So the Minnesota Timberwolves may look a tad different this year. How bad was their roster management to have six years of Kevin Love yet never make the playoffs? Yeah, yeah, I know, the West is tough. But zero appearances? Pathetic. The rest of the division made mostly minor changes this off-season. Let's analyze the Northwest position battles and hunt down some hidden gems.
I should not make light of the Aaron Afflalo addition in Denver. He is a serious upgrade over Randy Foye, especially with Afflalo's improved three point shooting (1.8 3PM last year). The puzzling position is at center, as Denver is looking like a doughnut squad (hole in the middle).
Center: Timofey Mozgov, JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson
The great JaVale McGee Experiment never got off the ground last year, when five games into the season he suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia and missed the rest of the season. Too bad, I was hoping to see more amusing additions to his blooper real.
The injury left the Nuggets splitting time in the middle between J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov. Hickson, who at 6'9" is really more of a power forward, started 47 games at center, but was unable to replicate his numbers from the prior year at Portland. He went down in late March with a torn ACL and missed the rest of the season. Mozgov, also known as The Gov, wound up averaging a career high 22 minutes per game, starting 30 match-ups. The Nuggets eked out modest production from him: 9.4 points, 6.4 boards and 1.2 blocks per game.
Hickson deserves the start, but it's still not definite that he'll be at 100 percent by the start of the season, and he is not a true rim protector. McGee, bonehead plays aside, has the talent to be a difference maker on defense. He averaged 2.2 blocks per game between 2010-11 and 2012-13. This spot will probably be an ugly three-headed monster for the first two months of the year, if not all season. McGee is worth the last round flier, especially if he shows signs of maturity in the pre-season. Hickson makes for a decent back-up in deeper leagues. Mozgov is a sign that your fantasy squad might need some re-thinking.
Flip Saunders certainly did the best he could in unloading Kevin Love. This is now a young, exciting team with lots of upside. You know who I'm most excited about? Gorgui Dieng! The guy averaged 12.2 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in 15 starts at the end of last season. Unfortunately, he's stuck behind The Montenegrin Mountain, Nikola Pekovic, and his five year contract.
The starting five in the Twin Cities is surprisingly set with Ricky Rubio at the point, aging Kevin Martin at shooting guard, and budding super-star Andrew Wiggins at small forward. Thaddeus Young, coming off back-to-back 34-minutes per game seasons, will continue to see big minutes at power forward and small forward while Pekovic will return and get his minutes starting at center. It will be interesting to see how Saunders finds minutes for Anthony Bennett and Dieng because both youngsters need time on the floor to develop. The answer could be in Pekovic's medical file: he's averaged only 57 games a year during his four season career. With that in mind, I prefer Dieng's upside to the JaVale McGee comedy show.
Oklahoma City Thunder
A full year of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will be pretty darn exciting. Kudos to Durant for bailing on Team USA and focusing on his real job: bringing a championship to OKC. Heck, I also hope he joins Under Armour, monopolies are boring and some variety in the sponsorship world is always nice. But I digress. The only position battle is at shooting guard.
Shooting Guard: Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb
Now that Thabo Sefolosha is in Atlanta, the shooting guard spot is up for grabs. Jackson showed during the playoffs that a two-hybrid guard system with Westbrook can work. He played starter minutes (averaging 28 minutes per game in the three OKC playoff series) and excelled at pushing the pace. That's key when considering the questionable half-court offensive schemes of coach Scott Brooks. Jeremy Lamb, still only 22 years old, might still be a year away from playing major minutes. He did have an exciting Summer League showing, averaging 17.3 points, 5.3 boards and 31 minutes in three Orlando summer games, proving he has the potential to carry at least some of the load. The Thunder would love for him to improve on his 36 percent shooting from three land, which is why they got Morrow. Morrow can catch and shoot, a very helpful skill with Durant and Westbrook flying all over the place. He shot 45 percent from three land last season and seems like an ideal fit for an offense that needs spacing.
Jackson will get the most minutes of the three, also collecting time as Westbrook's back-up. There is probably no need to draft Morrow, but he could be a very cheap source of 3's from the free agent pool.
Portland Trail Blazers
For the second year in a row, Portland's starting five is set with Damian Lillard at the point, Wesley Matthews at shooting guard, Nicolas Batum at the three, stud LaMarcus Aldridge at the four and Robin Lopez protecting the middle. With Mo Williams' departure, the Blazers have a thin bench with only Steve Blake, Dorell Wright and hopefully Chris Kaman as semi-reliable options. The squad is relying on additional development from star Lillard (24 years old) and Batum (25), meaning Portland may be hard pressed to improve on last year's surprising 54 wins. There are no meaningful position battles.
Utah has a multitude of good, young guards to choose from, all of whom need time on the floor to develop. It will be fun to watch this situation shake out.
Guards: Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood
Trey Burke would be a stud if he could just shoot. Last year's 38 percent from the field was a bummer for a lot of fantasy fans otherwise happy with their late round pick of the Michigan product. His 45 percent shooting in college shows there is room for improvement, but fans will also be dying to talk about Dante Exum. He has the potential to be a great piece for the Jazz, but remember he is only 19 years old and hasn't faced much high-end competition. The Jazz would be crazy to force major minutes on him, thus wrecking his confidence. Look for Burke to be the underrated sophomore this fantasy draft season.
Shooting guard will also be intriguing with Alec Burks, Exum and Hood fighting for minutes. Burks only started 12 games last year, but with Gordon Hayward moving over to his more natural small forward position, there is a big opening at shooting guard. Burks seems ready for the challenge, with per 48 minute averages last year of 23.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 threes-made and 1.5 steals, yummy. He's the under-the-radar gem in the Jazz rotation, and he's only 23 years old. Hood, at 6'8", will probably see more time backing up Hayward at small forward. Exum will get some combo-guard time as the Jazz experiment to see if he and Burke can play well together.
Well, that's about it for the Northwest.
Go here for Atlantic Division Position Battles, here for the Central Division Position Battles , here for the Southeast Position Battles, and here for the Southwest.