In this episode of The Kings Homer's NBA Preview, I am joined by Omer Khan as we discuss the most geographically confused division in the NBA, the Northwest division.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Addition(s): Billy Donovan
Key Subtractions(s): Scott Brooks, Perry Jones III
BRAD: Rudy Gay vs. Kevin Durant
OMER: Rajon Rondo/Darren Collison vs. Russell Westbrook
BRAD: The Thunder are the hardest team to predict for me. I don't know whether to entirely ignore Kevin Durant's foot issues or to overreact to them. I decided to do what every annoying person does and take the middle. I believe they have a similar record to last year without him and can break 60 with him, so why not meet in the middle? As far as roster turnover they did not have much that was noteworthy, but it must also be stated that the roster has not played together healthy and they are a very good roster when healthy. With the best 1-2 punch in the NBA they could very well have a top 2 record, but as a Grant Hill fan, I would be lying if I said the Kevin Durant foot issue doesn't scare me a little bit. I am very interested to see how Billy Donovan does at the NBA level as I, admittedly, was not a fan of Scott Brooks.
As far as the Kings go the Thunder are a tough match-up. Westbrook and Durant are match-up nightmares for any team. The Kings revamped front court should be able to help the inside but the Kings are going to need to need to defend the perimeter as well. The Kings are going to need to have defense from all five positions to have a shot. On the offensive end the Kings have more depth and may need to use all of it. Travis Outlaw isn't here to cancel out Kevin Durant anymore so they will need all of the help they can get. Even some of the worst Kings teams have managed to beat the Thunder but this may be an even better team than we have seen in the past, so it will be tough.
OMER: Once a team of destiny, the Thunder have been reeling with injuries ever since they shipped James Harden off to Houston in 2012. With Russell Westbrook going down in the 2013 Playoffs, Serge Ibaka's absence against the Spurs in 2014, and Kevin Durant's foot issues in 2015, Oklahoma City is probably bristling at their awful injury luck. But this team is still young and dangerous. I just don't know about the Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter additions. That's a lot of mouths to feed, including two top-5 players in the league who rightfully should be topping the usage charts. First year coach Billy Donovan is going to have a hell of a time integrating all of those pieces. You know who would be a scary coach for this team? George Karl.
Lining up against Durant and Westbrook is daunting for championship contenders, let alone playoff contenders like the Kings. The Kings can throw Rudy Gay at Durant, and on paper that's not a physical mismatch, although with Rudy's tendency to coast defensively could be costly. Westbrook is a completely different animal. The Kings can theoretically throw some pretty good defenders at him, but there is no ideal defender. Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison just aren't big enough, and Ben McLemore isn't quick enough. That being said, Kanter and Waiters muck the picture up a bit. On the one hand, both are talented offensive players. On the other, the Thunder have been an iso-heavy team for so long, and the Kings can leverage those habits to force the Thunder into a "my-turn, your-turn" offense, and anytime Kanter or Waiters eats that kind of possession as opposed to Durant or Westbrook, its a win for the defense. When the Kings have the ball, Boogie against Kanter is a complete mismatch, although Serge Ibaka swooping in from the weakside may complicate the situation. The Thunder may be forced to play more Steven Adams, which may even make the team better offensively because of balance. I just don't like this matchup on paper to be honest.
Who Takes the Series?
BRAD: Thunder take the series 3-1.
OMER: Thunder take it 3-1
Key Addition(s): Trey Lyles, Jeff Withey
Key Subtractions(s): Nobody
BRAD: DeMarcus Cousins vs. Rudy Gobert
OMER: Rudy Gay vs. Gordon Hayward
BRAD: The Jazz seem to be banking on their late season success. They didn't make any real moves of note besides drafting Lyles and bringing over noted Kings killer Jeff Withey. They had a great second half last year, but I am not sure I would have stood pat like they did. I also don't like them missing Dante Exum this year, even if his numbers last year weren't particularly noteworthy. They still have a lot of young talent to work with, so they should be fun to watch, but I actually see them ending the season with a similar season. I think other teams got better while they stood pat but I could also see them having a similar run to the Suns a couple seasons back.
Gobert is my favorite thing about the Jazz. Watching him and Boogie go against each other four times should be a blast. I am also looking forward to watching Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gay go at it. Overall, I think the Jazz are going to be a good team that will be in a lot of games but their overall improvement from last year will be minimal. I am well aware that many people think that they will do better. That Utah home court is still a tough place to win, so the Kings will need to be on their A-game when they go down there.
