The exodus of Kevin Durant from OKC to Golden State bridges the gap in the NBA Northwest Division.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have long been considered the class of the NBA Northwest Division. Now that Kevin Durant has moved on, combined with the maturation of Portland, Denver, Minnesota and Utah, the division is sure to be more tightly contested than in years past.
Let’s check out how we think the NBA Northwest Division will pay out in 2016-17.
Projected Order of Finish
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
I can’t stress how excited I am to see pissed off Russell Westbrook putting up ridiculous numbers and racking up triple-doubles all season long. When Westbrook’s leash was removed in the past, he was insanely dominant. Now, with the departure of Kevin Durant, the leash is off and Westbrook is mad. I think losing Durant removes the Thunder from contention in the Western Conference, but I still have them winning a lot of regular season games, taking the Northwest Division crown and providing us with must-watch Westbrook throughout the campaign. The addition of guard Victor Oladipo is also solid. (But as I’ve stated in previous Northwest previews, I have the Thunder, Blazers and Jazz all finishing within a handful of wins of each other. Honestly, the top three could shake out in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me).
2. Portland Trailblazers
I am quite enamored with the potential of the Blazers. A few weeks ago, in my NBA Sunday, I wrote about how the franchise rolled the dice and decided to spend heavily to invest around the potential of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Seeing them develop and come of age before our very eyes, they almost had no choice. There are some new faces in Portland and certainly cause for excitement. Aside from the Golden State Warriors, the Blazers are probably the Western Conference team I will be watching the most this season. I think they will have every opportunity to push the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division crown, but Russell Westbrook is still the best player between the two teams and one could make the argument that, even without Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s supporting cast is stronger. In terms of personnel, I’m not sure that I love the signing of Evan Turner, and certainly not at the price they paid for him (four years, $70 million). Festuz Ezeli, on the other hand, should have a major positive impact and I think him playing with Lillard and McCollum will make things much easier for him. Re-signing Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet for Allen Crabbe are substantial investments made in the pursuit of winning at a high level now, and I think they’ll mostly pay off. Terry Stotts has proven that he is able to get a positive return from these guys, and with the best still to come from most of the younger guys on this roster, there’s no reason to believe that the Blazers won’t continue to progress this season, even if they are still one or two steps behind the Thunder.
3. Utah Jazz
Many of Utah’s young players have already have established themselves as talented NBA players, which isn’t always the case with up-and-coming teams. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles and Dante Exum represent an incredibly exciting core that is now being supplemented with veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. That’s an insanely deep and experienced team that mixes youth with experience about as beautifully as any team in the NBA. These guys are going to be a pain in the tail for every team they play, and while they may be ranked here behind Portland and Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see those deficits being particularly large ones.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Beware of the Timberwolves! Tom Thibodeau himself could probably squeeze 10 additional wins out of any basketball club, but with Kris Dunn joining up with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Thibodeau has some pieces to work with.
The Northwest Division may be one of the most difficult to predict in the NBA season. With Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland and the Trail Blazers continuing to grow, the only thing that we know for sure about the Northwest is that there will be some stiff competition there. I think I lean toward the Timberwolves as being the third best team in the division, narrowly edging out the Jazz, but I don’t say so with absolute conviction. One thing I can say, though, is that Thibodeau has made a career out of defying odds and getting the most with the least, so if for no other reason than his presence, you should expect the T-Wolves to take a major step forward this season.
5. Denver Nuggets
In any other division, a predicted fifth-place finish for a team with this much young talent would look as ridiculous as Allen Iverson in a Nuggets uniform. But the Northwest is as frigid and harsh as the Colorado winter, which means even with an overwhelmingly talented core and a good head coach in Mike Malone, they’re going to have trouble making tracks in the standings. There’s star quality everywhere here, from the international big men in Jusuf Nurfic and Nikola Jokic to the young and athletic backcourt, which features Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton. Mix in a few vets like Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson, and it’s easy to like where they’re headed. Unfortunately the rest of the division is a little farther along than the Nuggets are right now, keeping them at the back of the pack in the Northwest.