Season Preview: Northwest Division

Portland Trail Blazers
"Bradley Beal" by Keith Allison https://flickr.com/photos/keithallison/32316011156 is licensed under CC BY-SA

This is the best division in the league, and I would not say it is particularly close. All five teams are legitimate playoff contenders, and any less than a postseason appearance would be seen as a season wasted.

Last year, these five teams all came within three wins of each other; with Portland winning the division and grabbing the third seed in the Western Conference, meanwhile, Denver finished last and missed the playoffs by the tightest of margins. Every other team qualified for the playoffs – OKC and Utah finished with 48 wins, and Minnesota was only a game back from them.

There is no other division that can boast five legitimate playoff-calibre squads. This division is the best in basketball, and really any team could win it, it’s an astoundingly equal and talented group.

Denver Nuggets

A year ago, the Nuggets found themselves the odd man out in a 7-way race for six playoff spots. That they finished just three wins behind the third seed, is a testament to how tough the Western Conference really is. This is a team that has improved their record four years straight and will hope to extend that streak this season. All in all, this is one of those teams, similar to the Dallas Mavericks or the 2016 Boston Celtics, that just has a really well balanced starting five, where any player could step up on any given night.

The backcourt pairing of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris will look to build on their progress from a year ago, where both averaged over 16 points per game. Murray showed great promise a year ago and matured very well in his second season. Nearly every single stat, including efficiency numbers like field goal percentage, went up for Murray last season, as he was asked to become a larger part of the Nuggets overall game plan. Even more impressively, he has missed just one game in his first two seasons, thus proving to be a very durable and dependable player for the Nuggets. Add to that the instant scoring of Isaiah Thomas off the bench, and this backcourt is a dangerously good unit.

The third spot on this roster is really the only debatable one. In a more conventional squad, rookie Michael Porter Jr (14th overall pick), would assume the small forward position. This is likely the preferred route, but Denver will be careful not to rush the talented Porter Jr after his back problems at Missouri. They could also choose to play Will Barton, and go for a smaller line-up, or even start Mason Plumlee at the 5 and shift other big men down a spot. Michael Malone, one of the most underrated coaches in the NBA, will have plenty of options with the line-up this year, but he will not be changing the 4-5 combo, assuming they stay healthy.

Paul Millsap is a league veteran, and a top player, and provides a defensive identity for this squad. However, it is Nikola Jokic that really shines for the Nuggets. Their star centre can really do it all. A year ago, he averaged 18 points per game, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. He was also very close to going 50/40/90 on the year, which for a centre is near unheard of.

If he can keep up those levels of production, and this Nuggets team can continue to grow, they could cause some serious noise this year. I’m expecting another 45-50 win season, if not more, and this squad can hang with others in the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

This one is quite hard to predict, as Jimmy Butler’s days in Minnesota are quite clearly numbered, but it remains unclear really what the Timberwolves will be able to get back for him. The situation seems unsalvageable, with Butler already creating friction between him and the dynamic duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins. Any question of where the Timberwolves’ loyalty laid, was answered with Towns’ new 5-year deal. This, coupled with Wiggins’ 5-year deal, has shown that the Timberwolves are firmly behind the pair of former 1st overall picks.

This team reminds me a lot of the Miami Heat in recent years. They certainly do have talent, but nowhere near enough to ever truly be called contenders. They have overpaid good, but not great players, and as a result will always be in the playoffs but never contending, and never getting top draft picks to actually improve this roster.

The trio of Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson are set to earn just under $50 million this upcoming season. These are nice players absolutely, but that kind of money could get the T-Wolves another max deal and a few nice bench pieces. In the modern NBA, that’s how you win, average simply doesn’t cut it when you’re playing teams like the Warriors, Rockets or Lakers.

The Lakers have actually shown Minnesota exactly how to play the league at this time. The last few years, they have signed good free-agents to one-year deals to have an injection of quality, whilst also maintaining cap flexibility (after the fiasco of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov’s long deals). The Wolves would do well to follow this example, but instead seem keen on overpaying decent players, as opposed to going after the big fishes.

This team goes as KAT goes, and he is something to behold, but it seems quite hard to fully get behind Minnesota, assuming Butler leaves, as they just have a dearth of talent elsewhere. One great big man doesn’t get you much in the current NBA, just ask New Orleans. When Butler goes, he may well take their shot at a playoff berth with him.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Last offseason, the Thunder gambled. They traded for Paul George, who had one year left on his deal and had already stated he wanted to be in LA, with the idea of talking the talented two-way star into staying in Oklahoma, alongside incumbent star Russell Westbrook. The risk paid off, as PG13 signed a 4-year deal to stay with the Thunder. The trio of him, Westbrook and Adams is among the best in the league and provides the Thunder with a legitimate shot to win any game they go in to.

