After free agency, and a certain notable player, and former MVP, left the Northwest Division to join the reigning Western Conference champs in the bay area, the Northwest Division is as open as its been in years. I’ll break down what each team looks like heading into 2016-17, how far the Thunder may drop and which teams will taste the postseason.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had the most notable and unexpected offseason of any NBA team. Entering the draft the Thunder had their big three seemingly in tact and ready to run it back for another shot at the Warriors and Spurs. However, on draft night, they traded the 27 year-old rim protector, Serge Ibaka, to the Orlando Magic for guard Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilysova and draft pick Domantas Sabonis. Ibaka is entering a contract year and many expected him to bolt next summer in free agency. So, GM Sam Presti swapped Ibaka for some young pieces to fill the void. Then, Kevin Durant left and the Thunder was suddenly without its two starting forwards.
The Thunder have loads of talent at the guard and center position and may even be forced to start three guards and two centers, but may have a problem finding a starting small forward now in free agency or via trade. In my mind, the Thunder should start MVP front-runner Russell Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson at small forward, Ilysova and the rising Steven Adams. They would still have Kanter coming off the bench with Anthony Morrow and Cameron Payne. That is still a solid team and definitely playoff worthy. However, as I’ll get into, the other teams, unlike the Thunder relative to last season, are trending upward and will be a significant challenge to the Durant-less Thunder.
The Portland Trail Blazers were able to bring back many of their free agents and even boosted their rotation with the addition of forward Evan Turner. The Blazers finished as the fifth seed last season in the west with a 44-38 record. With an extra year of experience and a strong group of guards and bigs, the Blazers may be the favorites now in the Northwest Division.
The Utah Jazz missed the playoffs last season, finishing 40-42. The Jazz channeled that frustration and put together a very strong offseason. Acquiring veteran players such as George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw will significantly help the young Jazz team that often had difficulty closing out games in crunch time. They suddenly have one of the deepest teams in the league and have a good balance of youth and experience, with a solid coach too. The Jazz will be serious competitors in the division this season and should keep their defensive prowess while improving on the offensive end.
The Denver Nuggets finished fourth last season in the northwest and given the competition in the division they will have difficulty eclipsing, or even matching, that mark this season. The Nuggets have some of the finest young talent in the league in guards Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray along with Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic down low. They also have solid contributors in Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Health has been an issue for this team and will determine if they can compete for a playoff spot or be left in the lottery once again.
One of the most exciting teams in the entire association, the Minnesota Timberwolves, are primed for a jump in wins this season. After finishing just 29-53 last year, many believe the T-wolves could even push teams out west for a playoff spot. There have been many comparisons to the young Thunder team that jumped from the depths of the west back into the eighth seed in 2010 and challenged the eventual-champion Lakers in the first round. The wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and rookie Kris Dunn to lead them, but are still years and pieces away from being serious contenders out west.
Projected Outcome of Northwest Division and playoff seed, if applicable
Portland Trail Blazers (4)
Oklahoma City Thunder (5)
Utah Jazz (6)
Reasoning: The Blazers didn’t really lose any key players while the Thunder lost two huge ones. OKC was able to get some significant value back for Serge Ibaka but is currently extremely thin at forward. There is also a possibility that Russell Westbrook is traded before or during the season, which makes their season outlook as uncertain as ever. Utah should make the playoffs. Derek Favors and Gordon Hayward will lead them but they have several glue guys that fit really nicely and they have a versatile roster that matches up well with teams in a series format. I don’t think they will be as fine-tuned on a nightly basis and it may take them some time to figure out an offensive scheme with the new acquisitions.
I think the Timberwolves are much farther away from contention than others and are banking on Kris Dunn on becoming a star in order to take that next leap. He may be great down the road, but the point guard position is really tough out west and he will have some growing pains. The addition of Tom Thibodeau will certainly help his development. Denver has a lot of talent, more overall than the T-Wolves in my opinion, but haven’t stayed healthy in years. I predict they will be healthy enough to outlast Minnesota but not enough to make the playoffs.