Room for Improvement Series: Northwest Division

Northwest Division Improvement
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 11: Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots in the first half of the regular-season finale at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. April 11, 2018 Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In the Western Conference, there is a certain “we have a chance this season” feeling with the Golden State Warriors‘ dynasty in jeopardy. For the last “Room for Improvement” piece, the division wasn’t in the same tier as this next group. There are two title contenders in the Northwest Division, with both teams returning their respective cores.

Northwest Division: Room for Improvement

In total elite fashion, the Northwest division proudly represented the NBA with three 50-win teams last season. No other division in the league scored such a feat. As alluded to earlier, the Northwest boasts three teams with championship aspirations. There is only one team that isn’t seen as a contender to make the playoffs. The Northwest Division is up for another competitive season.

Minnesota Timberwolves Key Improvement

Ryan Saunders becoming head coach of the team was the only feel-good part of the season. Jimmy Butler’s well-documented clash with teammates at practice was the most entertaining aspect of the Minnesota Timberwolves last season.  Karl-Anthony Towns had a strong year, although the team suffered its 14th missed playoffs in 15 years.

In a season where the two-time NBA all-star forward scored 24 points with 40 percent three-point shooting and grabbed 12 boards a game, the Timberwolves finished 11th in the Western Conference. Butler’s actions in practice weren’t warranted, but his on-court performance gave Minnesota the edge it needed to experience playoff basketball.

Speaking of edge, Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins is teetering towards Jeff Green territory. From coming into the league as a sure-thing prospect to being an inefficient player, Wiggins is on a slippery slope. Even Derrick Rose finished with a better true shooting percentage. The former University of Kansas product failed to accumulate one measly win share.

It’s imperative that Wiggins takes the next step for the team to succeed. Not only is his offense detrimental to the team, but Wiggins’ defense is also laughable. Quite simply, he is a net-negative player. Wiggins’ maturation as a basketball player is the only way for the Timberwolves to start its ascension in the Western Conference.

Oklahoma City Thunder Key Improvement

Nothing is what it seems.

A simple, yet, a fitting statement for the NBA. Russell Westbrook, the player Oklahoma City Thunder fans swore on their awfully orange Thunder jerseys would never leave, did. The 2016-17 regular season league MVP is now a Houston Rocket. However, there is a sense of hope in Oklahoma, regardless of Westbrook’s departure.

Chris Paul is suited to guide a team to the playoffs, and despite the young players on the roster, it’s not farfetched for the Thunder to achieve such a feat. There are signs which point to the Thunder trading the veteran point guard but for now, it seems Sam Presti trusts the nine-time NBA All-Star to keep the ship afloat.

For the Thunder to feed the hungry fans playoff basketball, Chris Paul must recover from a disappointing season. Besides the hefty contract, its Paul’s shaky play which keeps him in Oklahoma. There is an argument that gives Paul the benefit of the doubt due to a mismatch of a system, withstanding the career-low of a season for an otherwise elite point guard.

If Paul can prove his worth as a leader on the court, and showcases he is still valuable as a top-notch facilitator, the Thunder as an eight-seed isn’t unfathomable.

Portland Trailblazers Key Improvement

For a team that reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 1999-00 season, sadly there isn’t much hype surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers. In the light of Portland trading for the volatile Hassan Whiteside, it’s apparent the franchise is grasping for straws while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from a leg fracture.

Despite the combined 46 points averaged between the elite backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, there is a glaring issue that needs a solution. The Trail Blazers roster is void of a reliable third scorer. Furthermore, Rodney Hood, a well-documented sporadic performer, is, unfortunately, the theoretical third wheel until Nurkic returns.

For Portland to continue its pursuit of the NBA Finals, it’s imperative the front office either finds another scorer to lift the burden from Lillard and McCollum or more realistically, arrange the lineups to where the two stars minutes stagger. Based on the limited assets the Trail Blazers have at its disposal, the latter option is the more viable strategy.

Utah Jazz Key Improvement

Even after a successful outing this past summer, there is a hint of worrisome takes floating around the web surrounding the Utah Jazz. Mike Conley, the most significant acquisition for the Jazz, will help guide Donovan Mitchell after a sophomore slump. Following a dismal performance in yet another playoff series elimination by the Houston Rockets, Mitchell must lay off the volume scoring if it doesn’t equate with efficiency.

Mitchell, the surprise consolation prize after Gordon Hayward’s controversial departure from Utah, is the x-factor of whether or not Utah ascends to a Western Conference powerhouse. With Conley at the helm, Mitchell’s demand of on-ball activity will regress. In this case, regressing will do wonders for the third-year guard.

Last season, Mitchell went 7-7 on alley-oop dunks, with most of them coming in transition. However, while Conley is the point guard, expect the Jazz to incorporate more halfcourt sets. Mitchell, theoretically, will excel as a cutter, especially considering his bursting explosiveness at the rim.

Among the other positive additions to the team, it’s the synergy of Conley and Mitchell which will bring the Jazz back to a championship-contending franchise. Whether or not Mitchell will cede ball-carrying duties to the point of focusing on finishing, rather than creating, remains to be seen. Although to Mitchell’s credit, in light of team US play, it doesn’t seem the guard minds playing second fiddle.

Even with the impressive roster additions made this past summer, there is still one team in the Northwest Division which symbolizes the steep competition in the Western Conference.

Denver Nuggets Key Improvement

Coming off being on the wrong side of CJ McCollum’s career-defining performance in a 17-point comeback in game seven of the Western Conference semifinals, the Denver Nuggets are in a fantastic position. Denver is in the driving seat of the league, much ado to the continuity of its roster.

However, there are still fine-tuning opportunities for the team with championship hopes. Mainly, it’s the point of emphasis to put Nikola Jokic in positions to put pressure on opposing defenses as a scorer. Despite some critics pointing at the native Serbian lack of defensive dominance, it’s not a negative point to his game.

For a center who averaged 20 points (on 15 attempts), it’s mouth-watering envisioning Jokic asserting himself as a legitimate scoring threat. There is no reason Jokic can’t add a few more field goal attempts as well as free throws to his stat sheet. The moves in his repertoire aren’t used to their maximum ability.

Honestly, the only hurdle in Jokic’s ascension is play-calling and the Serbian center himself. Imagine if the Nuggets unlocked another tier for Jokic. If the superstar center focuses on scoring, the Nuggets are a favorite for the one-seed in the Western Conference.

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