Last year: Seasons like 2012-13 in Denver apparently don’t cut it anymore. With Ty Lawson leading the way on offense and Andre Iguodala anchoring a highly efficient defense, the Nuggets stormed to a 57-25 finish and the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed. Lawson shot 46.1 percent from the field, helming a group of four scorers that averaged 13 or more points per game. Iguodala was one of those but proved even more effective on defense, notching 1.7 steals and harassing opponents’ top shooters. It was Denver’s fifth straight 50-or-more-win season — excluding the 2011-12 lockout year — and 10th consecutive playoff berth. But it was also the Nuggets’ fourth straight first-round exit after earning a No. 6 seed or better. The hot-shooting Golden State Warriors’ 4-2 series win cost coach of the year George Karl his job and sent this organization into serious offseason flux.
This year: Playoff success wasn’t the only thing Golden State ripped away from the Nuggets. After a year in the mountains, Iguodala signed with the Warriors for reportedly less money than the Denver brass had offered him. General manager Masai Ujiri — like Karl, honored by the league as the best at his craft last season — bolted for the Toronto Raptors’ front office. Brian Shaw took over in his first head coaching capacity, and Tim Connelly came in to head up personnel operations. The roster itself, though, still looks pretty similar to that of last year. Lawson’s back, along with 3-point specialists Danilo Gallinari (out for the first one or two months of the season with a knee injury) and Wilson Chandler and big man JaVale McGee. Corey Brewer’s gone, but the Nuggets were able to add J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye. The fresh, green leadership combined with a mix of returners and newcomers makes for some prognosticator head-scratching.
Reliable: Ty Lawson. The Nuggets’ leading scorer of a year ago will be counted on all the more in his fifth NBA season. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound point guard not only has a new offense to direct but also becomes Denver’s sole clutch threat with a game on the line. It’s not a new role for him, nor is setting up teammates while nabbing his own offensive druthers. Lawson’s 6.9 assists ranked 15th in the NBA last season.
Liable: JaVale McGee. The 7-foot, 237-pound big man couldn’t have been happy to lose Iguodala and Brewer as teammates, but their departures grant him an opportunity: to prove he can be the sole focal point of Denver’s defense. Last year, it was easy for him to hang out in the post and wait to block shots — two per game — knowing Iguodala and/or Brewer had the wing taken care of. But that’s no longer the case, meaning McGee must cover more ground if the Nuggets are to be anywhere near as feisty defensively as they were a year ago.
Forecast: Some observers say a turned-over, frustrated Denver club is destined for the draft lottery this season. Others look at their on-court continuity and see a team that doesn’t look so different from the one that finished three games behind Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division. As with most extremes, the result will likely fall somewhere in the middle. If Shaw can fuse his philosophies with the Nuggets’ current skill sets and Lawson, Wilson and McGee can all take significant career steps, Denver will push for a bottom-four playoff seed. If one or two of the above don’t come to pass, the Nuggets will face just as many questions next May as they did this past one.
Last year: After several puzzling personnel moves, Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn was already treading water entering the 2012-13 campaign. Somewhere among a devastating string injuries, horrid shooting and three separate losing streaks of five games or worse, the team in his charge sunk completely. Missing Kevin Love for 64 games, Chase Budinger for 59, Ricky Rubio for 25 and Nikola Pekovic for 20, Minnesota floundered to a 31-51 record — actually an improvement after five straight 26-or-fewer-win seasons. With two of its top 3-point shooting threats sidelined and little depth behind them, the Timberwolves went a league-worst 30.5 percent from beyond the arc. Kahn was fired after the season and replaced by former Minnesota coach Flip Saunders.
This year: Saunders came in with a clearly defined yet multifaceted task: rebuild the foundation of Love, Rubio and Pekovic and surround them with a better support system. To that end, he immediately reached out to Love, who felt he’d been slighted by Kahn when he didn’t receive a maximum contract extension. Once Saunders felt that dike was being refurbished, he turned his attention to addressing Minnesota’s dire perimeter offense needs. The Timberwolves signed unrestricted free agent Kevin Martin, a 42.6-percent 3-point shooter a year ago, and also re-signed Budinger, who will miss some time to start the season with yet another meniscus injury. Pekovic re-upped, too, after entering restricted free agency. A revamped roster with plenty of offensive ammo has folks around the Twin Cities thinking playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, but defense remains a chief concern.
