NBA Lord's NBA Blog

NBA Lord's NBA Blog

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Tomahawk Tuesday: Are the Clippers the best team in Los Angeles?

The Western Conference has been pretty wild and the Los Angeles Clippers leading the pack just underscores this fact. The Clippers have won 8 of their last 10 games and are in first place in the Western Conference with a 13-6 record, ahead of the Golden State Warriors (15-7), Denver Nuggets (14-7), and Oklahoma City Thunder (12-7). With Blake Griffin going to the Detroit Pistons and DeAndre Jordan going to the Dallas Mavericks, many people including myself saw this Clippers team entering a rebuilding phase. Instead, they are holding their own and showing they intend to compete in the here and now.

What accounts for the Clippers' early success is their balance. While Tobias Harris is the top scorer averaging 21.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, he has a lot of help around him. Danilo Gallinari (18.6 points), Lou Williams (17.8 points), Montrezl Harrell (15.8 points), and even rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10.5 points) are also scoring in double figures on average. When you have this kind of balance, you become tough to prepare for because of all the different ways you can beat opponents.

While we rarely see teams with this kind of balance, that doesn't mean it can't be an effective model. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons won an NBA championship because of their balance: Richard Hamilton (17.6 points), Chauncey Billups (16.9 points), Rasheed Wallace (13.7 points), Tayshaun Prince (10.3 points), Mehmet Okur (9.6 points), Ben Wallace (9.5 points), and Corliss Williamson (9.5 points) all chipped in and helped to take the pressure off of one another on offense. On defense, this Pistons team was even better, holding opponents to 84.3 points per game on 41.3% shooting from the field and 30.2% shooting from 3-point range.

When looking at this Clippers team, they have a similar scoring distribution as that Pistons team did. While they're allowing 112.5 points per game, they're holding opponents to 43.5% shooting from the field and 33.3% shooting from 3-point range. The potential to play good defense is definitely there. Especially on the perimeter where they have both Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley.

Even though it's too early to say whether or not these Clippers are the next 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, it's not too early to acknowledge the fact that they're playing good basketball.  For all the buzz the Lakers had in getting LeBron James, they're currently 7th in the Western Conference, 2.5 games back of the Clippers. While they don't have the same level of star power, the Clippers are getting it done and until proven otherwise, they have to be considered the best team in Los Angeles.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wednesday Windmill: How much better does Jimmy Butler make the Philadelphia 76ers?

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the Jimmy Butler drama by agreeing to acquire the polarizing shooting guard from the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the deal, the 76ers acquired Butler along with Justin Patton while giving up Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick.  The 76ers made the move with the hopes of improving their chances to reach the NBA Finals while the Timberwolves made the deal with the hopes of returning to a sense of normalcy.

While the 76ers should be excited to add another elite player to the fold, they run the risk of messing with their team chemistry. Butler's time in Minnesota was controversial and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of his ability to help out a team as a result. Butler will need to prove that he is not a head case and that his beef with Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves organization was legit.

Assuming he's able to prove that he can be a good guy in the locker room, Butler should be a nice fit in Philly. He's a 20+ points per game scorer and an excellent defender, averaging 2.4 steals per game this season. Joel Embiid has become one of the most gifted big men of all time while Ben Simmons is blossoming into a B+ version of LeBron James. When you give those guys an elite wing like Jimmy Butler to work with, you're giving them a real shot to reach the NBA Finals and contend for a championship.

Aside from Butler being a problem in the locker room, the biggest concern for the 76ers is their lack of depth. Covington, Saric, and Bayless were solid pieces that gave them a nice bench. With them gone, they're going to have to rely even more on their star players to carry them to victory. It's a calculated risk that they feel is worth taking, but it's still a risk nonetheless. Guys like Wilson Chandler, J.J. Redick, and Markelle Fultz will need to step up and prove that they are capable of handling more of the load as well.