OMER: Utah was downright nasty defensively to end last year. Subtracting Enes Kanter's aloof attitude to defense and replacing it with arguably the most terrifying shotblocker in the league in Rudy Gobert rocketed the Jazz from middle-of-the-pack to elite. Offensively, they rely heavily on the play of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. With Dante Exum going down with injury, Hayward is going to be forced to do even more off the dribble. The fate of the Jazz may just depend on how good Alec Burks becomes. Their defense is great, but they really need Burks to take a step forward offensively to be able to make a dent in the West. Otherwise they may lack enough firepower.
Against the Jazz, Trey Burke is going to be the weakpoint the Kings need to exploit. He's just not very good on either end. Hayward and Favors were carrying a heavy offensive load and their efficiency suffered to end the year, and to choke off Utah's offense the Kings will probably want to shade off of Burke to throw extra help at those two. Offensively, the Kings will want to force Burke to guard the Rondo/Boogie pick-and-roll early and often, which has been proven to be a nice combination in preseason. Rudy Gobert is a fantastic defender, but being forced to guard Boogie rolling to the rim getting a pocket pass from Rondo without any help will be difficult since he doesn't have the base strength to deal with Boogie's power. The Kings shooters will need to be on point because Utah has fast and electric help defenders all over the court.
Who Takes the Series?
BRAD: Kings Split, 2-2.
OMER: Kings split 2-2 (echo, echo, echo...)
Key Addition(s): Michael Malone, Emmanuel Mudiay
Key Subtractions(s): Ty Lawson
BRAD: Michael Malone vs. George Karl
OMER: DeMarcus Cousins vs. His Strong Feelings for Michael Malone
BRAD: The Nuggets are a team that I could see overachieving or falling flat. I'd say there is a good 15 games separating the records I could see them getting. I don't think any scenario ends with them being a playoff team but with the addition of Mike Malone and the drafting of Mudiay, I think they will be an incredibly fun team. I can see Malone, barring injury or viral meningitis, making this team overachieve like crazy. I am looking forward to seeing Kenneth Faried under Malone. He is one of my favorite players to watch and I hated what Brian Shaw did with him. I am also hoping that Danilo Gallinari can stay healthy. Nurkic is also an interesting character. At the beginning of the year he did not look NBA ready, but the amount of improvement that he experienced during the course of the season intrigued me. I also think that the Ty Lawson shaped hole in the roster could actually be a welcome void.
As far as the Kings go, they are now linked with the Nuggets for the time being due to the obvious coaching connection as well as the connection up top. On paper, I think the Kings have an almost universal advantage across the board, but I can also see a Mike Malone revenge game on the horizon. A coaching revenge game can be worse than a player's (See: The 2007 Warriors in the playoffs). I think this will actually be a very fun series due to the various bridges that now connect the two teams.
Omer: I love Michael Malone. I think he's a great young coach, a bright defensive tactician who was developing offensive creativity. The Nuggets roster is in flux, with a combination of young bucks like Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic, and vets like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried. To be honest, most of the criticisms levied against the Kings should be on the Nuggets. They don't have the talent to make the playoffs in the West, but haven't committed to rebuilding the team. Gallinari is a fun player who will win the team some games, but Mudiay is going to need time and game experience to refine his talent. Right now he's an erratic turnover machine as much as he's a sublime playmaker. I think Malone will scrap out a decent defense out of this crew, and they'll be better than the other two teams in this division, but not good enough to survive in the West.
Head-to-head, Boogie will probably look with forlorn at the opposing sidelines, wistfully daydreaming of what could have been. Haha, sike. Nurkic is a brash kid and fits the mold of player who gives Cousins trouble (really big and burly), but Cousins had his way last year anyways. The Nuggets have a lot of wing depth; Gallinari and Wilson Chandler make up a formidable SF rotation, and I really like Gary Harris. But asking a washed up Jameer Nelson to go toe-to-toe with Darren Collison is unfair.
Who Takes the Series?
