With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series continues today with the teams in the Northwest Division: the Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Blazers and Jazz.
Most Interesting New Player: Nate Robinson
I guess? Like the Mavs, the Nuggets added a whole spate of recognizable new players to their roster this offseason, and none of them are even slightly exciting roster adds. Randy Foye? We know pretty well what that dude can and can’t do by now. J.J. Hickson? The Nugs already have one frontcourt energy guy/rebounding machine, and he’s a whole lot more fun to watch than J.J. Hickson. Darrell Arthur? Don’t think there are a lot of NBA fans who watched Denver last year and thought to themselves “fun team, but would it kill them to shoot more 18-foot elbow jumpers?” None of these guys are gonna make the team League Pass must watches, exactly.
That just leaves Nasty Nate, who is at least always fun to watch on a new team — to see the respective fanbases come to terms with his strengths and weaknesses, to see him make funny friend duos with his new teammates (Shrek ‘n Donkey 4EVA!!), to see him get way too many starts when the point guard he’s backing up goes down with injury. It’s hard to see where he fits into this team that already has Ty Lawson (essentially a steadier, less-maddening version of NateRob) and Andre Miller (NateRob’s inverse in just about every conceivable way), but Nate Robinson always manages to make his presence felt by year’s end, and the Pepsi Center crowd should eat him up. He’ll look great in those Denver baby blues, too.
Most Interesting Returning Player: JaVale McGee
This feels like the fourth or fifth consecutive make-or-break year for JaVale, who has still yet to really be made or broken. He shot a career high 58 percent and posted a career high 20.9 PER last year, but proved weirdly unplayable alongside Kenneth Faried and still couldn’t manage to unseat Kousta Koufos as the team’s starting center, averaging his fewest minutes a game (18.1) since 2010. Well, not only is Koufos now gone, but so is head coach George Karl — the latter’s dismissal supposedly coming in part due to his unwillingness to give the high-upside, well-compensated McGee big minutes. It’s never been nower or neverer for old Pierre.
Amazingly, JaVale will still be just 25 years old on opening night, so the belief that McGee has remaining yet-to-be-tapped potential still remains at least slightly justifiable. And for a team that basically went through an across-the-board downgrade (down to the management and front office) in the offseason, getting that kind of level-up in production from their eternal project of a big man might be one of the only ways that the team can stay a contender in a suddenly very crowded West. Even if not, we should be getting a lot more JaVale this season, which you don’t need me to tell you is always a good thing.
Most Interesting New Player: Kevin Martin
In retrospect, maybe even just being the second-unit offensive anchor was too much responsibility for a prematurely aging Kevin Martin in Oklahoma City. Really, all he should be tasked to do at this point is stand behind the three-point line and shoot, and maybe occasionally draw a foul on a late closeout. But on this Wolves team, with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic commanding attention down low and Ricky Rubio driving and distributing, Kevin Martin can be a difference-maker just by standing and shooting, giving the Wolves a dimension they were sorely lacking when they finished last in the league in three-point shooting next year. It’s the best chance Martin has at staying a relevant player as he continues to age in NBA dog years.
Really, though, the answer here might be Shabazz Muhammad, who already seemed well on his way to being Michael Beasley 2.0 even before he got kicked out of the Rookie Transition Program. He’s going to be absolutely deathly on the court this year, and possibly every year after that, but he’s going to make for some seriously entertaining off-court headlines.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Kevin Love
Actual quote from the intro to the Wiki page on the Minnesota Timberwolves: “The team has been in rebuilding mode since missing the playoffs in 2005.” Since 2005! Eight years ago! At some point, that stops being a rebuild and becomes a bunch of confused workers staring at an inactive construction site. And the site’s not wrong — it’s been a perpetual roster and methodology reshuffling for the T-Wolves for the last eight years, in which they have made the playoffs zero times, the longest postseason-less streak running in the NBA. It’s about time for this team to be at least a little bit good again.
The responsibility of that will mostly fall on Kevin Love, the team’s sole All-Star and the only member of the gold-winning Team USA of 2012 to never make the postseason. This would have seemed a fair burden for K-Love after the 2011-12 season, where he averaged 26 and 13 and finished sixth in MVP voting, but his 18-game season last year — shortened by hand injuries — was lackluster enough to give fans at least a tad bit of pause, even if his shooting woes (35 percent from the field, just 21 percent from deep) were largely explained by the maladies he suffered. If he can rebound to his 11-12 form, it seems all but impossible that the now-loaded (and hopefully consistently healthy) Wolves will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year, even with the West being as good as it is. Rubio and Pekovic will undoubtedly have something to say about this as well, but in the end, it falls on Love to be the guy who gets them there. Otherwise, the taunting at the Team USA scrimmages in 2014 is gonna be just brutal.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Most Interesting New Player: Steven Adams
Not a ton of competition here, since the only other new adds to the Thunder roster are fellow rookies Andre Roberson and Grant Jerrett, as well as the immortal Ryan Gomes, whose presence on any NBA roster in 2013, let alone one as good as OKC’s, is puzzling. Still, I do find Adams to be a pretty compelling rookie for the Thunder, since from the skills he showed at Summer League — shot-blocking, rebounding, setting screens and finishing — he appears to be on track to potentially make Kendrick Perkins expendable, which would arguably be of greater benefit to the Thunder’s rotation than any deal they could possibly make at the trade deadline. Plus, I can see him developing good chemistry with Kevin Durant fairly quickly, and short of LeBron, there aren’t many players in the league who can get their big men as many easy dunks as KD. Just by virtue of being able to catch the ball, Adams could average 10 a game on 58 percent shooting this year.