While there's always a risk in making big trades in the middle of a season, I feel like the 76ers are making the right move here. Jimmy Butler is one of the best shooting guards in the NBA and a legitimate All-Star player. If you have the chance to add a guy like him to your team without giving up another All-Star in return, you should do it every time. As far as how the Timberwolves should feel, I think they should feel good about the move. They added some solid role players to their team and can finally focus on building around Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the most promising duos in the league.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018 Southeast Division Preview

The last division preview on looks at the Southeast Division, home to the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards. Enjoy!

The Atlanta Hawks are in rebuilding mode, but they have a pretty exciting piece to build around for the future in rookie point guard Trae Young, who is averaging 18.4 points and 7.8 assists per game on 42.4% shooting from the field and 80.7% shooting from the foul line. Kent Bazemore (14.1 points) and Taurean Prince (14.6 points) are the other two Hawks players scoring in double figures on this team, taking some of the pressure off of Young.

Giving how young and inexperienced this Hawks team is, they're not going to win a lot of games, but they will be exciting to watch thanks to the presence of Trae Young. They have a piece they can build around for the future, but they don't have enough around him at the moment. This is a team that should be looking to make some moves at the trade deadline so as to acquire more assets for the future.

Kemba Walker is the face of this Charlotte Hornets team, averaging 28.3 points and 6.2 assists per game. He's established himself as one of the best players in the NBA and the Hornets as a result are playing .500 level basketball. Around Walker, the Hornets have some solid players in Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk, and Tony Parker, who I'll admit is still weird watching in a non-Spurs uniform.

As presently constituted, this Hornets team has the pieces to make the playoffs and possibly win a game or two once they get there. If they want to go beyond that and actually compete to win a series, they're going to need to get a legitimate number two option to go along with Kemba Walker. The pieces they have around him are nice, but not enough to make them a serious threat. They need someone else who can average around 16-17 points per game.

How the Hornets go about doing that remains to be seen, but they might be wise to unload some players in exchange for some draft picks that could blossom into the type of number two option that they need. There's also the possibility of maybe making a trade for a younger player with more upside. The bottom line with this Hornets team is they're nice and heading in the right direction. It's a just a matter of taking that next step and figuring out how to put the right pieces around Kemba Walker.

The Miami Heat have themselves a couple of really nice players in Josh Richardson (20.8 points) and Hassan Whiteside (14.0 points and 15.5 rebounds), who both look like keepers for the future. In addition to those guys, they also have Goran Dragic (16.1 points), Rodney McGruder (13.6 points), and Dwyane Wade (14.3 points), who help give this team some balance.

Given that this is Dwyane Wade's final season in the NBA, the Heat would like to make the playoffs and be competitive in his final year. However, it's probably good for their long-term future that he's moving on after this year so as to focus on the next chapter of their franchise.

The way I read this Heat team is that if everyone stays healthy, they have the pieces to sneak into the playoffs and maybe win a game or two, but that's it. They have the potential to be really good down the road, but they're still young and in need of more seasoning. The main thing to look for this year is how D-Wade's final season goes and whether or not he has any playoff magic left in him. If he could make them competitive in a first round series, that would be a lot of fun.

The Orlando Magic are another team with a lot of nice young talent in Aaron Gordon (16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds), Evan Fournier (16.5 points), and Nikola Vucevic (17.8 points and 10.7 rebounds). It's just a matter of these guys growing together and staying patient.

I truly believe that if this core can stay together for the long-term, they have the chance to be a force in the Eastern Conference. They're not so much in need of another piece as the are in need of going through the maturation process that all teams have to go through.

One name to keep an eye on this year is second year wing Jonathan Isaac out of Florida State. He hasn't been playing as well as the Magic would have hoped and it's unclear whether or not he'll become the elite scorer that they've been hoping he'd be. If he could have a breakout sophomore year and really turn the corner, that would be huge for this team.

