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Ranking the NBA’s Northwest Division

Jonathan Concool ranks the NBA’s Northwest Division ahead of next season.

Jonathan Concool

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The landscape has changed quite drastically over the past month or so in the NBA. In what was an already unbalanced division of talent between the Western and Eastern Conferences, the division of talent got a bit more one-sided with many stars from the East heading West. Two of the East’s biggest stars both ended up in the Western Conference’s Northwest division, as Jimmy Butler was dealt to Minnesota on draft night and Paul George was then later shipped to OKC.

The Denver Nuggets then crreated some momentum towards competing with their signing of All-Star Forward Paul Millsap, who will be sure to do his best in turning the club into a playoff contender. That being said, the NBA’s Northwest division has quickly turned into one of the more fierce divisions in regards to competitiveness. With Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and Denver all making significant trades/signings this offseason, the reigning division champs of the Northwest, the Utah Jazz, are still trying to digest reality. After losing out on their All-Star Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Celtics, Utah has some holes to fill as they now look to focus the team around Center Rudy Gobert. And with the Blazers essentially having the same roster that they had last season at this point, there may be some new teams atop of the division this year with all of the added talent.

(Last season’s record next to team name).

Oklahoma City Thunder — 47-35

The Thunder proved many doubters wrong last season as, even without Kevin Durant, OKC clinched a playoff spot in the West, which many thought was not realistic at the moment. Westbrook took matters upon himself and led the Thunder to the sixth seed in the West after completing a historic NBA season that rightfully ended in him receiving the NBA’s MVP award. Now adding Paul George to the scene in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are well on their way back to the top of their division.

The addition of George gives Westbrook some much-needed help on the offensive end of the court, as Westbrook can now work off the ball and will not have to be so ball dominant like he was last year. The main thing that was holding OKC back last year was the team’s inability to stay consistent with Westbrook off the court. OKC could not find ways to score or defend without their MVP on the floor last season, which in turn made it difficult for Westbrook to receive any kind of rest during the game. Bringing in the likes of George, an NBA All-Star in the prime of his career, is sure to make things a bit easier for Russ, but will also open up shots for the other guys. Instead of an entire defense focusing in on one player that can create offense, opponents are now going to have their hands full dealing with both George and Westbrook.

Although the Thunder lose out on the explosiveness of Victor Oladipo and a fundamental big with Domantas Sabonis, the addition of George should immediately heal those wounds for OKC fans.

Projected wins: 53-58

Minnesota Timberwolves — 31-51

Minnesota has transformed their roster mightily over the offseason period as the club looks to make a huge turnaround from last season. Coming off a year where the T-Wolves still looked in rebuilding mode, a splashy move that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, reuniting him with Coach Tom Thibodeau, suddenly has the Wolves back on the map in the West.

The acquisition of Butler was just one of many moves Minnesota made this offseason. The T-Wolves moved on from point guard Ricky Rubio after six seasons with the organization and quickly found their replacement for Rubio by signing guard Jeff Teague just a few days after. After the signing of Teague, Thibs went out and signed former Bull Taj Gibson to round out a potential starting five of Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Gibson, and Towns. With another year of experience under the belts of Wiggins and Towns, as well as bringing in three proven guys with Teague, Butler, and Gibson, the Timberwolves have their eyes set on winning. Minnesota’s bench could be a weakness for them this season, but the signing of Jamal Crawford should certainly help them out with that as Crawford is a three-time recipient of the Sixth Man of the Year award. It seems Minnesota has all of the right pieces in place to seriously compete in the West next year, and if Wiggins and Towns can continue to improve, the T-Wolves suddenly look like the team to beat.

Projected wins: 50-55

Portland Trail Blazers — 41-41

The Trail Blazers squeezed into the playoffs last year as the eighth seed in the West, beating out Denver by just one game. In what was looked at as a disappointing season for Portland last year, the Trail Blazers hope to start the season off right this time around. After a series of moves last offseason, Portland looked ready to make a deep playoff run. The Trail Blazers got off to a very rocky start to the season and found themselves with a record of 18-24 through the first 42 games of the season. With free agent signings not panning out and injuries coming and going, Portland had a hard time keeping the boat afloat. The scoring duo of Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum did help keep things on the right path for Portland, but it was a midseason trade that landed them Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic that ultimately helped them land in the postseason.

