At nearly the quarter pole of the NBA season, the sample of games has become just about large enough to begin making some semi-concrete conclusions about teams. We always knew certain obvious bits here – the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are good, the The Philadelphia 76ers are not – but the available information, both on screen and on paper, allows us to find more detailed context in between.
When we ranked the Northwest Division before the season began, the general expectation was a three-tiered situation: the Oklahoma City Thunder running away with things as long as they were healthy, the Utah Jazz solidly in second and the trio of the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets grouped together as non-playoff contenders. Wouldn’t you know it, we got that one mostly right – though the details certainly haven’t been exactly as expected. Let’s take a look back at the division through nearly 25 percent of the year and see where things stand.
- Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets came out of the gate strong with a win over the Houston Rockets and an above-.500 record through the season’s first week, but have sharply come back to earth since. They had lost eight straight before a close win in Toronto on Thursday, and have careened back to the bottom of the division record-wise.
They’re only a game or two behind the rest of the group, but some more descriptive metrics place them a solid tier below Minnesota and Portland at this point. Denver is 26th in the league for per-possession net rating, and aren’t a whole lot better for adjusted net rating (accounts for opponent quality) at 25th. They’ve got a bottom-10 defense and a bottom-10 offense (both 25th as of Friday), a deadly combo.
This year was never really about wins and losses for the Nuggets, though, and while Wilson Chandler’s season-ending injury is a heart-breaker after he signed a new extension in the offseason, a few other pieces have shown promise. Emmanuel Mudiay is predictably struggling at times as a 19-year-old running the starting point for an NBA team, but is making many of the “right” mistakes and seems a shoo-in to be a quality player at the very least down the road. They’ve had good contributions from Will Barton and Nikola Jokic, and youngster Joffrey Lauvergne has recently returned and played very well. They’re still awaiting Jusuf Nurkic’s return to the fold, at which point Mike Malone will have his full complement (minus Chandler) with which to tinker and figure out what the team has for the future.
- Portland Trail Blazers
Separating Portland and Minnesota could honestly come down to the flip of a coin. Both have had flashes of real competence along with periods of yucky play, and while both still figure to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, both are perhaps a hair better overall than many had projected coming into the year.
Minnesota gets the nod ahead for now, fair or not, because their future promise viewed through the current team is so much more exciting. That said, though, the Blazers have some fun things happening as well, even as they sit several games under .500. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard have quickly become one of the most lethal shooting backcourts in the league this side of Golden State, with McCollum in particular impressing compared with expectations and making a case for Most Improved Player. Mason Plumlee has been a positive in a sizable role, and while Al-Farouq Aminu has cooled off after a hot start to the year from deep, he’s still giving Portland over 31 valuable two-way minutes a night on a good contract.
The Blazers are actually just a hair below positive numbers for per-possession rating, and even have an argument as part of a secondary Western Conference group that may send a couple teams to the playoffs if groups like Houston and the New Orleans Pelicans continue to struggle. Portland is probably at the bottom end of this grouping, if they’re even in it, but even this is a step up from what most had expected.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
All positives in Minnesota this year have to start here: Karl-Anthony Towns is even better than most of us anticipated. This sounds a little insane for one of the more highly-touted top overall picks in recent years, but it’s absolutely true. Towns is putting up a 20.5 PER, absolute lunacy for a rookie who turned 20 just two weeks into his first NBA season. He’s doing it despite long stretches where it’s obvious to the naked eye that he’s still figuring out the details of the NBA game on the fly – he’s simply so physically talented that it often hasn’t mattered. He hasn’t even gotten comfortable behind the NBA three-point line, either, a fact that has to terrify the rest of the league.
Towns hasn’t been the only positive for the Wolves, of course. They’re virtually break-even per-possession to this point, a huge win for a team whose best two players are under 21. They’ve been able to weather the usual bevy of early injuries to Ricky Rubio, and have looked like a truly competitive team for bursts when Rubio has been in the lineup. Andrew Wiggins has been full speed ahead after winning the Rookie of the Year award last season, dramatically increasing his on-court usage while simultaneously upping his efficiency all over the floor.
The Wolves still go stretches where their age shows, but most expected this to be a more frequent event. Their experiment with Zach LaVine at point guard continues to be a disaster, but he’s looked good when playing at the two-spot. Minnesota is almost certainly held back to some degree by Sam Mitchell’s insistence upon playing an offense that ends up emphasizing midrange jumpers instead of threes, something that could be a concern in the future once the team is ready to fully contend. But they’re a great story for now regardless, and this core remains the scariest young group in the NBA.
