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NBA off-season grades: Thunder's failures open the door for Northwest upstarts

With Kevin Durant no longer in the division and several young squads adding reinforcements, the Northwest Division race is wide open in 2016-17.
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With most of the NBA summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team’s off-season performance and examining their best and worst moves. Today, we dissect the Northwest Division, where Kevin Durant no longer plays, and where a group of young teams are looking to take advantage.

Previous division grades: Central,Atlantic and Southeast.

Portland Trail Blazers

Best Move: Staying patient.Nothing the Blazers did this summer will launch them into the West’s top tier immediately, but in sticking to their philosophy and adding complementary pieces around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, they should stay happily steady. They probably overpaid to keep Allen Crabbe away from Brooklyn, but continuity comes at a price in this league. The Blazers did their best to avert risk for the next couple seasons and assembled workable depth in the process. — Jeremy Woo

Worst Move: The Evan Turner contract. Evan Turner is a bit of a cult hero for his zany quotes and (mild) career renaissance with the Celtics, but even with the rising cap, Portland grossly overpaid the swingman. Paying $17.5 million a year for someone who shoots 24.1% from three? In 2016? Turner is a career 43% shooter from the field overall, and the only year he's topped 15 points per game was when he was a volume chucker for a bad 76ers team. With Portland already handing out big money to McCollum, Crabbe and Lillard, the Turner contract could haunt them when the Blazers need to supplement their stars in the future. — Rohan Nadkarni

The Skinny: Without question, the Blazers led the NBA in contracts that made you ask, “They gave how much to who?” Evan Turner: $70 million. Allen Crabbe: $75 million. Moe Harkless: $40 million. Meyers Leonard: $41 million. In case you’re counting, that’s more than $225 million to four players who combined to start 44 games last season. Crazy. Then throw in a $110 million rookie extension for CJ McCollum and a two-year, $15+ million deal for Festus Ezeli and it probably got to the point that billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen had to cash in a few of his Microsoft stock options just to make payroll.

Spending big on marginal talent, and doing so repeatedly in a short period of time, is usually a good recipe for a bad summer. To make matters worse, Portland struck out on its top priority—a top-shelf, defensive-minded starting center—and had to settle for gambling on Ezeli, who this week underwent treatment on his ailing left knee. At first blush, it certainly looks like Blazers GM Neil Olshey spent a fortune to marginally improve a non-contender that vastly outperformed expectations last season.

Still, it’s not that hard to understand why Portland elected to “go for it” this summer. First, their young core centered around Lillard and McCollum enjoys strong chemistry and plays exciting basketball that produced instant results in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure last year. Second, the rising salary cap should help facilitate offloading some of these commitments down the road. The timing was right to pay up now and figure it out later, even if that means salary-dumping a player or two into another team’s cap space next summer.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s greater opportunity in the West for a team like Portland, which hasn’t been to the conference finals since 2000, than there has been in years. The Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers all regressed this summer, while the Rockets, Grizzlies and Mavericks mostly treaded water. Suddenly, the Blazers’ best-case scenario entering the season looks more promising than it has at any point since Scottie Pippen was in Rip City.

There are plenty of ways that this could backfire. Portland’s key players enjoyed excellent health last season, and a meaningful injury at the top would be difficult to weather. Turner is an odd fit, and his lack of shooting and need to have the ball could cut into Lillard and McCollum’s effectiveness if coach Terry Stotts can’t find the right lineup combinations. The Blazers will be asking Ezeli to fix their weak interior defense, but his health is already a serious question mark. Plus, regression could strike due to so many rotation players no longer playing for new contracts and because rival teams have had a summer to digest the late-season lineup changes that fueled the Blazers’ playoff run.