Reliable: Nikola Pekovic. There are few centers in today’s smaller, sleeker NBA that boast Pekovic’s size and ability to score in the paint and rebound. With Love out nursing hand injuries and opting to have arthroscopic knee surgery near the end of last year, Pekovic emerged as Minnesota’s leading scorer (16.3 points per game) and rebounder (8.8 boards per game) in the final season of his rookie contract. Saunders made re-signing the 6-foot-11, 285-pound Montenegrin a huge priority due to his night-in, night-out dependability — when he’s healthy. In each of his first three years of NBA play, Pekovic has missed at least 17 games.
Liable: Derrick Williams. What a mystery the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has turned out to be. Expected to come in and help bolster Minnesota’s frontcourt immediately, the 6-foot-8, 241-pound forward instead spent his rookie season confused as to whether the three or four best suited him, then was forced into everyday power forward duty last year after Love’s injury. Due to his lack of a consistent place in coach Rick Adelman’s system, Williams has been suggested as trade bait for almost his entire pro career. Saunders thinks he can play both forward positions, and Minnesota picked up the team option on Williams’ contract for next season. But that doesn’t prevent him from being dealt; if he can’t find a way to contribute consistently in Minnesota, he may end up somewhere else.
Forecast: With the way things went in 2012-13, Minnesota has become the “if-then” statement capital of the sports world. If the Timberwolves can stay healthy and find a way to defend, they’ll push for a sixth, seventh or eighth seed and their first postseason berth since 2004 when Saunders was coaching and Kevin Garnett was still in Minneapolis. As folks around the Target Center are quick to remind reporters, injuries are going to happen; Saunders and friends just feel they’re better equipped to compensate when they do. But there’s more to a resurgent season than just avoiding major personnel mishaps; the Timberwolves are going to have to shoot lights-out, because aside from Brewer, there’s not a lockdown defender in their projected regular rotation.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last year: It seems hard to believe with the way the Thunder fell out of the playoffs — in five games to Memphis in the second round — that they were a team sporting the best record in the Western Conference at 60-22. But that’s exactly what happened. When guard Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury, Oklahoma City lost its way. Instead of Kevin Durant and Westbrook opening up defenses, Durant was forced to find his own shot. That’s hard enough to do in the regular season, but even harder to do in the playoffs. Overall, the team improved in just about every area from the one that fell to Miami in the 2011 Finals. Serge Ibaka became a dominant inside defensive presence as well as a contributor on offense. Reggie Jackson showed he can play big minutes and take big shots in place of Westbrook. And of course there was Durant, who shot better than 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and better than 90 percent from the line. LeBron James was the best player in the league, but Durant was the clear No. 2.
This year: Once again, this team will center on Durant. The question is, who’s next in line? Westbrook will be out at least a month recovering from his knee injury, so that means the Thunder will have to find some help. Jeremy Lamb, who was traded to Oklahoma City as part of the James Harden deal, will likely be the team’s sixth man; he’s a great shooter but didn’t play big minutes as a rookie and struggled during the preseason. Oklahoma City has had a reliable sixth man the past two seasons — Kevin Martin last year, Harden the year before. The Thunder are also dealing with the loss of Martin, who decided to sign with Minnesota as a free agent. Jackson steps into a starting role and can play like Westbrook — taking the ball to the rim — but with a little less production.
Reliable: There’s no one better than Durant. The only question is how reliable he can be if he has to take on extra minutes this year with the loss of Westbrook. Durant averaged 28.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last year. People forget, but this guy is 6-foot-10 and shoots 3-pointers (41.6 percent) with the same ease as he gets to the basket. He’s good enough to get the ball and score even when other teams know it’s coming, and there are only a handful of guys in the league who can do that.
Liable: Kendrick Perkins has become problematic at center. While coach Scott Brooks says the team doesn’t need offense from the five position, Perkins is to the point where it’s hard to tell what he provides, outside of being a positive locker room guy. He averaged just 4.2 points and six rebounds per game last year and was even less productive in the playoffs. In 11 postseason games, Perkins averaged 2.2 rebounds and 2.4 rebounds. Unless those numbers improve, expect to see a lot more of rookie Steven Adams at center.
