Our preview of the talented Northwest Division of the NBA Western Conference.
G: Ricky Rubio
G: Donovan Mitchell
F: Joe Ingles
F: Derrick Favors
C: Rudy Gobert
G: Dante Exum
G: Thabo Sefolosha
G: Alec Burks
F: Jae Crowder
F: Grayson Allen
Simply put, the Utah Jazz enter the 2018-2019 NBA season with their highest expectations since John Stockton was
dishing dimes to Karl Malone. The Jazz finished with 48 wins last year, which was their highest win total since Jerry Sloan was still coaching the team, and then dismissed the Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs in six games. They did fall to the Houston Rockets in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals, but between the depth of their team, and a group where the collective sum is greater than that of the individual parts, many people are very bullish on the Jazz this upcoming season, and with good reason.
The headliners for the Jazz are center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. The former is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league with 2.64 blocks per game. In the 22 games that Gobert recorded three or more blocks, the Jazz won 15 of them. And in a 2017 NBA Draft class that everyone considered to be so top heavy, Mitchell — who was taken 13th overall — easily had the best season of anyone in his class, averaging over 20 points per game, and just under four assists and four rebounds.
As mentioned, the Jazz are far from being a two-man band, however. Head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-centric system enables Utah to create its offense from a stifling defense, anchored by Gobert and a cast of defensively savvy guys like point guard Ricky Rubio, forward Joe Ingles (one of the most underrated players in the NBA), and forward Jae Crowder (a three-and-D guy who’s been resurrected after coming in via trade from Cleveland). Even Dante Exum ranked among the best defensive players at his position last year.
While this team isn’t afraid of playing anyone, and has a combination of star power and depth, the question still remains about what’s this team’s ceiling, especially without a true game-changing superstar on the offensive side. But from a regular season perspective, assuming this team can avoid any catastrophic injuries, 50 wins is a very reasonable expectation.
G: Gary Harris
F: Will Barton
F: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
G: Isaiah Thomas
G: Torrey Craig
F: Trey Lyles
F: Mason Plumlee
F: Juan Hernangomez
If nothing else, the Denver Nuggets might be one of the most fun teams in the NBA. They’ve got a true franchise centerpiece in center Nikola Jokic, whose incredible passing and off-the-charts basketball IQ make him must-see viewing. Point guard Jamal Murray is one of the more exciting young talents in the league, and he’s continued to show improvement in each of his first two seasons.
And behind those two is actually one of the deepest rosters you’ll find in the Western Conference. Paul Millsap, Will Barton, and Gary Harris round out the rest of the starters, and then there’s former All-Star Isaiah Thomas who could be a fascinating x-factor for this team off the bench. The Nuggets further lucked out in the 2018 NBA Draft, watching Michael Porter Jr. fall to their pick at #14 overall. While Porter continues to recover from a back ailment, if he even scratches the surface of his immense potential, that’ll be nothing but gravy for them.
Denver effectively came within one game of the playoffs last year, just missing out on the 8th spot on the final day of the regular season. The key to them taking that next step will be whether they can stop opponents from scoring on them, as they finished near the bottom (26th) in overall defensive rating. That’s somewhat surprising for a team coached by Michael Malone. But with the mix of youth, athleticism, and veteran savvy assembled, Malone has a team that suits both his coaching philosophies, and the way that the NBA is headed overall: a group of somewhat “position-less” players who can make plays all over the court, and match up athletically with anyone they play. The key is whether Malone can guide this group from individual talents to a cohesive unit.
While the Nuggets are admittedly a very young team (for the most part), the franchise — and it’s fans — are likely looking forward to ending the team’s five-year postseason drought.
G: Jeff Teague
G: Jimmy Butler
F: Andrew Wiggins
F: Taj Gibson
G: Derrick Rose
G: Tyus Jones
G: Josh Okogie
F: Anthony Tolliver
C: Gorgui Dieng
If you’re even a casual fan of the NBA, it’s sufficient to say that you might’ve heard the Minnesota Timberwolves being in the news lately, just days before the official start of the 2018-2019 NBA season.
Heading into the late winter/early spring, the Timberwolves were one of the fun stories in the NBA, cruising towards what could’ve been the 3rd-seed in the Western Conference. But they lost All-Star forward Jimmy Butler to an injury, causing them to go 10-13 down the stretch without him, fall to the 8th-seed in the West, and lose in five games to the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs.
