The Northwest is a gauntlet. This is the only division in the league in which all five teams could realistically make the playoffs, a feat that would be all the more impressive considering how many times they would run into one another. Three of the five teams can trace their promise to banner offseasons.
This division alone absorbed four of last year’s Eastern Conference All-Stars, largely by way of lopsided trades. The playoff race in the West should be all the better for it. This, by sheer coincidence, turned out to be the division of lofty expectations, league pass darlings, and incredible intrigue. The answers to some of the biggest questions in the league start here.
Outlook: The Nuggets’ 2016-17 season was a revelation, as much a showcase of what that particular team could do as what it might become. Nikola Jokic is the reason why. Once it became clear that Jokic himself could serve as the engine for one of the league’s most efficient offenses, all the pieces around him snapped into place. The questions about the team’s point guard rotation (which still persist) mattered less when its center was threading backdoor passes. Players like Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris were allowed to do what they do best without any undue burdens.
Denver carries that general structure into this season with one notable caveat: Paul Millsap, whom the Nuggets signed to a three-year contract this summer, is more roundly capable than any of the Denver’s rotating power forwards last season. Not only should Millsap’s cutting and passing blend his game perfectly into the team fabric, but his strengths as a defender should aid what was one of the league’s worst defensive teams a season ago. It’s rare for a team in the Nuggets’ position to find exactly the kind of player they needed in free agency at exactly the right time. In this case, the stars aligned.
Best case: Millsap finds a comfortable place in the offense while elevating a formerly disastrous defense. Denver becomes a tough playoff out with very real upside.
Worst case: The brilliant offense of last season withers with the shift in personnel. Denver’s top guard prospects fritter through the season without showing any real progress.
Outlook: This is the year the Timberwolves grow up. Karl-Anthony Towns is as capable a big man as you’ll find in the league, but it’s time to put his considerable defensive potential into practice. Andrew Wiggins has all the raw tools necessary to be, well, Jimmy Butler, but to this point has failed to make the jump to two-way influence. Butler’s arrival creates a different kind of urgency. No longer is this a fun, young team content to develop at its own pace.
Much is expected of the Wolves because—for the first time in a long while—they have everything they need to win. Butler gives Minnesota a proven star at its center who cares deeply about defense. Towns is one of the league’s truly unguardable players, able to compromise his matchup beyond measure. Wiggins is the kind of high scorer whose game could be focused to even greater potency. The Wolves have stabilizing veterans in Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, a solid bench big in Gorgui Dieng, and useful specialists in Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad, and Aaron Brooks. The pieces are in play for Tom Thibodeau to turn an afterthought franchise into a playoff fixture. All that remains is the diligence, man to man, of committing to the team’s principles and getting it done.
Best case: The Wolves arrive, at long last.
Worst case: Minnesota improves only marginally on defense, irritating both Thibodeau and Butler. None of the imports blend quite as easily as expected.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Outlook: The deals the Thunder ultimately made for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are the sort that strain credulity. Surely Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis weren’t enough to snag George, a borderline top-10 player and one of the best two-way wings in a league starved for them. Surely the Knicks would want more in return for Carmelo Anthony than Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second round pick, the sum value of which pales in comparison to one of the league’s most accomplished scorers.
Yet here we are, poised to witness the league’s most preposterous superteam. That’s a fair substitute for last season’s Russell Westbrook Spectacular. Entertaining as it was to watch Westbrook roll a boulder up a hill while his teammates watched, this variant of the Thunder is substantially more complete. Nothing on this planet can stop Westbrook from applying consistent pressure. But now when that pressure comes, it’s stars like George and Anthony who reap the benefits. There are bound to be some logistical quirks in juggling the usage of three star players, but OKC has a perfect blend of low-maintenance role players (Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Patrick Patterson) to ease the process. The talent involved makes too much sense together for this to be anything less than a formidable team.
Best case: OKC pans out as the West’s best answer for the Warriors, matching up to give the defending champs a real series.
Worst case: None of the Thunder’s three stars appear especially comfortable with their arrangement. Attempts to take over and attempts to politely defer both fall flat.