At the moment, I see the Magic as a team that will be in the mix for the eight seed in the playoffs, but nothing beyond that. They're too young to make serious noise in the playoffs, but if they can get there, that'll be progress for them.

Led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards on paper should be the best team in this whole division. Both of those guys are scoring over 20 points per game while Otto Porter, Jr. and Kelly Oubre, Jr. are both evolving into solid players in their own right. On top of that, they added Dwight Howard into the fold, who while getting old is still a pretty productive big man. For whatever reason, this Wizards team is failing to live up to the hype, starting the season 3-9.

For them, they need to not panic and see if they can calmly right the ship. The season is still young and with a division filled with young teams, they should have plenty of opportunities to catch up. If the Wizards do not make the playoffs this year, that will be a major disappointment considering the level of talent that they have. When you have guys as good as John Wall and Bradley Beal on your team, you should be an automatic playoff team. Especially in the Eastern Conference.

How things go for the Wizards over the next six weeks will be really interesting to follow. My money is on them figuring things out and getting back in the playoff race. I really like Wall and Beal and I also really like the pieces they have around them. If they cannot get it together this season, there will be a lot of questions for their front office to answer in the offseason.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018 Central Division Preview

Up next in my division preview series is the Central Division, home to the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Milwaukee Bucks.

After years of rebuilding and putting the right pieces together, the Milwaukee Bucks finally appear to have a team capable of doing some serious damage. They're 8-2 at the moment and anything but a fluke. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 26.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game on 53.6% shooting from the field, making him one of the most dangerous players in the NBA. In addition to "The Greek Freak", Khris Middleton is averaging 19.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game on 49.3% shooting from 3-point range while guards Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon give the Bucks some additional weapons in the back court.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Bucks' 8-2 start is the fact that they're doing this without Jabari Parker, who signed a two-year, $40M contract with the Chicago Bulls last summer.  Parker was viewed as an integral part of their future and for them to be playing such stellar basketball with him no longer a part of their plans is a testament to how good "The Greek Freak" is and also how smart their front office is. Most teams would have had a hard time parting ways with a guy of Parker's caliber, but the Bucks' recognized they could succeed without him and appear to have no reason to second guess their decision.

With the Eastern Conference wide open, the Bucks have to be viewed as serious contenders to reach the NBA Finals. Gianni Antetokounmpo is arguably the best player in the NBA and he seems ready to lead his team deep in the playoffs. This is undoubtedly shaking up to be the most exciting season in Milwaukee in a very long time.

Led by Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers have one of the more balanced and deep teams in the NBA. In addition to Oladipo, who is averaging 22.5 points per game, the Pacers have five players scoring in double figures per game (Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and Tyreke Evans). This depth and balance allows them to compete with teams that have more talented players.

Where the Pacers really do damage is with their efficient shooting and ability to force turnovers. They are 4th in the NBA in field goal percentage (49.3%) and tied for 6th in steals (8.5 steals per game). They do a really good job of finding easy baskets for one another, making them tough to stop when they have the ball.

While the Pacers are not a team picked to reach the NBA Finals, they do have the pieces to win a series and make some noise in the playoffs. Especially if they are able to get home court advantage for the first round and stay healthy. Few teams have the depth and balance that they have, making them one of the more intriguing teams in the NBA.

The Detroit Pistons are led by Blake Griffin, who so far seems to be enjoying his time in the motor city. Griffin is averaging 28.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season while Andre Drummond is averaging 17.6 points and 15.4 rebounds. Together, Griffin and Drummond form a very formidable front court, making it hard for any team to get rebounds and find success in the paint.

The problem for the Pistons is their lack of depth. Reggie Jackson is a nice player as is Ish Smith, but after that it really starts to tail off. The Pistons need one more weapon in order to be really competitive. The hope for them has been that Stanley Johnson will be that additional weapon, but so far he doesn't appear to be up to the task.

With Griffin and Drummond at the helm, the Pistons should be in the mix to make a playoff appearance, but that's the extent to which I see them succeeding. Those guys simply need more help and right now they don't have it.