How that scenario unfolded for Minnesota is a microcosm of the situation they face today. Butler is one of those players who’s wired to be a pathological competitor, and has the full approval from head coach Tom Thibodeau.
But regardless of what Butler will say to his teammates in closed door practices, his “beef” isn’t with Thibodeau or the front office, per se; it’s about the team choosing to build itself around Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Wiggins, who simply aren’t wired in the “win at all costs” way in the same way as Butler.
Towns and Wiggins are exactly what old timers like to complain about, when it comes to Millenials or Generation Z. Wiggins seemingly only cares about his brand (and the whispers of his lack of a killer instinct aren’t whispers anymore) and Towns seems more interested in only scoring (when on the court) and only playing video games (when he’s off the court).
So when you mix together those things, combined with the old cabal of Thibodeau guys assumed, that’s what leads to the combustible situation we have right now. Unfortunately, there’s no resolution for it in sight, either, unless Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor co-opts the negotiation process and trades Butler himself.
But if Butler does remain in Minnesota, how this situation unfolds, and what the locker room chemistry looks like, will be a near-daily discussion.
Oklahoma City Thunder
G: Russell Westbrook
G: Alex Abrines
F: Paul George
F: Jeremi Grant
C: Steven Adams
G: Dennis Schroeder
G: Ray Felton
G: Terrance Ferguson
F: Patrick Peterson
C: Nerlens Noel
While most people continue to count out General Manager Sam Presti, he pulled off yet another shocker this summer, convincing All-Star forward Paul George to re-up via a max contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and join Russell Westbrook in their quest to win the Western Conference.
Whether or not it was the maximum contract that was the biggest draw or not, the fact that George stayed in town to play alongside Westbrook is noteworthy, considering this is the same guy who seemingly couldn’t co-exist with another ball-dominant forward in Kevin Durant. The main difference is likely that George, who played rather poorly in the Thunder’s playoff loss to the Utah Jazz, doesn’t fashion himself as the “lead dog” of a team; he’s fine being the Batman to Westbrook’s Superman.
With the two cornerstones in place, the question now becomes whether they can crash the party at the top of the West. Both players have been to a conference finals at some point, but will the supporting cast hold up their end of the bargain? Steven Adams is one of the best centers in the NBA, and Dennis Schroeder — whom they acquired via trade — will be a quality sixth man, considering he was the starting point guard for a playoff team.
But the Thunder will be without their defensive stalwart in Andre Roberson until December at the earliest, meaning they’ll have to use guys like Ray Felton, Alex Abrines, and Terrance Ferguson alongside Schroeder as their bench rotation.
But as long as Westbrook and George are leading this team, they’re a virtual lock to make it to the postseason. We do have to keep an eye on the health of the former, though, as he did undergo a procedure on his knee just weeks before the season began. For a player who relies so much on his athleticism, that has to raise at least something of a red flag.
G: Damian Lillard
G: CJ McCollum
F: Evan Turner
F: Al-Farouq Aminu
C: Jusuf Nurkic
G: Maurice Harkless
G: Nik Stauskas
G: Seth Curry
F: Zach Collins
C: Meyers Leonard
Between January 1st through the end of this past regular season, the Portland Trailblazers were one of the hottest teams in the NBA, going 30-16 in that stretch and finishing with the third seed in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, most people remember what happened after that, instead of what they accomplished during that span. Specifically, the Trailblazers were handily upset by the 6th-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, and getting swept in the process.
That’s why so many people are rather bearish on the team entering this season, believing that the Trailblazers wither crested during that stretch, if not played over their head. That just leads to the same questions about the current construct of this team, and whether they’re able to really become a contender as they’re presently built.
Specifically, those questions are around whether Portland should keep together the backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Both guards are more than capable players, and represent one of the most talented and capable back-courts in the NBA. But what has that netted them to date, besides disappointment?
The whispers are already there about Lillard’s future with the team, and those whispers will continue to get louder if this team under-performs. And while there are interesting pieces around Lillard and McCollum, none of these players really seem like guys you can build a contender upon.
Although, if the right trade presents itself, one has to believe the Trailblazers would seriously would consider a move. There are a couple of young pieces in place with forward Zach Collins (whom they like) and Anfernee Simmons, meaning they could rebuild on the fly and continue to remain one of the top eight teams in the West.