The Northwest Division is an intriguing cluster of teams that are always the groomsmen and never the grooms. Or something. There’s a lot of talent, a few ascending rosters, and some teams looking to finally get over the hump and make a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Denver and Portland have each made the Western Conference Finals over the past two seasons. There are some rosters that have a legitimate (kinda?) shot to unseed the Lakers in the West.
Portland has made the playoffs 10 of the last 12 seasons, but always seem to be one piece away. Denver and Utah are young teams driven by budding stars at guard and veteran stalwarts at center. Minnesota and Oklahoma City have a lot of work to do.
Has any team done enough to make a deep run?
2 / 7
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers
COVID Response: The Blazers have had some first-hand exposure to COVID lately, having closed their facilities on December 6 due to three positive tests in the building — one player, and two staff members. They’ve since moved past it, returning to practice and to preseason games, but head coach Terry Stotts clearly expressed his disappointment in the situation on a Zoom call with the media on December 7:
“It’s going to be a challenge, this is a critical time. The good thing is that we do have nine guys coming back from last year. We have to integrate the rookie, Derrick (Jones Jr.) and Robert (Covington) and Enes (Kanter) and fortunately Enes has spent time with us. Those guys know how to play basketball and that transition will be pretty smooth, but nonetheless, with some of the things we were hoping to do defensively, that’s going to take repetition. We lost two days of repetitions.”
Staying Away: The Trail Blazers have made the decision to start the season with no fans in attendance, and have made no projections or goals as to when that will change. In an interview with Washington Post NBA reporter Bel Golliver, Trail Blazers team president Chris McGowan said “You have to plan for no fans, limited capacity, then look at it with a longer-term mindset when you can build towards a full building. We’re focused on making the arena experience safer [with enhanced] sanitation protocols, contactless payments, ticket processing and communicating the basics like washing hands. When fans can come back, they’re going to know we’re ready.”
Oh, He’s Here Now? The Blazers made several offseason moves, bolstering their core of Damien Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic, with the key additions of forwards Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Covington can space the floor well, and is also one of the better defenders at his position. Jones brings energy and athleticism on offense and defense. They also brought back Enes Kanter as a depth center after losing Hassan Whiteside, and drafted Washington State wing CJ Elleby 46th overall.
Where’d He Go? Trevor Ariza was traded to Oklahoma City, Hassan Whiteside went to Sacremento in free agency, Wenyen Grabriel signed with New Orleans, and Mario Hezonja went to Memphis in a trade.
What To Expect: The Blazers had one of the best offseasons in the Western Conference with their new additions and the re-signings of Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony. We know their offense will perform with the duo of Lillard and McCollum, and a healthy Nurkic in the key, but the outlook of this team will depend on their defense. If they can make improvements from their 16th-ranked defense last year, they are poised for a deep playoff run.
3 / 7
COVID Response: After the idiocy of Rudy Gobert early in the spring, which led to the March shutdown of the NBA season, the Jazz continue to struggle due to the pandemic. In October, the Jazz announced that they laid off employees in its business and operations department. Meanwhile, they seem to be just fine on money, having signed guard Donovan Mitchell to a five-year contract extension worth $195 million. It’s a bad look for the Jazz.
Staying Away: The Jazz announced last month that they will start the season with a very limited capacity in their stadium, allowing 1,500 fans in the lower bowl of their arena and limited seating on the suite level. Season ticket holders will be given priority access for these seats. Utah Jazz President Jim Olson said their “intent is to to increase the number of fans as the season unfolds in compliance with the state guidelines.”
Oh, He’s Here Now? Forward Derrick Favors was the key addition of the offseason, bringing back an old friend and a veteran presence to a young team. Favors spent nine seasons with the Jazz before spending one year with the New Orleans Pelicans last year. In a Zoom call with the media, Favors said “I love the system there, the organization, the city. It’s just familiar there. It feels like home. Coming back, Utah just felt like home.” In addition to Favors, the Jazz drafted Kansas center Udoka Azubuike 27th overall.
Where’d He Go? Emmanuel Mudiay (an as yet-unsigned free agent) is the biggest departure, which says a lot. They maintained most of their roster from last year and committed to that core of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
What To Expect: Probably more of the same, to be honest. They didn’t address their perimeter defense, and it would have been beneficial to add an additional guard after losing Mudiay. This team will be competitive, has one of the best rim defenders in the league in Gobert, and has a budding star in Mitchell, but they will be asked to carry this team. I see the Jazz as a playoff first-round exit.
4 / 7
COVID Response: The Nuggets have been very quiet about COVID. It doesn’t appear anything has changed from an organizational standpoint in response to COVID, nor does it appear they have made any decisions that impact their employees or the community. It looks like it’s the status quo for Denver.
