The Northwest Division’s crowning team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, suffered a bit of a loss when four-time scoring champion and MVP Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State over the offseason, joining forces with one of the most talented teams in NBA history and leaving Russell Westbrook to carry the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook is expected to have a huge season from a statistical standpoint, but can he keep the Thunder in the conversation of contenders? The Oklahoma City Thunder still have an awful lot of talent and a developing big man in Steven Adams, but without Durant it is difficult to consider the team still one of those “first-tier” contenders.
Outside the Thunder, three other teams in this division have legitimate playoff chances. The Utah Jazz will begin the season without Gordon Hayward but are projected by many analysts to be a top-four team in the West. It is a well-balanced roster capable of elite defense, so Utah has to be considered a team capable of making waves and certainly one on the rise in the West.
The Portland Trail Blazers cannot be counted out with one of the league’s best and most high scoring backcourts in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
And the young Minnesota Timberwolves are stocked with young talent and now led by a top coach in Tom Thibodeau. Thibbs himself has moderate expectations, but some are already expecting the young Wolves to make a push into the postseason as early as this year.
Lastly, the Denver Nuggets are not a postseason threat but are building some nice young talent on the roster including Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets appear to be heading away from the veteran-laden roster that had them mired in perpetual mediocrity, with Ty Lawson two years removed from the team and Kenneth Faried likely the next to be dealt. Denver has not truly been on the NBA radar since Carmelo Anthony left, and this year is just one more in the rebuilding process in the Mile High City.
All odds and futures c/o Bovada.lv
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder
Odds to win Northwest Division: +250
Odds to win NBA Title: +4000
Over/Under 43.5 wins
The Oklahoma City Thunder had more or less seen the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook era through every peak and valley, and it had run its course. Durant and Westbrook formed one of the league’s best offensive tandems for eight full NBA seasons, but OKC never could get over the hump. Durant decided to join the league’s most talented team in the Golden State Warriors, but Westbrook is a legitimate superstar in his own right and now the Thunder are his team.
Lining up next to Westbrook in the backcourt is newly acquired 2-guard Victor Oladipo. Oladipo came in a draft night trade with the Orlando Magic that cost the Thunder longtime starting power forward Serge Ibaka, but also brought in complementary chips Ersan Ilyasova and lottery pick Domantas Sabonis.
The Thunder received a player in Oladipo who could be the legitimate No. 2 option within the offense, and many around the league feel Oladipo can still make the jump towards stardom. He was certainly the closest thing the Magic had to such, and his defensive prowess is going to make he and Westbrook one of the league’s most disruptive backcourt tandems. Neither are lights-out shooters to say the least, but the Thunder should be able to create plenty of transition looks creating offense with its defense.
Oladipo and Westbrook both can generate mass steals. They both also are exciting finishers, so there will be no shortage of highlight dunks for OKC fans to feast their eyes on this season.
Really, there is too much talent to just write this team off. Westbrook is a triple-double threat every night, and the Thunder have a fair bit of depth to get through the season with. Enes Kanter still needs to improve a lot defensively, but when paired with Adams the Thunder have a dangerous offense-to- defense 4/5 combo that balances itself nicely.
Sabonis could contribute sooner than expected, and the son of legend Arvydas offers plenty of skills and shooting to help space the offense. He seems like an eventual starter, and it could happen this season given that the Thunder are a bit weak at the 4-spot following the departure of Ibaka. Whether it be Sabonis or Kanter starting at power forward, the Thunder should again be a playoff team, and it could be a wind up towards what some may consider an improbable plateau of 50-wins. Even if it falls shy of that, we are bullish on the Thunder even without Durant.
Prediction: 48 wins (over)
(2) Portland Trail Blazers
Odds to win Northwest Division: +260
Odds to win NBA Title: +7500
Over/Under 45.5 wins
The Portland Trail Blazers were expected to take a big leap backward after losing four of its five starters last offseason. They did no such thing. Portland still rallied to win 44 games and wound up advancing to the Western Conference Semis where they were ousted 4-2 by the L.A. Clippers. To “only” regress by seven wins with the loss of perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and so much roster turnover, only speaks to just how good Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are as a starting backcourt.
