The Eastern Conference is set and now it is time to start with the West. Season after season the West is projected to be far superior to the East, but time after time the East shows it can play with the best as evidenced by the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics walking away world champions in recent years.
I am going to break down my personal favorite division in the Western Conference, the Northwest. In this division, you will find the best team in basketball and a handful of young, up-and-coming teams. If you like speed and athleticism, this is the division for you.
1. Utah Jazz
I thought this was the best team in basketball last year and I was wrong. I think they are the best team in basketball again. They lack the star power of Boston, but they have the best point guard in the game Deron Williams running the floor and Carlos Boozer in the paint. The wings are filled out nicely with Ronnie Brewer who continues to improve and Kyle Korver who can shoot lights out. Their defense is tenacious with Andrei Kirilenko leading the way and locking down the West's best players every night. They have a very underrated bench with Morris Almond, Matt Harpring, C.J. Miles and Paul Millsap. Expect a deep run and maybe a championship.
Team MVP: Deron Williams - When I say he is the best point guard, that is what I mean. I love Chris Paul, but Williams passes, shoots, penetrates and defends at such a high level, while other point guards excel in one or two of those areas. I expect his name in the MVP race.
Rising Star: Ronnie Brewer - People know he is one of the best dunkers in the league, but he has quietly become a better shooter and passer. I think Brewer is ready to turn some heads with his play this year. He should get more minutes and will have more production. I would say 15 ppg and 3 apg
Falling Star: Mehmet Okur - He is famous for his outside touch and he still has it. He doesn't have any killer instinct though. He doesn't defend, he struggles in the post at times and he disappears in the big moment. It shouldn't be too much of a concern with Millsap backing him up.
2. Denver Nuggets
Guess what everyone. The Nuggets can play defense. A team that is known for an exciting offense with Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson constantly gets overlooked on the defensive side where Kenyon Martin leads the way. The loss of Marcus Camby will hurt, but watch Renaldo Balkman and Nene Hilario pick up the slack. Even Anthony and Iverson are better on defense than most people give them credit for. The bench looks decent this year with Linas Kleiza, Anthony Carter and Chris "Birdman" Andersen. The offense of course will take care of itself.
Team MVP: Carmelo Anthony - He is a very consistent player and is one of the most difficult forwards to match up with. He has a great shot and great body control when finishing at the rim. With Camby gone, look for even more scoring and offensive boards from Melo.
Rising Star: J.R. Smith - No one has ever doubted his athletic prowess, but his game never seemed to live up to expectations. Last year he changed that by taking smart shots and being a force on offense. I think he is ready to do the same on defense this year and become a complete player.
Falling Star: Juwan Howard - Sure, we all love Juwan, but he is at the end of the line. This is his 14th year in the league and his knees are shot. It looks painful to watch him run, I can't imagine how it actually feels. I expect almost nothing out of him this season.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Here is everyones' sexy pick. Some people even think they will win the division, but I am confident they will finish third. I love Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez but they are too young and too injury prone. I doubt all four of those guys will stay healthy and they all need time on the court to gel with each other. There is nothing to not like about this team. They do everything as a team, whether its playing unselfish offense or very efficient help defense. But when we talk about seasoned and skilled teams like Utah and Denver, this team just doesn't matchup yet.
Team MVP: Brandon Roy - On a team full of youth, 24-year-old Brandon Roy must be the leader. This is his team and he has to make sure all the new players fit in to enhance what the team started last year. For as good Roy is with the rock, he is just as good leading a team.
Rising Star: Greg Oden - I would like to say everyone, but Oden is highly anticipated for good reason. Never mind he can be Dwight Howard-esque dominant on offense, but his shot blocking ability is going to lead to a lot of fast break opportunities. He is going to be a game changer.
Falling Star: Raef LaFrentz - He is famous for blowing the best pass of all time when he failed to finish a Jason Williams gem with authority. Now he is the last of the dead weight on an exciting team. This bench is very solid, there is no need to pay this guy the $12 million he is making.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Don't get me wrong, this team wasn't good last year, but they showed a spark. Al Jefferson emerged as a very promising center and Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Rashad McCants continue to grow every single game. This team doesn't play a lick of defense and has a strange problem with ball handling, but those four are going to score. The addition of Mike Miller was huge, as he is going to make everything run a little smoother and is able to step in for any possible injuries to Gomes, Foye or McCants. Kevin Love should also open things up for Jefferson. I have no doubt they will take a step forward.
Team MVP: Al Jefferson - I was unsure if he could live up to the hype going into last season, but he delivered. He became a 20-10 guy and showed the desire to make the T'Wolves his team. He will be closer to All-Star status, but he needs to work on his defense and passing.
Rising Star: Corey Brewer - Will he be the rising star? I don't know, but I know he needs to be. He is a great athlete, but he cannot handle the ball for the life of him and his shot is erratic. I think he can make significant improvements on those areas this year, and he will need to do that if this team wants to make progress.
Falling Star: Sebastian Telfair - Please someone get this guy out of the league. He is no better than his backup Kevin Ollie, but he is the cousin of Stephon Marbury and had a documentary about him. I just think he will cause more problems and offer little production.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
The new team sort of looks like the New York Knicks and will definitely play just as bad. They can't really shoot, they wont defend, they might get some boards and they will turn the ball over. At least OKC has a team now and will get to watch Kevin Durant make great plays and make bad decisions and play no defense. I'm looking for something good to say, but they really have nothing but whatever heart they play with on any given night. This team needs to come together, bust it on both ends of the floor and pray to the basketball gods they can manage 20 wins because it will be an uphill battle.
Team MVP: Jeff Green - He didn't have a great season last year, but he has all the tools to be very good, better than Durant. He needs to get to 15 points per game and 6 rpg. I don't know if he can, he has it in him, and he might be the only bright spot.
Rising Star: Russell Westbrook - Yes, he is a rookie but he is already the best defender on the team without even playing a game. I am very high on Westbrook and if he can develop his offense, this will quickly become his team. Especially if Green doesn't make progress.
Falling Star: Chris Wilcox - Chalk him up as another player who never reached his potential. He has had his chances to show his worth, but he always falls short of being the player he could be. I don't see Wilcox ever improving past a 10 ppg type of player.
I am looking forward to watching the triangle of Utah, Denver and Portland play it out. Those three will play in exciting, fast-paced and even epic games. Minnesota will have a nice year and I think they will satisfy their fans with the improvement they should make. OKC will offer some good laughs and a tight race for the worst team in the league. But like I said if you see Utah, Denver or Portland on TV, stay tuned in. Next up will be the Pacific Division.