Staying Away: The Nuggets said in a statement “due to current state and local guidelines, we will not be able to host fans at Ball Arena at this time.” They also went on to say that they will continue to work closely with state and local authorities to navigate the safest return to hosting fans.
Oh, He’s Here Now? The key “addition,” if you will, is Bol Bol, who Denver gave a two-year contract coming into this season. We saw brilliant flashes in the bubble of his play, and now we’ll get to see his role continue to grow on this team. The Nuggets also added veteran JaMycal Green to the front court rotation to pair with their 22nd overall selection of Arizona center Zeke Nnaji.
Where’d He Go? Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee both left for Detroit and are both gone from the front court. Plumlee served primarily as the backup to Nikola Jokic, and Grant grew into one of the team’s starting forwards as the season went on last year.
What To Expect: Denver made a run at the Western Conference Finals last year, but lost 4-1 to the buzzsaw Los Angeles Lakers. Very similar to Utah, their Rocky Mountain neighbors will rely on a dynamic duo of a young guard and a top-tier center. Jamal Murray, who had never had a season where he averaged over 20 points per game, hit a whole new level in the bubble, averaging 26.5 ppg, including two performances of over 50 points.
Jokic and Murray will have to continue their superstar performances from a year ago, and perhaps even kick it up another level, for this team to make another deep run.
5 / 7
COVID Response: Timberwolves star Center Karl-Anthony Towns has had more first-hand experience with COVID than anyone should have to bear — he lost seven family members, including his mother, to COVID. In response, the Timberwolves organization has been one of the more supportive and encouraging organizations in the league, encouraging donations to the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Research Fund, providing resources on their website, donating food and supplies to their communities, and donating $1 million to a relief fund for part-time, game day staff back in the spring. If you want an example of how to be a good organization, this is it.
Staying Away: The Timberwolves, like many teams, will be starting the season without fans. “We can’t wait until we can bring them back,” Timberwolves COO Ryan Tankesaid last month. “It’s got to be safety first and we got to make sure that we’re following both local government and league protocols to do so when and if it becomes safe to do so.”
Oh, He’s Here Now? Aside from adding forward Anthony Edwards in the draft, the Timberwolves also brought back veteran guard Ricky Rubio, as well as added some depth with center/power forward Anthony Davis. They really didn’t do too much to improve, to be honest. Outside of Towns and D’Angelo Russell, they don’t have many options.
Where’d He Go? It’s hard to lose someone notable when there’s nobody notable outside your two stars. James Johnson (Dallas) and Shabazz Napier (currently unsigned) are the biggest losses, I guess. That’s, uh… all there is to say on that.
What To Expect: Not much. A team that finished second-to-last in the Western Conference with a 19-45 record and made no significant strides should not be expected to take any kind of leap forward. Towns and Russell will put up solid statistics, like always, but they would be hard pressed to translate that to a playoff berth.
6 / 7
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City Thunder
COVID Response: The Thunder extended financial assistance to their arena employees back in March when the first wave of COVID shut down the NBA. The team also had two players test positive for COVID on December 6, but the names were not disclosed. Like every team, they will be navigating a season of potential positive tests and COVID mitigation.
Staying Away: The original plan for the Thunder was to start the season with fans in the stands, but as the number of cases and hospitalizations have continued to spike, they have decided to back down and start the season without fans. They apparently think it’ll be sooner than later that they can welcome fans back. “We will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation over the coming weeks to determine when fans will be able to attend our games,” they said in a statement.
Oh, He’s Here Now? Where to start. No team went through more changes than the Thunder. Al Horford, George Hill, and Trevor Ariza are the most impactful additions, along with new head coach Mark Daigneault. The Thunder also acquired draft rights to point guard Theo Maledon, Vit Krejci, and Admiral Schofield in a flurry of draft-day moves. A team undergoing so many changes to personnel and philosophy will likely take time to start piecing things together.
Where’d He Go? More important than the additions are the losses, including nine-time All-NBA guard Chris Paul, center Steven Adams, forward Danilo Gallinari, guard Dennis Schroder, and center Nerlens Noel. That’s a LOT. This is a team in full-on rebuild around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but an almost entirely new team, with a new coach, in a shortened offseason, is going to be rough.
What To Expect: I expect a budding star in Gilgeous-Alexander to take major steps forward, but this roster lacks scoring potential and will have a hard time competing in the uber-competitive Western Conference. There are reasons to be excited about the long term outlook for this organization, but the fan base would be wise to embrace the suck, and understand that it might take a couple of years to get the right pieces in place.