1. Does Minnesota answer the hype? There is hype surrounding the Timberwolves that we have not seen since the Garnett-Marbury days. Tom Thibodeau takes over a team that is loaded with young talent. Is Thibs the final piece to this playoff puzzle for the Wolves? Establishing a culture will be crucial, but with this young team I don’t think that will be difficult. We will see.
2. Is it Utah’s year. For all the improvement we saw in the Jazz last season, they did implode down the stretch and missed the playoffs. Like Minnesota, this is a young team that lacks experience in winning consistently. Can the Jazz take the next step? In order for that to happen Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert must pick up their games.
3. Life without Durant, will it be a pleasant experience? The Thunder now start a season without Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook is now the unquestioned leader of this team. Can Westbrook truly “lead” and trust his teammates, or will he revert back to the mentality of “me against the world”?
4. Will Portland continue to rise? What the Blazers did last season was nothing short of miraculous. They had to replace 80% of their starting lineup! Coach Terry Stotts and his team said “no problem” as Portland won 44 games and won a first-round series. Stotts is easily becoming a upper-tier coach in the NBA. If their frontcourt play gets better, Portland will be a real threat in the West.
5. What about Denver? Another young basketball team with talent. I feel the Nuggets are at a bit of a crossroads with Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari. Both are still solid players, but Gallinari has had injury problems in the past and Faried is starting the year on the bench. If the Nuggets are truly committed to the youth movement, both guys might not be on the team come the trade deadline.
5 Best Players
1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder A two-way player who is fearless. His biggest improvement has been trusting his teammates more. He must continue to do so this season if he wants to truly be a great player.
2. Damien Lillard, Blazers One of the best guards in the game. Last season showed that he can step his game up and carry a team.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves Impressive rookie season. Showed a better offensive arsenal than expected. He will be the anchor of Minnesota’s defense under Thibodeau.
4. Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves For all the talk about Towns, let’s not forget about Wiggins. Averaged close to 21 points per game. I think he has a chance to soar, especially as a defender being with a defensive-minded coach in Thibodeau.
5. C.J. McCollum, Blazers Tough call between him and Gordon Hayward. C.J. got the chance to start and delivered averaging 20.8 points per game. Can “fill it up” from anywhere, shot selection will be key for him this season.
Best Coach: Terry Stotts, Blazers
Surprising Player: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets. Jokic played 30+ minutes only 13 times last season. In eight of those games, he scored 15 or more points! He also had 19 double-doubles. A very quiet rookie season, I think he will get noticed this year with an increase in minutes.
Disappointing Player: Russell Westbrook, Thunder. I still think he will be great this year. What scares me is that I think Russ will be so “hell bent” on proving a point that he is a dominant player, that he might forget about the team aspect. His teammates are not really guys that can go and get their own shots like Durant could, so they need Westbrook to put them in the right spots to be effective. Also, remember when OKC did not have Durant for the majority of the 201-2015 season? Westbrook could not carry the Thunder to the post-season that season.
Order of Finish: 1. Portland 2. Utah 3. Oklahoma City 4. Minnesota 5. Denver