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Northwest Division Preview: How good are the Thunder?

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2017 Season Preview: Northwest Division - Previewing the stacked Northwest Division. Which teams are legitimate contenders and which are merely pretenders?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder-Media Day
A Big 3 has formed in OKC
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

WE ARE LESS THAN TWO WEEKS AWAY FROM OPENING NIGHT! GET HYPED!

There has been a TON of activity this off-season and the Western Conference has gotten significantly more competitive with the addition of several all-stars.

The Northwest Division in particular has turned into one of the more intriguing divisions in the NBA with the addition of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap.

Let’s take take a look at each team in the division, starting with some bad news for the Jazz.

Utah Jazz

NBL Media Opportunity Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

Key Additions: Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio

Significant Losses: Gordan Hayward, George Hill

Breakout Candidate: Joe Ingles

The Jazz were one of the more promising teams on the rise that had done everything right in order to develop their players. They sprinkled in the right amount of veterans to balance their roster; unfortunately they lost their number one player in Gordon Hayward, who left in free agency to join the Boston Celtics.

The Jazz are still a great defensive team, but losing Hayward makes the team significantly less potent on offense, especially with all the new firepower that was added in the division. With the loss of Hayward, it only makes sense that Ingles will get a better chance to carve out a larger role. He may be an older player, but he impressed when given the opportunity last year.

The Jazz managed to make a few savvy moves by acquiring Ricky Rubio from Minnesota and trading up to draft rookie Donovan Mitchell. Rubio is an underappreciated point guard with great court vision, consistently finishing around the top five in assists per game. The question now is where does the offense come from? Who will step up with the loss of Hayward? Will it be Rodney Hood? Will Donovan Mitchell dazzle and claim a spot in the starting rotation?

Then aside from all the questions is the unfortunate news about Dante Exum: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Exum could miss the entire season with a separated left shoulder. This is especially discouraging for Jazz fans as “Exum looked to be ready to seize on his potential” this season, as Mychal Lowman of SB Nation’s SLC Dunk wrote after the injury announcement.

There is still plenty of talent on the roster but without Hayward, this team lacks a bit of an identity and, now, any sort of depth of point guard experience behind Rubio. Exum could have been a key component for the Jazz to fill the void left by Hayward. Now, it seems as though the best chance they have is if rookie Donovan Mitchell emerges in this offense. Overall, this team became worse by subtraction and injury and it would be no surprise if they fall out of the playoff seeding, especially given all the talent in their division alone.

Portland Trailblazers

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers
Can the back court duo make another playoff push?
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Key Additions: Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins

Significant Losses: Allen Crabbe

Breakout Candidate: Caleb Swanigan

Damian Lillard and CJ Mccollum are the cornerstones of the Blazers franchise and easily in the discussion of top five back-courts in the NBA. Even with all that talent, they were barely able to sneak into last year’s playoffs at the eight seed. The roster was littered with a disproportionate amount of guards and forwards.

The Blazers made a late-season move with the division rival Denver Nuggets last year, trading Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick. At the time, it seemed like a fairly innocent trade. But lo and behold, this was the move that unlocked Nurkic’s superpowers. He evolved in the Portland offense becoming a facilitator, low post scorer, and elite on the boards.

Unfortunately, Nurkic fell to the injury bug in one of the last games of the season and missed last year’s playoffs. He should return back to form and provide a significant boost to this Portland offense. The Blazers struck gold by dumping Plumlee (meh) and turning him into Nurkic. The Blazers further capitalized on the same trade by using the acquired first round pick along with one of their own picks to trade up in the draft with the Sacramento Kings to draft Gonzaga big man, Zach Collins.

One of the better steals of the draft took place later in the first round when the Blazers selected Caleb Swanigan. If you have not heard about Swanigan’s incredible journey, please take the time to check out this story on him from 2015.

"He's a manufactured basketball player," Lucas says. "There's no way you could've predicted that a 6'2", 360-pound 14-year-old was going to turn into a McDonald's All-American. He worked hard and made himself into what he is today.

He was an overweight kid who spent part of his childhood bouncing around homeless shelters infested with heroin addicts. He suffered through a lot of adversity growing up but was able to persevere through it all the obstacles. Swanigan demonstrates a surprising level of maturity for a 20 year old rookie and appears as a high character player. Always a good sign.

He can pass, shoot from all over the court, and work around the paint. Swanigan will be a great rookie and can establish himself as a key member in the Blazers roster for years to come.

The Blazers were able to address their front court issues through the acquisition of Nurkic and two new rookies which should make their offense more dynamic. Don’t sleep on the Blazers quite yet.

Denver Nuggets

Nike Unveils New NBA Partnership Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Key Additions: Paul Millsap

Significant Losses: Danilo Gallinari

Breakout Candidate: Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are a team on the rise. They have put together a collection of solid draft picks and have a few solid veterans that make them a well rounded out team. The Nuggets made a big splash this off-season by signing free agent forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year/$90 Million deal. That is a steep price to pay, especially for a 32-year-old player, but this is the market value for top tier free agents.