NBA off-season grades: Central challengers stay busy, but Cavs maintain dominance

In sum, the Blazers went pretty nuts this summer, but they did so with an eye towards favorable external factors and without boxing themselves in quite as much as it might seem. If the gamble works, Portland could build on its surprising postseason success and lift itself firmly into the NBA’s second tier, which might help the franchise enjoy better luck with marquee free agents. If the gamble falls short, Portland will spend a year with one of the league’s most bloated cap sheets before eyeing liquidation mode next July. Given the wide spectrum of possible results, the Blazers’ summer stands as one of 2016-17’s best under-the-radar storylines. — Ben Golliver

Grade: C+

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Utah Jazz

Best Move: Working the scrap heap. It’s too early to declare Utah the West’s most improved team, as some have, but the Jazz made clear improvements and landed helpful rotation players that other teams needed to move. Netting George Hill for a late lottery pick addressed the Jazz's biggest need at the point, and takes pressure off the recovering Dante Exum. Boris Diaw was hobbled down the stretch last season, and getting him for essentially nothing should pay off if Utah can keep him motivated and full of espresso. Joe Johnson is definitely old, but adds experience, shot-making and had plenty of suitors. They’re not yet contenders, but the Jazz are certainly better equipped for their first playoff trip since 2012. — J.W.

Worst Move: Getting old quickly. The Jazz made the right gambles. The only question now is how their veteran signings will hold up. Johnson faded down the stretch for the Heat in the playoffs, with his three-point shooting particularly vanishing in the second round. Will JJ stay consistent—and will he be happy in a spot-up shooting role? Diaw isn’t expected to play big minutes, but if he’s forced into the lineup for any reason, will he show the same engagement as he did under Gregg Popovich? On paper, Utah’s signings certainly make the Jazz one of the more intriguing teams in the West. But how the team’s oldest players mix with a young core that’s worked hard to build its own identity could be a legitimate test. — R.N.

The Skinny:Reviewing Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey’s summer is like watching someone restock his refrigerator using Amazon. Starting point guard—add to cart. Veteran shooter—add to cart. Versatile forward—add to cart. Boom, boom, boom.  A few hours later, the missing ingredients to what should be one of the league’s most improved teams are dropped off at the front door, easy as can be.

This was both a surgical and an economical off-season for Utah, which narrowly missed the playoffs last season despite a rash of injuries. In addition to welcoming back Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks after all missed significant time in 2015-16, the Jazz have fortified their rotation by adding 1) George Hill, a quality starting point guard who fits their defense-first approach, 2) Joe Johnson, a past-his-prime wing who can still stretch the floor and give minutes, and 3) Boris Diaw, another aging vet with playoff experience who should help Utah match-up more effectively with spread teams.

Remarkably, Lindsey filled those three critical holes with one first-round pick and $36 million in total guaranteed money (Hill is an expiring contract, Diaw is nonguaranteed next year, and Johnson arrived on a two-year deal). That type of targeted, cost-effective work can land a GM in the Executive of the Year conversation.

NBA off-season grades: Southeast up for grabs after Hawks, Heat undergo overhauls

Although the Jazz did lose Trevor Booker to the Nets (in free agency) and Trey Burke to the Wizards (via trade), those departures feel like blips on the radar compared to the influx of proven pieces and the numerous players who are returning from injury. Suddenly, a team that had a massive hole at the one and an unimpressive bench has addressed its biggest position weakness and now runs two deep at all five positions, with the ability to beat opponents with traditional and stretch lineups alike.

The biggest downside to Utah’s off-season is that it sets up a busy 2017 free agency period, with Gordon Hayward able to opt out, Hill set to hit the market, and multiple other contract decisions on deck. That’s hardly a disaster: the Jazz’s summer additions should prove to Hayward that the franchise is serious about being competitive throughout his prime while also lifting the team back into the playoff picture for the first time since 2012. Meanwhile, Utah’s cap sheet is clean enough that it will be in position to fork over whatever it takes to keep the players it deems to be irreplaceable.

Utah has been poised to turn the corner as a franchise for a few years now, only to fall short when bad injury luck and crippling positional shortcomings got in the way. Lindsey’s big-time summer should drastically increase the Jazz’s chances at making a strong push up the West’s standings. This team looks really, really ready. — B.G.

Grade: A+

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Denver Nuggets

Best Move: Drafting for the future. It’s easy to like Denver's three first-rounders —Jamal Murray’s shooting is a welcome addition, Juancho Hernangomez could become a cult hero and Malik Beasley was nice value, even if they have too many guards now. Credit Denver for thinking about what team they could have in two years, not next season. Figure in that Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are still on the roster even after an eternity of trade rumors, and more youthful stockpiling could be in the cards. — J.W.