Portland has stayed relatively silent during the offseason besides adding two guys through the draft in Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Although there have been recent rumors about Dame and C.J. reaching out to Carmelo Anthony on potentially waiving his no-trade clause for Portland, the odds of that happening do seem unlikely as of now. Portland will enter the regular season essentially with the same roster barring any crazy trade for Melo, but they will be much better this time around. Lillard and McCollum are going to continue to elevate their games in Portland, but it’s the addition of Nurkic that will give them the extra boost they need. Like we saw towards the end of last season, Nurkic gives Portland a playmaker down in the post with his soft touch around the rim and excellent passing, relieving some of the pressure from Lillard and McCollum. The Blazers have a deep roster with plenty of talent down the line, and if head coach Terry Stotts plays his hand right, Portland should be in a much better position to make the playoffs come next season.

Projected wins: 43-48

Utah Jazz — 51-31

Not many times does a team that just won its division slide this far down to the bottom of the pack, but that is the case here for the Utah Jazz. After a great season last year, where the Jazz found themselves back in the postseason following a four-year absence, Utah’s future couldn’t have looked brighter. That is, until their All-Star forward Gordon Hayward decided to jump ship and sign with the Boston Celtics in free agency. Utah now is faced with tons of question marks heading into the regular season, although the Jazz did make it clear that they are now focusing the team around center Rudy Gobert since Gordon’s departure.

Ricky Rubio, who was recently acquired by the Jazz to help aid their efforts in retaining Gordon Hayward, will now have to fill in as the go-to playmaker on the team for Utah. Rubio is coming off a great year with Minnesota where he averaged a career best in points per game and assists. Whether that play will carry over to Utah or not is still to be seen, but Rubio is a terrific playmaker and someone the defender has to respect, even if his shots not falling. With Utah trying to compensate for what they will miss from Gordon Hayward, look for Rodney Hood to have a much bigger role next season as possibly the team’s leading scorer if he can stay healthy. Also, recently drafted guard Donovan Mitchell put some hope back into Utah fans with his outstanding Summer League play in Vegas this year. The Jazz do still have pieces to compete for a playoff spot next year with Joe Johnson still under contract and Joe Ingles re-signed, which will help aid Rubio and Gobert, but it’s going to take a collective effort from everyone for Utah to be back in the postseason next year.

Projected wins: 40-45

Denver Nuggets — 40-42

Coming off a season where Denver was just one game from making the playoffs in the Western Conference, the Nuggets made a big offseason acquisition when they signed free agent forward Paul Millsap. Denver will look to build off of their success from last season, where they found a gem in 21-year-old Nikola Jokic who took the league by storm with his six triple-doubles, showing off his versatility on the court. Adding Millsap into the mix down low gives the Nuggets an elite frontcourt and a matchup nightmare for the opposition.

Yes, the Nuggets did end up losing out on their leading scorer from a year ago in Danilo Gallinari (signed with LAC), but the Nuggets will look to make up for those lost points as a group with the likes of Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris, and Will Barton all chipping in. Also, expect Emmanuel Mudiay to come out of the gates running after a down year last season with the Nuggets, and Jamal Murray also should certainly look more comfortable on the court after a pretty impressive rookie season. All in all, the Nuggets have a good mix of young talent and proven vets, but someone else besides Millsap and Jokic will have to step up for Denver to get into the postseason.

Projected wins: 40-45

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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NBA AM: Most Likely All-Star Snubs

Damian Lillard seems to top the All-Star snub list every season. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

Joel Brigham

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This year the NBA has famously decided to mix up the way the All-Star rosters work, while rather infamously deciding against televising the draft that will organize those players into teams, but even as some things change, some things remain the same.

