This week, our team at Basketball Insiders has launched the series of six things to know about each division in the league. We’ve already covered the Southeast, Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively. Today, we are going to take a look at what you need to know about the Northwest Division.
There are several story lines that could shape not only the division but also the league as a whole in the Northwest this year. The main one is the recent foot injury to Kevin Durant and how the team will handle his absence. The Portland Trail Blazers, fresh off an overachieving season, would like to use this opportunity to gain some momentum early to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder if they struggle to maintain afloat. There’s also been some player movement of note that will impact the teams involved, with the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arron Afflalo returning to the Denver Nuggets. The influx of youth for the Timberwolves will play a significant part in the expectations for the team as they look at the long-term picture. Speaking of youth, the Utah Jazz are in a similar spot, but their core young pieces have played together for a few years now and, with new head coach Quin Snyder, are looking to take the next step and start capitalizing on their potential. The Nuggets, coming off a very disappointing injury marred season last year, are looking to turn things around this year during Brain Shaw’s second year at the helm. Once again the Nuggets come into the season with some health concerns that could have a significant impact on their season. The top spot for the division will likely be decided between the Thunder and the Blazers. How that plays out may alter the playoff landscape and give the victor a significant advantage when the regular season ends.
1. The Thunder will be tested with Durant out.
Six to eight weeks. That equates to approximately 19 regular season games missed. That’s the initial recovery prognosis that was given when it was discovered that the discomfort franchise superstar Kevin Durant was experiencing on his right foot turned out to be a Jones fracture and would require surgery. The Thunder have not played without their franchise cornerstone for an extended period of time like this before. This will be a big test not only for the team but also for Russell Westbrook. The All-Star point guard has long been the second option, with Durant leading the charge as the team’s primary offensive weapon. A scoring guard by nature who’s averaged over 21 points per game for the last four seasons, Westbrook is no stranger to getting buckets. That being said, he’s also been heavily criticized in the media over the years for not deferring enough to his teammates and trying to take over games. With Durant out and scoring needed, this will be his opportunity to truly be the man and run the show. How he blends his scoring with his playmaking will determine how well the team will play in Durant’s absence.
When put on the spot about how what he will do now that Durant is out with injury, Westbrook had some choice words for Royce Young of ESPN earlier this week saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do.”
This time will be an opportunity for other players to step up their game. Nobody can replace arguably the best player in the league. However, one advantage the Thunder do have is the team is deep. Serge Ibaka has improved every single year he’s been in the league and although he’s best known to be a force on the defensive end, his scoring has been a welcomed part of his progression as a player. As a rookie five seasons ago he averaged a paltry 6.3 points per game and last year he averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game. He’s expanded his range and his teammates have shown confidence in his offensive skills. Reggie Jackson, who’s also coming off a career high 13.1 points per game, has been chomping at the bit to prove that he is more than just a backup point guard. He’s also looking to receive a big payday and has been in talks with the team about a contract extension. Thunder GM Sam Presti has gone on record to say that he envisions Jackson with the team for a long time regardless of whether they come to a contract extension agreement by October 31 or wait until next offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent. Look for Jackson to try and build his value during this time to give Presti something to think about.
And let’s not forget about the young guys. Steven Adams turned some heads last year with his aggressive play as a rookie and has a little better than advertised offensive game coming out of college with Pittsburgh. Through five preseason games, he’s averaged 15.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are guys that have a lot of potential and were highly regarded first round draft picks who have not had much of a chance to show what they are capable of playing on a stacked title contending team in the Western Conference. Look for both of them to get some increased playing time and get an opportunity to see if they can contribute.
2. The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to show last season was not a fluke.
We’ve all seen the three-pointer that Damion Lillard drilled at the buzzer to advance to the second round past the Houston Rockets last season. It was amazing basketball and the culmination of a great feel good story for the Blazers’ season. Why is that a big deal? Because the last time the team made it past the first round in the playoffs was back in the year 2000 when the roster featured the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. That year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. The city has been yearning for a long time for their team to return as a contender in the league. Their fans got their hopes up when they saw flashes of potential with the duo of LaMarcus Adridge and Brandon Roy showing promise and bringing the team to respectability. A few years of first round exits and Roy’s early retirement due to his knees have made it a tough road to climb back to prominence. So what’s changed? They have talented pieces that fit and they hit a home run when they drafted Lillard.
