The Oklahoma City Thunder will once again have to do battle with their foes in the Northwest Division, which is no easy task.
Finishing dead last in the division last year, the Thunder will have to contend with three returning playoff teams in the Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers.
The returning core in Utah remains essentially unchanged, with the biggest departure being center Derrick Favors, who was traded to Oklahoma City in a move to help free up some cap space for the Jazz.
Mike Conley stayed, meaning that Donovan Mitchell will have plenty of backcourt help in the the veteran guard and Australian sharpshooter Joe Ingles to balance out the front court threat of Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz have been one of the most consistent figures in the Western Conference over the past five seasons, averaging 49.0 wins per year over that span, and their stranglehold near the top of the division only appears to be rivaled by the Nuggets this year.
Nikola Jokic will look to build off his MVP season in Denver, but the most important development for the Nuggets will be the health of guard Jamal Murray.
After tearing his ACL last season, Murray, and in turn Denver’s, title odds came crashing down.
But an ACL tear isn’t the career-ending injury it once was, as modern science has breathed new life into the recovery process for the injury.
If Murray can return back close to 100 percent, the Nuggets will again be in the hunt for an NBA Championship in 2021.
Denver brought back JaMychal Green and Will Barton, while going out an acquiring veteran Jeff Green in free agency as they hope to continue to build around the core of Jokic and Murray.
The most interesting divisional foe for the Thunder might be the Trail Blazers.
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While they were good enough to earn the sixth seed in last year’s Western Conference, terrible defense and the inability to win the playoffs saw offseason changes at the top.
Terry Stotts was ousted as the head coach, making way for Chauncey Billips to get a shot as a head coach in the league.
And while Billips’ hire has been a long time coming, it’s unclear how long the newly minted coach will have a bonafide superstar at his disposal.
Rumors swirled around Damian Lillard’s future this offseason, and he may yet as for a trade as his career has stagnated in Portland.
Larry Nance Jr. was the big offseason splash as far as adding to the roster goes. While Nance will certainly bring some stability to Portland’s defense, its unlikely that he alone will be the difference in putting the Trail Blazers over the top in 2021.
Minnesota was another team in need of a defensive upgrade, and they got him in the form of Patrick Beverly.
But Beverly alone won’t be enough to turn the tide for a team who won just one more game than the Thunder last year.
The great hope with the Timberwolves is that a full offseason and the first full year under head coach Chris Finch will make a difference, but Minnesota has been toiling away for years and looks to be in no better shape entering 2021 than they were at the end of last season.
If the Thunder can get great contributions out of their young pieces and point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander raises his game again, it’s not out of the question that OKC could work their way out of the cellar this year, but a run to the playoffs still seems very unlikely having to go through the murder’s row of excellent squads at the top of the Northwest Division.
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