Just like every year, there will be snubs when the All-Star reserves are announced on Tuesday night. Oh, there will be snubs.

The starters already have been selected, chosen by a combination of fan votes, media votes and player votes, the latter of which were taken so seriously that Summer League legend Jack Cooley even earned a single nomination from one especially ornery player voter.

For those that missed the starters, they include LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid from the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and James Harden from the Western Conference.

That leaves seven more reserves from each conference and way more deserving players than that from which to choose. These will be selected by the coaches, per tradition, but it’s anybody’s guess who ends up making the team. There absolutely are going to be some massive snubs this year, so let’s take a quick look at the most likely candidates to earn roster spots this winter, as well as who that might leave out of this year’s event in Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference

Let’s start with the “sure things,” which almost certainly will include with Indian Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Not only is he putting up a career-best 24/5/4 line, but he’s also averaging two steals per night for an Indiana team that currently lives in the playoff picture despite dismal expectations. That’s almost entirely because of Oladipo.

In the frontcourt, there was plenty of healthy debate when Embiid was voted the starter over Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, so there’s a very good chance that those two guys find their way to the roster, as well.

Kevin Love, who also is having a monster statistical season, seems like the most obvious third frontcourt guy, but his defense stinks and the Cavs haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of two All-Stars. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris both are having borderline All-Star seasons for a borderline playoff team, but they are the closest contenders to stealing away that third frontcourt reserve slot from Love.

Beyond that, Bradley Beal or John Wall likely will be the “other” guard reserve, but choosing which one is dicey. Wall’s the four-time All-Star, but Beal arguably is having the better year and has been snubbed for this event entirely too many times already. It doesn’t seem likely that both guys will make the team.

The wild cards could be that “other” Wizards guard among Beal and Wall, one of those two Pistons players, Miami’s Goran Dragic (they are fourth in the conference, rather surprisingly), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, or Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.

What seems most probable is that Oladipo and Beal earn the Eastern Conference reserve slots, with Horford, Porzingis and Love earning the backup frontcourt positions. Lowry and Wall feel most likely as reserves.

That means the most likely Eastern Conference snubs will be: Goran Dragic, Ben Simmons, Andre Drummod, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.

The level of controversy with this group feels fairly low, though if Dragic or Drummond were to make the team over Wall or Love, the conversation would be a lot feistier.

The Western Conference

Choosing the reserve guards in the Western Conference is a no-brainer. It will be MVP candidates Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, which immediately means that if Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Paul George are not named as Wild Card players, they will be left off of the team. That’s about as “yikes” as “yikes” gets.

The battle for the frontcourt spots are going to be no less brutal, even with Kawhi Leonard effectively out of consideration having missed so much time at the beginning of the season. The Spurs will have an All-Star anyway, though, which makes LaMarcus Aldridge all but a lock.

Towns, who is averaging a 20/12 with over two assists and 1.5 blocks per game on one of the West’s top teams, also feels likely to get in. That means Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are the two guys expected to battle over that last frontcourt spot, and both deserve real consideration. Green’s importance is less obvious to this Warriors team with Durant on the roster, but he’s no less essential even if his offensive numbers are down. Jokic, meanwhile, has kept Denver in the playoff hunt even without Paul Millsap, and is the best passing big man in the game.

The most likely scenario in terms of Western Conference reserves has Butler and Westbrook getting voted in at guard, Aldridge, Towns and Green voted in as frontcourt players, and Thompson and Lillard voted in as the wild cards.

That means the most likely Western Conference snubs will be: Chris Paul, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic.

Paul has missed 17 games this season, which is just too many when there are so many other great guards from which to choose, and George’s usage has dropped massively in Oklahoma City. As for Jokic, somebody has to get snubbed, and the other reasonable possibility is that he be named a wild card player at the expense of Lillard, and no NBA fan should have to see that happen yet again.

The 2018 NBA All-Star Reserves will be announced at 7:00 p.m. EST on January 23 on TNT.

Tune in Tuesday night to see which players will make the team, and which will inevitably be snubbed.

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