I was a huge Harden believer before the Finals, thinking he was an integral part of their team, maybe even more so than Russell Westbrook. But watching Westbrook and Harden’s performances changed my mind completely. More than just proving he deserves a big contract, he needs to prove that the Thunder need him to build a long-term stranglehold on the top of the Western Conference.

Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Derrick Favors. The prize in the Deron Williams deal, Favors has worked hard to harness his tremendous physical talents during his season and a half in Utah. Although incredibly productive, both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have holes in their skill sets that are unlikely to be overcome at this point in the careers. Favors has the potential to hold the whole front-court together with his ability to contribute in multiple ways at both ends of the floor. If Favors makes a move towards Dwight Howard-style two-way excellence, the Jazz could once again find a spot in the Western Conference’s top tier. If Favors goes the way of Keon Clark or Stromile Swift, the Jazz are likely to be dumped back into the rebuilding hopper with a collection of disparate frontcourt pieces that don’t quite fit together.

Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Derrick Favors.While the general consensus around the league is Favors will be a star, a consensus I agree with, this season the third year back man has a lot to prove because of the trade he’s likely to force. As has been rumored for a while now, the Jazz will probably move Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap this season to create more playing time for Favors. The problem with that is the minutes jump Favors will have to take on. Last season both Millsap and Jefferson played about 700 more minutes than Favors did. In fact the two played the highest percentage of minutes available for the Jazz last season with Jefferson playing 64 percent and Millsap leading the team at 65. On the other hand Favors played in less than half of the team’s available minutes at 43 percent. If a trade does happen that puts a lot of pressure on Favors to be able to sustain his production over a longer amount of minutes and help the Jazz continue to build on a surprising 2011-2012 season. I think he can do it but the fact remains if the Jazz trade one of their two best players from a season ago to provide more time for Favors. He will have to produce to prove that the decision was the correct one.

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4. Who is the most likely to be moved in the Northwest Division?

Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Kevin Love. The Timberwolves were headed in the right direction last season before rookie sensation Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. Kevin Love was exposed to greatness this offseason by playing with Team USA, and it’s apparent that he is growing more and more envious of NBA stars with established second options. “My patience is not high … If I don’t make the playoffs next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” With the Timberwolves not making any huge offseason adjustments and having only one draft pick (Robbie Hummel 58th overall), it is hard to imagine that this team makes a big leap forward. I expect Love to learn from Kevin Garnett, and request out of Minnesota sooner rather than later.

Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Al Jefferson. Basically because, he’s always on the trading block. Now more than ever would be the best time to move Jefferson, when he will still have a very high trade value. The Jazz have a crowded frontcourt with Millsap, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors who all have all with high individual ceilings. Al Jefferson is also the oldest of the four, which is another reason for Utah to let him go. Potential destinations for Mr. Jefferson (a 16 point and 9 rebound a game player for his career) include Washington, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Toronto, among many others.

Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Al Jefferson. I’m running with the herd here, but Jefferson is the obvious answer. He has settled into a productive niche with the Jazz but his defensive limitations, especially in the pick-and-roll put a cap on what they can do with him starting in the middle. If they want to full develop Favors and Enes Kanter than Jefferson is redundant and eating up minutes that would be better utilized elsewhere for the Jazz’s long term benefit. I’m not sure where a realistic landing spot is for him, but he seems like the most expendable guy in the division that would draw legitimate interest for more than a handful of teams.

Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Al Jefferson. As I said above, I expect one of the Jazz’s two starting big men to be traded at some point during the season, to give Derrick Favors more minutes. The reason I think it will be Jefferson is simple; Favors’ numbers were better next to Millsap. Jefferson could be a fit for any team looking for more post scoring as long as they are ok with it coming at the expense of defense. It would surprise me if the Jazz don’t move Jefferson at some point this year, even if they start the first month or so with him to allow Favors to get used to a bit bigger workload without leaving an average backup behind him.

Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Both have large expiring contracts and are playing in front of talented youngsters. Al Jefferson has the larger salary, so of the two, is probably more likely to move. I think the Jazz should let their contracts expire and pocket the cap space, but they’ll be getting a lot of calls. It would be impolite not to pick up, and you never know what you’ll say when you’re trying to get off the phone.

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5. What will be the order of finish in the Northwest Division?

Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - 1. OKC     2. DEN     3. MIN     4. UTH     5. POR

Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - 1. OKC     2. DEN     3. UTH     4. MIN     5. POR

Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - 1. OKC     2. DEN     3. UTH     4. MIN     5. POR

Myles Ma - @mylesmannj - 1. OKC     2. DEN     3. MIN     4. UTH     5. POR

Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - 1. OKC     2. DEN     3. UTH     4. POR     5. MIN

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