With Kevin Durant’s shocking departure, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s reign over the Northwest Division seems like less of a sure thing moving forward. The Thunder have won the division in five of the past six years and still have a talented roster (especially with Russell Westbrook locked up), but they do seem more vulnerable than ever.
That’s because the other four Northwest teams (Portland, Utah, Denver and Minnesota) continue to develop their young cores and made some solid additions this offseason. Each of these teams feature a lot of youth, and we can expect very competitive play within the division this year.
Today, let’s take a look at where each team in the division stands and evaluate their recent moves.
#5 – Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53 last season)
Key Additions: Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich, hired coach Tom Thibodeau
Key Subtractions: Tayshaun Prince, Andre Miller, Greg Smith, Damjan Rudez
Minnesota has had a relatively quiet offseason besides the hiring of their new head coach Tom Thibodeau, who is expected to work wonders with this very promising and talented team. The Wolves are focused on building around this current young core, and bring back largely the same group minus some of their older contributors from last year (Prince and Miller). Add in the likes of new veterans Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich as well as the addition of lottery pick Kris Dunn out of Providence and the Wolves look like they’re onto something.
Minnesota seems ready to turn things around and end their rebuilding process sooner than later. They have found their cornerstones in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Now, with Thibodeau mentoring the promising duo, these Wolves should make substantial strides next season and beyond. With Dunn, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine (who can slide over to the one) and Tyus Jones, the Timberwolves also have a considerable amount of depth at the point guard position. Although they may still find themselves below .500 at the end of the year, expect Minnesota to show significant improvement next year under the defensive-minded Thibodeau.
#4 – Denver Nuggets (33-49 last season)
Key Additions: Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez
Key Subtractions: D.J. Augustin
The Nuggets were close to making one of the biggest splashes of free agency when they offered Dwyane Wade a two-year deal worth over $50 million, but Wade ultimately joined his hometown Chicago Bulls. Denver still seems to have ways to go in their rebuilding process as they’ve had a hard time playing at a high level consistently. With that said, they may have found a developing star in 20-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay as well as some very talented frontcourt players in 21-year-olds Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. While this team does have a talented young core, they’ll also be looking for veterans Danilo Gallinari (who can hopefully stay healthy after missing 52 games over the last two seasons), Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller to produce and lead the team.
The Nuggets will bring back largely the same roster, although adding the three talented draft picks should help this team take a step forward. Murray and Beasley are just 19 years old and Hernangomez is 20, so this is a group with a lot of upside. Still, all three rookies have the talent to contribute in year one – especially on the offensive end. The Nuggets had a hard time scoring last season, ranking 20th in points per 100 possessions (102.7). They struggled even more on the defensive end, ranking 24th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (106.4). To improve on last year’s win total, Denver is relying on some of their young players (particularly Mudiay, Jokic, Nurkic and the rookies) to step up and Gallinari to stay healthy.
#3 – Utah Jazz (40-42 last season)
Key Additions: Joe Johnson, George Hill, Boris Diaw, Marcus Paige, Tyrone Wallace, Joel Bolomboy
Key Subtractions: Trevor Booker, Trey Burke
While the Golden State Warriors have understandably received nearly all of the offseason attention for landing Kevin Durant, the Jazz have quietly had a very strong summer. In adding veterans Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw, Utah now has a very strong mix of younger and older players. This team finished last season just one game behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets, which would have been their first playoff appearance since the 2011-12 campaign. However, this young Jazz squad struggled down the stretch when the playoffs were right within their reach. Utah hopes adding these three veterans will push them forward and end their postseason drought.
Another underrated move by the Jazz this summer was extending head coach Quin Snyder, who has done a terrific job with this group. In the always competitive Western Conference, it is hard to say whether the Jazz will definitely be in the playoffs next year, but with the moves they made this offseason and another year of experience for their talented young core, it’s certainly the goal and very realistic.
#2 – Portland Trail Blazers (44-38 last season)
Key Additions: Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Shabazz Napier, Jake Layman
Key Subtractions: Gerald Henderson, Brian Roberts, Cliff Alexander
After missing out on their top targets in free agency – Hassan Whiteside (Miami HEAT), Chandler Parsons (Memphis Grizzlies) and Pau Gasol (San Antonio Spurs) – Portland’s offseason actually shaped up pretty well. Evan Turner is coming off of a strong season with the Boston Celtics, while Festus Ezeli improves the frontcourt and provides championship experience on a bargain deal. Portland’s front office made a clear statement that they are all-in with the guys they have now, as they matched Allen Crabbe’s large offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets to keep him in Portland, extended C.J. McCollum for the foreseeable future and re-signed Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard.
Going into last season, most people had the Blazers at the bottom of the conference after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. But Damian Lillard and McCollum had other ideas, making the playoffs, advancing past the Los Angeles Clippers in round one and giving the defending-champion Golden State Warriors an impressive fight in the second round. The Blazers seem to be heading in the right direction with a young and talented roster, a front office making strong moves and a very good head coach in Terry Stotts (whose deal was extended through the 2020 season). Expect Portland to build off of what they accomplished last season, as they will try to prove that last year’s success was no fluke.
#1 – Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27 last season)
Key Additions: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Ersan Ilyasova, Alex Abrines, Daniel Hamilton
Key Subtractions: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters
Kevin Durant’s decision to leave was a devastating blow, butt Thunder fans were able to rejoice as Russell Westbrook added two additional sesons extension including a player option in 2018-2019 to stay with Oklahoma City. They did part ways with other key pieces of their roster last year in Serge Ibaka, who was shipped to Orlando, and Dion Waiters, who took a deal with Miami. In trading away Ibaka though, the Thunder brought in the promising young talent of Victor Oladipo to accompany Westbrook in what should be a very exciting backcourt.
After being one win away from a trip to the NBA Finals last season, the Thunder will definitely have to get used to life without Durant and find new ways to score other than just giving the ball to Westbrook. Yes, they lost Durant, but Thunder fans still have an encouraging roster to look forward to next year as they also brought in Domantas Sabonis from Gonzaga and Alex Abrines from the Spanish league. With Ibaka leaving, expect much more from the Thunder big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. Obviously when you lose a guy like KD, it will take some time to get used to throughout the season, but Oklahoma City still has some nice pieces in places (and a guy named Russell Westbrook) so certainly don’t expect them to fall off the grid in the conference.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.