Portland ranked No. 6 in the NBA in points per game, and the majority of its scoring production was derived from that talented backcourt duo. Lillard averaged 25.1 points per game, while McCollum was good for 20.8 per game himself. McCollum dialed up his threes at a team-best 41.7 percent and his 17.9 field goal attempts per game were second only to Lillard’s 19.7. The Blazers get nearly 38 field goal attempts per night out of its backcourt, and the rest of the team is hardly just a bunch of scrubs.
Portland has several defensive standouts and underrated youngsters on its roster that could transform this team into a legitimate contender if they continue to gel and grow with Lillard. Allen Crabbe is the biggest standout of the complementary scorers, and he averaged 10.3 points per game last season in 26 minutes a night. Al-Farouq Aminu has become a great glue guy, and he is proving himself to be a reliable three-point shooter at 36 percent. His value as a “three and D” guy is undeniable, and behind him Maurice Harkless can function in much the same role.
The Blazers have a three-headed monster at center, but all three offer talent and upside. Festus Ezeli comes from Golden State to join Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee at the 5. Leonard is the most skilled offensively, but he does not offer the defense nor rebounding of Plumlee and Ezeli. Even so, the Blazers have the offensive-minded Ed Davis to assume plenty of second unit scoring and Portland will not lack bodies to rotate through against tougher frontcourts. Though Portland lacks any true standout talents at the 4/5 positions, there is still adequate talent to carry this team on the basis of Lillard and McCollum’s overall brilliance in the backcourt.
Prediction: 47 wins (over)
(3) Utah Jazz
Odds to win Northwest Division: +260
Odds to win NBA Title: +10000
No Over/Under Available for Utah at Bovada
The Utah Jazz are a well-rounded basketball team on the rise, but it will start its season without its leading scorer and best player, small forward Gordon Hayward. The Jazz should be able to weather what could be a rough start, but for a team on the cusp of homecourt advantage-type seeding, being without Hayward is a blow.
The Jazz will look more heavily towards defensive-minded center Rudy Gobert for offense, while Derrick Favors is sure to see a heavy up-tick in his touches and usage. Even so, with veteran Joe Johnson and George Hill both now on the roster, Utah has the playmakers and heady veterans to weather the loss of Hayward for the six-to-eight weeks he is expected to miss. Many are predicting trouble for the Jazz, but those worries could turn out to be overblown, really.
Utah’s identity is built on the basis of its defense.
The Jazz ranked No. 7 in defensive rating (103.9) last season while holding opponents to just 95.9 points per game (No. 2 stingiest). The Jazz were middle-of-the pack offensively, but this is a team still growing and the return of Dante Exum will certainly only help its offense.
Exum, a former No. 5 overall pick in 2014, has yet to really burst onto the NBA scene after mostly battling injuries thus far in his young career. But he has the athleticism and talent to be a starting point guard, which is what Utah hopes he will be eventually.
This season, though, expect Exum to be largely mentored by Hill while still seeing a fair chunk of minutes provided he is healthy. If he lives up to his potential quickly, Hill could end up backing up the youngster, but Utah has a big season on the line and Exum will have to show few signs of rookie jitters and inexperience to serve such a valuable role. That said, Utah did it with Shelvin Mack down the stretch of last season, and actually fared rather well considering it was starting a fringe NBA talent.
Favors took a while to hit full-steam in his NBA career, but he quietly had a huge breakout campaign in 2014-15 that continued into last year. The forward averaged 16.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks/steals per game in 32 minutes a night (59 starts).
This season, Basketball Reference projects Favors to raise that further still to 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. That would have to put Favors in All-Star reserve conversations. The first part of the season may be the most important for Favors and Utah, because if he can establish his interior offense and supplant some of the scoring left behind by Hayward, Utah can keep it together without its starting small forward and make a real push when he returns.
