With the Southwest and Pacific divisions already previewed, it’s now time to look at the third division in the Western Conference, the Northwest division. This group is home to four teams that made the playoffs last season, and features some of the best talent in the entire NBA. Here’s how I think the teams in the division will perform in the 2019-2020 season, focusing on what changed this summer.
Players Added: Jerami Grant, Bol Bol
Players Lost: Trey Lyles, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Lydon
Summary: The Nuggets finished 1st in the Western Conference last year, and are strong candidates to do so again in 2020. They have almost complete continuity across the roster, with a whole cadre of young players who are likely to improve this season. Nikola Jokic is a legitimate MVP-level player, one of the most dynamic and unique offensive players in the NBA, and someone who raises the floor of the Nuggets to a high level. Jerami Grant was a strong offseason addition, exactly the kind of athletic, defensively minded forward the Nuggets needed last year. Barring injuries, the Nuggets are one of the safest teams in the NBA, and have a good deal of upside if players like Jamal Murray or Gary Harris take the next step. The only worry might be the health and quality of play of linchpin Paul Millsap, who showed signs of decline last year, but Grant should help to mitigate that as well.
Projected Record: 58-24
Players Added: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Justin Wright-Foreman, Miye Oni, Nigel Williams-Goss
Players Lost: Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Raul Neto, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh
Summary: The Jazz have had a great deal of regular season success the past couple seasons, but have struggled in the playoffs. To strengthen their offense, they traded for longtime Grizzlies’ point guard Mike Conley, who will provide secondary ball-handling alongside Donovan Mitchell. Conley is really, really good, and should be of immense help to the Jazz, but he’s already in his 30s, and the Jazz also lost a lot of depth this summer. Bogdanovic and Davis will help there, true, especially with going a little smaller, but the Jazz might not improve as much as the acquisition of Conley might make out. Still, they have an extremely high floor due to their defense, and as long as Rudy Gobert stays healthy, the Jazz should be a solid playoff team at worst.
Projected Record: 54-28
Players Added: Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Pau Gasol
Players Lost: Al Farouq-Aminu, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard
Summary: The Blazers, too, much like the Jazz and Nuggets, were a very good team last year that didn’t make significant changes to their core. However, unlike their division rivals, the Blazers should take a step back this year. Jusuf Nurkic, their second-best player, will be out for a significant chunk of the season, and Hassan Whiteside is nowhere close to a true replacement. Similarly, the Blazers lost their two best wings, Aminu and Harkless, and didn’t come close to replacing their services defensively. For the Blazers to maintain their status as a second-tier Western Conference contender, they need young players such as Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons to step up. Of course, as long as the Blazers have Damian Lillard they will be a dangerous offensive team, and they will be in the running for a playoff spot for sure. However, due to their damaged depth, their floor and ceiling just appear to be a bit lower than in years past.
Projected Record: 49-33
Players Added: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Mike Muscala, Justin Patton
Players Lost: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, Markieff Morris, Patrick Patterson
Summary: No team shifted identities this summer as much as the Thunder. Longtime franchise player Russell Westbrook is gone, as is his “sidekick” of the past couple seasons, Paul George. Years of playoff disappointments finally came home to roost, as Paul George demanded out, and Westbrook shortly followed suit. However, the Thunder received a massive return for George, with an unprecedented wealth of draft picks coming from the Clippers, as well as an extremely promising young point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder are now set up excellent for the next half-decade, especially if they can flip more of their veterans for draft picks and young players. On the other hand, if Paul, Gallinari, and Steven Adams can remain healthy, and Shai continues to improve, the Thunder could be quite good next season. It all comes down to health. A rough start could lead to a teardown of the team with an active firesale. If the veterans remain healthy, and the Thunder play well, they could possibly make a playoff run. Few teams have as much variance as the Thunder this season, and it will be fascinating to see how their season plays out.
Projected Record: 38-44
Players Added: Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell, Ty Wallace, Noah Vonleh, Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Traveon Graham
Players Lost: Tyus Jones, Dario Saric, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Jerryd Bayless, Luol Deng
Summary: This summer, the Wolves finally moved on from the inglorious Tom Thibodeau era. The dual coach/exec was fired in the middle of last season, but the veterans he brought in remained until July, when they moved elsewhere at last. The Wolves can now build a younger core around superstar big man Karl-Anthony Towns, headlined by 6th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Jarrett Culver. Culver was my #2 prospect in the draft, a do-it-all wing who can fit seamlessly into any team offensively or defensively, and provides defense and ball-handling next to Towns. The largest question facing the Wolves is what to do with Andrew Wiggins, whose career has stagnated, but whose salary has not. The Wolves apparently believe in Wiggins, but that could also be a publicity tactic to boost his trade value. Regardless, the Wolves don’t have a second star next to Towns yet, nor do they really even have a reliable core around him past a few players (Robert Covington, Jeff Teague). They are a young, fun squad with one of the greatest offensive forces in the NBA today, but are a year or two away from doing much of anything, barring a seismic leap from Towns, Wiggins, or Culver.
Projected Record: 35-47