Zach LaVine is having a really nice season for the Chicago Bulls, averaging 26.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while Jabari Parker is averaging 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. The Bulls hope that with LaVine and Parker as their core for the future, they can start to move in the right direction.

While they do have some promising pieces like Justin Holiday and Wendell Carter, Jr. in addition to LaVine and Parker, this Bulls team is too young to make any noise this season. They have some growing pains to go through this season before they see the fruit of their labors.

For the Bulls, the main thing to see is if LaVine and Parker can both stay healthy. They've had injury issues in the past, casting doubt on their abilities to carry a franchise. If they are able to play the bulk of the games without incurring any serious injury, it should be a good season in the Windy City regardless of what the team's record is.

In the post-LeBron James era, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expected to struggle. They decided to fire Tyronn Lue early in the season and Kevin Love is out for an extended period of time due to a toe/foot problem. Such a combination is certain to yield a lot of losses. So long as Love is out, this team is going to struggle to find any sort of identity as he is the best player they have.

The main thing to look for this year in Cleveland is how well rookie point guard Collin Sexton performs and who else looks like a good piece to put around him. A combination of Kevin Love and Collin Sexton could be intriguing, but they aren't enough to make this team competitive. They need some pieces around them.

I personally see this as a year of cleaning house in Cleveland. Tyronn Lue won't be the last to go. They'll probably look to find trading partners for J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson and hope to get some assets back that they can use to build for the future. Whether or not they'll find any takers remains to be seen, but they should at least try.

What's frustrating for the Cavaliers is they are cellar dwellers again, but at least they won a championship in the LeBron James era. They've overall had a good run, but now it's time for them to start from scratch and build a team that can once again compete.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018 Atlantic Division Preview

Up next in my division preview series is the Atlantic Division, home to the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers. This division projects to be the most competitive in the Eastern Conference with three teams that all have a real shot at reaching the NBA Finals.

Of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, I believe the Boston Celtics are the most talented and on top of that, they are the most experienced. Kyrie Irving has won an NBA championship while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both got invaluable experience last year, leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals with Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined. This Celtics team is really good and are the odds on favorites to win the Eastern Conference.

The biggest challenge for the Celtics will be finding a way to integrate all the talented pieces that they have without messing up the chemistry they developed last year. Specifically, finding minutes for Hayward, Brown, and Tatum since they all play the same position. The Celtics didn't expect Tatum and Brown to burst on the scene like they did and now that they have, they have a bit of a problem on their hands. It's a good problem to have, but one that still needs some sorting out.

I wouldn't be shocked to see the Celtics get out of the gates a little slow, but by the end of the season, Brad Stevens will have things figured out and they'll be right at the top of the Eastern Conference. They have too much depth and talent to not be playing deep into May and possibly June.

Many feel the biggest challenger to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference is the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers have a talented roster of their own consisting of Joel Embiid, J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, and Ben Simmons. Simmons draws comparisons to LeBron James while Embiid draws comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon with a better perimeter game. After years of losing games and racking up high draft picks, the 76ers are back and ready to make a serious run for an NBA title.

The biggest concern for the 76ers is health. Simmons, Embiid, and Fultz have all dealt with serious injuries in the past and it's no guarantee that they stay healthy going forward. Brett Brown needs to do all he can to give these guys as much rest as possible. It's a rather unique situation in that they're pretty young but also vulnerable to injury. Usually it's older teams that are more worried about the injury bug.

In regards to their championship chances, I think these guys are a couple years away from being serious title contenders, but the Eastern Conference is up for grabs with LeBron James going to Los Angeles. If they are able to survive the grind of an 82 game season and stay healthy, they will once again make a deep run in the playoffs. They're simply too talented not to with all the pieces they have.

The Toronto Raptors have a new identity after trading DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Pöltl to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Raptors have had a lot of success in the regular season, but they have failed to do much in the playoffs. Their front office felt a big change was needed and so they rolled the dice on Leonard, who they only have as a one-year rental.

