The Northwest Division has five potential 2018 playoff teams. What it does not have is any that could be called true contenders, though perhaps this is becoming an outdated platitude in light of just how dominant the Golden State Warriors really are.
That said, this division features some risky over/under betting because teams such as the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are reliant on some emergent talents and oddly-constructed rosters, while the Minnesota Timberwolves are probably on the verge of being the most-improved team in 2018.
Despite just how exciting some of the young talents in this division is, betting on any of these teams to make noise in the postseason is somewhat silly and precarious. It is a division defined by its young talent, and while all of these teams could be making noise in a couple years, all of the clubs have some glaring holes in their respective rosters that will limit and cap their successes.
Odds c/o Bovada.lv
Season Wins: Over/under 45.5
Over (-115); Under (-115)
The Denver Nuggets are an interesting team simply for the sheer collection of great offensive talents it possesses, but how does Denver make it work with a roster that is basically composed at least halfway entirely of shooting guards?
Can former Kentucky Wildcat Jamal Murray transition to becoming a legitimate NBA point guard? Does it matter if he fails to, with how brilliant Nikola Jokic is at leading an offense from the 5-spot?
Jokic alone keeps people high on Denver, and the addition of power forward Paul Millsap rounds this team out to make it very formidable, howsoever many questions may linger about the logjam in its backcourt.
Denver has to figure out how it is going to make use of Will Barton, Murray, Gary Harris, Jameer Nelson, Emmanuel Mudiay and Malik Beasley, six guys all talented enough to start for an NBA team, but all battling essentially for 2 or 3 starting roles. Barton may start at small forward, but that does not change the fact he is really a shooting guard, nor does that answer where Wilson Chandler’s minutes would go if Barton started at the 3-spot.
Chandler now will not see as many minutes at the 4, simply because Millsap is an All-Star who warrants 35 minutes on the court every night. Jokic is not the kind of player who will log that multitude of minutes, but Denver is adequately prepared for that shortcoming of his with Juan Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee both very capable backups behind in his the rotation. And that is the strange thing about Denver: there are no glaring roster deficiencies and there is plenty of depth, but ultimately we have yet to see it come together in a very meaningful way.
Sure, Denver did upset the Golden State Warriors last year and is a team fully constructed in the same motif of offensive brilliance that Golden State is, but that is sort of envisioning the high upside of a team that still needs to make some trades and bring some balance to its roster. That said, who is betting against a team that can dump the ball to Jokic and be watching such skills before its eyes?
Well, while that seems a surefire recipe for 41 wins, does it ensure more than the 45.5 set by oddsmakers? That is the tougher wager, and we see Denver winning just about that, which is going to give us the easy out of a PUSH on the over/under.
Season Wins: Over/under 48.5
Over (+110); Under (-140)
Minnesota, along with the Philadelphia 76ers, should be one of the league’s most-improved teams this season. The Timberwolves added a missing piece in Jimmy Butler, a guy who should really be able to teach Andrew Wiggins how to become the two-way player most envisioned he would be when he came into the league two seasons ago. Instead, Wiggins became something of a one-dimensional scorer on a team whose defense held it back from being any real legitimate threat despite the preseason expectations that the Wolves would breakthrough last year.
Butler reunites with Tom Thibodeau and is coming off a season in which he single-handedly made the Chicago Bulls somewhat relevant, so to see his leadership, defense and scoring abilities transform the Wolves into postseason crashers would be expected, not a surprise. NBA oddsmakers agree in setting the bar at 48.5 wins, and on the basis of offensive talent alone, it is tough to expect much less from Minny.
Center Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the league’s best big men, perhaps only behind fellow Kentucky product Anthony Davis, and though the team will miss Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, it is tough to say there will be any real regression given that Jeff Teague is roughly as good as Rubio and Butler is a major upgrade from LaVine (though LaVine may go on to absolutely blow up on the horrible Bulls squad this year).
The 4-spot is a unique one for Minnesota, given that it may go with Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson or last year’s starter Gorgui Dieng. Regardless of which it is, the Wolves have no shortage of frontcourt talent, and Nemanja Bjelica is a unique stretch-4 who will give Minny a different direction when it sits Gibson or Dieng for a more-offensively focused lineup. But offense should not be a problem for Minnesota this year. It will be building a formidable playoff-caliber defense that remains the number one priority, and with Butler and Thibbs reuniting we like the prospects of it happening.
