The Northwest Division is probably one of the most interesting divisions in the NBA. All five teams are full of young talent on on their way up the NBA rankings. If things break the right way, given the weakened state of the Western Conference, each of these teams could have a shot at a playoff appearance. With the departure of Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the number one spot is up for grabs.
So let’s get into how these teams stack up against one another:
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
As I said before, with all five teams having a shot at a playoff spot, being the last place team in the division isn’t necessarily a huge knock.
The Timberwolves are incredibly young. Gorgui Dieng (if he starts) and Ricky Rubio would be their oldest starters at 26 years old. After that, you have their trio of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns who are all 21 and under. The addition of Tom Thibodeau as head coach certainly signals a change in mentality for the organization, as they will start to build from within into a contender. If the Wolves come up short of a playoff spot, it shouldn’t be considered a failure. You need experience to win, and as it currently stands few players on the team have learned what it takes to win in the NBA.
If this Wolves team does make the playoffs, it likely means that both Towns and Wiggins perform way ahead of schedule in their development and are playing at a near All-Star level. Towns seems destined to be the face of the NBA at some point in his future. He’ll be 21 years old this season, and while I tend to lean heavily towards needing to see someone prove it before I can believe it... as a Cavs fan I have seen a once-in-a-generation 21 year old lead a team to the Finals. So anything is possible.
4. Denver Nuggets
While Towns was the best rookie last year by far, the second best rookie wasn’t in New York, it was Nikola Jokic. Playing out of the spotlight, Jokic showed his tremendous potential as a more-athletic Marc Gasol. He can pass, rebound, defend, score inside and from behind the arc. He is a modern big man in every sense of the word and a potential cornerstone piece for the Denver Nuggets.
The reason I give the Nuggets the edge over the Wolves is due to the amount of proven players they have. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Jameer Nelson are all proven players in this league. They also have young, promising players like Will Barton, Gary Harris, Jusif Nurkic, and Jamal Murray.
Talent, depth and a healthy mix of veterans and young prospects. Plus you throw in a good head coach in Mike Malone and you have a pretty solid roster. They remind me of last years Portland Trail Blazers, only with more depth in exchange for a player playing at an All-Star level in Damian Lillard. The X-factors will be if Gallinari can stay healthy (an incredibly talented scorer that can put up 20 ppg), how the young players will develop and if Jokic makes a leap. I don’t see them as a playoff team, but I believe they have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were an interesting team last season. In a year where Western Conference teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies, L.A. Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans and others dealt with a ton of injuries, the Blazers were able to capitalize and ride a hot stretch in January-February to 45 wins and the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
The Blazers didn’t do much to improve their team this season. They retained the services of CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe while signing Evan Turner to a 4 year deal worth $70 million. The Blazers now own a roster that is well over the cap, yet with little ability to contend as currently constructed. While Turner may help a team that has few players capable of creating offense, such as the Celtics last year, possessions with him as the initiator of the offense seem like a waste if it’s taking away from Lillard or McCollum.
The Blazers capitalized on a weak West while going .500 against the Eastern Conference last year. After doing little to improve and banking on internal growth, I expect the Blazers to take a step back as both conferences improve around them.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The similarities between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets this season are fascinating. Both teams will rely on one star player that fills up a box score with points, rebounds and assists while supplying little defense. They both have nice supporting casts that come with their own flaws. For Houston, it’s defensive concerns. While in Oklahoma City it’s the inability to shoot and space the floor. What remains to be seen is if Russell Westbrook can fill that role with the same efficiency as James Harden.
Losing Kevin Durant is obviously a huge blow. He’s in the conversation for best player in the game alongside LeBron James and Stephen Curry. But the questions for the Thunder started before his departure, after they chose to part with Serge Ibaka. Part of the reason for the Thunder’s success in the playoffs was his ability to switch onto wings similar to Tristan Thompson, while also providing floor spacing. While Steven Adams played great defensively on the inside, he doesn’t possess the same ability to stay in front of wings. They traded Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, who provides some defense and rebounding, but offensively resembles the departed Dion Waiters.
Removing the spacing of Durant and Ibaka leaves the team with serious holes in their roster. Replacing Ibaka with Ersan Ilyasova or Enes Kanter and Kevin Durant with Andre Roberson is going to lead to a lot of problems for the Thunder. While people focus on Westbrook’s ability to fill up a box score and point to him as an MVP candidate, it’s unlikely that he has the team success necessary to win the award; or even do a better job running the team than Harden.
1. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz missed the playoffs last season on the final night of the regular season. They came close despite Derick Favors and Rudy Gobert missing a quarter of the season and basically going all year without a starting caliber point guard. While simply being healthy may have been enough to get in, the Jazz went out and improved their roster in a big way this summer.
Adding George Hill along with the return of Dante Exum should help improve their point guard rotation in a big way. Beyond that, they added Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson to give them a veteran presence, as well as more scoring.
The Jazz have play-makers in Hill, Exum, Hood and Hayward. They have a solid rotation of big men with Gobert, Favors, Diaw and the promising Trey Lyles. Utah arguably has the deepest team in the NBA and good coaching from Quinn Snyder. While they’re missing a star player, as currently constructed they remind me a lot of the 2004 Pistons. While they may require a bit more seasoning before they can truly make some noise, I think they’re well suited to be a great regular season team and a pain in a playoff series.