PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Lost: SG Gerald Henderson, C Serial Killer Chris Kaman I Mean Look At Him

Gained: PG Shabazz Napier, SF Evan Turner, C Festus Ezeli

I love what Portland has been doing. Rather than try and blow it up and go for broke the Blazers saw that they had young talent and rolled with it. Tanking is far from a guarantee and maybe being the four seed every year and hoping for the chips to fall your way on a given year is a good strategy. Sell a lot of tickets, have your fans love your players and enjoy 50 wins. 

The Blazers go two deep at every single position (okay I’m stretching that a little bit with Shabazz being the backup point guard) and have plenty of guys who can create their shot. I know many aren’t thrilled with the Festus signing and with good reason, but they didn’t give him gobs of cash and he’s still fairly young. If he turns into a knockoff DeAndre Jordan to pair with Damian Lillard I don’t think anyone will be complaining then. Things might get a bit crowded at times with the big men rotation, as Ezeli, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard all compete for minutes. Aminu should be their nominal starting small forward, but playing him at the power forward spot last year had devastating results as the Blazers went four out and just rained down holy fire from above. I’m of the mind that coach Terry Stotts will understand the benefits of situational weapons and make him the starting three regardless and open the door for Davis to get more minutes, or more hopefully, allowing Vonleh to develop further. Vonleh is an interesting case, being picked as an uber athlete in a stacked 2014 draft he hasn’t developed all that much. Charlotte gave him away in the Nicolas Batum trade and never looked back. If Vonleh can make the next step as his lottery pedigree would suggest then the Blazers might be a top tier team in the West.

Looking to their guards and you see possibly the best backcourt outside of the Bay Area. Dame and CJ go together like any stereotypical great combination you can imagine — peanut butter and jelly, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, my roommate Mitch and hot pockets. They play off each other so well and with both being phenomenal shooters from all areas of the court they can punish any defense. There’s a reason Dame was one of the few guys able to go off at will against the Warriors last year: he’s too strong for a lot of point guards to defend and he’s too fast for anyone else to try. CJ is probably headed for the title of “so underrated that he becomes overrated” by the end of the year but for now it’s enjoyable to watch him play his game, not perfect but nearly flawless (there’s a distinction between those two words). Allen Crabbe is a gorgeous backup and even though he may be a little off-the-wall Evan Turner is a phenomenal bench creator who will hopefully put up tons of points against backup benches. This team makes sense. It’s a well-constructed and smartly managed team, all guided by the aviating hands of coach Stotts. The Blazers are good, for real. Don’t sleep. 

UTAH JAZZ

Lost: PF Trevor Booker, PG Trey Burke, PF Tibor Pleiss

Gained: PG George Hill, SF Joe Johnson, PF Boris Diaw, PF Joel Bolomboy

I love the Jazz as much as the next guy but we HAVE to slow down the hype train before Denzel Washington and Chris Pine have to stop the runaway from hitting an elementary school (that’s a little inside joke for all my 2011 cinema heads, shout out to you twenty eleven remember The Artist wow what a time). Bleacher Report pegged them as the FOURTH best team in the league in their preseason power rankings. 538’s CARMELO rankings were a bit less outrageous, but still putting them at sixth overall is optimistic. 

I get it. I understand why people want to. They have 12 guys who can ball. They defend as good as any other team in the league and most of their core players are just getting better. However potential means absolutely nothing if it’s never proven. This iteration of the Jazz is yet to make the playoffs, barely missing out after last season spent most of the year in a recovery room. Even now the Jazz aren’t immune to nasty injuries, Gordon Hayward is set to miss the first month of the year. Pump the brakes everyone, their best trophy is Diaw’s second place medal from a wine-tasting competition over the summer.

Yet let us entertain the notion and roll with it. The Jazz are STACKED. They return everyone from a .500 team last year that was decimated by surgeries and tweaked knees. Both their first-team All-NBA Defender caliber players missed a lot of games, with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors barely seeing the court together. Alec Burks was a non-issue and Dante Exum missed out on an entire year. It was basically Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles and Jeff Withey fighting off starvation, or as we call it “The 1950’s Starting Five”. A full year of most of the players should lead to 50 wins, especially as each player is on the cusp of their primes. Hayward has made Neil Armstrong size strides every year in the league, being shunned from the All-Star game as he’s put up mini-LeBron stats nightly. He’s good for a 20-5-5 every night and above-average defense on the other end. If he comes back from his hand injury quickly and puts up those stats the coaches should assuredly vote him into the game this year. The only thing that will stop him from scoring more this year will be the guy next to him, as Rodney Hood is a perfect rose set to bloom. Hood is a bargain to the nth degree from the 2014 NBA Draft and he and Hayward are poised to be one of the best wing-combos in the league this year, and probably the best next year (I just remembered that KD-Klay exist on the Warriors nvm my b, that team sucks so bad I hate them). He can get buckets in bunches and he compliments everyone else on the roster. This team makes logical sense, each piece fits in the corresponding puzzle snugly. The Jazz are looking to jump into the upper echelon this year and you’ll be hard pressed to see them miss out on that goal this year. 

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Lost: WHO DO YOU THINK

Gained: PG Ronnie Price, SG Victor Oladipo, PF Ersan Ilyasova, PF Joffrey Lauvergne, PF Domantas Sabonis, SG Alex Abrines

A team in the dust.