Millsap was a perennial all-star in the Eastern Conference and often goes underappreciated. With Millsap expected to start at power forward, Denver has put together one of the more skilled front courts in the NBA. Both Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap are capable of creating shots for their teammates. In the current evolution of the NBA, it is key to have skilled big men who can distribute and help space the floor. The combo of Millsap and Jokic should really make this offense kick.

One key weakness on the roster is at point guard. Emmanuel Mudiay was the starting point guard until he was demoted to the bench some point last year due to his poor shooting. The Nuggets have taken an unconventional approach and inserted Jamal Murray as the de facto point guard. Murray’s skill set would make him more of a shooting guard but it doesn’t matter here.

Jokic and Millsap are talented enough to work as ball handlers to take the ball out of Murray’s hands so he isn’t fully burdened with the responsibility of creating shots for all his teammates. With Gary Harris by his side, Murray should get ample opportunity to show off his skills from long range.

Mike Malone likes to move the ball and with all the talent on the roster, including Wilson Chandler and Will Barton off the bench, this offense should be one of the more efficient top scoring teams in the NBA. Look for the Denver Nuggets to surprise this coming season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves-Media Day
This is Karl Anthony Towns’ world, we’re just living in it
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Key Additions: Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson

Significant Losses: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn

Breakout Candidate: The whole team?

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been building through the draft and acquiring pieces in the post-Kevin Love era (though it is hard to call that an era as Love never led a Timberwolves team into the playoffs). As a matter of fact, the Timberwolves currently have the longest playoff drought at 13 years. That should all change fairly soon.

On draft night the Wolves sent waves through the league by making a blockbuster trade to acquire Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls for some pocket lint and about three pennies. Really though, what the hell was Chicago doing?! By acquiring Butler, Minnesota made an emphatic statement and went from a promising team to a playoff contending team.

After Butler was acquired, a string of other key vets were added to the rotation that included Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. Some Vegas odds have the Wolves projected to win as many as 48 games, which would be a +17 win improvement from the year before. I know the Wolves roster looks a hell of lot more impressive with Butler, but we need to pump the breaks a bit.

A 17-win improvement is just unreasonable expectation — that would project them to be a four or five seed in the West.

Karl-Anthony Towns is well regarded by many experts as one of the top players to build a franchise around. He’s a world class talent. However, I’m not sold on Andrew Wiggins being an elite threat on a playoff contending team. How will Wiggins and Butler balance each other out in the starting rotation? Will the pressure to meet these lofty expectations weigh down on the players?

I like the Wolves talent, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that the bar has been set too high and the conference is loaded with new elite talent. I would say, give them another year to figure out team chemistry. They should contend for a lower seed in the West.

Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder-Media Day
How will this new super-team manage to share the ball?
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Key Additions: Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Patrick Patterson

Significant Losses: Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter

Breakout Candidate: Carmelo Anthony

The Thunder were left in shambles after Kevin Durant departed for the Bay Area last summer. Many thought the next rational move by the front office was to hit the restart button and try to move Russell Westbrook, who was rumored to be tied to the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, the Thunder doubled down on Westbrook and offered him a new contract last offseason.

The team gave him the reigns to the offense and he delivered by posting a triple double for his season average and collecting the regular season MVP. Yet the MVP was left powerless in the playoffs, as the team around him wasn’t talented enough to get out of the first round.

Fast forward to this summer, Sam Presti (aka Houdini), managed to turn Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter (plus others) into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Say what you want about the players that were acquired, but give it up for Sam Presti who did an incredible job to make the Thunder substantially more competitive.

The Thunder also added Patrick Patterson in free agency on a fairly reasonable three year deal. A very underrated player who will be a great depth piece to the roster.

With the talent now surrounding Westbrook, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be considered a team that could contend for the title. The big question is whether they can create opportunities for each other. Each player was the alpha in their respective offenses last year and commanded a lot of touches.

If this team wants to succeed and make this offense work, two things will need to happen:

1) Westbook needs to defer more and create ample opportunities for his teammates.

2) Anthony needs to accept a lesser role and submit his ego in order to thrive in this offense. Our own Mike Brady wrote a nice piece detailing the value of stars sacrificing.

If Anthony can accept this revised role, he can reestablish his identity and be an effective stretch four. The success of this offense is contingent on whether we see a revamped Carmelo Anthony or whether we get same ISO heavy player we’ve grown to hate. This experiment could turn out to be brilliant or a massive disaster.

With all that said, the Thunder should be a lock for a top four seed in the West and are the favorites to finish tops in the Northwest Division.

Poll

Which player will have the biggest impact on his new team?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Paul Millsap - Nuggets
    (43 votes)
  • 34%
    Jimmy Butler - Timberwolves
    (98 votes)
  • 9%
    Carmelo Anthony - Thunder
    (28 votes)
  • 3%
    Ricky Rubio - Jazz
    (11 votes)
  • 36%
    Paul George - Thunder
    (102 votes)
282 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which team is the most over-hyped coming into the season?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Utah Jazz
    (16 votes)
  • 5%
    Denver Nuggets
    (14 votes)
  • 32%
    Minnesota Timberwolves
    (77 votes)
  • 49%
    Oklahoma City Thunder
    (117 votes)
  • 5%
    Portland Trailblazers
    (12 votes)
236 votes total Vote Now