Ahead of Wednesday's start to the 2015/16 NBA season, Kevin Jeffers (Eastern Conference) and Jonathan Raymond (Western Conference) will preview each team in the league. Here, a look at the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz in the Northwest Division.
What's good: Danilo Gallinari is back, and he should be healthy. He looked solid at EuroBasket with Italy in the summer, finishing as the fourth-leading scorer with 17.9 points per game. He flashed in plenty the all-purpose scoring touch that had him angling as possibly the NBA's brightest rising international star in 2012/13 – it will be a big deal if the Nuggets really have that Gallinari back.
There’s lots more intriguing international talent dotting this roster – from the tantalising playmaking potential of Emmanuel Mudiay to the potential frontcourt growth of Jusuf Nurkic (21), Nikola Jokic (20) and Joffrey Lauvergne (24).
What's bad: It's hard to see how all these parts are going to fit together into a functional whole.
New coach Michael Malone has a good defensive reputation, and it’s easy to envision him getting a team with this kind of size and athleticism up to respectable, from their fifth-worst points allowed per 100 possessions figure in 2014/15, in a hurry.
But they were also bottom 10 in points scored per 100 possessions, and it’s less clear outside some Gallinari hero-ball performances how they’re going to consistently be even minimally effective as an offence, let alone dynamic. Their three-point shooting was third worst in the league last year and it’s not evident there’s significant improvement here. Space will be precious.
It’s also difficult to imagine Mudiay, just 19, coming over from the Chinese league and steadily running an NBA offence from the get go.
Best case: Malone's defensive emphasis and their veteran talent (Jameer Nelson, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried) keep them stable, Gallinari returns to his 12/13 form and the young guys play well enough that they hang around .500 or a little bit better.
Worst case: The young guys fall flat on first go, the veterans lose a step and Gallinari struggles to reach his earlier heights as they hover around 30 wins.
What's good: (ed note: The Timberwolves were written up before Flip Saunders's death on Sunday)
They’re young, they’re exciting, you can close your eyes and realistically envision a world where this is a true title contending team in three or four years.
Andrew Wiggins looks like he has all the tools to be the league’s next great scorer. Ricky Rubio has long looked just a step away from being one of the NBA’s preeminent passing point guards. Karl-Anthony Towns looks like he might be basketball’s evolutionary bridge from the recent big-man dominated past to a future commanded by shooting, passing, moving 7-foot forces.
Any or all of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad could develop into key supporting pieces. In the meanwhile they’ve got enough interesting and youngish contributors (Nikola Pekovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng) paired with veteran know-how (Andre Miller, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Martin) to look like a pretty feisty team.
What's bad: You can't stare at the Timberwolves' future too long, because it might blind you to some otherwise obvious issues.
The first being that this team was really bad last year. The worst, in fact. It’s a long, long way back from 16 wins, a bottom five offence and the worst defence by points per 100 in the league.
Wiggins could stand to develop a three point shot, and he needs to learn to play defence. Rubio needs to stay healthy. Like, for real this time. Towns might be merely good, rather than the next big thing.
And if those three don’t coalesce, at least this year, into a foundation, the rest of this team will most likely resemble what it was last year – bottom-feeding.
Best-case scenario: Towns is even better than he's billed, Wiggins leaps forward and Rubio finally fills into his potential, and enough of the parts break right behind them to have Minnesota punching up as a shock outside contender for the play-offs.
Worst-case scenario: Everyone to some degree disappoints and they re-enter the lottery with a whole bunch of ping-pong balls.
Oklahoma City Thunder
What's good: Kevin Durant is here again. He was the consensus best player alive a short calendar year ago. Russell Westbrook had an argument for being the single most unstoppable force in the league last year. These are good places to start.
Serge Ibaka is a great two-way supporting player, stretching the floor offensively with a nifty three he’s developed the past couple years and deterring inside. Enes Kanter, who was an honest to goodness offensive powerhouse for the Thunder after his trade from Utah last year, and the capable Steven Adams (only 22) give them enviable depth inside.
There’s reason to be optimistic about at least one of Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters or Cameron Payne filling out their backcourt.
And once more, because this can’t be stressed enough, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are teaming up at full strength again.
What's bad: There's the creeping fear that surrounds the history of foot issues and people of Durant's size. You want to block it out of your mind because Durant is such a joy to watch, but you also never truly know until you see him out there for 20 or 30 games looking healthy.
They might be thin behind their big three. The three young guards come with question marks of varying size and their other, Anthony Morrow, is a fairly one-dimensional long-range specialist.
