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2015-16 NBA Preview: Northwest

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Thunder

Go to guy: Russell Westbrook is a superstar. He’s the most explosive and intense player in the league and deserves all the praise he receives. But this is still Kevin Durant’s team. He’s the most complete scorer on this team, and maybe in the world. It’ll be interesting to see how he and Westbrook gel now that they have a talent like Enes Kanter in the mix. Are there enough shots to go around?

Player with upside: Cam Payne is a solid choice here, but Kanter gets the nod. At only 23, Kanter has elite post skills, footwork and finishing ability. If he learns to defend, the sky is the limit.

Best case: Westbrook plays like a honey badger, Durant returns with a chip on his shoulder, Serge Ibaka learns some post footwork, Kanter learns to defend a pick-and-roll, Cam Payne bursts on to the scene, Dion Waiters finally puts it all together, and the Thunder beats Cleveland in Game 7 of the NBA Finals when Durant drains a buzzer-beating 3 right in LeBron’s face. At the championship parade, Durant announces he’s staying in Oklahoma City for the rest of his career.

Worst case: Every player on the roster gets hurt, yet OKC signs a bunch of D-Leaguers and wins enough that it doesn’t even get a great pick. After the season, Durant leaves for the Lakers and Westbrook demands a trade to join him. The Thunder starts Josh Huestis at small forward next season.

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Jazz

Go to guy: Gordon Hayward is the man in Utah. He’s more of an ideal second or third option, but it’s the best they have. Gordon is a terrific scorer with a high basketball IQ.

Player with upside: Rodney Hood would normally get the vote here, but how can you not go with the Stifle Tower? Rudy Gobert, the 7-foot-1 condor-like center has the potential to be one of the best bigs in the NBA. Gobert is very long, very instinctive and only 23 years old.  

Best case: Utah overcomes the injury to promising point guard Dante Exum, Gobert and Hood become stars, and the Jazz vault up to the No. 7 spot in the West Playoffs. They give one of the West’s powerhouses a great fight in the first round before bowing out with honor.

Worst case: Trey Burke can’t cut it in the point guard slot, Gobert doesn’t improve offensively, and Utah falls short of the postseason once again. The Jazz finish 10th in the West and land another undesired late lottery pick.

Nuggets

Go to guy: With Ty Lawson in Houston, Denver’s top offensive talent is probably Danillo Gallinari. Gallo is a bigtime talent, but hasn’t been able to stay on the court. He’ll need a healthy season for the Nuggets to succeed.

Player with upside: Lawson’s departure also opens the door for Denver’s lottery pick, Emmanuel Mudiay. The rookie passed up an offer from SMU out of high school to go play in China.  

Best case: Mudiay is a star, Gallinari and Wilson Chandler play well, Kenneth Faried takes a step forward offensively, and Jusuf Nurkic begins to blossom. Denver pieces together a surprising season in a weak division and seizes the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference Playoffs. Mike Miller drains seven 3-pointers to beat the No. 1-seeded Thunder in Game 1, before getting beaten four straight times.

Worst case: Mudiay isn’t ready, Gallo and Chandler both go down, Nurkic doesn’t return from his knee issue and first-year coach Michael Malone is canned. Denver is teetering on the brink of dysfunctionality, and this year takes ‘em to full-blown Sacramento Kings mode.

Timberwolves

Go to guy: In only his second season, Andrew Wiggins is already the lead dog for this young group of pups. Wiggins has superstar potential and has that “it” factor that franchises look for.

Player with upside: Pick one. Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne – the list goes on. But the winner here is their No. 1 overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns. Like Wiggins, Towns has the makeup of a star. His size, skill and basketball IQ should help the former Kentucky Wildcat thrive in his rookie season.

Best case: Wiggins, Towns, LaVine and Ricky Rubio all take a big step forward. Guys like Jones, Dieng, Payne and Shabazz Muhammad start to develop into solid role players, and the veteran leadership of Andre Miller and Kevin Garnett help lead the Wolves to a very competitive 25-57 record, which would be a nine-game improvement over last season. Remember, you don’t want to draft too far back when you’re building for the future.

Worst case: Wiggins doesn’t improve offensively, Kevin Martin takes all their shots, Nikola Pekovic takes all of Towns’ minutes after Towns hurts his foot. The Wolves draft in the top five, but blow it.

Blazers

Go to guy: The Blazers entered a complete rebuild in the offseason, watching LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews walk and dumping Nic Batum. The only guy left is 25-year-old point guard Damian Lillard. Lillard is a legit star and the Blazers’ season rests solely on his shoulders.

Player with upside: Keep an eye on forward Noah Vonleh. The former lottery pick was acquired from Charlotte in the Batum deal, and at age 20, there’s a lot of room for growth.

Best case: Lillard plays like a star, Vonleh breaks out, C.J. McCollum takes the next step and somehow, Portland’s group of journeymen plays so well that they scrap together an encouraging .500 season.

Worst case: Vonleh takes no steps forward, draft picks Cliff Alexander and Pat Connaughton make no impact, yet somehow they finish .500. See, if you’re gonna be bad, be bad, and get a great draft pick. But if your young players aren’t developing, the last thing you want is the 12th pick. Go for the top five, Portland.

2015-16 NBA Preview: Atlantic

2015-16 NBA Preview: Central

2015-16 NBA Preview: Southeast

2015-16 NBA Preview: Southwest

2015-16 NBA Preview: Pacific

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