The Thunder can also put out one of the best defensive lineups in the NBA, with resident defensive specialists Andre Roberson and Jerami Grant slotting in alongside the aforementioned star trio. Steven Adams is, as always, one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He fits seamlessly into this OKC unit, as he would in most lineups; and provides a true defensive presence inside for the Thunder. They can also look to the talents of Dennis Schroder coming off the bench to provide instant scoring and a talented ball-handling situation. However, he will need to learn to play off-ball more, if he is to play beside Russell Westbrook at times.

At the very least, OKC is fun to watch, with Westbrook’s gravity-defying highlights and triple-doubles mixed alongside some smooth scoring from Paul George. This team should easily be in the playoffs and will be a really tough out for whoever they come up against. In recent years, they have been one of the only teams to stand up and really play Golden State hard, and no team should underestimate this squad. These Thunder can win any game they go in to and should be feared by most around the league.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers clinched the 3-seed last year, with 49 wins, off the back of an MVP-calibre season from their franchise superstar, Damian Lillard. Any team with a PG who can get you 27 PPG and 6.5 APG will always be dangerous, especially when paired with a shooting guard who can tack on another 19 points in CJ McCollum. The question then becomes, what else do you have?

Jusuf Nurkic is really the only other true bright spot in this roster. He is a modern-style centre, who offers a nice blend of defensive versatility and rebounding for this squad. In recent years, Portland has been handicapped by overpaying for Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless, who take up $37 million in cap space. All 3 are nice players, but you will not be challenging the NBA’s elite with these guys starting. That money is one max spot on your roster, and it is hard not to look at LaMarcus Aldridge’s success in San Antonio and wonder what could have been if he had stayed in Portland. Regardless of keeping him, another max-quality player would turn these Trail-Blazers into a real contender, and it is somewhat annoying that they are never involved in active trade discussions whenever a disgruntled star is on the block.

A big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and another star would be able to hang with the NBA’s top tier of teams, but the Trail Blazers have stood pat for far too long with this roster. Until they decide to go bold, this team will always be a decent playoff team destined for a first or second round exit at best. It’s a real shame, as they have a perennial MVP candidate on the roster, and seem quite content to never really give him a true shot at competing. As it stands, Portland is a fun team to watch, with an incredible guard duo, and will be a playoff team, but I would not expect any much more from them.

Utah Jazz

The Jazz are a perfect example of how to run a team in a small market. Despite a vast history of competing at the top level, this franchise know that no big-time free agent will ever even take their calls, not when they have to compete with LA or New York – Utah is simply too small.

Instead, they have shown themselves that they can build a team very well through the draft, and through intelligent trades and low-end signings. This is a team who has consistently improved in recent years and look to build off their fifth place finish in the West last year, a year that ended in a 4-1 series defeat to Houston after a 6-game victory over OKC.

Last year, the Jazz struck gold with Donovan Mitchell. The talented former Louisville Cardinal was a Rookie of the Year competitor all year last year and would have won it most seasons if he did not have Ben Simmons to compete with. The home-grown duo of him and Rudy Gobert is a brilliant pairing, and the two work very well off each other. Gobert is always a contender for Defensive Player of the Year, and is probably the most intimidating inside presence in the NBA. These two are the real leaders of this roster, however, there are also some very nice pieces around them.

Ricky Rubio and Alec Burks can both take over the offense when needed, albeit Rubio as a traditional point-guard and Burks as a score-first two guard. Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors also add some talent and length to this squad, with all three able to contribute on both ends of the floor. A starting five of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors and Gobert is a beautifully balanced line-up, and still allows for players like Dante Exum, Burks and Crowder to come off the bench. They even have some young talent that will look to develop as the year goes on, in the form of Tony Bradley and rookie Grayson Allen from Duke.

This incarnation of the Jazz is a really well-balanced one, and will once again be a team that look to make it far in the Western Playoffs. This storied Franchise will once again be led by Quin Snyder, who is one of the premier coaching talents in the Association, and he will have ample talent to work with. As I said before, this team is the perfect example of how a small-market team should operate, and they will look to once again hang with the big dogs in the NBA. I, for one, would never rule out the Jazz in any game.

About Michael Byrne 9 Articles
Michael is an aspiring sports journalist who has a keen interest in all American sports, but especially the NFL and the NBA. He is a big fan of the business side of sports and overall team building. Likely to focus more on team construction and game reviews/previews than deep statistical analysis.