The Northwest Division is shaping up as the best division in the NBA this season. All five teams can make the playoffs, and if things go as planned a good number of them will. But what will happen if things don’t quite go their way? Let’s explore the best and worst case scenarios for all five teams in this very tough division.
Last Season: 40-42, ninth in West
Best case: The Nuggets don’t miss a beat and continue being one of the most prolific offenses in the league. Nikola Jokic grows more into his role as the team’s new star and the pieces around him click. Jamal Murray bounces back from his slightly underwhelming rookie year and becomes the player he was advertised to be, particularly in terms of his shooting. Gary Harris lives up to his new contract. Meanwhile, newcomer Paul Millsap proves to be a wise acquisition as he fits in on offense and helps lift the defense closer to average. As a result, the Nuggets make it back to the postseason as a fifth or sixth seed.
Worst case: The Nuggets struggle to reach last season’s heights offensively and remain as awful defensively. Millsap doesn’t quite make as big of an impact as expected as he shows signs of slowing down at 32. Murray’s shooting woes continue and neither he nor Emmanuel Mudiay does enough to separate themselves as the undisputed starter. With all that dysfunction, Denver fall short of the playoffs once again.
Prediction: Best case
Last Season: 31-51, 13th in West
Best case: Prized offseason acquisition Jimmy Butler is as good as advertised and continues to play at an All-NBA level. So does Karl-Anthony Towns, who strengthens his claim as the best young big man in the league today. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins lives up to his max contract and finally starts to play defense. The three learn how to coexist on offense, which makes up for their suboptimal spacing. And on the other end, the team finally embraces Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. That defensive improvement sees them crack into the top five in the very competitive West.
Worst case: The Timberwolves’ new Big Three doesn’t click immediately. Butler’s ball-stopping tendencies take Towns and Wiggins out of their rhythm and coupled with imperfect spacing their efficiency on offense takes a dip. Meanwhile, not even Butler and Gibson can improve Wiggins’ and Towns’ unacceptably bad defense. The Wolves still have too much talent and snap their prolonged playoff drought, but they underachieve despite all their promise and fall to one of the bottom two seeds.
Prediction: Best case
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Season: 47-35, sixth in West
Best case: Reigning MVP Russell Westbrook reins in his worst gunner tendencies and becomes more of a playmaker to accommodate newcomers Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. PG and Melo, in turn, put up solid debut seasons as the Thunder become a true force on offense. Additionally, their already strong defense gets even better with George in the fold. They roll to a top-four seed with close to 60 wins and make it all the way to the conference finals, where they give the Warriors all they can handle.
Worst case: Westbrook continues to play like last season, which, even though he averaged a triple-double for the year, isn’t a good thing. He keeps calling his own number instead of sharing the love with his two new star teammates. Melo, in particular, chafes with the lack of touches as the Thunder offense doesn’t fully maximize the talents of its three stars. They fail to get home-court advantage that comes with a top-four seed and go out in the first round.
Prediction: Best case
Portland Trail Blazers
Last Season: 41-41, eighth in West
Best Case: Jusuf Nurkic carries over his excellent form from last season and proves to be the perfect foil for Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum. The Bosnian’s presence improves Portland’s faulty defense, and he holds up their rearguard for a full season. Portland also get fine seasons from their role players like Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu in terms of shooting three-pointers to make up for Allen Crabbe’s departure. With all those things going their way, the Blazers threaten 50 wins and challenge for a sixth seed in the West.
Worst case: Nurkic doesn’t quite reach the levels he did upon his arrival in Portland. His impact is diminished on the defensive end where the Blazers continue to struggle. They miss Crabbe more than they realize and struggle to find a capable running mate for Lillard and McCollum. With all the strong playoff contenders in the West, the Blazers slip back down to tenth or 11th.
Prediction: Worse case
Last Season: 51-31, fourth in West
Best case: With Rudy Gobert roaming the paint and a capable defender in Ricky Rubio replacing George Hill, the Jazz once again have a top-three defense. It’s so good that it lifts even their mediocre to below-average attack. Rookie Donovan Mitchell shows his Summer League form is for real and becomes an immediate contributor. Rodney Hood makes a jump forward with Gordon Hayward gone. Most importantly, the Jazz stay relatively healthy. With all these things going their way, Utah return to the postseason as a seventh seed.
Worst case: The Jazz really feel the gaping void left by Hayward on the offensive end. They struggle to create enough offense on a consistent basis, particularly in close games. That big deficiency is exacerbated even further with more injuries, especially to someone like Hood. As good as their defense is, it’s not good enough to get them back into the playoffs.
Prediction: Worst case
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