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Grades At 20 Games: Northwest Division

Assessing the Northwest Division 20 games in.

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Coming into the season it looked like, on paper, that the Northwest Division would be one of the weaker divisions in a stacked Western Conference. With that being said, we still expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to take their seemingly traditional spot near the top of the division as a powerhouse team led by last season’s MVP Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. The Trail Blazers were coming off a surprisingly effective campaign of their own where they showed significant leaps in their development under head coach Terry Stotts. The Nuggets looked poised to bounce back from an injury-marred season and appeared to be finally healthy. While the Jazz and Timberwolves, both undergoing a youth movements of sorts, were not expected to be high up in the win totals category.

What a difference a few significant injuries to key players can make. Heavy losses have mounted for the Thunder as Kevin Durant (Jones foot fracture) and Russell Westbrook (hand fracture) missed significant time and the Nuggets have been snake bitten by injuries out of the gate once again. This has completely altered the typical landscape of the division as the Trail Blazers have carried forward their momentum from last season with a firm grasp on the top spot in the Northwest .The remaining teams are now floundering to show they will have enough juice to make the playoffs with a long road ahead. With 20 games or so under their belt we’ll take a closer look at how each team has fared so far and look forward to what’s ahead.

1. Portland Trail Blazers (18-6)

The Trail Blazers have not only been the cream of the crop in the Northwest, but have proven to be arguably a top five team in the entire league thus far. Coach Stotts has this team showing everyone that last season’s improvement was no fluke. The All-Star pair of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are one of the league’s most effective one-two punches. The team is also full of complimentary players who know their roles well. They are currently the top rebounding team in the NBA. In addition, they are also the best team in the league at defending the three pointer, holding their opponents to a dismal 28.7 percent shooting percentage from downtown. The three point shot has become a staple to winning basketball in today’s NBA and their ability to shut down their opponents from long range has certainly helped give this team an edge. This is a team that’s getting it done at both ends of the floor.

As it stands this team has won seven out of their last ten games, making them one of the hottest teams the league. Their road record is an impressive 8-4 and they have an even better home record (10-2), showing that anybody coming into Portland’s Moda Center is going to have a tough night. With the Trail Blazers firing on all cylinders out of the gate and the rest of the competition in the division barely treading water, look for them to continue their progression as one of the best teams in the NBA and remain atop the Northwest.

Grade: A+

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-13)

Just how bad were the Thunder without their dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook? Try a record of 5-12 to start the season. It was almost painful to watch as they weren’t the only players struck with injuries, everyone from Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Mitch McGary among others all seemed to miss significant time. This left head coach Scott Brooks with a depleted team and a big hole to dig out of. The team was even granted a hardship exception that allowed the team to exceed the 15-man maximum roster allowed in order to sign free agent guard Ish Smith for some backcourt help.

The Thunder have plenty of ground to make up and boy are they going full throttle with Durant and Westbrook back in uniform. They’ve managed to double their win total since Durant’s return and are no longer cellar dwellers in the division. The team has managed to win seven of their last ten games and are clearly on a mission to show that they are not down for the count. Even the once exasperated coach Brooks can begin to see the light of the end of the tunnel. The scary part is that Westbrook has looked downright nasty upon his return to action, increasing his averages for points (25.6), three point shooting percentage (37.5), and field goal percentage (.50) so far through nine games. In the meantime, Durant still looks to be shaking off a little rust, but is starting to return back to his MVP form. This will be a team that could continue to go on a tear to claim their division crown once more.

Grade: C+

3. Denver Nuggets (10-13)

There was plenty of optimism in the mile-high city prior to start the season. Playing sub .500 ball is probably not what head coach Brian Shaw envisioned for this team and has led to rumors of his seat heating up. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were both expected to healthy enough to help the Nuggets start the season on the right foot. Unfortunately for the team, things didn’t pan out that way initially as Lawson dealt with nagging ankle and hamstring issues. In addition, Gallinari, who was thought to be able to come in and be a major contributor, has been a serious disappointed thus far and has been relegated to playing with the second unit. Lastly, there’s Kenneth Faried, who signed a four-year, $50 million+ contract coming off an impressive summer with Team USA, failing to live up to his contract as his numbers have plummeted this season all while murmurs of discord between himself, his teammates and the organization are abound.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Lawson seems to have finally shaken off the injury bug and has been able to handle heavy minutes once again, bringing the team some much needed stability in the playmaking department. The team started to gain some ground in the division to at least not be dead last. The Nuggets will have to really pick up the pace if they hope to compete as the surging Thunder nip at their heels looking to push past them. Coach Shaw is looking to shake up the roster to inject this team with some life. This a team to watch for possible player or coach movement in the near future.

Grade: C-

4. Utah Jazz (6-17)

As a team that nearly set a franchise record low win total last season, there wasn’t much expected from this young Jazz team heading into this season. Under rookie NBA head coach Quin Snyder the young Jazz have plenty to improve on. Snyder promised to bring a fast tempo, pass-heavy offense that would allow all the players an opportunity to contribute on the offensive end of the floor. While the team showed some glimpses at the beginning of the season, they have since looked their age and experience level. They are currently ranked near the bottom of the league in pace currently sitting (28th of 30) while their defense is also allowing  102 points per game, ranking near the bottom of the league (24th). Point guard Trey Burke has statistically regressed in nearly every offensive category this year as he still has yet to show that he is truly worthy of being a starter in this league.

All things considered the development of the core players of the team has been a major point of emphasis for one of the youngest teams in the league, and it’s part of the reason they brought in Snyder to coach this team. His prowess with the development of young players was keenly watched by those around the league during his time the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant as well as his time served in coaching in the D-league with the Austin Toros. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to many who’ve paid attention that Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and to a lesser degree Enes Kanter have all been producing at an improved clip this season. These are just a few of the things that should pay dividends later as the Jazz look to see which pieces to keep for the future. In the meantime, this team is still trying to figure out how to win and there’s a long season ahead.

Grade: C

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-17)

This is the year Ricky Rubio was supposed to show us that not only can he dazzle us with his passing wizardry on the court, but also lead this team without ex-franchise cornerstone Kevin Love. The Wolves sent the disgruntled All-Star big man packing out of town to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade that will inevitably alter both franchises for some time to come. Once Rubio went out with ankle injury on November 7 we knew this team was going to have a rough go of it. Expected to be out until mid-January, things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the package of young players received in exchange for Love is not typically one conducive to immediate winning as the team is in a full youth movement.

President/head coach Flip Saunders has his work cut out for him this season. Former No. 1 picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett have both shown potential at times and have a chance to be truly special at some point, but that’s not happening this year. Rookie lottery pick Zach LaVine is another player that is very intriguing, but has been wildly inconsistent. Right now this year is all about building a culture and forming a bond with one another to sow the seeds of team chemistry. If this team can pick up some wins along the way that’s a bonus. At 2-8 in their last ten games, don’t hold your breath, though.

Grade: C-

Overall there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played. They say basketball is a game of runs and that’s not only true during the course of a single game. All it takes is a few W’s under your belt for a team to get some confidence and start rolling on a winning streak. Let’s see how the rest of the season plays out.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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