The Northwest Division is looking quite flush with talent heading into the 2017-18 regular season. Paul Millsap, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler are just a few names that have made their way to the Northwest during the offseason, and their arrival should not only coincide with one of the more competitive battles for a division crown in recent memory but should make for an intense battle for playoff seeding in the Western Conference from top to bottom.
Each player in the Association has their role to play for their respective teams, but there is always someone who plays an integral part in their team’s success throughout the season. Here’s a look at the most important player for each team in the Northwest Division.
Denver Nuggets — Nikola Jokic
Last season, Nikola Jokic inserted himself into the conversation of the NBA’s best big man. While he may not be the all-around player that DeMarcus Cousins or Karl Anthony-Towns are, his offensive game proved vital for the Denver Nuggets last season as they made a run at the postseason. Jokic’s progression and offensive improvement will again play an integral role for this season for a Nuggets team looking for its first playoff berth since 2012.
One of the best passing big men in the league, Jokic was second among centers with 4.9 assists per game last season and was one of only four at the position to average more than 4.5, but did so on a meager 8.4 potential assists per game. The Nuggets were at their best last year when Jokic was running the floor and moving the ball around and have seemingly constructed the roster to amplify his greatest strength. Now sharing the frontcourt with a talented scorer like Millsap, while also being surrounded by shooters Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, Jokic should have a plethora of options when looking to dish the ball next season which, in turn, should lead to more wins.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Andrew Wiggins
Going on his seventh season in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves knew what they were getting when they acquired Jimmy Butler in the offseason. Heading into his third season, Karl-Anthony Towns has already cemented himself as one of the best centers and players in the Association and has become a dominant force on the floor. While both players together are capable of taking the Timberwolves to the playoff promised land, it is Andrew Wiggins who will determine how good this team can truly be.
In the lead-up to the 2014 draft, Wiggins was lauded as an uber-athlete and future do-it-all type of player: scoring; playmaking; and defense, all wrapped up into one soon-to-be superstar package. Wiggins’ scoring output has since improved each season, but his development has seemingly lagged behind in other areas. Now in his fourth season, the Timberwolves are expecting Wiggins to be, at the very least, their third-best player alongside Towns and Butler. In order to be that, Wiggins’ averages of four rebounds and 2.3 assists per game from last season, as well as his lackluster effort on the defensive end, need some serious improvement.
The Timberwolves can clearly see the untapped potential within Wiggins, having offered him a max contract extension during the offseason. Whether or not Wiggins will capitalize on that potential is a different story, but his overall improvement and play this season will be vital to Minnesota’s success and should make the difference between another disappointing year and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2003.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Paul George and Carmelo Anthony
The Oklahoma City Thunder will go as Russell Westbrook does during the regular season, but the players most integral to the success of the franchise next season are newcomers George and Anthony.
George and Anthony are both known commodities in the league, but their collective shift from ball-dominant stars into more off-ball roles will be something to watch as the season progresses. A successful transition for the two will allow the Thunder to run with the best of them, but if George and Anthony are unable to cede control to Westbrook and still perform at a high level then there will be problems. Both George and Anthony had a usage ratings over 28 percent last season and, while many would think their arrival in Oklahoma City would coincide with a dip in Westbrook’s ridiculous 41.7 percent usage rate from last season, he is still the best player on the team and head coach Billy Donovan is going to want the ball in his hands as often as possible. While he won’t see the ball as often, Westbrook should still have the highest usage rate of the three.
While their early showings in the preseason have been positive, this will be a season-long transition for both George and Anthony; how they handle that transition will dictate how far the Thunder are able to climb in the standings come the end of the regular season, and could have some sway in where George and Anthony are playing next season, both being in potential contract years.
Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard
The Portland Trail Blazers have had their ups and downs in recent years. The one constant? Damian Lillard.
Lillard’s scoring totals have improved every year of his five-year career and, heading into his sixth season, the Trail Blazers are going to need him to take another step forward. The Western Conference will be tougher than ever before, and while Portland added the talented big man Jusuf Nurkic before last season’s trade deadline and potential impact rookie Caleb Swanigan via the draft, the Trail Blazers will always ride or die with Lillard.
The Trail Blazers’ defense wasn’t great last season, coming in at 21st in the league with a defensive rating of 107.8 points per game. Even with Nurkic down in the paint, the defense isn’t expected to improve much on the year, so Portland’s offense will have to step it up for them to stay in games. That offensive attack will almost certainly be spearheaded by Lillard, who had career highs in points per game and usage rate last season at 27 points per game and 31.5 percent, respectively.
Utah Jazz — Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz were dealt a big blow this summer, losing homegrown star forward Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics. The team isn’t lacking for talent, however, with defensive stalwart and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Rudy Gobert still roaming the paint and creating havoc for opposing offenses.
With Hayward’s departure, Gobert immediately replaces him as the Jazz’s best player and face of the franchise, his presence becoming even more indispensable than it already was; losing him would be detrimental to any chances the Jazz have of having anything close to a successful season. Gobert made the leap into the world of the elite last season while averaging 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and a monster 2.6 blocks per game, and while the Jazz may be hard-pressed to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, a similar leap from Gobert in his fifth season would be a huge boon for the franchise as well as its prospects with future free agents.
While the franchise may see a downturn in its win total from a year ago, expect Gobert to be at the center of any and all success for the Jazz this year and for years to come.
The Northwest will be serious players in the playoff picture down the stretch next season as one of the strongest divisions in the NBA. To push their way to contention, however, these players will need to stand up and lead the charge for their respective franchises.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.