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Around the NBA: Northwest Division

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How will the Wolves closest rivals fare this season?

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

I want you to try an experiment. Write down the names of the men you consider to be the best dozen coaches in the NBA over the past calendar year. Then write down the names of the men you consider the worst dozen coaches in the NBA over that time period. If you need help, the complete list is here.

Done?

Compare the races of the men on each list. If your lists look anything like mine, or what I consider the Canis consensus to be, you'll notice a startling discrepancy. What's going on? Is my evaluation of coaching completely skewed? Am I blinded by racism? Is this sample influenced by the number of incompetent ex-players filling the coaching ranks? Even this assumption just raises the question, where are all the brilliant African-American basketball minds who weren't talented enough to make it in the NBA? There are thousands of African American players in the NCAA who will never amount to anything on an NBA court. Surely some of them could be the next Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Tom Thibodeau, or Stan Van Gundy?

Utah Jazz

Bigs - Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trevor Booker, Rudy Gobert, Jeremy Evans

Wings - Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Steve Novak, Dahntay Jones

Guards - Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Ian Clark, Carrick Felix, Toure Murry

This issue came to mind because of the main reason I'm optimistic about this year's Jazz. Coaching wunderkind Quin Snyder replaced former player Tyrone Corbin and is attempting to reorient the Jazz around an uptempo, free-flowing offense that eschews mid range shots for three pointers and plays designed for Favors and Hayward to attack the basket in space. The results have been impressive so far, and a more conservative defensive scheme that prioritizes staying home on shooters and getting back in transition over help and crashing the offensive glass looks to improve the league's 29th ranked defense. As of Wednesday night, the Jazz had the best preseason defense in the league.

It is also almost certainly true that the lumps Utah's young players took last year will help them this year. Hayward, Favors, Kanter, Burks, and Burke were all thrust into large roles last season and that should help both from an endurance and conditioning standpoint and a basketball awareness standpoint. It is also unfair to blame Corbin for all of their mistakes last year and equally unfair to credit Snyder with the correction of those mistakes.

The other interesting subplot is the development of Rudy Gobert. Gobert is averaging 16 boards and 3 blocks per 36 this preseason and has a ridiculous 9'7" standing reach that visibly deters opposing ballhandlers and allows him to play volleyball with himself on some possessions. It would not be surprising if Utah managed a league average defense in Gobert's minutes. Except for lineups combining Hood and Novak. I don't think Bill Russell could make those lineups league average. Combining an improved defense anchored by Favors and Gobert with a Suns-like offensive system and sophomore improvement from Trey Burke could make the Jazz this year's surprise team. If they were in the East, I would pick them to make the playoffs, but the West is so difficult, and their bench is still so bereft of talent, that it's difficult to see them winning more than 35 games, which would still be an overwhelming success.

Denver Nuggets

Bigs - Jusuf "B E A S T" Nurkic, Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson

Wings - Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Alonzo Gee, Quincy Miller

Guards - Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, Gary Harris

How much better is Andre Iguodala than Arron Afflalo? Two years ago, the Nuggets won 57 games with Iguodala. After a year in which nearly the entire team went down with injuries, those Nuggets have essentially swapped Iggy, Kosta Koufos, and Andre Miller for Afflalo, an improved Mozgov, and Randy Foye. That last trade is probably a downgrade, but if Afflalo is nearly as good as Iguodala, a rejuvenated Denver squad could reach 50 wins and make it back to the playoffs. If you compare the two, comprehensive box score metrics paint the two as eerily similar. Afflalo posted a 16 PER and .099 WS/48 last year while Iguodala had a 15.2 PER and .097 WS/48 during his year in Denver. On the other hand, plus/minus stats have painted Iguodala as one of the most impactful players in the league and Afflalo as one of the most overrated, suggesting another mediocre season may be in the offing.

Now that the won loss speculation part of the preview is out of the way, I want to talk about the real reason anyone will care about the Nuggets this season. I'm not talking about the frenetic activity and improved post game of Kenneth Faried, not the inspiring return to health for Danilo Gallinari, not the mighty mite accomplishments of Ty Lawson, compelling as each of those players are. Instead, I'm talking about the Bosnian Boogie, a player equally as capable of putting up 15 & 15 in twenty minutes as fouling out in under ten. Nurk moves his feet surprisingly well on defense, is rebounding like a monster, and is not scared to throw around his body, much to the annoyance and frustration of opposing players. He celebrates the most minor plays in an awesomely extravagant manner and is not afraid to whip around baseball passes in the half court. He has a long way to go, but it looks to me like the Nuggets picked up one of the best players in the draft.

Portland Trail Blazers

Bigs - LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Chris Kaman, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard

Wings - Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Dorrell Wright, Will Barton, Victor Claver

Guards - Damian Lillard, Steve Blake, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe

The Trail Blazers will be a good team. Aldridge is one of the best players in the league, Lillard is a deadly shooter, and the starting five is one of the most cohesive and talented in the league. Terry Stotts did an excellent coaching job last season, guiding the Blazers to one of the best offensive performances in the league and a surprisingly competent defense. They have an entertaining team buttressed by one of the most passionate fanbases in the league. They will also probably win fewer games than last year.

Here's the problem. The Blazers are very thin and were ridiculously healthy last year. Dorrell Wright is their 6th best player. They have to hope like Hell that C.J. McCollum, whose rookie season was marred by injury, is their 7th best player. Their biggest offseason acquisition was Chris Kaman who hasn't been on a winning team in nearly a decade over four different franchises. I suppose that may be a coincidence, but I suspect not. This won't be a problem if the team remains as healthy as last year, when the entire starting lineup missed a combined 13 games, otherwise known as a healthy season for a single member of the Wolves. If players like Kaman, Blake, or CH favorite Will Barton have to play extended minutes, it could muck up the team's offensive balance to the point where the still mediocre defense becomes problematic, as will surely happen in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Bigs - Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins, Mitch McGary, Grant Jerrett

Wings - Kevin Durant, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Roberson, Perry Jones

Guards - Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Sebastian Telfair

The biggest storyline surrounding the Thunder is the transformation of Sebastian Telfair into a steady veteran...no, ok, it's the Kevin Durant injury. Other than the Durant injury, there's not a lot I have to say about this team, unless the reader wishes me to pontificate on the folly of the James Harden trade. When healthy, they're still the 2nd best team in the league, Ibaka is growing into a legitimate DPOY candidate, Reggie Jackson is looking to play his way into a bigger contract, possibly with another team, and the Thunder are hoping Roberson and crap, McGary will develop into solid defensive role players.

Westbrook is expected to attempt 30 shots a game with Durant gone, but through the first few weeks of the preseason, that expectation has been turned on its head. Per 36, Westbrook has averaged 19 and 10 assists so far and it is very possible that Durant's injury will turn him into more of a traditional point guard. There are only so many shots one player (not named Allen Iverson) can take and, unlike when Durant is in the game, the Thunder won't have anyone else who can create offense. Westbrook may need to set those players up instead of simply attacking and letting Durant take care of the rest. Whether that makes for a more successful offense than Westbrook creating chaos is debatable, as is the unspoken premise of this paragraph, that preseason can be relied on for accurate prognostications. Because we haven't overreacted to small sample sizes before, right?