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ICYMI: Northwest Division

We continue our ICYMI series with Drew Maresca’s examination of the Northwest Division, identifying major happenings from early on in the season.

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Basketball Insiders recently launched the ICYMI series to keep readers up-to-date on a plethora of news from around the Association. Ariel Pacheco recently covered the Atlantic Division, David Yapkowitz covered the Pacific and Garrett Brooks handled the Central. Next up, we’re serving up all things Northwest Division-related.

To be fair, these teams out westward have had their share of challenges. The collection currently boasts an aggregate record of 46-41 – behind only the Atlantic and Pacific Divisions.

The Northwest Division hasn’t been home to the NBA Champion since its inception in the 2004-05 season. Still, there’s lots of talent in the Pacific Northwest this season and it’s probably never had a better chance of being the NBA Champion’s home than it does right now.

With a proper introduction out of the way, let’s dive into all of the interesting Northwest Division news stories from the first quarter of the season.

Portland Suffer Another Nurkic Injury (McCollum Too)

Jusuf Nurkic is a load in the post. He was still working his way back into his near-All-Star caliber of play, averaging 9.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in 23.3 minutes – or 15.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per-36 minutes. Unfortunately, he suffered another setback earlier this month.

Nurkic had played only 25 games since returning from the lower leg injury he suffered in March 2019. And while it might not sound fair, that isn’t part of the equation in the NBA.

Nurkic suffered a broken wrist on Jan. 15 against the Indiana Pacers. He had surgery to repair the break and the Trail Blazers do not yet have a firm timeline for his return. He was scheduled to be re-evaluated in eight weeks and he’ll miss at least 23 games.

Portland was able to remain in the playoff picture without Nurkic last season, so they could theoretically do it so again. But they appear to be the modern version of the Old Testament’s Job, receiving one test after the next from the basketball gods.

All-Star guard CJ McCollum also went down with a hairline fracture in his foot a few days later.  Portland announced on Jan. 19 that McCollum would miss at least four weeks, or 16 games, at which point he’ll be re-evaluated.

Portland can probably stay in the playoff hunt with Damian Lillard shouldering an even bigger role, but it won’t be easy. The Trail Blazers went 31-35 without Nurkic in 2019-20 prior to his return with McCollum. They are 1-3 since McCollum and Nurkic went down, playing against the mediocre-at-best New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The remaining 55 games could be a long haul for Lillard and the Blazers.

The “Old” Mike Conley is Back

Utah fans have been on a rollercoaster of emotions with Mike Conley thus far. Conley arrived in Utah fresh off career highs in scoring (21.3 points per game) and rebounds (3.4 per game).

But Conley struggled to fit into Utah’s system and alongside All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. He regressed mightily in 2019-20, especially in the portion of the season that preceded the COVID-19 shutdown. Even after looking better in the bubble, Conley still only averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game for the season – worse than he’d performed in years

But Conley has played significantly better so far this season, averaging 16.6 points, 5.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds. And while none of the aforementioned stats are career highs, his resurgence is about more than just raw numbers.

Conley is shooting a career-high 41.9 percent on three-point attempts, while also attempting a career-high 6.9 threes per game. He’s posting the second-highest PER of his career (20.2), and he’s assisting on 29.7% of his teammate’s field goals while on the floor – his fifth-highest total in his 14-year career. Of course, he’s still a pit bull on the defensive end of the floor.

Conley’s future in Utah appeared to be in question as of this past off-season – but it appears pretty solid now.

Denver Finally Steadying Itself

Lately, the Denver Nuggets have been an enigma. They’d squandered a number of leads, failed to close out tight games, appeared viscerally opposed to engage defensively and Jamal Murray looked incapable of following-up his bubble breakout with any semblance of an encore presentation. Additionally, Michael Porter Jr. was out due to COVID-19 protocol

Well, first of all, Denver has improved defensively. They’ve jumped to 18th in the league in defensive rating, up from 25th just two short weeks ago. They also rattled off five straight wins –  two of which were overtime victories, proving they can, in fact, close out tight games.

And while Murray has continued to struggle to score the ball, Denver at least saw the return of Porter Jr., who is averaging 20.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting in his last three games.

Just like it was too early to write off the Nuggets on January 15th, it’s still too early to assume all is well. But NBA fans should be encouraged with how Denver has played of late because, let’s face it, the Nuggets are good for the NBA – plain and simple.

Oklahoma City Should Be Sellers At Deadline

No one expected much from the Oklahoma City Thunder – and they’re not really outdoing our expectations. But there are two reasons to keep your eyes on Oklahoma City as we approach March: George Hill and Al Horford.

It goes without saying that both Hill and Horford can contribute. Horford has had a quietly successful start to the 2020-21 season, averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Hill looks even better, posting 11.8 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 38.6 percent on three-point attempts. Are they necessary pieces for the Thunder’s future? Absolutely not. Are there teams out there who they’d help? You know it.

The net effect of Hill and Horford, along with their experience, makes them incredibly valuable to contenders in need of size and shooting, respectively. Teams like the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans – 30th and 29th in three-point shooting, respectively – could sure use Hill’s services, and Horford would be a welcome addition in places like Miami, Indiana and Los Angeles (Clippers) – which are 30th, 29th and 27th in rebounding.

The Thunder have already amassed (almost literally) too many picks, including the best two of their own, plus HEAT and the Houston Rockets’ first-rounders in 2021. They’ll probably add two more valuable picks to their stash thanks to two of these veterans.

While newer modes of travel and an effective national television strategy have chipped away at the relevance of divisions for a number of years, the Northwest is on the up. Between one of the better burgeoning rivalries between Utah and Denver and one of the most marketable players in the league in Lillard, it shouldn’t be long before they’re atop it all.

While the organization of most divisions is mostly a formality, there is actually something special brewing in the Northwest – and NBA fans should take notice.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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