A city reeling.

A nation crying out.

Kevin Durant’s departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer tore a franchise down the middle. It was obviously a possibility for Kevin to leave, his contract was up and multiple teams were preparing to make a run at him, EVERYONE knew that he was going to be out and about looking around. But no one could have imagined that it would have happened like this. After the Thunder got out to a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals we all thought that we had finally seen the conclusion of what we had all anxiously awaited for — the OKC juggernaut. The sheer talent of KD and Russell Westbrook alone would give the Thunder a baseline of 50 wins every year. They’ve been derailed by a litany of injuries in the playoffs for years since their appearance in the 2012 Finals. That series seemed to be the final form of what we’d always wanted to see — Westbrook taking a hammer to hearts and Durant a knife to necks. They were CRUISING. 

And then the wheels fell off. The team crumbled in a never-explained series of mishaps, blown opportunities and iso-ball. The Warriors got through to the Finals and ultimately faced their own 3-1 demise. KD had to be pissed and vengeful, right? He would only want to come back and destroy the Warriors again, to finish the job. Instead he joined them. He joined the team which had grabbed them by the throat and threw them out of the championship hunt. I obviously have many feelings about this and ultimately they’re all inconsequential because Durant has the right to choose and live, but still. It felt to everyone around Oklahoma like a betrayal.

But that’s old news.

The Thunder aim to look forward and not back. The team is scrambling to put together the pieces and find a way to come back to contention but for now they’ll have to live with being a high seed playoff opponent. Westbrook is the linchpin here, as if it wasn’t obvious enough. His usage rate is going to be astronomical and will most definitely break the record for a single season, but if it results in a near triple-double average and 48 wins then it’s worth it. The roster has holes but the pluses are maybe enough to overcome it. In their draft day trade with the Magic they nabbed three rotational players for one Ibaka. Victor Oladipo wants to be Westbrook Light and under his tutelage he could get there. The backcourt can’t shoot at all but they’ll sure run all over you and smash on your centers. Forwards Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis are nothing near Ibaka but having both to change out and improve the spacing will be a boon to coach Billy Donovan’s offense. Steven Adams will only continue to improve from here, he’s young, unbreakably strong and a quick learner. He’s added tools to his game each year and if he continues to stretch his range on the court he could be an All-Pro within a couple years. The team is going to keep up appearances, they can’t just roll over and die without Durant, but they certainly looking for trophies. Best hope is to try and coax a star to come here and with native Oklahoman Blake Griffin’s free agency impending, that might be the best avenue to go down. 

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Lost: My Man KG

Gained: PG Kris Dunn, SG Brandon Rush, PF Jordan Hill, C Cole Aldrich

This team didn’t even win 30 games last year and people are already seemingly placing them in the championship preemptively. But, well, can you blame them?

Karl-Anthony Towns doesn't play like your average center.

A video posted by Sports Videos (@houseofhighlights) on

The Wolves are spooky. New coach Tom Thibodeau is going to turn them all into defensive stars. Andrew Wiggins will be a professional stopper soon, Thibs is going to make Ricky Rubio sing sweet offensive magic, and Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammed will keep growing into their own roles. And it all revolves around the future of the league, Karl-Anthony Towns. He can shoot, dribble, post, pass, dance, sing, bake, you name it. He is a future devourer of worlds and will ultimately have what is his. There’s no need to waste words on the Wolves. All they have is unfettered expectations. 

DENVER NUGGETS

Lost: PG DJ Augustin, PF Joffrey Lauvergne, 

Gained: PG Jamal Murray, honestly I don’t even want to list the other guys because I don’t think they’re going to make the roster at all, the list I’m using isn’t updated. Like do you really think freakin Nate Wolters is going to make the team no way that dude looks like a doofy Draco Malfoy he’s not getting a spot

The Nuggets need to embrace an identity and start running with it. They have too many five-year guys who have capped out mixed in with young rookies and second-year players. They’ve started building something with potential, the trio of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are a good backcourt that can run together for seven years. Any combination of the three can share the court together and not suffer too much offensively or defensively. Mudiay needs to take a step forward in his point guard duties this year and Harris needs to expand his offensive repertoire. Murray has a silky shot and is only 19 years old, assuredly still improving. The Nuggets also have two European fighter tanks down low in Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic. Nurkic is all swagger and smash, trash talking Kobe Freaking Bryant in his first year in the league. He’s a good defender and has a feathery post game, and will keep adjusting to the NBA game. Jokic is a possible future star, already posting fantastic per-36 stats in his first year in limited minutes. He’s projecting to be a 18-10 kind of guy this year. This core is all under the age of 23 and they all work together. All that’s left is a good swingman to command the defense’s attention from the wing and Denver can start working on coming back to the upper tiers in the next few years.

But they’re bogged down with other older players. Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, mainly remnants of the 2010 Carmelo trade. They’ve served honorably and are without a doubt functional starters in the league (basically can you imagine Gallinari on the Clippers? It’d be IDEAL) but they just don’t FIT here. They’re not going to be re-signed to long-term contracts in Denver, the writing is on the wall. They’re smart pickups for any contending team and can be had relatively cheap. Denver should keep stockpiling assets, grabbing picks and looking for 2018 and beyond. They have enough already to work with, just let it marinate in the mountains. 

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