The Northwest Division is a fascinating division in so many ways. Most notably, this division has youthful talent in abundance. The Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trailblazers, and the Utah Jazz make up this division. Each team consists of at least one outstanding young player. It’s quite possible that all members can make the playoffs from the Northwest. Given the talent level and the coaching acumen of all teams, expect a most competitive battle for supremacy.
Whether it’s prior to or after reading this, be sure to check out Last Word on Pro Basketball’s Coast 2 Coast podcast previewing the Northwest Division.
2016-17 NBA Northwest Division Preview
After a labored season, the Denver Nuggets outlook is like Denver itself, a mile high. This roster is littered with young talented players. Led by second year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the team includes Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, and incoming rookie Jamal Murray. This team is coached by Mike Malone who can be considered a saint, because of his work with DeMarcus Cousins. Of course with young talent there will be inevitable growing pains. But this team’s veterans will help determine their destiny. Jameer Nelson, Wilson Chandler, Will Barton, and JaKarr Sampson are there to support when needed.
If this team plays to its potential, it could win 44 games. However, the Nuggets will win 38 to 40 games and just miss the playoffs. The growth continues.
This is the most intriguing team in the NBA. There are so many storylines with this team and the trajectory is firmly pointed upwards. After firing the woefully ineffective coach Sam Mitchell, the Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau as coach and general manager. Thibodeau is renowned as a defensive guru in the league. Also, this team is dripping with young talent.
Karl-Anthony Towns was pure magic last season winning Rookie of the Year. He is expected to have a significant leap in his play in the 2016-17 season. On the court Towns does it all. He commands the paint on both ends of the court. His shooting ability is feared throughout the league, while his defense and intangibles are rated as top-notch.
Other Timberwolves players include young star Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and dunk maestro Zach LaVine. All of those players are below the age of 28 years old. Additionally, the Timberwolves drafted Kris Dunn from Providence College. Dunn is a point guard with solid fundamentals and a huge upside.
This is a playoff team this season. No team wants to travel to Minnesota this year.
Oklahoma City Thunder
They lost Kevin Durant. This team was left like a groom at the proverbial alter, as the bride changed her mind in the aisle. General Manager Sam Presti however has a plan in place. Prior to Durant’s defection, the Thunder traded forward/center Serge Ibaka to the Magic and acquired Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to a first-round pick Domantas Sabonis. Put those men together with superstar guard Russell Westbrook, scoring center Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, suddenly the sky isn’t falling as quickly.
The Thunder will rise and fall with Russell Westbrook. Westbrook appeased the Thunder faithful when he signed a contract extension following Durant’s departure. However, this team while blessed with speed is short on long distance shooting. How Coach Billy Donovan chooses to rectify and remedy this shortcoming will go a long way to fulfilling their playoff aspirations.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers were the darlings of the Western Conference last season. Basketball scribes, pundits and experts opined on their impending doom post the LaMarcus Aldridge departure. Coach Terry Stotts however showed why his contemporaries and himself are paid so well. The Blazers won 44 games during the regular season but really came alive in the playoffs. After defeating the favored Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, the Trail Blazers had a very entertaining series against Golden State Warriors. Though they lost in five games, the Blazers showed they’ll continue to grow in spite of potential obstacles.
This team is led by young superstar point guard Damian Lillard and budding backcourt mate C.J. McCollum. This is one of the best guard tandems in the league and will be counted on to lead the Trailblazers to further success in 2016-17. They’ll be counting on Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Mason Plumlee to make positive contributions. Also, in the off-season, the Trail Blazers signed Evan Turner to strengthen wing play and Festus Ezeli for inside toughness.
Like last season, Stotts will have this team prepared to win. However, unlike last season, the league is expecting them to perform this year. Also the pundits have since learned their lessons. This is a playoff team without question, winning no fewer than 46 games.
Utah has never been a city known for excitement. But now, everyone’s excited about the Utah Jazz. The basketball nerds rave about them on every platform they have. This team has an abundance of young talent just waiting to breakout. Some may question head coach Quin Snyder’s ability. Others wonder loudly whether or not the team’s best player, forward Gordon Hayward is even a star. These questions are either for haters or those with time on their hands.
The Utah Jazz has an enviable nucleus that includes the aforementioned Hayward, Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, and Trey Lyles. Added to that a young but currently injured Dante Exum at point guard. The Jazz also signed free agent veteran Joe Johnson, and traded for Boris Diaw and George Hill.
Quite possibly, Hill is the most underrated point guard in the NBA. He is an outstanding on ball defender, and knockdown shooter. Though a point guard, Hill operates efficiently both with the ball or without it. His usage rate need not be through the roof for him to be effective. Although the Exum injury necessitated the Hill trade, his return doesn’t mean Hill shall be relegated to the shadows. This team’s success will depend heavily on Hill’s play.
Needless to say, Gordon Hayward’s play determines whether or not this team makes the playoffs. Hayward recently suffered a fracture of the fourth finger on his left hand. There is no official timetable for his return. Will this Jazz team rally around each other and have the playoffs return to Salt Lake City? This question shall be answered only with time. The Jazz were snake-bitten with injuries the past few seasons. Gobert, Favors, Exum, and Burks missed significant time through injury. Now one must add Hayward to that most unfortunate list. Some say to expect him back before December, however team doctors have not issued any update to that effect.
Talent wise, this team is made for the playoffs. They play defense at a very high level as evidenced by the moniker of their center Rudy Gobert ‘The Stifle Tower’. Their issue last season was scoring. The Jazz didn’t have enough shooting. But that was rectified with the Johnson and Hill acquisitions. The Jazz is a most tantalizing prospect. With the return of Hayward before December, this team will make the playoffs.
In conclusion, the loss of Durant would simply be too much for Oklahoma City Thunder to recover from and therefore they will miss the post season this year. The Nuggets will improve but not enough to get into the upper echelon of the Western Conference and will also miss the playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers are the experienced team of the Northwest Division and therefore will win it. They will be in the playoffs along with the Utah Jazz who will finally rid themselves of this bad luck. Tom Thibodeau’s effect on Minnesota Timberwolves will be telling and will vault them into the playoffs. Though, this division may have no 55 win team like last year, no team will win less than 38 games either. The road to supremacy may ultimately end up in Oakland, but it passes through the Northwest Division.