BRAD: Kings split the series, 2-2
OMER: Kings win the series 3-1
Key Addition(s): Karl Anthony Towns, Andre Miller
Key Subtractions(s): Nobody
BRAD: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Willie Cauley-Stein
OMER: Kevin Garnett vs. DeMarcus Cousins
BRAD: I am going to be weirdly optimistic about a 26 team, cause I love what the Timberwolves are doing. I love bringing Kevin Garnett back to bookend his career and return for a 21st (!!!) season in the NBA. I think that they have a wonderful process that puts anything that the 76ers are doing to shame. I do not think they will win a lot of games, but with all of the young talent they have and guys like Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, and Kevin Martin to show them the ropes, I think this could be the first chapter in a resurgent Timberwolves team. One thing I do hate, both on and off the court, is the fact that Flip Saunders is likely going to miss the season battling something much bigger than basketball. Best wishes go out to him.
The Kings should have the advantage here across the board. The main thing I look forward to seeing is Towns and Cauley-Stein going at it. It is always fun watching college buddies go head-to-head. The point guard matchup of Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo should also be fun, as they are two very fun point guards to watch. I expect the Kings to take the series, and to take it easily.
OMER: The Wolves got a kings' ransom in exchange for Kevin Love, and have turned that haul into a team bursting with young talent. Two consecutive first overall picks have yielded them Andrew Wiggins (no, not the kid from Ender's Game) and Karl-Anthony Towns, and you could do much worse for a core of players. Wiggins was really starting to come on strong as the year ended; I think that he will top out as a Paul George type, an elite two-way player just below the level of offensive superstar. Towns is the NBA's holy grail, a center who can hit the three, score in the post, and defend the rim. Think of a seven foot Al Horford with three point range; scary. How fast the Wolves rise may depend on Zach LaVine, an enigmatic combo guard with out-of-this-world athleticism. He needs to translate his physical tools into efficient production, and it'll be interesting to see how he develops now with the starting role in his pocket. All these TimberPups will be under the watchful gaze of Kevin Garnett, who will ceremoniously end his career right where it began. More legendary players need to do this.
As of right now, the baby Wolves aren't cohesive or experienced enough to win many games. They have some solid talent; Ricky Rubio is an underrated point guard and Kevin Martin can still score in bunches. But inconsistency will do them in. Towns may just foul out in a half trying to guard Boogie, and nobody really matches up well with Rudy. The Kings had their way with the Wolves last season and I expect that to continue this season.
Who Takes the Series?
BRAD: Kings Sweep, 4-0
OMER: Kings sweep 4-0
Key Addition(s): Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Five Golden Rings, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee
Key Subtractions(s): LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree
BRAD: Damian Lillard vs. Darren Collison
OMER: Willie Cauley-Stein vs. Meyers Leonard
BRAD: The poor Trailblazers lost almost everyone this year, and as a result, I think they will suffer the greatest drop off that any team will face this season. Outside of Damian Lillard, I don't know how many of these guys would be starting on an NBA roster. Getting guys like Plumlee and Ed Davis are good pickups, but that influx of talent that the Blazers had these last few years is a hard barrier for any team to overtake. Damian Lillard should be able to keep them in many games, and even win them some by himself, but I am just not sure that he has enough help around him. They are a very good franchise, and I would be shocked if they aren't back in the playoffs within a couple years. The Kings should be able to win this series pretty easily unless Damian Lillard is able to go absolutely crazy.
OMER: The smouldering remains of the Portland Trailblazers aren't as poor as you would think. Although they lost a lot of talent, they have one trait left that the modern NBA loves: shooting! Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can both fill it up from the perimeter, and Meyers Leonard was a great shooter last year (he was a member of the 50-40-90 club, believe it or not) who will slide into a starting role this year. I expect Leonard to have a huge year. There are some other intriguing pieces on the team like Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Mason Plumlee. Unfortunately, they have no ddepth. Their backup PG might as well have been signed off the street, and nobody fears the Ed Davis/Noah Vonleh duo. Lillard will put up a ton of points, but he can't carry the team alone. This is going to be a rebuilding year for the team, but I like their direction. They will be back to playoff contention sooner rather than later.
I actually can see the Kings have some trouble with the Blazers this year. They will spread the floor with their bigs while their guards put serious pressure on the Kings' guards. I think Willie Cauley-Stein will be huge against the Blazers. He will have to be disciplined in both giving help to the guards and running out to the perimeter to defend Leonard. Its a tough job, but hey, that's why we drafted him so high. On the offensive end, there are bad matchups for the Blazers all over the court. Lillard has been known to coast defensively, and that just won't fly with Rondo and Collison charging at you. They don't have the size to defend Cousins (few teams do), so look for the Kings to exploit that.
Who Takes the Series?
BRAD: Kings take the series, 3-1
OMER: Kings split 2-2