It was not too long ago that there were murmurs about Aldridge looking to do exactly what Kevin Love just did and make a fresh start with a new team. Now, 54 wins later and with a new All-Star point guard sidekick who’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential (averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in only his second year in the league), his outlook has changed.
“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge said over the summer to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian “This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”
The Blazers were not expected to make a jump like this by many experts last year before the season began. Now that the expectations are high and with some opportunities to make some noise in the division, look for the team to show that last year was not just a one hit wonder and that they are a team on the rise. Aldridge wants to win badly and he wants to stay with the team now that things have been going well but they will need to keep showing him that the future looks bright in Portland.
3. The Utah Jazz could be a sleeper team this year.
There are many factors that can be looked at when a team overachieves their projected win total. The Utah Jazz can make a case they have several of these factors going for them heading into this year. Similar to the Phoenix Suns of last year, the Jazz have a new head coach, a new up-tempo offense that plays more to the young team’s strengths, and young players who are more likely to show increased improvement as they mature. While all these things are nice to talk about, they still have to put it together on the basketball court. That’s where things get interesting.
So far through five preseason games, the Jazz are 4-1. They’ve beaten the Blazers (twice), Clippers and Lakers. Their only loss came on their second matchup with the Clippers that was very tightly contested to the very end until a scuffle between Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin sparked the Clippers to a narrow win. Does this mean the Jazz are guaranteed to exceed expectations? No. This is just a small sample size. The Jazz were one of the youngest teams in the league last year with an average age of less than 25 years old. The new additions of 19-year-old Aussie lottery pick Dante Exum and 21-year-old draftee Rodney Hood out of Duke aren’t going to help in that regard. Young teams struggle with consistency as they learn to perform at a high level each and every night.
The Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season, finishing with a lowly record of 25-57. One of the things that didn’t help the team get things started on the right track was a broken finger injury that sidelined rookie point guard Trey Burke early in the season. The Jazz should be at full strength to start out the season this year and Burke has shown nice strides, averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and one steal per game so far in preseason. Alec Burks has only played in two games so far, but is expected to return to action soon. Exum continues to show flashes of why he was drafted fifth overall in June. Derrick Favors looks more assertive on the offensive end and has continued to display his elite defensive potential on the other end. The re-signing of Gordon Hayward was huge for the Jazz’s continuity as he is a jack of all trades and really helps facilitate the offense. The new weapons on the team have seemed to take some of the pressure off him and he’s playing confidently with his shooting percentages so far in preseason, shooting up to an impressive 61 percent from three point range and 52 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points per game. If the Jazz can continue to assimilate to Snyder’s free-flowing, pass-laden offense and generate chemistry as a team, look for them to take teams by surprise. They may still not make the playoffs in a tough conference, but they may give us a reason to take notice of their improvement with a leap in their win total this year.
4. The Timberwolves are young in the post Kevin Love Era.
The drama of whether Kevin Love will stay or go is over. The trade that sent the aforementioned franchise star to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete. What now for the Wolves? In return for Love, they received some key players who will be part of the future. The first being none other than Andrew Wiggins. No longer will the young Canadian-born player be under the heavy shadow of LeBron James with the Cavs; instead, he will be able to play his natural position of small forward, which should be better for his development. He now has the opportunity to play plenty of minutes and show why he went number one overall this year. Everything that we’ve heard from him since the trade is that he has a chip on his shoulder and intends to do exactly just that.
