The Northwest division is one of the most interesting divisions in basketball. The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are among the best teams in the Western Conference, and the Portland Trailblazers are always fun to watch. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder have bright futures.
Tier 1: The class of the division
Utah Jazz: Over/under 52.5 wins
The Jazz were the best team in the NBA last regular season. They rely on Rudy Gobert to protect the rim on defense and collapse opposing defenses with his vertical spacing on offense. Despite not shooting threes, Gobert creates a ton of open looks for his teammates.
This team is a regular season monster, but they struggle in the crucible of the post season. For several seasons in a row, pick and roll maestros have punished Gobert in the playoffs, and he has been unable to punish them on the opposite end of the court. It is strange to say, but the best defender in the NBA becomes a defensive liability at times in the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: Over/under 47.5 wins
Nikola Jokic had one of the best regular seasons in NBA history last season. He was the first player in NBA history to average 26 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists with a 55 percent field goal percentage. It is not a stretch to say it may have been the greatest offensive regular season in history.
Unfortunately, his partner in crime, Jamal Murray, will miss a large percentage of the season rehabbing an injury. Newly maxed, Michael Porter, Jr. should help fill the void alongside the greatest second place dunker of all time, Aaron Gordon. And the Nuggets always have a dominant home court advantage because of the thinner atmosphere in Denver.
Tier 2: Middle Class
Portland Trail Blazers: Over/under 44.5 wins
Damian Lillard is a fantastic basketball player. His clutch heroics and “Dame time” celebrations inspired a character in Space Jam 2. The Trail Blazers’ starting unit was one of the most dominant in the league last season and should continue to be so this season. But we know the ceiling on this team. They are a ton of fun, but they are not much of a threat in the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Over/under 34.5 wins
This over should be an easy cover for the Timberwolves. Karl Anthony-Towns has never quite broken out to the extent his talent suggests he should, but he is joined by another first overall pick with prodigious talent in reigning rookie of the year Anthony Edwards. The Timberwolves should make the play in.
Tier 3: The bottom of the barrel
Oklahoma City Thunder: Over/under 22.5 wins
The Thunder have enough talent to win more than 23 games. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a very good basketball player and a ton of fun to watch. However, they are one of the few teams in the NBA that will literally try to lose late in the season. Any players performing at a level that contributes to winning will likely be watching late season games from the stands. It is impossible to predict the over for a team that literally does not want to win.
Players to Watch
1. Karl Anthony-Towns - Towns might be the most versatile offensive big in the NBA, other than Nikola Jokic. He provides a level of post play that shooting big men very rarely provide and. He also shoots much better the majority of shooting big men. His talent has just never fully coalesced, and he has been affected personally by Covid more than any player in the league. Hopefully he can finally put it all together this season.
2. Larry Nance Jr. - Nance is not a star by any means but he should unlock some truly fun lineups. He provides Lillard with his first pick and roll partner who can provide vertical spacing and/or short roll playmaking. He has even begun to develop a feel for shooting as he has been roughly league average each of the last two seasons. He will be an integral part of what may very well be Lillard’s last season in Portland.
3. Mike Conley - Conley and the Jazz appeared to be headed for a divorce this off-season after his wife posted several things on Twitter regarding her displeasure with Salt Lake City. However, money talks and Conley resigned on a three-year deal worth $72.5 million. The Jazz were 14.9 points per 100 possessions better with Conley on the court last season. A large portion of that was due to him being tethered to Gobert. The Jazz will need Conley to remain an excellent secondary ball handler if they are to remain among the conference elite.
Despite Utah having the highest over/under, the Nuggets will win the division. When in doubt, put your faith in the best player. Even with all the other star power in the division, Jokic is the best player. The Jazz also have the potential for some internal conflict. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have not always been on the same page in the past. They got along well last year, but that was because the team won so much. If they face adversity, there is no guarantee the peace will continue.
The Trail Blazers and Timberwolves should both be in the play in. Trail Blazers in seventh may feel like a shocking prediction but it shouldn’t. They have a first year head coach and a complete and utter lack of defense in the back court. The Lakers, Suns, Mavericks, Nuggets and Jazz should be the top five teams in the conference. It is possible that the Trail Blazers sneak into the sixth seed, but a play in berth is more likely.
Division Award Winners
Divisions do not award these; however, it is interesting to consider who would win each of the major post-season awards if they were boiled down to just this division. It is especially fun for this division as this division had the most valuable player, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, and sixth man of the year last season.
Most Valuable Player - Nikola Jokic. Jokic is unlikely to win the award due to voter fatigue, but he will be in the running barring injury. He is an absolute monster.
Defensive Player of the Year - Rudy Gobert. Sometimes the obvious answer needs no explanation.
Rookie of the Year - Joshua Giddey. OKC’s Giddey is not all that exciting as a prospect but this award often comes down to opportunity, and he should have the most opportunity. He should start for a bad team and with that comes the ability to put up numbers.
Sixth Man of the Year - Joe Ingles. Teammate Jordan Clarkson won the award last year, but Joe Ingles should have. This season should give voters the chance to make up for their mistakes as his level of unprecedented efficiency (67.2 percent true shooting percentage) should be rewarded.
Most Improved Player - Aleksej Pokusevski. Pokusevski is an interesting bundle of limbs at this point, but thankfully his terrible play last season leaves plenty of room for improvement. As with rookie of the year, his candidacy for this award will primarily be based on opportunity. The Thunder absolutely will trade wins now for development towards the future, and no one should benefit from that more than Pokusevski.