With Leonard as their top player, I do expect the Raptors to be serious contenders in the Eastern Conference. Leonard has an NBA Finals MVP under his belt and knows what it takes to win a championship. The Raptors needed somebody to show them the way and there's no reason to doubt Leonard's abilities.

Like any contender, staying healthy is the biggest key for this Raptors team. Leonard missed nearly all of last season due to a quadriceps injury and was never able to get into a rhythm. The Raptors need him to stay healthy if they are to have any chance at winning a title.

Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and Danny Green form a really nice core around Leonard. Even though those guys weren't able to get over the hump, they're still really good. If Leonard is able to stay healthy and be the superstar this team needs him to be, don't be shocked to see the Raptors in the NBA Finals.

The New York Knicks are led by shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., who is averaging 24.4 points per game so far this season and power forward Kristaps Porzingis, who is rehabbing from a torn ACL. So long as Porzingis remains out without a firm return date, it's going to be a long season in New York. Even with him, they don't have a ton of talent, but without him, they really don't have much to lean on.

One bright spot for the Knicks early on this year is rookie forward Allonzo Trier, who is averaging 8.6 points per game. Trier went undrafted out of Arizona, so it has been a real surprise to see him producing like he has. If he continues on playing like he is, he not only will have a permanent spot on the team, he'll also be commanding a lot more money next year, similar to Wesley Matthews, Jr. after his breakout rookie season with the Utah Jazz.

For the Knicks, this year is all about player development and figuring out who belongs on their team for the long-term. Enes Kanter will be an interesting player to keep an eye on as he is very talented but also comes with some baggage. If he can get along with head coach David Fizdale and accept whatever role is given to him, he could be a nice piece for this team going forward.

The frustrating thing for Knicks fans is that their team is forever in a state of "development" without actually yielding any fruit. Hopefully for them things will be different in the near future, but as far as this season is concerned, it's going to be another rebuilding type of situation whether they like it or not.

Similar to their crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Nets are also in a state of rebuilding and figuring out an identity. D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert are doing an admirable job of leading this team for being so young. LeVert in particular as he is having a breakout season, averaging 18.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game.

For the Nets, what they need to hope for is that this young trio can mature and grow into something special. As an extension of that, they need to hope they can find the right pieces to put around them to help make that happen. It's going to be a long season in Brooklyn in terms of wins and losses, but hopefully for them they'll start to figure out an identity and get a feel for who belongs on their team for the long-term.

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Monday, October 22, 2018 Southwest Division Preview

Up next in my division previews is the Southwest Division, home to the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans. This division once again projects to be highly competitive and very interesting. 

The Houston Rockets were a healthy Chris Paul hamstring away from reaching the NBA Finals last year and will look to finish the job this year. The addition of Carmelo Anthony is aimed at giving them more offensive potency off the bench and another veteran in the locker room. Anthony will be coming off the bench for the first time in his career and will have to adjust to this new role. 

Another key piece on this Rockets team is big man Clint Capela, who is one the most talented big men in the league. He runs the floor extremely well and is becoming a pretty versatile player, capable of scoring, rebounding, and blocking shots. With him anchoring the middle, the Rockets have one of the better front courts in the NBA. 

While Anthony and Capela will have big roles on this team, the success of the Rockets ultimately hinges on the success of James Harden and Chris Paul. When healthy, these two guys form one of the most dangerous backcourt in the NBA, capable of putting up points and making plays for others. When they're not at full strength, this team suddenly becomes very beatable. 

The key thing for Mike D'Antoni to do this year is to manage his minutes effectively and keep Paul and Harden as rested as possible for the playoffs. That won't be easy, but it's essential that he finds a way to keep these guys fresh. If he's able to do that, these guys just might reach the NBA Finals. 

