NBA Western Conference Preview (NORTHWEST DIVISION)

Damian Lillard

 (NORTHWEST DIVISION PREVIEW)

 

In-Depth analysis of the OKC Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, and Utah Jazz. Western Conference Northwest Division Preview.

 

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

It’s pretty safe to say that the Oklahoma City Thunder had themselves an off-season.

Let’s even forget about the fact that Russell Westbrook signed a five-year contract extension worth $205 million to stay with Oklahoma City through the 2022–23 season, and prevents another story-line of a major superstar departing town and leaving the franchise in a lurch. No, instead of seeing big-name players leave town, General Manager Sam Presti orchestrated two of the biggest “where did that come from” deals in recent years, with both taking place in the same off-season. Presti essentially traded a hodgepodge of spare parts, and turned those guys into All-Stars like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

When the Thunder take the court this season, they’ll roll out a starting lineup of Westbrook, George, Anthony, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams. It’s entirely possible that said lineup is good enough to land this team at least in the top four of the Western Conference, if not the top three. Regardless of all the questions as to whether each of these guys can co-exist, especially on a team where Westbrook was a one-man wrecking crew last season, in the era of “super-teams,” these were moves that the Thunder simply had to make. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to see what happens when this team takes the floor against the Golden State Warriors, especially for a prolonged series. Both teams now have stars that have played on the game’s biggest stages, and aren’t afraid of the spotlight.

Projected Record: 51-31

 

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Before the 2016-2017 season began, everyone expected that the Minnesota Timberwolves could compete for as many as 50 wins in the upcoming season, by virtue of the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, and the incredible talents of franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. Clearly, those people who thought that were a bit overzealous, considering the team finished with 51 losses last year.

But while Thibodeau and Towns remain the cornerstones of this team taking that next step back into relevancy in the Western Conference, they brought in a plethora of reinforcements this off-season.

That starts with All-Star Jimmy Butler, who’ll reunite with Thibodeau following a draft-night blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bulls. Once the player who followed, then tried to lead by example, Butler will become the teacher and the liaison between Thibodeau and the young players in Minnesota. So will Taj Gibson (also a former Thibodeau protege) and point guard Jeff Teague.

A starting five of Teague, Butler, Gibson, Towns, and Andrew Wiggins seems incredibly interesting, but will there be enough of the basketball to co-exist? Many of those guys thrive with the ball in their hands. The future of this team fully depends on Towns getting as many touches as possible and realizing his insane talents, but will that fully happen on a squad that’s playing under one of the ultimate “win now and the hell with tomorrow” coaches?

If the defensive focus and commitment of Towns and Wiggins remain sporadic and/or confused, the Wolves will scrap to grab one of the final two playoff berths. If Towns and Wiggins are fully engaged at the defensive end, the Wolves will be in the hunt for the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the postseason.

Projected Record: 48-34

 

DENVER NUGGETS

The Denver Nuggets are a young and inexperienced team that looks like it will still make a playoff run this season by virtue of the depth and talent it has assembled, with the potential to make things interesting both in and past the first round of the playoffs.

From the first day of the new year in 2017 to the end of last season, the Nuggets had the second-best offense in the league (113 points per 100 possessions), which was only two-tenths of a point behind the Warriors. Hell, they beat the Warriors the day before Valentine’s Day by hitting 24 of their 41 3-point attempts — and that was without Danilo Gallinari, their best and most versatile scorer.

Believe it or not, this will be the first full season in which passing genius Nikola Jokic is the undisputed focal point of the team. Jokic was recently polled as the 16th-best player in the NBA by ESPN’s annual top-100 player ranking.

He’ll be joined by All-Star Paul Millsap, do-it-all wing players like Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris, and lights-out scorers like Jamal Murray and Will Barton.

The question that will define this team both this season and in future years is whether they can come even half as close to producing defensively as they can on offense. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of young and talented players who still don’t know what it really takes to win.

Regardless, it’ll be hard to deny the Nuggets as one of the most exciting teams in basketball.

Projected Record: 45-37

 

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard

The Portland Trailblazers  are trying to buck the trend of the last two seasons when they started extremely slow only to surge into the playoffs with a late run. The hope is that roster continuity and a renewed focus on the details will help them start stronger. A home-heavy opening schedule will be helpful, too.

The Trailblazers have 12 returning players from last season’s team that won 41 games and lost 41 games, as well as two rookies who will round out their 14-man roster. The Blazers entered camp with three starting spots solidified. Damian Lillard is the point guard, CJ McCollum will start at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic is the starting center. There was open competition for the two starting forward spots in training camp and while Blazers coach Terry Stotts may have shown a glimpse of his opening night rotation during the preseason, there are still question marks heading into Wednesday night. After five preseason games it looked like Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless had earned the starting forward sports with Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Pat Connaughton and rookie Caleb Swanigan coming off the bench to round out the rotation.

Jusuf Nurkic lost 35 pounds over the summer, going from 310 to 275 pounds thanks to an intense off-season workout program. The Blazers center didn’t sign a contract extension before the Oct. 16 deadline, but both he and the team hope to agree to a long term deal in July. And the mask? Nurkic had off-season dental surgery and has to wear a protective mask for the first few weeks of the season.

There’s another obvious issue plaguing Portland in slow starts. The Blazers have been a bad defensive team for large portions of the past two years. Stotts considered completely overhauling the defense in the summer before deciding to stick with the system he installed four years ago. After a strong showing in preseason, the Blazers feel they are ready to make meaningful strides on the defensive end in 2017-18.

Projected Record- 43-39

 

UTAH JAZZ

Coming off a 51-win season in 2016-17, the Jazz still remain strong candidates for the playoffs. Quin Snyder proved to be one of the shrewdest coaches in the NBA last year and Utah boasted the stingiest defense to boot. That defense isn’t going anywhere, especially while Rudy Gobert is still patrolling the paint. Utah will slow games down and wear teams out, relying on superior ball movement and staunch defense to generate wins. Wins don’t come easy in Salt Lake City.

Rudy Gobert will return not only as Utah’s headliner on defense, but also as the team’s biggest star, period. Gobert received first-team All-Defense honors last season and was the Jazz’s first player voted onto an All-NBA team since 2010, when Deron Williams was at the top of his career.

But you can’t understate the impact of Gordon Hayward’s departure this summer. Hayward was superb last year for Utah, taking the reins as a true top option. He averaged 22 points per game, shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three. It will be up to Gobert, Rodney Hood, and newly-acquired Ricky Rubio to make up for Hayward’s departure, especially in crunch time. With no go-to scorer on the roster, the Jazz will now be forced to cobble together points late in games.

Utah could still sneak its way into the postseason and make life hell for any opponent. And who knows, maybe some stifling defense and a couple of Joe Johnson game-winners could swing a playoff series. But in a crowded Western Conference, no postseason position is secure. If Utah struggles to score at an effective clip each night, it will find itself closer to the bottom in the conference standings than the top by season’s end.

Projected Record: 41-41

 


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