The NBA 2013-14 season is just over one week away. Training camps and preseason action is fizzling out as the nature and likely story lines of the upcoming season become more obvious. The Northwest division title race looks a little less competitive in 2013-14, but the overall strength of the group, in terms of depth anyway, has most definitely improved. Oklahoma City are a clear championship contender, while Denver, Portland and Minnesota are clear playoff contenders.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are not the team that started the 2012 NBA playoffs as favorites to beat the Miami Heat. However, they are still a powerhouse in the Western conference. James Harden may be plying his trade elsewhere, Kevin Martin may have departed during the offseason and Russell Westbrook’s status is questionable after two knee surgeries, but this is still a roster stacked with talent. Kevin Durant is one of the league’s elite scorers, Serge Ibaka is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate, and Reggie Jackson showed that he has serious talent after taking on a bigger role during last year’s playoffs. Oklahoma City still have issues to resolve and there may be little reason to believe that they are ready to win that championship. Still, the early season hurdles should bring out the very best in Durant, and that can only be a good thing if this franchise does want to take that next step.
There are some significant challenges for the Denver Nuggets to face in 2013-14. George Karl has been replaced by first time head coach Brian Shaw after another early playoff exit. Andre Iguodala’s valuable presence both on offense and defense has also been subtracted from a roster that might not quite fit as well as in previous seasons. Danilo Galiarni will return from injury at some point early in the season while Shaw will be looking for Kenneth Faried to take a step forward along with exciting point guard Ty Lawson. The depth on the roster is a little different than in recent seasons with a reliance upon J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye. More interesting yet will be the performance of this team playing under a new system with Shaw taking over behind the bench.
Kevin Love has never been talked about as much as he deserves. He missed all but 18 games last season due to injury, but he is back for the start of 2013-14 and he makes the Timberwolves a serious competitor to return to the postseason. After an awful 2012-13 campaign, Minnesota has actually returned with a pretty strong starting line-up that includes Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and new addition Kevin Martin. This is a dangerous team that stands a real chance of grabbing a #7/#8 seed in the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard spent most of his rookie of the year campaign carrying the Trail Blazers towards the playoffs. In the end, Portland dropped out of that race, but Lillard’s play suggests that the future is bright. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum also return to a starting line-up that can score with the best teams in the league. They’ve also significantly strengthened the reserve corp with Dorrell Wright and Mo Williams joining the roster this season. Rookies C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson should also see playing time as part of new Portland core.
Goodbye to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Randy Foye and Mo Williams and goodbye to any competitiveness that Utah might enjoy apparently. Still, Jazz fans will surely look forward to seeing what young quartet Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordan Hayward and Trey Burke can produce. This is a team that is destined for a high draft pick as it enters a full re-build phase.