Worst Move: Almost Signing Dwyane Wade. The Nuggets didn’t rock the boat this off-season. Like Boston, Denver had some assets to trade but mostly stayed pat. The Nuggets still have interesting chips in Gallinari, Faried and Wilson Chandler if someone does land on the market. But while the Dwyane Wade dalliance was a credibility boost, it did not at all make sense with the rest of Denver’s plan. Beasley, Murray and Gary Harris are all more worthy of minutes than Wade on a rebuilding team. Watching a 34-year-old shooting guard try to keep pace with his younger teammates in the altitude would not have been fun for anyone. The Nuggets should be happy Wade said no. — R.N.

The Skinny: If you rock a sidepart haircut, or brew your own beer in your basement, or delight in discovering indie rock bands three years before your friends, or conform to other vague hipster stereotypes, the Nuggets are your spirit animal.

Denver’s front office has traveled the entire globe to collect the most obscure and intriguing prospects for your viewing pleasure: there’s a Juancho, there’s a Joffrey, there’s an Axel, there’s a Nurkic and a Jokic. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Canada to half of the European continent, the Nuggets have you covered. Even better, Denver’s deep collection of international talent is entirely under the age of 25, making them perfect for idealistic dreamers.  

There’s finally enough budding prospects in Denver to appeal to the older and more cynical set, too. Nikola Jokic, a center with range and unusual vision, followed up a strong rookie campaign with a breakout game against USA Basketball in Rio. Emmanuel Mudiay, a physically gifted point guard beset by injuries as a rookie, should make a demonstrable leap in Year Two. Canadian lottery pick Jamal Murray, a skilled shooter and pick-and-roll initiator, looks like a keeper, even if he needs a few years of seasoning and strength development.

NBA off-season grades: Knicks stay busy, but remain mediocre in improving Atlantic

Aside from adding three top 20 picks, Denver pretty much punted on the summer. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly opted not to trade Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried, two franchise mainstays who have never quite lived up to expectations. Connelly did re-sign defensive-minded big man Darrell Arthur to a quality three-year, $23 million deal, but he otherwise opted for the lightest of touches. 

Denver’s inaction would seem to signal that it is committed to slow-playing its build-up under coach Michael Malone, leaning heavily on Mudiay, Jokic, young shooting guard Gary Harris and Murray to determine when it’s time to really gear up. That’s a defensible approach, and one that should appeal to fans who prioritize potential over reality. As it stands, though, the Nuggets’ quiet summer sets them up for another season of being overmatched on more nights than not. — B.G.

Grade: B–

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Best Move: Thibs! Kris Dunn might be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but there’s no mistaking that Tom Thibodeau was Minnesota's biggest coup this summer. Watching him scream at Team USA for a few weeks just made this even more exciting. He gets as great of a second chance as anyone could ask for in Minnesota, and seeing how fast Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins can rise to the occasion gives us this season’s most interesting subplot that doesn't involve playoff implications. Then again, would anyone be shocked if the Wolves snag the No. 8 seed now? — J.W.

Worst Move: Why so many centers? Minnesota signed Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill this summer, adding to a pivot rotation that already includes Nikola Pekovic, GorguiDieng and Towns. The signings weren’t big money moves or large commitments, but it does create a bit of a logjam at the five, especially when Towns should probably be playing center full time sooner rather than later. It was a tough market, but it would have been nice to see the Wolves add another shooter to space the floor, or another perimeter player to give the team more positional flexibility. — R.N.

The Skinny: The major takeaway from Minnesota’s summer is pretty obvious: Tom Thibodeau wants to see what he has before he starts blowing things up. This is an understandable position to take because Thibodeau is new to the management side of his hybrid coach/president role, because so many of his key players are extraordinarily young.

Putting all other factors aside, Minnesota should easily surpass its 29 wins from last season now that it has a proven coach and another year of growth time for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. In NBA management speak, this is a quintessential example of an organization that should “let the cake bake.”

The big win from the summer was landing Providence point guard Kris Dunn in the lottery. Dunn, 22, looked ready to contribute right away during his brief stint at Las Vegas Summer League, and he fits the mold of a Thibodeau teacher’s pet with his take no prisoner’s style and two-way game. While Dunn might very well supplant Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s point guard of the future, Thibodeau can take his time letting that process play out while also testing whether the two guards can function effectively together.