Also maybe worth noting that as the pick they received from Toronto as part of last year’s mega-deal, Adams is one of Presti’s last chances at finding redemption in the now-infamous James Harden trade. It’s a long shot, but if Adams can turn into an Anderson Varejao-type — and I’ve long since given up pleading for OKC to actually trade for the real deal on that one — he could give the team something that they arguably need almost as bad as the world’s most overqualified sixth man. For now, though, just supplanting Perk would be a hell of a start.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Jeremy Lamb
Presti’s other shot at exorcising the demons of the James Harden deal is through the young prospect they received in the deal, and maybe the closest thing OKC has to a true Harden replacement. Lamb did little in limited minutes for the Thunder last year, but I believe OKC was mostly using last year to season him in the D-League, using their Tulsa squad like a baseball team uses their Triple A affiliate, and that this is the year they’ll actually give him the responsibility of being a true rotation cog. From his play at the Summer League in Orlando, in which he shot somewhat erratically but generally looked to be in a totally different class of experience than most of the other newbies on the court, it seems like he should be up to it. I believe in Jeremy Lamb.
And considering how little OKC did to improve their roster externally this offseason — signing free agents just isn’t really what this team does, as Thunder blogger Royce Young pointed out with his eye-opening recap of Sam Presti’s FA history — the improvement this team will need to stay at the top of the ultra-competitive West will have to come from the internal growth of players like Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and maybe even big man Daniel Orton, who turned some heads himself with his surprisingly advanced and composed post play in Orlando this July. All the Thunder really have to do is hit big on one of these guys, and Lamb seems to me to be the most likely candidate.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Most Interesting New Player: Thomas Robinson
Arguably the league’s first journeyman sophomore, Thomas Robinson enters the season as one of basketball’s bigger puzzles, a guy who can make one NBA writer’s list of pleasant surprises from the Summer League while also making another’s list of the league’s biggest disappointments. In his finer moments he still looks like one of the league’s most promising young talents, combining size, athleticism and skill in a way few young bigs can, but the fact that it’s rarely translated thus far into consistent NBA production has resulted in two teams already cutting bait with him, including the Houston Rockets, who have never seemed like an organization that gives away valuable assets for little to no return.
Can he get to that level of consistency with the Blazers? And if he does, could that mean that Portland might actually listen to offers for the reportedly discontented LaMarcus Aldridge, with Robinson potentially his replacement at power forward? Maybe and probably not, respectively, but T-Rob will make for 15-20 fascinating minutes of bench production a night until then.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Damian Lillard
Lillard may have taken the league by storm in his rookie year, but now that we know him a little bit better, there’s probably going to be a whole lot less jaw-dropping at his tremendous play making and cold-blooded clutch shooting, and a whole lot more picking at his flaws like his relatively inefficient scoring, his lackluster on-ball defense, and so forth. The honeymoon is over with Damian, and now it’s on him to improve the weaknesses of his game, at least if he wants to push Portland to playoff contention, and himself join the ranks of the league’s point guard elite, which seems to get more exclusive every year. The specter of Damon Stoudamire looms large, but hopefully Lillard has the IQ and work ethic to figure out NBA play at a higher level than Mighty Mouse ever quite managed after his first few seasons.
Most Interesting New Player: Trey Burke
Unfortunately for the Jazz, and for Treys worldwide, I don’t see Burke being interesting in a particularly good way. No highly touted rookie left me colder with their Summer League play than Burke, whose wildly unimpressive numbers (less than nine points and just four assists a game, on horrendous 24 percent shooting, including 1-19 from deep) don’t even tell the whole story on how lackluster he looked. Good rookies don’t always flash good Summer League stats, but when a rook can’t seem to get any easy shots at all — all Burke seemed to take were long threes, fadeaway long twos and tough, contested layups — that’s really not a good sign, especially when they don’t offer a ton else in terms of playmaking, rebounding or defending, either. If I had to make one bet about this year’s crop of rookies likely to get big minutes, it would be that Burke will be a huge disappointment in Utah, which is at least a little bit weird, considering gambling site Bovada still has him getting the second-best odds of anyone to win this year’s Rookie of the Year.
Some prognosticators think that with Utah’s impressive core of young talent, they might surprise some people and push for the playoffs in what generally appears to be a rebuilding season. I like their team in some respects, but if Burke has as rough a rookie season as I predict he will, it’s hard to imagine them really contending for much of anything — they only really have John Lucas III to back up Burke, and as Jazz fans saw much of last year, it’s hard to compete for the playoffs with sub-replacement point guard production. Hey, maybe I’m wrong and Orlando was a fluke and Trey Burke will be Michigan Trey Burke as soon as the true season tips off, but if the guy I saw for that week in July is the guy who shows up for Utah opening night, they might be more serious contenders in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes than we’re currently giving them credit for.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter
I was definitely one of those people complaining all through the last two trade deadlines about why the hell Utah would continue to hold on to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap when their obvious frontcourt of the future was battling just to get 20 minutes of burn each a night. Well, finally Big Al and Undersized Paul are out of the picture for good — even though Utah got nothing in return for either, which I’ll still never quite understand — and Derrick and Enes can officially stake their claim to being the league’s most exciting young frontcourt, perhaps the West’s version of Monroe and Drummond (or at least Henson and Sanders).
While they’re at it, though, I’d like to see the Jazz find a more consistent role for Gordon Hayward, one of my League Pass favorites, and a player who really ought to be on a good team at some point in the not-too-distant future. I worry that he might be a little too much of a utility player to be much help on a rebuilding team, but if he can be more of a core guy — and his numbers have gotten better every season, so there’s no reason to be convinced that he can’t — this year would be a good time to start demonstrating that. With plenty more of Kanter, Favors and Hayward — maybe even a little more Alec Burks for good measure? — the Jazz could be a sneaky fun team this year, even if their backcourt situation dooms them to 50-plus losses.