Ahhh, we’ve made it to the Western Conference and the proud home of basketball’s reigning MVP. There are going to be a lot of eyes on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder this year, as well as basketball’s third-year phenomenon Damian Lillard in Portland. Let’s get into it.
The biggest change during the offseason may not technically have been a change at all. After a year in which their roster was absolutely RAVAGED by injury, the Nuggets will be getting all of their key players back in 2014. Their SF Gallinari and C Javale McGee missed practically all of last season, while starters Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler missed at least 20 games a piece too. The Nuggets made it a point to get Arron Afflalo back from the Magic, meaning that they have the same roster together (minus Andre Iguodala) that was able to win 57 games just two years ago.
Minnesota, of course, underwent a major change as well in the loss of Kevin Love, though this was more a case of everyone and their mother waiting for the other shoe to drop. Love has been involved in trade rumors for the better part of two years now and it seems as if Minnesota fans have totally come to terms with his departure by this point. It’s also worth noting that the Timberwolves pulled in an excellent haul for their superstar, grabbing up the 1st overall picks from the last two drafts in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennet, as well as the PF Thaddeus Young from the 76ers in a related trade. All of it makes a great consolation prize for losing a top-12 player, but the Timberwolves have gone from just missing the playoffs to rebuilding awfully quickly.
The rest of the division stayed relatively quiet. The Thunder are notorious for their stinginess and silence during the offseason and held true to form, bringing in Anthony Morrow to replace Thabo Sefolosha. The Trailblazers also replaced the departed Mo Williams for another PG in Steve Blake and picked up Chris Kaman as a backup big behind Robin Lopez. And lastly, the Jazz re-signed their best player in Gordon Hayward to a rich deal, and picked up the Australian PG Dante Exum with the 5th pick in the draft.
What to be Most Excited About?
Thunder games may be unquestionably one of the most exciting events in basketball, but this is a group that has been together for a long time in today’s merry-go-round league. While I’m still going to tune in to these guys whenever I get the chance, I can’t rank them as number 1. Instead:
The evolving two-man game between Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge. A year and a half ago, Aldridge was looking like he was getting ready to leave Portland as soon as he could. At the same time, the casual fan might not even know who he was. Two years of Damian Lillard later and we are looking at one of the best duos in the league (sorry for snubbing the other running mates in this division). Aldridge is one of the 3 best PFs in the game, along with Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, and can sink jumpers from just about anywhere in the midrange, giving defenses an impossible choice when he sets a pick for Lillard. And Lillard, holy shit. This guy is getting close to approaching Splash Brothers status with his 3 point shooting and is incredibly creative at the rim for an undersized guard. Already known as one of the hardest workers in the league, I can’t wait to see how these two look with an additional year of playing together and building chemistry.
Biggest Question Heading into 2014?
Is Kevin Durant ready to win it all?
After years of scoring rings, a 60 win season, multiple appearances in the Western Conference Finals, and now, the league’s reigning MVP, there is one accomplishment glaring away on Durant’s bucket list. To win the Larry O’Brien trophy.
If KD and Westbrook can remain relatively healthy, this is a team that wins 55+ games and snags homecourt advantage, no problem. Once there, this is a team that has not lost in the first round since 2010 to a championship Lakers team. So (fingers crossed) they will be back there and they will be going to the Semis or the Conference Finals. So what happens there?
The Thunder have had a lot of difficulties with both the Grizzlies and the Spurs in the playoffs. The postseason is a time where the pace slows, and teams make the necessary adjustments, meaning it is often up to the role players to make the shots that honor the defense and get rid of the double teams. As the Thunder have yet to make a commitment to getting that 3rd piece, the responsibility will be on Durant and Westbrook once again to elevate themselves and score regardless of what defense they face.
Both are phenomenal players and have proved they can do it before, but now the stakes are a little higher. The winner of the Western Conference will likely not be facing Miami anymore, and will also be very prepared to take on whichever team comes out of the East. If KD can take his otherworldly basketball talents up one more level and survive the Spurs, he may be crying confetti tears in June.
When you assume you make an… you know what? The old saying aside, it would be crazy to put anyone but the Thunder on top of this division. With Portland building on their successes of last season, they will be joining Westbrook and Durant right there. The rest of these guys? Not so lucky.
Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25) Last Year (59-23)
Portland Trailblazers (48-34) Last Year (54-28)
Denver Nuggets (40-42) Last Year (36-46)
Minnesota Timberwolves (22-60) Last Year (40-42)
Utah Jazz (20-62) Last Year (25-57)