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Ranking the NBA’s Northwest Division

Ben Dowsett breaks down and ranks the teams in the Northwest Division.

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In an offseason full of turmoil and plenty of notable player movement, the Northwest division may end up with the largest year-to-year turnover of any from a wins and losses standpoint. The Portland Trail Blazers were briefly considered a dark horse title contender six months ago, but were ravaged, in turn, by injuries and the departure of 4/5ths of their core. The Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs last year, but will be among the favorites to win the West assuming better health. The Nuggets are an indecipherable mess, a talented group with a coaching improvement on the way but tarnished by an awful culture. The Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves both have done very little to their exciting cores over the summer, but both could look to make big leaps in their win totals.

It’s still somewhat early as we are still several months away from the start of next season. However, with the 2015 NBA Draft behind us and over two weeks into free agency, we can now look to see which teams have  gained the upper hand. Here’s a first pass at a bottom-to-top ranking of the division.

5. Denver Nuggets (Last Year: 30-52, 4th in Northwest)

In all honestly, when one begins to really break down each individual team in this division, figuring out who will finish last is much tougher than the other side of the coin. With so much turnover in Portland, bundles of youth and perennial injury risk on the roster in Minnesota and the rampant dysfunction in Denver, there are a number of unknown variables still left in the equation at the bottom of the division.

The Nuggets take cellar-dweller status for now, but they might as well simply just rank first for “most questions still to be answered.” There are best-case scenarios for this team that involve them not only well exceeding this prediction, but even challenging for a playoff spot. But they just require so much to go right that those best-case scenarios feel close to impossible. And on the other end of that spectrum, Denver’s worst-case situations could see them as one of the top contenders for next year’s first overall pick.

There are things to like on this roster. Danilo Gallinari will look to finally put a full season together for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign, and will be of real value if he can. Wilson Chandler is re-upped on a fair-ish deal. Guys like Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic could be in line for breakout years. Emmanuel Mudiay has likely been the most impressive rookie in summer play thus far and could make a positive contribution even as a first-year player.

But the other side of the ledger seems more crowded, unfortunately. Gallo is a nice player, but he’s only come within 10 games of the full 82 once in six seasons and is long past the point where trusting his health is a fool’s errand. Much of the rest of the roster is fine but not excellent, and Mudiay could win Rookie of the Year and still only be a marginal value add.

Worse yet, there may not have been an uglier culture in the NBA last year. Ty Lawson’s struggles off the court are notable and his behind-the-scenes stuff in the locker room might be worse. Even as a starting-caliber player on a fair deal, trading him might require packaging another asset. Kenneth Faried may have played a similar role in some of last season’s rampant unprofessionalism as well, depending who you ask, and is just a moderately useful player being paid far more than he’s worth. The Nuggets have upside if new coach Mike Malone can right the ship, but enough points in the other direction that they take the bottom spot for now.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Year: 16-66, 5th in Northwest)

The Wolves have several variables as well, but of a different sort. Health is the first and most prominent considering the fact that each of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad played less than 50 games last season, which partially explains how the Wolves ended up with the worst record in the NBA.

Youth development is the other major factor, one that could be the crux of the largest variance in the Wolves’ prospective win total. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are both prodigies, but are both extremely young. If one or both develops more quickly than expected and everyone else is healthy, this group could surprise a few people. Conversely, if Wiggins struggles with efficiency like he did at times last season and Towns isn’t ready to be a difference-maker at this level just yet, things could fall apart in a hurry.

Like Denver, there are a few too many reasons to be skeptical to put the Wolves any higher. Rubio has been a team doctor’s nightmare most of his career, their stars are still NBA babies and their depth really isn’t that strong. In a vicious West, they’ll still get ripped up regularly even if everything breaks the right way – which it probably won’t.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (Last Year: 51-31, 1st in Northwest)

Once again, a primer: Any of the three teams already listed could easily finish last in this division. Portland will be unrecognizable to fans who tuned out following their playoff loss to Memphis, with only Damian Lillard returning from a starting five that was among the league’s most seasoned and effective together. If the injury bug happened to bite Lillard in any sort of serious way, one has to imagine the tank brigade would be out in full force for the Blazers.

Assuming (and hoping) otherwise, though, they get the nod over Denver and Minnesota mainly due to Lillard and the presence of wiz coach Terry Stotts, a guy who has made a career thus far out of eking the very most out of the talent in front of him. Additions Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh are no great shakes, but all are capable NBA players on reasonable contracts. In addition, Vonleh has some real upside, which could begin to show through this year. Stotts will have them playing smart and efficient ball on both ends of the court.

The Blazers could be a nice story if they overachieve a bit, but to be clear, there’s a wide gap between these first three teams and the next two.

2. Utah Jazz (Last Year: 38-44, 3rd in Northwest)

The Jazz had one of the quietest offseasons of any team in the league, but still appear primed for a potentially large leap in wins. They were the league’s best defense and one of its seven to 10 best teams overall during the latter half of the 2014-15 season. They return their entire core, nearly all of whom, as under-25 guys, project to improve to some degree. They bring 2013-14 breakout sixth man Alec Burks, a guy who played exactly zero minutes during their strong run last year, back from injury as well.

Their major inflection point is at the 1-spot, along with the rate of progress from a couple guys. Dante Exum is at the crux of both these elements. It was just a single game, but he flashed an aggression and dominance in Utah Summer League that, if it were moderately sustainable against full-time NBA competition, could be a huge boon for a team with likely the league’s worst point guard production last year. Another second-year guy in Rodney Hood was extremely impressive both to close last season and over the summer, and could make the Jazz a legitimate nine-deep monster anchored by Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

The Jazz’s developmental rate defensively last season was at times spectacular under first-year coach Quin Snyder, who is universally beloved in Salt Lake City by both his players and fans alike. He’s stated repeatedly that offense is the tougher of the two elements to develop, however; if his sophomore season sees his team make similar leaps on this end as they did defensively last year, this team could get scary in a hurry. If they can catch a few breaks and see the right progress from their youngsters, they might even challenge our presumed division winner.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Year: 45-37, 2nd in Northwest)

Not much surprise here. The Thunder only finished second in the division (and missed the playoffs) last year due to well-documented injuries to a couple of the league’s brightest stars. They’re heavy favorites to climb back to the top this year if they can avoid major injuries to their key players.

Some of their moves this summer have raised an eyebrow or two, particularly everything surrounding Enes Kanter, but this team simply has too much talent to fall short if they can keep Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka healthy. Billy Donovan might be able to shake some of the simplistic cobwebs off of Scott Brooks’ departing vanilla offense, and if Donovan can maintain Brooks’ defensive culture he’ll be in great shape. The Jazz could give them a run if everything breaks just right, but on balance it seems pretty tough to imagine anyone besides the Thunder winning this division if their big three can stay on the court.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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