It's a new era in San Antonio. Manu Ginobili has retired, Tony Parker is now with the Charlotte Hornets, and Kawhi Leonard is now a member of the Toronto Raptors. Despite these changes, the Spurs have a very talented team led by DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay

Of course the main guy to watch this year is DeRozan since he is the main new face on this team. Coming up short in the playoffs dogged him during his entire time in Toronto, so he'll be eager to show that same reputation won't follow him in San Antonio. 

I don't see the Spurs coming out of the Western Conference this year or anything along those lines, but I do expect them to make the playoffs and compete to win an opening round series. What really hurt this team last year was the drama surrounding Kawhi Leonard. With that now behind them, these guys can get back to focusing on playing Spurs basketball. I expect this renewed focus to do them a lot of good and make them a sneaky good team. 

The New Orleans Pelicans are led by double-double machine Anthony Davis, who is arguably the best player in the NBA. His 32 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 blocks in their opening night win over the Rockets speaks for itself. When you have a guy like Davis on your team, you are automatically going to be a tough team to beat every night you step on the floor. 

In addition to Davis, the Pelicans have some other talented pieces in Nikola Mirotic, Jrue Holiday, and Elfrid Payton. Holiday and Payton form a really dynamic backcourt while Mirotic is one of the better stretch forwards in the game. They're starting to put together a talented core around Davis and that should put the rest of the Western Conference on notice. 

Like every team, health will play a big factor in the success of this team. If they are able to remain relatively injury free and develop some cohesion, they should be another team vying for a playoff spot. 

With Dirk Nowitzki in the twilight years of his career, it is a new era in Dallas led by Dennis Smith, Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and rookie sensation Luka Doncic

Doncic will be the one to really watch on this team. There was talk of him possibly going #1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft and many feel he's got the chance to be really special due to his unique blend of size, shooting, and play making. While I think Deandre Ayton will win rookie of the year, Doncic should put himself in the conversation. 

If there's one other guy to really focus on, it would be DeAndre Jordan, who is looking for a fresh start after spending a decade with the Los Angeles Clippers. For the first time in his career, Jordan is expected to be the top dog on an NBA team, which puts more pressure on him than ever before. I expect Jordan to have a solid season with the Mavericks, but he's not enough to make these guys competitive. 

It will be a long season in Dallas, but hopefully one where they are able to develop their young talent and start to build an identity. The future could be bright for this team, but we are at least a couple of years away from finding out what they really have. 

The Memphis Grizzlies still have their one-two punch of Mike Conley, Jr. and Marc Gasol and they added a really talented rookie power forward in Jaren Jackson, Jr. out of Michigan State. It's a bit of rebuilding situation in Memphis, but the hope is they'll be back to playoff form sooner rather than later. 

Conley is coming back from a left Achilles injury and might take a little while to get back to full strength. So long as he's not 100 percent, it will be hard for this Grizzlies team to be competitive. As good as Marc Gasol is, he can't shoulder the load all on his own. 

If the Grizzlies are going to have any success this year, they're really going to need major production from their first round pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. There are high hopes for him and with a really young roster, the opportunity for a lot of minutes are there to take advantage of. If he can have a big rookie year, the Grizzlies could exceed expectations. 

Similar to the Mavericks, this will be a year for the Grizzlies to really focus on cultivating their young talent and figuring out who they want to be a part of their franchise for the long-term future. One such example is Ivan Rabb, who got some minutes for them in the front court last year and showed some promise. If they can get a feel for Rabb's future along with their other young players, the Grizzlies will have a productive season regardless of their record. 

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Sunday, October 14, 2018 Northwest Division Preview

Up next is my preview of the Northwest Division, home to the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, and Portland Trail Blazers.

One year ago, the Utah Jazz were worried about the departure of Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics. One year later, the Jazz seem to have forgotten about Hayward thanks to the breakout rookie campaign of Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game last season. With Mitchell at the helm, the Jazz are one of the most dangerous teams out west and appear poised to wreak some havoc in the playoffs.  In addition to Mitchell, the Jazz have some other quality players in center Rudy Gobert, power forward Derrick Favors, point guard Ricky Rubio, and rookie shooting guard Grayson Allen, giving them a nice blend of scoring and defense.

