2019-20 NBA Preview: Northwest Division
By: Lorenzo Robinson
After the most eventful offseason in league history, a new season is finally upon us. The landscape is drastically different this year than last, with over half of the league changing teams and key stars finding new homes. With the unprecedented amount of movement, we now have an NBA that is as wide open as ever, with eight-to-ten teams holding legitimate championship aspirations. The Western Conference will be the most competitive it’s ever been, with no team truly standing out at the moment. The Northwest Division will be under a microscope this season, with a handful of squads ready to make a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The reigning division champion Denver Nuggets return mostly the same group of guys that went 54-28 a season ago en route to their first playoff series win since 2009. Big man Nikola Jokic is one of the most unique players in the league, possessing a finesse style equipped with high-arching turnaround jumpers and accurate crosscourt passes. His diverse skill set drives the Denver offense. Jamal Murray has grown into one of the most dangerous scoring guards in the league, playing well-enough off the ball to play either backcourt spot. Gary Harris and Torrey Craig are the 3&D pieces every recent championship team has had. The addition of Jerami Grant gives Jokic an athletic, low-usage front court mate that fits his style perfectly. After taking a huge step in their maturation process by winning a playoff series, Denver will now be expected to make a run at not only a conference title but an NBA championship.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had a tumultuous 2018-19 season, but they will attempt to leave those experiences in the past as the head into this year with cautious optimism. Center Karl-Anthony Towns has grown into one of the league’s best bigs, playing a style that’s built for the modern NBA. A great 3-point shooter with nice post moves, Towns projects to be a matchup nightmare for players trying to guard him. Forward Andrew Wiggins has regressed over the last few seasons, but he should be able to bounce back with an increased role in the offense. He will be asked to be the second option just behind Towns. Josh Okogie surprised many last year during his rookie season, carving out a nice role as a wing defender and athletic slasher. Jeff Teague will run the point for this team, bring solid veteran leadership with good playmaking skills. The Wolves have the talent to make a postseason appearance, but it is unknown if they can put the pieces together in time to make a run at playoff basketball.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a team in transition due to the departure of their two superstars. Russell Westbrook and Paul George requested trades out of the organization, leaving longtime general manager Sam Presti to pick up the pieces. Chris Paul, the player they received in the Westbrook deal, is still one of the best pure floor generals in the league, despite entering his age 34 season. He will be expected to mentor budding star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had a fantastic rookie season with the Clippers. He has the size to defend multiple positions, with the skill and playmaking to run the point. Danilo Gallinari is a solid three-level scorer for a team that lacks other consistent scoring threats. Steven Adams is one of the best rebounders in the league, and he uses his size well to defend around the rim while finishing inside. OKC has underwent a major makeover from the 2018-19 season, so it will be difficult to expect them to challenge for a playoff spot due to their massive roster turnover. They’ll remain competitive, but they are unlikely to make any real noise this year.
The Portland Trail Blazers will look to build off of their surprise Western Conference Finals run from the 2018-19 season. Damian Lillard combines unshakeable fearlessness with all-world shot-making ability, as he has become one of the best scorers from the guard position that the league has ever seen. Backcourt mate CJ McCollum is a tremendous scorer in his own right, using a tight handle to frequently do damage from the mid-range. Rodney Hood is a solid shooter who doesn’t need the ball much to be effective. His size allows him to play multiple positions for this fast-paced unit. The addition of former Heat big man Hassan Whiteside can go one of two ways. He will either revert back to the shot-blocking, rim running freight train that kept opposing coaches up at night, or he will be the version of himself that we saw last season; lazy on defense, and a non-factor on offense. Portland will hope for the former, not the latter. Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja will provide additional floor spacing and defensive versatility that head coach Terry Stotts will look to use in various lineups. The Blazers will once again be a force in the West due to their strong offense. However, it will be the development of their defense that will determine how far they can go this season.
The Utah Jazz were big winners during the offseason, adding useful pieces to a core that has made the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Former Grizzlies guard Mike Conley is an upgrade at the point, combining tenacity on defense with elite playmaking skills offensively. His ballhandling ability will allow rising star Donovan Mitchell to focus on scoring, which is what he’s best at. He struggled at times to get his teammates involved, but putting the ball in the basket from all over the court was never a problem for the uber-talented 23-year-old. Former Pacer forward Bojan Bogdanovic blossomed as a shot creator last season, averaging career highs in scoring, shooting percentage, and three-point percentage. He will take the pressure off of versatile wing Joe Ingles, who was stymied at times due to being one of the only consistent off-ball shooting threats on the team. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert returns to man the paint for one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses. He leads the league in blocks per game since he became a full-time starter, single-handedly changing the opponent’s gameplans due to his presence. The Jazz will once again be dominant on the defensive end, and with their new additions, they’ll be much improved on the offensive end. Utah definitely has the look and feel of a championship contender.
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