1. Portland Trailblazers: Most people agree that the Blazers are loaded with talent and that they are the likely up-and-coming team of the next decade. What there is some disagreement about is how quickly Portland will arrive and how high they will ascend. The Blazers looked quite good look last year. They won 54 games and had the expected record of a 56-win team. In terms of how they did it, the Blazers had the slowest pace in the NBA last year but also had the most efficient offense behind Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Travis Outlaw. In fact, virtually none of the top rotation players shot poorly. Portland’s top seven offensive players all had effective field goal percentages above .528% and Aldridge was solid at .486% as well.
Defensively, the Blazers do have some room improve. They were a decent 13th overall but one could certainly envision that a healthy and presumably improving Greg Oden might be able to positively effect that facet of the team. This also seem like a good point to stop and see where Oden is in his development. He was clearly more raw than other great centers were as rookies. But Oden was only 21 and showed some promise in his rate stats. So, let’s see what the other centers were doing at a similar age:
*rookies seasons above are listed in bold
Prior to the mid-2000s, having a 21-year old center was quite rare. This was a function of the college system (Ewing, Sampson, Olajuwon, and Robinson all hung around college until after age-22), with the notable exceptions of Shaq and a few others. This decade, however, there is plenty of basis to compare Oden. In fact we have quite a few centers who have been better than Oden at age. Oden’s numbers are nice but not quite at the level of Bynum, Biedrins, and, of course, Howard. Still, Oden was nearly as good and this was his rookie year, while his contemporaries had been in the pros for a few years before turning age-21. So, we shouldn’t judge Oden too harshly. As pure rookies go, Oden’s age-21 year kills most of the competition, including Bogut and Daugherty. The only eerie point to see is that Oden and Dawkins are almost dead ringers at age. Dawkins gets something of a bad rap (he had some good years) but he is not the best case scenario for Portland with Oden.
In the end, the Blazers should still be a formidable team. They aren’t on par with the Lakers but the Blazers are close to breaking through and Oden should help in that vein.
-PG, Damon Stoudamire 2000-01: 13.0 ppg, .434 FG%, 3.6 rpg, 5.7 apg, 16.3 PER
-SG, Brandon Roy 2008-09: 22.6 ppg, .480 FG%, 4.7 rpg, 5.1 apg, 24.0 PER
-SF, Scottie Pippen 1999-00: 12.5 ppg, .451 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 5.0 apg, 16.4 PER
-PF, Rasheed Wallace 2000-01: 19.2 ppg, .501 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 20.9 PER
-C, Arvydas Sabonis 2000-01: 10.1 ppg, .479 FG%, 5.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 20.3 PER
2. Denver Nuggets: As great as 2008-09 turned out for Denver, some of the playoff success was a matter of circumstances. Yes, getting Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson was a very good trade but it’s important to remember that the Nuggs have been a pretty good team for several years now. In fact the 2007-08 team, which was swept out in the first round by the Lakers, actually had a better SRS rating and was only a few wins worse. Denver was a little bit better both offensively and defensively in 2008-09, thanks to Billups and Carmelo Anthony. Also, Marcus Camby was ably and surprisingly well replaced by Chris Andersen and a breakthrough year by Nene Hilario (shooting .604% from the field), not to mention a more healthy Kenyon Martin.
There are some questions here too. The primary concern is whether the front court was over its head last year. Nene never shot so well before, Andersen played great after a long layoff, and Martin stayed mostly healthy (though he wasn’t super effective). It’s hard to see all this happening again. Any decline by the front court and Billups (he will be 33 this season) could knock Denver down to 50 wins or below and force a first round match up with a really good team like the Lakers or Spurs again. While I don’t see such a steep decline, I don’t think the Nuggets are likely to improve. Instead, the Nuggets are in four/five seed territory and will be in for a first round dog fight that could go either way.
-PG, Andre Miller 2003-04: 14.8 ppg, .457 FG%, 4.1 rpg, 6.9 apg, 18.8 PER
-SG, Allen Iverson 2007-08: 26.4 ppg, .458 FG%, 3.0 rpg, 7.1 apg, 20.9 PER
-SF, Carmelo Anthony 2005-06: 26.5 ppg, .481 FG%, 4.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 22.0 PER
-PF, Antonio McDyess 2000-01: 20.8 ppg, .495 FG%, 12.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 22.0 PER
-C, Marcus Camby 2006-07: 11.2 ppg, .473 FG%, 11.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 19.1 PER
3. Utah Jazz: There isn’t too much separating Portland, Utah, and Denver and any small or random happening could fluctuate the order that they finish. They are all good teams but the Jazz have the most question marks right now. For two years, the Jazz were the cream of the division and contenders to get out of the West. Last year, injuries and disaffection by Carlos Boozer knocked the Jazz down a few wins and all of a sudden Utah was first round road kill. Utah was still good but the slow start killed their chances of positioning them for a nice playoff run.
This year, Utah is also in flux. They have a ton of front court players in Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko, and Paul Millsap to go with Deron Williams. Utah also has some glaring weaknesses. They can’t score on the perimeter outside of Williams and Kyle Korver (only 392 threes made as a team) and C.J. Miles and Ronnie Brewer look stretched to score in starting roles. Even the forward slots are muddled. Boozer is in his contract year and never seems happy. He can score but has been a weak defender. As a side note, Boozer has had a strange career. Think about the memorable events:
-Star at Duke who leaves early and falls all the way to the second round.
