The Northwest Division is looking quite flush with talent heading into the 2017-18 regular season. Paul Millsap, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler are just a few names that have made their way to the Northwest during the offseason, and their arrival should not only coincide with one of the more competitive battles for a division crown in recent memory but should make for an intense battle for playoff seeding in the Western Conference from top to bottom.
Each player in the Association has their role to play for their respective teams, but there is always someone who plays an integral part in their team’s success throughout the season. Here’s a look at the most important player for each team in the Northwest Division.
Denver Nuggets — Nikola Jokic
Last season, Nikola Jokic inserted himself into the conversation of the NBA’s best big man. While he may not be the all-around player that DeMarcus Cousins or Karl Anthony-Towns are, his offensive game proved vital for the Denver Nuggets last season as they made a run at the postseason. Jokic’s progression and offensive improvement will again play an integral role for this season for a Nuggets team looking for its first playoff berth since 2012.
One of the best passing big men in the league, Jokic was second among centers with 4.9 assists per game last season and was one of only four at the position to average more than 4.5, but did so on a meager 8.4 potential assists per game. The Nuggets were at their best last year when Jokic was running the floor and moving the ball around and have seemingly constructed the roster to amplify his greatest strength. Now sharing the frontcourt with a talented scorer like Millsap, while also being surrounded by shooters Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, Jokic should have a plethora of options when looking to dish the ball next season which, in turn, should lead to more wins.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Andrew Wiggins
Going on his seventh season in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves knew what they were getting when they acquired Jimmy Butler in the offseason. Heading into his third season, Karl-Anthony Towns has already cemented himself as one of the best centers and players in the Association and has become a dominant force on the floor. While both players together are capable of taking the Timberwolves to the playoff promised land, it is Andrew Wiggins who will determine how good this team can truly be.
In the lead-up to the 2014 draft, Wiggins was lauded as an uber-athlete and future do-it-all type of player: scoring; playmaking; and defense, all wrapped up into one soon-to-be superstar package. Wiggins’ scoring output has since improved each season, but his development has seemingly lagged behind in other areas. Now in his fourth season, the Timberwolves are expecting Wiggins to be, at the very least, their third-best player alongside Towns and Butler. In order to be that, Wiggins’ averages of four rebounds and 2.3 assists per game from last season, as well as his lackluster effort on the defensive end, need some serious improvement.
The Timberwolves can clearly see the untapped potential within Wiggins, having offered him a max contract extension during the offseason. Whether or not Wiggins will capitalize on that potential is a different story, but his overall improvement and play this season will be vital to Minnesota’s success and should make the difference between another disappointing year and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2003.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Paul George and Carmelo Anthony
The Oklahoma City Thunder will go as Russell Westbrook does during the regular season, but the players most integral to the success of the franchise next season are newcomers George and Anthony.
George and Anthony are both known commodities in the league, but their collective shift from ball-dominant stars into more off-ball roles will be something to watch as the season progresses. A successful transition for the two will allow the Thunder to run with the best of them, but if George and Anthony are unable to cede control to Westbrook and still perform at a high level then there will be problems. Both George and Anthony had a usage ratings over 28 percent last season and, while many would think their arrival in Oklahoma City would coincide with a dip in Westbrook’s ridiculous 41.7 percent usage rate from last season, he is still the best player on the team and head coach Billy Donovan is going to want the ball in his hands as often as possible. While he won’t see the ball as often, Westbrook should still have the highest usage rate of the three.
While their early showings in the preseason have been positive, this will be a season-long transition for both George and Anthony; how they handle that transition will dictate how far the Thunder are able to climb in the standings come the end of the regular season, and could have some sway in where George and Anthony are playing next season, both being in potential contract years.
Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard
The Portland Trail Blazers have had their ups and downs in recent years. The one constant? Damian Lillard.
Lillard’s scoring totals have improved every year of his five-year career and, heading into his sixth season, the Trail Blazers are going to need him to take another step forward. The Western Conference will be tougher than ever before, and while Portland added the talented big man Jusuf Nurkic before last season’s trade deadline and potential impact rookie Caleb Swanigan via the draft, the Trail Blazers will always ride or die with Lillard.
The Trail Blazers’ defense wasn’t great last season, coming in at 21st in the league with a defensive rating of 107.8 points per game. Even with Nurkic down in the paint, the defense isn’t expected to improve much on the year, so Portland’s offense will have to step it up for them to stay in games. That offensive attack will almost certainly be spearheaded by Lillard, who had career highs in points per game and usage rate last season at 27 points per game and 31.5 percent, respectively.
Utah Jazz — Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz were dealt a big blow this summer, losing homegrown star forward Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics. The team isn’t lacking for talent, however, with defensive stalwart and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Rudy Gobert still roaming the paint and creating havoc for opposing offenses.
With Hayward’s departure, Gobert immediately replaces him as the Jazz’s best player and face of the franchise, his presence becoming even more indispensable than it already was; losing him would be detrimental to any chances the Jazz have of having anything close to a successful season. Gobert made the leap into the world of the elite last season while averaging 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and a monster 2.6 blocks per game, and while the Jazz may be hard-pressed to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, a similar leap from Gobert in his fifth season would be a huge boon for the franchise as well as its prospects with future free agents.
While the franchise may see a downturn in its win total from a year ago, expect Gobert to be at the center of any and all success for the Jazz this year and for years to come.
The Northwest will be serious players in the playoff picture down the stretch next season as one of the strongest divisions in the NBA. To push their way to contention, however, these players will need to stand up and lead the charge for their respective franchises.
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