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Areas Of Concern: Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the group of five in the Northwest.

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While it’s still early in the NBA season, there’s been enough games played so far to get a little sense of some early trends.

This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re kicking off a new series titled “Areas of Concern.” This series is intended to highlight some of the bigger issues in each division in the NBA. We started off this week with the Central Division. Our next installment takes a look at the Northwest Division.

The Jimmy Butler Trade Saga

Perhaps the most pressing issue in the Northwest Division centers around the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jimmy Butler’s trade request.

When they first acquired Butler last season, the Timberwolves looked like a team ready to being their ascension in the Western Conference. For a while, they were fighting for a top-four seed in the West. Butler got hurt and they ended up plummeting to the eighth spot.

By now, Butler’s offseason trade request is as well known as his outburst during the team’s first day of practice. Since then, he’s shown up and played his role on the team. Minnesota hasn’t played up to par, however, and they currently hover near the bottom of the West standings at 4-7. Until he’s traded, the entire ordeal is going to continue to be a distraction, and it’s probably best for both parties to move on sooner rather than later.

Defense In Denver

There actually isn’t much to complain about regarding the Denver Nuggets. A team that just barely finished outside the playoffs last season, the way they’ve shown up this season makes it look like that won’t be an issue.

The Nuggets currently sit near the top of the Western Conference at 9-1, behind only the 10-1 defending champion Golden State Warriors – and a big reason for that is their defense. Last season they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. They’re a top three defensive team this season.

One could say that, in order to keep up this pace and really establish themselves as an elite team in the West, they need to continue putting in this defensive effort. They’ve yet to incorporate Isaiah Thomas into the lineup and he hasn’t always been known for his defensive output. He seemed to do alright in Boston, though. Once he returns from his injury – if the Nuggets can keep up this lockdown defense – they’ll be that much more dangerous than they already are.

Trouble On Both Sides Of The Ball In Utah

Coming into this season, the Utah Jazz were a team that many thought would take another leap and really establish themselves as an elite team in the West. In the early-goings, however, they aren’t really resembling last season’s team.

Floor spacing and three-point shooting have been an area of concern for them. They’re currently in the bottom half of the league in three-point shooting percentage, shooting 34.8 percent as a team. As a result, their offense has suffered and they’re currently mired in a slump that has seen them lose four straight games at home. They’ve had a tough schedule to start the season, but if they were hoping to be an elite team, these issues need to be addressed.

They’ve also been an average defensive team, a far cry from the elite defensive group they were last season. Teams are shooting near 50 percent from the field against the Jazz. That’s not going to cut it, especially in a conference as tough as the West. Again, it’s still early in the season, but they’re going to need to sort these issues out as soon as possible.

Hot Start In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers, another team that doesn’t quite have much to complain about, are off to an 8-3 start and sitting near the top of the West. Maybe one concern is whether or not the Blazers are able to keep this up.

There were a few teams that some thought to be better than the Blazers who are currently underperforming. That’s not a knock on the Blazers at all, but it’s going to be interesting to see if they can keep up this pace especially if some of those other teams start to pick it up a bit.

Another point of concern could be their lack of assists. Now, low assist numbers don’t necessarily equate to a lack of ball movement, but it can be alarming – especially once defenses settle in and start to focus on Portland’s isolation scorers. The Blazers were last in the league in assists per game last season, and they’re near the bottom to start this one off. It’s something to take note of that may end up coming back to haunt them as the season plays out.

Shots Not Falling In Oklahoma City

Three-point shooting was a weakness for the Oklahoma City Thunder a year ago, and this season so far hasn’t proved any different. They started off the season 0-4 and have since won five in a row, but adequate floor spacing remains a concern.

They’re currently shooting 29.9 percent from the three-point line. With today’s offenses geared more and more around consistent outside shooting, the Thunder need a jolt in that department. The good news for them is that it appears as if Patrick Patterson is rounding back into the player that made him one of the better backup big men in Toronto. He’s shooting 40.6 percent from downtown.

Aside from him, someone else is going to have to step it up. Alex Abrines might be that guy as he’s shooting 35.7 percent from three. They’re still going to need more. Paul George is only shooting 33.3 percent. For his career, he’s usually shot in the high 30’s from beyond the arc. Russell Westbrook has made strides with his shooting since coming into the league, but he’s all the way down at a measly 10 percent. If they hope to keep pace in the West, they’re going to need to address this.

It’s worth reiterating that this is still very early in the season, A lot can change between now and playoff time. But these issues here are some of the more noticeable ones as we get close to having a full month of NBA games completed.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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