Turkey’s Kanter has to this point in his NBA career been one of the more defensively helpless big men the league has maybe ever seen, and he’ll have to shift into something that can fit the Thunder offensive scheme now that the usage-heavy role he filled toward the back end of the last campaign will disappear with Durant’s return.
Realistically, the likes of DJ Augustin, Nick Collison and Steve Novak just aren’t bringing much to the table at this point in their careers.
The onus will be on new coach Billy Donovan to come up with creative rotations that can complement some of the disparate skill-sets in this squad, especially in a league that has shifted toward rapid ball movement and intricate floor-spacing schemes while he deploys an offence that will inescapably function most often through two of the very best individual playmakers in the game.
Best-case scenario: Durant is healthy and MVP-worthy again, Westbrook meshes his do-it-all superhero ball of last year with him seamlessly and the Oklahoma City Thunder finally make good on their long-simmering title potential.
Worst-case scenario: Their attack stagnates too often behind their gravitational front-line pairing, or the depth doesn't offer enough, or health fails or Donovan just can't get it all to quite click into that highest gear necessary for championship success, and the Thunder crash out in the second or third round of the play-offs.
Portland Trail Blazers
What's good: Damian Lillard is still here doing some of the most electric things offensively in the league, drilling threes and attacking the basket and putting the team on his back.
They’ve coped as well as they could with the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge, bringing in a largely young-leaning collection of interesting pieces, from Al-Farouq Aminu to Mason Plumlee to Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson and Mo Harkless.
CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and draft pick Pat Connaughton are all young and could reveal growth or some upside to be tapped.
There are lots of young parts, with some things that make them worth watching, and a couple might just emerge as pretty good.
What's bad: The reason there are all these new names to list is because the Blazers bled pretty heavily this summer.
Aldridge, their franchise cornerstone for some time, is gone to Spurs-ier pastures. Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez are gone. Even Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo are gone.
The team that looked like it could contend for a top-four seed in the West for much of last year, and won 54 games the year before, doesn’t exist anymore.
Play-off worthy stars and role players have left a void filled mostly by lesser role-players and long-shots. Damian Lillard is a wonderful player, but he almost certainly can’t plug the hole in this boat.
Best-case scenario: Guys like Aminu and Plumlee and Davis paly their absolute best, and coach Terry Stotts polishes players like Vonleh and Harkless and Leonard into diamonds. Lillard leads them to a respectable .500-ish season.
Worst-case scenario: Talent starved and directionless, they sleep walk to the lottery.
What's good: This is a hot pick to rise up and snag the eighth Western play-off seed this year, finishing 21-11 after a 17-33 start to 2014/15.
Rudy Gobert emerged as a genuine defensive goliath last year, almost single-handedly turning the Jazz into the best defensive team in basketball after he entered the regular starting line-up on February 20. Utah allowed a league-low 94.8 points per 100 possessions the final 29 games.
Gordon Hayward broke out as a borderline all-star, efficiently leading the offence with a game revolving around his smooth explosiveness to the basket (where he made a pretty remarkable 58.6 per cent of his shots on about 24 per cent of his attempts) and a reliable enough jumper.
Derrick Favors developed into a potent force offensively down low, and benefited from partnering inside with Gobert on defence. Trey Lyles, Trevor Booker and Rodney Hood might give them some of the best frontcourt depth in the game.
While the rest of the league is being led from the backcourt, the Jazz are boldly experimenting in big.
What's bad: While the rest of the league is being led from the backcourt, and small ball flexibility just won Golden State a championship, the Jazz are boldly experimenting in big in part because they have to.
Alec Burks was the 11th pick in 2011 and Trey Burke was the ninth pick in 2013, but neither has really become a good starter-level player. Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014, at least looked like an exciting defensive prospect last year, but he’s torn his ACL and will probably miss the year.
Utah have guard problems, full stop. The hope is that Burks and Burke can reasonably soak up enough minutes while their emergent stars make this a contending team, but their backcourt situation is bad enough to throw just a dash of cold water on all the optimism surrounding this club.
Best-case scenario: Their guards play just well enough, they work around the inevitable spacing issues with their quick-footed big men and Hayward drawing attention, and ride a functional offence and elite defence to the eighth seed in the West.
Worst-case scenario: Their offence gums up without much outside shooting or playmaking guards to keep things flowing, and they wind up looking a bit like defence-first Milwaukee last year in a much more difficult conference, missing out on a post-season trip.