-Instant hit in Cleveland despite the second round status.
-Gets into a tiff with Jason Richardson because he was offended that J-Rich bounced a ball off his head during the Rookie Game.
-Boozer screws over the Cavs by convincing them to allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in order to give him a bigger deal. Instead, Boozer runs away quickly to Utah and Cleveland looks quite foolish.
-Boozer alternates great years with injured years in Utah, interspersed with complaints that he subtle hints that wants to be traded.
Based upon (some of) these facts, Boozer has been a pretty good signing for Utah but one could see why he might be more of a headache than his production allows for. Also, both Kirilenko and Millsap have been more effective as power forwards. Utah’s logical move would be to trade Boozer (or Kirlenko) to get a perimeter player who can be another scoring threat from outside. Even with this glut of forwards and lack of guards, the Jazz should still be around 50 wins and, with the right playoff match up, they could win a series.
-PG, Deron Williams 2008-09: 19.4 ppg, .471 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 10.7 apg, 21.1 PER
-SG, Jeff Hornacek 1999-00: 12.4 ppg, .492 FG%, 2.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 16.3 PER
-SF, Andrei Kirilenko 2003-04: 16.5 ppg, .443 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 22.6 PER
-PF, Karl Malone 1999-00: 25.5 ppg, .509 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 27.1 PER
-C, Mehmet Okur 2005-06: 18.0 ppg, .460 FG%, 9.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 19.0 PER
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder are run shrewdly, have some cap room, and some nice young players. Yes, the future is looking bright. The present is still not quite there yet. OKC primarily has Kevin Durant, very likely a superstar, and some players with potential to anything from useful NBA regulars to above average starters in Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, and Nenad Krstic. As the young players develop, the Thunder should be a lot better this year but a playoff run is way too premature unless Durant turns into a Michael Jordan-type player this year. At 21, it seems a little early for this too happen. In addition, OKC was a truly awful offensive team last year (29th in the NBA). Some of that was due to P.J. Carlesimo playing Durant out of position as a two-guard but Westbrook, Green, and the other non-Durant options really had problems scoring efficiently. The possibilities are there for the Thunder to develop and acquire a star but they are basically where Portland was in 2006-07 and 2007-08. The process can’t be rushed yet.
Finally, this is also a good time to throw in my two-cents on the Durant +/- issue. As everyone has noticed, the Thunder played better with Durant off the court (-8.4 last year) and have wondered if this revealed something about Durant defensively or effort-wise overall. To me, this screams of a flukish stat. Putting stats away, Durant is young and, by far, OKC’s best player. Moreove,r +/- tends to be a little flukey of a stat and dependent on factors beyond an individual players control. Durant played almost 40 mpg last year, so it’s hard to think that the other 8 minutes per game could have been so vital and telling in context to reveal some secret hidden weakness in KD. Even so, I’m sure all will be watching the stat again this season to see what happens.
-PG, Gary Payton 1999-00: 24.2 ppg, .448 FG%, 5.2 rpg, 6.5 apg, 23.6 PER
-SG, Ray Allen 2005-06: 25.1 ppg, .45 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, 22.2 PER
-SF, Kevin Durant 2008-09: 25.3 ppg, .476 FG%, 6.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 20.8 PER
-PF, Rashard Lewis 2006-07: 22.4 ppg, .461 FG%, 6.6 rpg, 2.4 apg, 20.7 PER
-C, Nick Collison 2008-09: 8.2 ppg, .568 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 14.8 PER
5. Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves have finally been extricated from the McHale Zone and are embracing the idea of rebuilding. In fact, Kevin McHale actually found a couple of useful pieces for Minny (Kevin Love, Al Jefferson). But McHale whiffed plenty in rebuilding too (Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Rashad McCants). Right now, it’s David Kahn’s show. It’s been hard to read Kahn so far. It appeared that he was flying by the seat of his pants in drafting Johnny Flynn very early and taking Ricky Rubio as well. We have no inside knowledge on how Kahn has handled the Rubio negotiations but if he is correct about Rubio, this was a great move. Losing a year or two of Rubio now while the team stinks won’t matter in the long term. Just go ask the Celtics, who had to wait a year for Larry Bird, and the Spurs, who had to wait two years for David Robinson. The key is, however, that Rubio better be pretty good and he better end up with the Wolves.
For right now, Love is hurt and even if he wasn’t, the Wolves defense is horrible. The offense isn’t great either but a full season of Jefferson, along with Ramon Sessions and Flynn might improve things a little. But we’re only talking about the difference between of a few wins. Minnesota will be a team 25-30 win team this year regardless. As a Wolves fan, the primary direction to watch is across the Atlantic to see how Rubio is developing.
-PG, Sam Cassell 2003-04: 19.8 ppg, .488 FG%, 3.3 rpg, 7.3 apg, 22.8 PER
-SG, Wally Szczerbiak 2001-02: 18.7 ppg, .508 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 17.1 PER
-SF, Kevin Garnett 2003-04: 24.2 ppg, .499 FG%, 13.9 rpg, 5.0 apg, 29.4 PER
-PF, Al Jefferson 2007-08: 21.0 ppg, .500 FG%, 11.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 22.7 PER
-C, Rasho Nesterovic 2002-03: 11.2 ppg, .525 FG%, 6.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 14.7 PER