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The Jazz should take the Northwest Division, but don't count out the Thunder just yet

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For the first time in years, the Northwest Division lacks a clear cut front runner. Is this finally the year that the Utah Jazz take a step forward into the playoffs?

Utah Jazz Point Guard George Hill

With Kevin Durant’s departure for the Pacific, the Northwest Division has lost its only perennial contender. That said, the division still boasts three legitimate playoff teams, the up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves (sans Kevin Garnett), and a collection of some talented youngsters (Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Emmanuel Mudiay) alongside some solid veterans in Denver.

How good will the Utah Jazz be?

Despite having missed out on the playoffs since 2012, the Utah Jazz have managed to stay relevant throughout the years as the perennial “almost” team of the Western Conference. Even without an All Star on the roster, the Jazz missed the playoffs by just a single game last season.

Continuing a trend of savvy management, the Jazz ignored the marquee names that weren’t realistic targets and instead made quiet but impactful moves, adding veterans George Hill, Boris Diaw, and Joe Johnson. A starting five of Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert with Johnson, Diaw, Dante Exum, Trey Lyles, and Joe Ingles may not jump off of a page, but one would be hard pressed to find another team that can legitimately go 10 deep with solid if not good players. That’s the thing about this Jazz team; they’ve managed to supplement a talented young core with experienced veterans who offer tangible value on the court.

Specifically, the addition of Joe Johnson should take a load off of Hayward as the only player who can consistently create a shot for himself in crunch-time situations. Hood has shown glimpses, but does not have the control exercised by Hayward and Johnson. Also, George Hill offers a significant upgrade, shoring up what was the weakest position for Utah last year. All in all, the Utah Jazz have been patiently building and look to be primed for arrival in the playoff scene. Don’t be surprised if this season marks more than just a simple return to the post-season, but also contention for home court advantage.

Don’t sleep on the Thunder

Yes, Kevin Durant is no longer a member of the OKC Thunder. However, the people who are predicting a precipitous drop in the standings for last year’s Western Conference Finalists are severely underestimating Russell Westbrook and the Thunder organization. Upon losing Durant, General Manager Sam Presti and the Thunder did not lay down and play dead; the team retooled.

There is no denying that the losses of Durant and Ibaka will be felt and that the Thunder as we’ve grown to know them over the past seven years are no more. That said, looking at the Thunder roster in a vacuum and not within the context of having lost the second best player in the league reveals a truly dangerous team. Russell Westbrook is one of the 10 best players in the league, and he and Victor Oladipo form one of the most athletic backcourts in the league. Spacing may be an issue, but this team will continue to be lethal in transition.

Steven Adams has established himself as a legitimate force inside with good hands and surprisingly quick feet when switching out onto perimeter players. Despite his well documented weaknesses on the defensive end, Enes Kanter is one of the most skilled post scorers in the game today. Lastly, despite being hindered by a few consecutive injury ridden seasons, Ersan Ilyasova is more than capable of playing the coveted stretch four role. Standing at 6”10’ and boasting a career 37 percent from deep, Ilyasova may surprise casual NBA fans if health permits.

Ultimately, no one will argue that the Thunder remain legitimate title contenders. However, with the sheer amount of talent on the roster coupled with the uncertainty in the Western Conference for teams not from the Bay area, it is safe to assume that OKC will be in the thick of the playoff chase.

The rest of the division: quick takes on the Blazers, Timberwolves, and Nuggets

  • Accounting for internal improvement, I’m not sure that Portland got better this offseason. Although Evan Turner receives a lot of unfair criticism, I don’t think that he moves the needle for this team. Also, can anyone confidently state that Festus Ezeli is a legitimate upgrade over Mason Plumlee? Their per 36 numbers aren’t so different, and Ezeli’s advantages may be explained by playing with superior teammates. Last year, Portland exceeded everyone’s regular season expectations, then fought their way into the second round of the playoffs when the injury bug struck Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in a matter of days. Portland should be a playoff team, but I expect them to finish in the mid to high 40s range in terms of wins.
  • The Tom Thibodeau era in Minnesota begins with KG’s retirement. First and foremost, congratulations to one of the greatest and most unique players in NBA history; we see you KG. Looking ahead at this season, though, the Minnesota Timberwolves are a young team relying on internal improvement; Jordan Hill, Brandon Rush, and Cole Aldrich will not be the difference between the lottery and the playoffs. That said, the future is bright for the Wolves as KAT looks to build off of an impressive rookie campaign, and the Andrew Wiggins/Zach LaVine duo continues to grow. Also, it’ll be interesting to see what the team does with Ricky Rubio, especially if former Providence point guard and lottery pick Kris Dunn has a strong showing right out of the gates.
  • No disrespect to Nuggets fans, but arguably the most interesting aspect of the upcoming season may be the anticipation of where their veteran players end up at the trade deadline. Unless Denver shows itself to be the surprise of the season, it may be in the team’s best interest to commit to a full rebuild and look to trade guys like Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Danilo Gallinari. If you’re a team that feels one or two pieces away from contending mid-season, you could do a lot worse than trade for one of these veterans.

Games to circle

October 11, vs OKC: Dallas was swept by OKC in the regular season last year. Harrison Barnes to the rescue?

November 2, at Utah: This will be the team’s first look at the revamped Jazz since D-Will went HAM and Dallas clinched the 7th seed. On the bright side, we no longer have to partake in the Parsons vs. Hayward discussions anymore.

February 7, vs Portland: This marks the final matchup of the season between these two teams. If recent history is any indication, this game should have playoff implications.