- Utah Jazz
On the surface, it may seem as though Utah has actually fallen back into a grouping alongside the previous three teams (or at least the previous two). They’re just one spot ahead of Minnesota and Portland, respectively, for per-possession rating, and similarly close in the actual standings.
This is a bit of a context-absent point of view, though. The Jazz have faced the sixth-hardest schedule in the league to this point, per basketball-reference.com’s strength-of-schedule metric, and played eight of their first 10 games on the road. They’re a tier ahead of the Wolves and Blazers as far as adjusted net rating goes, showcasing the level to which their opposition has dragged some of their more basic metrics down.
There are still a few concerns in Salt Lake City, the most immediate of which is a Grade II MCL sprain for Rudy Gobert that should keep him out through the new year. The Jazz altered their defense on the fly without the Stifle Tower against the Orlando Magic Thursday night, and looked out of place for much of the game defensively as a result. The onus is firmly on coach Quin Snyder to help his young group adjust on the fly, something he’s been more than capable of in the past.
They’ll need strong play from their other top guys to keep the group afloat with Gobert sidelined, which seems likely to happen. Derrick Favors has been playing like an All-Star all year and is easily Utah’s best and most consistent player to this point – his role will be in the spotlight minus his usual frontcourt partner. Gordon Hayward had a rough start to the year, particularly shooting the ball, but has come on in the last week or two and looks ready to carry this group like he did much of last season. If the Jazz can survive this stretch minus Gobert and enter the new year sitting in a playoff spot, they could make a charge up the ladder.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Things haven’t been perfect early on, but it’s fairly clear no one will be touching the Thunder in the Northwest barring another major injury. The talent gap is just too large when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are firing on all cylinders.
And firing they are. Both guys are posting PERs that would rank among the top 20 individual seasons of all time, an insane fact that would be drawing even more attention if it weren’t for Stephen Curry threatening to smash the record here into pieces. They’re just overwhelming in every sense – Russ with his sheer force and ability to literally control long periods of games, KD with the same ruthless efficiency and ability to get his from anywhere on the court that’s made him one of the most unique offensive players ever. If these two remain on the floor all season, the division title and a top-three seed in the West should be a walk in the park for this group.
They want more, though, and whether they’re truly in a higher tier with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland and perhaps even Golden State is another question. They do sit fourth for adjusted net rating as of Friday, but are well behind the Spurs and Warriors in the West here. Their defense has been suspect at times, sitting roughly league average to this point but climbing from a rough start.
One does get the feeling that some elements around the margins could be their downfall when all the chips are on the table. KD and Russ are enough to overcome the majority of teams on their own most nights, but we know the way the game can constrict come playoff time, and their top competition has a healthy dose of star power as well. Serge Ibaka has produced perhaps a bit less than expected so far – there have been a few games where he’s been invisible, a strange thing for a one-time All-Star candidate. And beyond him, depth could end up being a real question for the Thunder.
Enes Kanter has done well offensively in his role off the bench, but continues to torpedo the team’s defense while he plays. Steven Adams has been fine, and Dion Waiters has had his moments, but especially in the latter case, many are too scarred from the past to trust this in high-leverage moments.
Maybe most importantly, the coaching change from Scott Brooks to Billy Donovan hasn’t had as much of an effect as many assumed. There’s concern that, like Brooks, Donovan has had issues getting through to the team’s stars – one league executive told Basketball Insiders as much while suggesting that it often takes at least a year for big personalities like these to fully mesh with a new bench boss, a time period that could be too late for Donovan if KD makes the wrong decision this summer.
Some of this was to be expected given these personalities, though, and Donovan also hasn’t really done much in some of his more controllable areas to separate himself from his predecessor. Like Brooks, he’s seemed allergic to staggering his stars’ substitution patterns, leaving the Thunder with stretches every game where none of Durant, Westbrook or Ibaka is on the floor – periods where OKC gets destroyed consistently. Through Friday, they’d played 156 such minutes over 19 contests, per nbawowy.com, over eight minutes a game. There’s really no excuse for this when simple numerical evidence strongly suggests leaving at least one on the floor at all times is much more effective. Donovan also hasn’t done much to change up the vanilla style they play offensively, though this was always going to be a tall ask for any new coach.
It remains to be seen whether the Thunder have the chops to truly challenge for the West and a shot at the title, but the time for wondering whether they’re the class of the Northwest was likely over before the season even began. They should cruise to a division title and a home series in the first round, at which point the real challenges will begin.
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