Portland Trail Blazers
Outlook: The acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic back in February didn’t just change the Blazers’ season. It recontextualized the team’s immediate future. Portland played so well after acquiring the 23-year-old center that it could look at its roster in different terms. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum need a frontcourt counterpart with offensive skill and significant defensive potential. Nurkic could be it. The early returns (15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game) were staggering, and one can expect even more familiar, nuanced play from Nurkic once he’s had more time to learn his teammates’ tendencies.
What remains to be seen is whether it’s enough. Portland is already stretched thin, financially, and yet its roster might not have all the options needed to take the next step. The additions of Nurkic and a few rookies also won’t be enough to completely redeem the Blazers’ lacking defense, even after removing minus-defender Allen Crabbe from the equation. We can expect the Blazers to play smart basketball behind two clear stars and a varied supporting cast. That just might not be enough to even make the playoffs in a conference this loaded, much less advance in any meaningful way.
Best case: Nurkic turns last season’s promising sample into a full-blown trend, further suggesting that Portland already has the third star it needs.
Worst case: Yet another slow start dooms the Blazers against a vicious pool of playoff contenders.
Outlook: The story of Utah’s season begins, somewhat painfully, with Gordon Hayward. The closest thing the Jazz had to a primary creator last season bolted for Boston in free agency, leaving the team to rally around the frame of a roster it had left. There’s still more than enough to keep competitive—if at a different level. Rudy Gobert might be the league’s most powerful defensive force and is far better offensively than is widely understood. To flank Gobert with Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, and Joe Ingles is effectively a guarantee of elite defense. No opponent will relish playing against this group of shot enders and ball hawks. They might, however, still be able to outscore the Jazz by way of attrition.
The players stepping in for Hayward and George Hill (now a King) are lesser scorers by any measure, straining the equilibrium of what was a delicately balanced offense. The ball will move enough for every potential scorer to try their hand, but even the most plausible formulas for scoring success lean heavily on the likes of Favors, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Alec Burks, or rookie Donovan Mitchell. A measure of skepticism is deserved.
Best case: Strong team defense makes the Jazz one of the league’s most consistent teams, earning them a playoff berth amid tough competition.
Worst case: The absences of Hayward and Hill are felt acutely as the Jazz slide toward the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency. Their lack of reliable creation pushes Utah into the lottery and calls the entire roster into question.
Breakout player: Rodney Hood, Jazz
In light of Hayward”s free agent defection, Hood should see an all-you-can-eat buffet of creative opportunity. His growing role is a matter of necessity. The structure of his game suggests he can handle it; Hood has the ball-handling ability and pick-and-roll awareness to do some real damage. The Jazz, frankly, need every morsel of scoring that Hood can muster. All the layered, side-to-side action in the world can’t replace the do-it-all wing that Utah lost. If Hood can take the next step in his progression, however, he could at least paper over some of the gaps that Hayward left behind.
Rookie to watch: Caleb Swanigan, Trail Blazers
It can be tough for rookies to crack the rotations of winning teams, but an injury to Noah Vonleh—Portland’s starting power forward last season—has created a void. Swanigan’s play in preseason and at Summer League make him a compelling candidate to fill it. Rarely do floor-stretching fours double as quality rebounders, yet Swanigan should pan out in both regards. As a bonus, the Purdue product is the kind of heads-up passer who should make hay in Portland’s motion-heavy offense. The starting job itself is honestly less important for Swanigan than the opportunity to log more (and more consistent) playing time. Once he catches that break, the evident utility to his game will make him difficult to keep off the floor.
Coach on the hot seat: Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves
Year Two of the Tom Thibodeau era should, by all indications, be a rousing success. Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson join what was already a promising team, bracing brilliant young talent with their experienced production. If all doesn’t go according to plan, however, one could see Thibodeau taking some of the heat as a victim of high expectations. Coaches who also have final say over their team’s personnel decisions enjoy slightly more job security than their peers. The tradeoff is that any blame beyond the players tends to fall squarely on their shoulders. Should Minnesota underperform this season—particularly if Thibodeau fails to get better defensive buy-in from his best young players—then its resident coach and team president will share in the scrutiny.
Carmelo Anthony—despite a largely healthy season for an impressive Thunder team—won’t be selected as an All-Star, his first omission 2009. Welcome to the Western Conference!