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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