Prediction: 43 wins
(4) Minnesota Timberwolves
Odds to win Northwest Division: +333
Odds to win NBA Title: +6600
Over/Under 40.5 wins
The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the most exciting young teams in the league, but their time still does not seem to be quite yet. This is a team guided by the 2016 Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns and another No. 1 overall pick and franchise player in Andrew Wiggins. They selected Kris Dunn of Providence to be their point guard of the future, as soon as Ricky Rubio yields to the 22-year old floor general. There is no shortage of premier prospects in Minnesota, and now the Wolves have Tom Thibodeau to coach it all and bring it together.
But still not yet.
Towns is already one of the best post players in the league through just one NBA season, but without a lot of veteran leadership this is going to be a team with plenty of growing pains. Wiggins should be one of the biggest benefactors of Thibbs, and to expect his career to evolve in much the same way Jimmy Butler’s did in Chicago is a fair and reasonable expectation. Wiggins has the athleticism to be one of the league’s best defenders if he gears his mind that way, and Thibodeau will certainly see to it that such is the case.
If Minnesota can retain most of the young talent currently on its roster, this is a club that makes a contending run—in a few seasons.
For the meantime? It will be exciting to see Minnesota grow. Expect them to become league pass darlings of more serious NBA fans, and if they stay healthy they could make some sort of push at an 8 seed. A push that will likely still fall short. This team needs experience and time to gel, and Rubio is going to have to give Dunn the tutelage necessary to thrive as a point guard.
While Rubio is hardly old necessarily (just 26), he has likely reached his ultimate upside with little progression still to be made. He is a solid starting point guard, but Minnesota seems to be gearing put towards something far more substantial than “solid.”
Rubio has averaged 10 points and 8.7 assists over his five-year career, but he is limited as a shooter and is good for just 36 percent field goal shooting and 31 percent three-point shooting. That has shown little improvement, with last year more or less hovering around his career mean (37 and 32 percent, respectively). He also shot a career low number of field goal attempts last season (just 7.7 attempts per night).
Dunn offers all the makings of a great NBA point guard with a full career ahead of him to grow with the other talented T-Wolves. This could be a team that is far better in March and April than it is in the early part of this season, when the adjustment to Thibbs and the new faces could cause a rocky start out of the gates. Do not expect the Wolves to simply shop Rubio, though, until Dunn has shown he has what it takes to guide an NBA team.
Prediction: 36 wins (under)
(5) Denver Nuggets
Odds to win Northwest Division: +3000
Odds to win NBA Title: +50000
Over/Under 37 wins
The Denver Nuggets have moved away from a failed building effort centered around a lot of good players but no great ones. That was the forced M.O. following the blockbuster that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York, but it failed to generate much success despite the Nuggets remaining mostly competitive in a tough Western Conference over the past several seasons.
This year the Nuggets are more in the full-swing of the rebuild, and the keys to the engine already have been handed off to gifted floor general Emmanuel Mudiay. While Mudiay’s shortcomings are clear as a player (another guard with a poor jumper), he can make plays and his athleticism will make the Nuggets a tough cover in transition. Gary Harris and Will Barton are good scorers to complement Mudiay in the backcourt, and this Nuggets team will be able to score points. It is just a matter of whether it can be mature and composed defensively enough that it will amount to much.
The bet is against it. Denver won 33 games last season while ranking No. 24 in defensive rating (108.9) and giving up 101.9 points per game (No. 20). The Nuggets were not stellar offensively, but Mudiay missed a lot of time and the Nuggets were not great at generating offense without his playmaking. At 6’5” with long arms, he is a transcendent defensive pest who should be able to ignite plenty of break opportunities (though he did average just 1.0 steals per game last year).
Mudiay finished the season with averages of 12.8 points, 5.5 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game, but his shooting left plenty to be desired (36.4 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three). The Nuggets will be an exciting young club, but it will also lose more than its fair share of games as it looks to build around the younger talent on its roster. Among that talent, Nikola Jokic and Josef Nurkic look to be a dynamic 4/5 combo that will allow Denver to move away from Kenneth Faried— who becomes the most attractive trade bait on the roster now.
Prediction: 34 wins (under)