Another fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett, joins Wiggins in his move to Minnesota. To say Bennett’s NBA career started out in dire straits is an understatement. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory for a number one overall pick last year for the Cavaliers. He had shoulder surgery before the season started, wasn’t able to get into the type of shape coach Mike Brown was looking for, looked lost on both ends of the floor and never really found his stride rarely seeing the floor by averaging 12.8 minutes and only 4.2 points per game. With all that said, I don’t believe Bennett is the bust many have already prematurely pegged him to be. With the shoulder no longer being a concern and his conditioning much improved, when he’s played he’s averaged nearly a double-double on the floor with 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Look for him to show he has more to his game than he showed last season if given an opportunity. He has stiff competition in a packed frontcourt with Nikola Pekovic, new addition Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng.
The trade aftermath also further puts the focus on Ricky Rubio to show that he can indeed lead this team. Results on him so far have been mixed. Currently in the middle of active negotiations with the team on a contract extension, rumor has it he’s looking to get paid. Nobody has questioned he’s a gifted passer and can make the game easier for his teammates as he averaged nearly 8.6 assists per game last year. However, as it stands his team has yet to reach the playoffs during his tenure. His shooting percentages continue to leave plenty to be desired three years into his NBA career at a dismal 32 percent from three point range and 38 percent from the field. I love watching him play but he has plenty to prove this season and I expect the Wolves brass to keep a close eye on his development to see where his future stands with the team.
5. Health issues with Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari can sway the Nuggets’ season.
Last season was a brutal one for the Denver Nuggets. It was an injury marred season with a win total of 36 games, and it was disappointing to say the least considering the year prior the team achieved 57 wins under the helm of the fired George Karl. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw will be looking to put his stamp on the team in his second season but he is very mindful that health will be crucial. It’s without question that Ty Lawson is the spark that drives this team. The former Tar Heel has become a fixture on the team and they’ll only go as far as he takes them. He played in 62 games last year and was a big part of why it was hard for the team to get in sync with a lack of playmakers on the roster. Hamstring issues were the primary culprit for the missed time last season for him. What’s concerning is that he missed the end of last season with an ankle injury that did not allow him to train and do his conditioning to the level that he’s used to this offseason. We’ve seen how issues like this can somewhat derail a season for teams that rely heavily on their floor general from the point guard spot (see Brooklyn Nets PG Deron Williams). Coach Shaw is trying to do what he can as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post pointed out.
“There is some concern,” Shaw said. “I haven’t really been killing him in practice or even in games. I’m cognizant of that. But once again, it’s something that he’s going to have to work himself through.”
Lawson will already be wearing a brace on his ankle throughout the season as a precaution, and during his most recent preseason contest against the Celtics he was not able to finish the game due to hamstring concerns. It will be something to keep an eye on this year.
Another potential impact player for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. He’ll be eager to make his return this season after two knee surgeries over the course of the last year and be shaking some rust off slowly to regain his form. So far in limited minutes, he’s looked solid in the preseason showing the all–around play that makes him such a versatile player for the team. He’s stated he hasn’t experienced any knee soreness since he’s been thrust back into action so far, which is a good sign. However the NBA season is a long 82-game grind and we will need to watch how his knee holds up. If both Gallinari and Lawson can remain relatively healthy throughout the season, the team can improve from a disappointing season. If health issues arise once again, look for a repeat of last season.
6. The division crown will be a battle between the Blazers and the Thunder.
The Thunder have firmly secured the top spot in the Northwest Division for the last four season in a row. They have been dominant and regardless of the Kevin Durant injury, it will difficult to knock them out of that spot again this year. The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise, and will see a chink in the armor for the Thunder and look to exploit it. The Thunder will have their work cut out for them and will have plenty of adjustments to make in order to keep the ship on track to have division title number five.
The Blazers enter the season without many health concerns and have added some pieces in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to solidify their second unit. In addition their prize rookie last year C.J. McCollum (a Basketball Insiders contributor) looked phenomenal during summer league play, averaging 20.2 points and for the most part has looked solid during preseason play as well. The Blazers look to have continuity and health on their side, so look for the head to head match-ups between these teams to be fiercely contested. In the end, I expect the Thunder to have enough talent to maintain within striking distance long enough for Durant to return to action and lead the way for another division title, but it will come down to the wire and the Blazers will give them a run for their money.
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