Forecast: This clear-cut division favorite is good enough to win a lot of games — even without Westbrook — and Durant is good enough to beat teams by himself. He’s done it before, but if the Thunder are going to get back to the top spot in a loaded Western Conference, they’ll need a lot of help and they’ll need Westbrook back. If he returns healthy, no matter when it is, Oklahoma City could make it back to the Finals.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last year: Portland was a pleasant surprise for a good portion of the first half of the season and beyond, but a 13-game losing streak to close it out turned a 33-36 record into a disappointing, 33-49 year. The Blazers missed the playoffs and finished fourth in the Northwest Division. Point guard Damian Lillard scored 19 points per game and shot better than 42 percent from the floor en route to rookie of the year honors. He, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Nbatum and Wesley Maththews all averaged more than 14 points per game, but the defense was bad. Portland allowed 100.7 points per game, good for 21st in the league.
This year: There’s no reason to think the Trail Blazers can’t improve upon last season. In addition to Lillard and Matthews, Portland went out and got better off the bench, adding Mo Williams. The Blazers can shoot the 3-pointer and also are improved inside after trading for Robin Lopez, who isn’t a great offensive player but shores up their interior defense. Portland has an excellent mix of young players, and all of them shoot pretty well. Aldridge is a gifted scorer (21.1 points last year) and can score down low or from the perimeter. Rookie guard C.J. McCollum definitely should contribute at some point this season, but is out for the first six weeks with a broken foot.
Reliable: Lillard is that good. He is. As a rookie, he averaged 19 points, 6.5 assists, shot 42 percent and started all 82 games. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 22-year-old, and the 2012 No. 6 overall draft pick came through. Lillard played nearly 40 minutes per game. If he can get some bench help behind him, those minutes played might drop, but expect his production to rise.
Liable: The entire bench was terrible a season ago. The Trail Blazers’ 18.5 bench points per game were the league’s worst by more than 7.5 points. Portland has upgraded in that department, though, by getting Williams and adding forward Thomas Robinson and veteran swingman Dorrell Wright. The best thing about the Lopez move is it means second-year center Meyers Leonard won’t be expected to do too much.
Forecast: There aren’t a lot of wins to be had in the Western Conference, but Portland should improve. Expecting this team to make the playoffs might be a bit too much to ask. Portland should win more than 33 games this time around, and a .500 record isn’t out of the question.
Last year: The Jazz went 43-39 last year and finished two games out of the playoffs. They were a middle-of-the-pack kind of team, and their statistical rankings indicated that. Utah ranked 13th among NBA teams in points scored and 15th in points allowed. Al Jefferson was a big-time scorer, and Paul Millsap was a more-than-capable piece, but past that Utah had issues at the guard spot. Gordon Hayward emerged at the small forward position, averaging 14.1 points per game, and Derek Favors provided signs of hope at power forward.
This year: The Jazz finished just four games over .500 with Millsap and Jefferson. Now both are gone, so a duplication of last year’s record is going to be extremely difficult. The departures of Utah’s top two scorers mean a lot of minutes for Favors and Enes Kanter. Andris Biedrins, who played in just 53 games last year with Golden State and averaged less than a point per contest, will have to come up with some points, as will the forward combination of Brian Cook and Richard Jefferson. Keys for the Jazz include developing rookie point guard Trey Burke and figuring out a way to highlight Hayward, a player who can not only spot up but also get to the basket. Even if they can, this is still not a playoff team.
Reliable: Favors is a player to keep an eye on. He averaged 9.4 points a night and shot almost 50 percent from the floor. He’s certainly going to be asked to do more this season, but he’s a good defender who can block some shots (1.7 per game last year). The biggest keys for him will be staying out of foul trouble and adjusting to a sure increase in minutes.
Liable: Take your pick here. Who the heck knows what 33-year-old Richard Jefferson has left, and who knows what a guy like Biedrins has to contribute? Burke could be in for a tough year at point guard. The Jazz do have veteran John Lucas, but it’s going to be Burke, when he gets back from a finger injury, who gets the bulk of the minutes. Burke was a big scorer and assist machine at Michigan but is still a rookie point guard.
Forecast: Cloudy. This is a 33-win team that will have bursts of success but be unable to sustain much over the course of the season. That’s what happens when you lose two big scorers and no longer have an established inside game. Utah will have to rely on making shots from the outside, and that’s a tough thing to do with such a young team.
FoxSportsSouthwest.com’s Andrew Gilman also contributed to this story with the entries for the Thunder, Blazers and Jazz.