Still, to see Minnesota go for 49-plus wins is asking a lot of a team with what appears to be three new starters. Early season struggles likely hold Minnesota back from hitting that mark, and while we take the UNDER, we do it with the expectation that this team is one the top seeds will want to avoid drawing in the first round of the 2018 postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Season Wins: Over/under 50.5
Over (-200); Under (+160)
No team had a more drastic makeover this summer than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook did just about everything last year while averaging a triple-double, took home the league’s MVP award, and is entering high territory for anyone considering the best point guards ever to play the game. So, Sam Presti did what he does best and worked the magic of adding two superstars to play alongside Westbrook and lighten his load. Joining the fold in OKC are Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, two guys who for all their faults, are legitimate superstars capable of carrying a team by themselves.
Putting the trio together results in an offensive surplus that should make OKC a really fun team to watch, for reasons other than Westbrook’s dominant all-around play. That said, while OKC certainly receives a major offensive boost, can the trio really succeed as necessary as it is for all to possess the ball while on offense? Anthony and George are both isolation-reliant talents, and Westbrook likes to take games over entirely on his own.
No matter how much the three may like the idea of playing together, does it ensure any sort of real success when it comes to taking on teams whose chemistry is already firmly established and entrenched by seasons of having played together?
Beyond that, Anthony is now likely to shift to the power forward spot where he is more of an offensive threat than any sort of capable defender. While OKC received a major talent upgrade, it is dubious as to whether these high powered pieces really fit together, and even more dubious as to whether it reall results in a 50-plus win season. In fact, while OKC won 47 games last year, what we expect—against all odds—is an exact repeat of that, with the team falling just shy of the 50 games set by NBA oddsmakers, making this an UNDER.
Portland Trail Blazers
Season Wins: Over/under 42.5
Over (-125); Under (-105)
The Portland Trail Blazers finished .500 last season, and while the team did not make any notable additions over the offseason, it still may be a little better than last year, simply because it now has a full season of center Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic was responsible for the late-season push that led Portland into the postseason (where it was promptly destroyed by the top-seeded Warriors). He gave Portland a better balance and took the ball out of the hands of Mason Plumlee (who he was dealt for), as the Blazers gained some legitimacy in the post and kept the ball more in the hands of its two playmakers, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Lillard and McCollum are in the discussion for the league’s best backcourt, along with the likes of Paul/Harden in Houston and Curry/Thompson in Golden State, but Portland lingers a little behind at the wing positions where it has Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Though both Harkless and Aminu are fine players, it is questionable as to whether they are necessarily the pairing capable of making Portland a real threat in the West as it continues to build its team in the post-Aldridge era. But what is remarkable is the prescience shown in deconstructing a roster that had been so successful, to rebuild it around the talents of Lillard and McCollum.
Just two seasons after jettisoning four of its five starters, here Portland is, still a playoff team, still relevant and still probably on a quicker path to contention than it would have been had it continued to build its fate around the declining talent that Aldridge (actually) is. Portland has the making of a solid postseason team, and is destined to finish above .500, but how far above that mark is tougher to discern. A lack of depth and lack of scoring outside of its backcourt might put a cap on just how good this team can be, and the 42.5 win total set by NBA oddsmakers is deadly accurate, as we PUSH this one, as well.
Season Wins: Over/under 41
Over (-130); Under (EVEN)
The Utah Jazz won 51 games last season, and NBA oddsmakers are projecting a fall-off of 10 games for the Jazz this season. Sad as that is, it is reasonable. Utah said goodbye to its best offensive player in Gordon Hayward, and for as dominant as center Rudy Gobert is on the defensive end, it has to be wondered how Utah is going to score enough points to make its league-best defense relevant this season.
Gobert has yet to show any real semblance of offensive talent nor footwork on that end, and the Jazz is basically going to need Rodney Hood to explode as he never has before. While Hood is a fine NBA swingman, expecting him to replace the production and all-around brilliance of Hayward is probably asking (way) too much. Dante Exum is still a bit of a mystery. Ricky Rubio is not much of a shooter, which means Joe Ingles might need to dial up 60 percent from deep this year (sarcasm).
There just is not enough offense to reward the brilliance this team has defensively, and while Utah may scratch its way to an 8-seed, it will not be in the vaunted 4-seed it was last season again, and that can be said with near-absolute certainty. We are going to take the UNDER on Utah’s 41 wins, simply because it is tough to imagine this team generating enough scoring in the Western Conference to win more than half its games.
The league, more than ever, is defined by high-octane offensive displays, and Utah’s M.O. now runs counter to that without Hayward. Even if Derrick Favors returns to the play he had shown two seasons ago and Rubio has a career year, there just is not enough to replace what Brad Stevens just added to his rotation in Boston. Expect a lot of boos when Hayward heads back to Salt Lake City to a frustrated fanbase well-aware of how much his play meant to the team.