The most valuable member of this Jazz team is head coach Quin Snyder, who has implemented a really good system predicated on cutting, motion, and ball movement. The Jazz aren't the most talented team in the league, but they make up the difference with their execution and unselfish play. When you add a budding superstar like Donovan Mitchell to such a system, you suddenly have something really special.

The Jazz should win the Northwest Division and put themselves in a position to possibly reach the Western Conference Finals. While the Warriors, Rockets, and Lakers are getting most of the press in the Western Conference, do not sleep on the Jazz.

The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Carmelo Anthony to the Houston Rockets but were able to hang onto Paul George, giving Russell Westbrook one other superstar to take the pressure off of him. With George and Westbrook alone, the Thunder have a team that is capable of beating a lot of teams out west. When those two guys go off, they are very hard for even the best of teams to stop. 

The problem for the Thunder is their lack of depth and lack of a good system. Billy Donovan doesn't seem to know how to get Westbrook and George to play in a system and instead allows them to play street ball. I don't now how much of that should fall on Donovan given that Westbrook and George would be hard guys to coach, but that notwithstanding, the lack of a system in Oklahoma City appears to be holding this team back. 

Due to their raw amount of talent, the Thunder will be competitive and probably make the playoffs, but I do not see this team winning a series. In the playoffs, they become too predictable and aren't able to mix things up. It'll be more of the same in Oklahoma City, which isn't a bad thing but also not a good thing, either. 

Led by Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and newly acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas, the Denver Nuggets have a very solid team. They almost made the playoffs last season and will once again be in a dog fight to sneak in. The potential to be really good is definitely there if they can get rookie Michael Porter, Jr. to become everything he was hyped up to be before his injury. Given that Porter is not expected to do much this year, it'll be hard for them to make significant strides from last season. 

A good season for the Nuggets would be to make the playoffs and give someone a bit of a scare in the first round. I don't know if that will happen, but if they can stay healthy, they'll at least give themselves a shot. 

The Minnesota Timberwolves are in a very weird spot right now. They're coming off their first playoff appearance since the 2003-04 season and have a lot to be excited about. However, the drama surrounding Jimmy Butler and his desire to get out of Minnesota has overshadowed all of that. As presently constituted, the Timberwolves have a very good team consisting of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jeff Teague to go along with Butler. I understand why Tom Thibodeau wants to keep Butler given the pieces he has around him. At the same time, you cannot let distractions like a disgruntled player distract your team. 

If the Timberwolves are going to trade away Butler, which looks foggy at the moment, they'll want to make sure they get something good back in return. If they trade him away, they can still be a playoff team, but it would really help to get something of value in return. Assuming the drama around Butler can resolve itself one way or another, it should be another exciting season in Minnesota. 

The Portland Trail Blazers are once again led by the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who combined for nearly 50 points per game last season. On top of those two dynamic guards, the Trail Blazers also have a gifted big man in Jusuf Nurkic, who averaged 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic form a nice trio that gives the Trail Blazers outside shooting, inside scoring, and penetration from the wing.

The problem for the Trail Blazers is their lack of depth. Outside of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, they really struggle to get other guys going. Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Zach Collins will need to be the ones who provide some production off the bench in order for this team to be dangerous. If these guys are able to combine for 25 points per game, the Trail Blazers could be a team that maybe wins a series in the playoffs. If they are not able to produce, the Trail Blazers at best will be a playoff team with a first round exit.

My prediction is the Trail Blazers will more or less be the same team we saw last year. They'll win around 47-49 games and be decently competitive in the regular season, but come playoff time their lack of depth will come back to haunt them. I like their top three players a lot, but without getting enough help, there's only so much that they can do.

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