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.
To connect with NBA Lord on Twitter, click here.
To connect with NBA Lord on Facebook, click here.
To connect with NBA Lord on Google Plus, click here.
To connect with Ben Parker, click here.