What the Heck Happened in the Northwest Division?

Detroit Bad Boys

The Northwest Division is home to perhaps the most thrilling and most depressing offseason experiments. On the thrilling end of the spectrum, you have the Minnesota Timberwolves making a franchise altering move to acquire Rudy Gobert and concoct this yin and yang big man lineup with the Frenchman and Karl-Anthony Towns. On the depressing end, you have whatever the hell the Portland Trail Blazers are doing and why they think anything they’ve done in the past 12 months could lead to an actual playoff appearance.

Elsewhere, you have two teams that could be leading the tanking battle with the tanktastic Utah Jazz and the generally very bad but maybe getting too good OKC Thunder. You also have a bonafide title contender in the the Denver Nuggets. Let’s recap!

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets

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Denver Nuggets

Offseason in 5 words or less

Reunited and it feels (so) good

Big Changes

The Denver Nuggets made plenty of changes since last season, but the biggest change is the return of one its most important players — Jamal Murray is finally healthy again and ready to rejoin his MVP teammate to see i the Nuggets can become legitimate title contenders.

There is some help that came along the way in the form of a few former Pistons. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope replaces Will Barton and Ish Smith replaces Monte Morris and Bruce Brown comes to down a decent FA deal to be the Swiss Army Knife he was in Brooklyn, which should pay off for him and for the game’s most gifted passing big man.

From a pure skill perspective, KCP and Smith might be slightly worse than the ones they are replacing, but from a fit perspective, I think it makes great sense. The Nuggets get a bit more versatile defensively on the wing while not sacrificing any 3-point potential with KCP and Smith is that jitterbug veteran teammates love while also acknowledging that the franchise is ready to give Bones Hyland a bigger role in the offense.

If there is a worry, it’s at the backup center position where the Nuggets are trusting sorta former Piston DeAndre Jordan to be a useful reserve, which I think we have years of evidence is just not the case.

Better or Worse?

The Nuggets are better if for no other reason than that Murray is healthy and ready to contribute alongside Jokic. They are so good that they don’t necessarily need Michael Porter Jr. to return and be 100% to have a chance to make serious noise, but if he defies the odds and contributes right away once healthy (a big if), they are all the better for it.

Playoff Contender?

The West is so stacked it is hard to get too excited about any one franchise’s ability to contend for a title, but the Nuggets have nearly as good a shot as anyone else. They have some capable defenders, the most offensively gifted big man in the NBA and plenty of scoring all over the floor.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers

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Minnesota Timberwolves

Offseason in 5 words or less

Betting big on bigs

Big Changes

The Minnesota Timberwolves are basically putting a second mortgage on their franchise in order to invest in a couple of highly speculative championship assets — multiple-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert and sweet-shooting big man Karl-Anthony Towns.

The franchise figures, perhaps correctly, that each player’s Achille’s Heel is their counterpart’s strength. Gobert shuts everything down in the paint and provides a modicum of rim pressure and KAT gets to stretch defenses and live on the perimeter with a lethal face-up game.

Both guys have the reputation as being flakes, flake-adjacent or perhaps just insufferable. The Wolves are making another big bet that their lack of social graces won’t matter as much because Anthony Edwards is there to be the straw that stirs the drink.

Their depth is a little concerning as they lost Patrick Beverly and Malik Beasley, but they add Slo-Mo Kyle Anderson and the another year of development in top pick Edwards.

Better or Worse?

Call me crazy, but I sorta completely buy into what the Wolves are doing here. Gobert is a great defender, and I put some of those playoff struggles more on the putrid defense of some of his former Jazz teammates (*cough* Donovan Mitchell *cough*) than on Gobert’s inability to “step up in big moments.” Similarly, it’s great that the Wolves are in a place where they know what they have in KAT and, just as importantly, know what they don’t have. KAT was born to be the guy behind the guy, and he gets to play that role now and have some of his weaknesses covered up by Rudy. Just give the keys to Edwards, and let him cook.

Playoff Contender?

The Wolves are definitely making the playoffs this season. No doubt in my mind.

Adelaide 76ers v Oklahoma City Thunder

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Offseason in 5 words or less

Is that Victor Wembanyama’s music?

Big Changes

The Thunder probably have the most harmonious transition from one season to the next of any non-title contending franchise I can remember. They bring back all the young players they decided were worth investing in, and their only significant addition (via the draft) is Chet Holmgren, who will miss the entire season with a foot injury. The only new name and faces will be a pair of Ja. Williamses.

Better or Worse?

At this point, the Thunder find themselves in the difficult position of getting better through the sheer development and playing time of its young roster leading to better cohesion and improved skills.

Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Kenrich Williams, Tre Mann and even our buddy Poku should be better. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was is and will be great if he’s allowed to play. And that’s really the rub with the Thunder isn’t it? They already have a center prospect in Holmgren, but I don’t doubt for a second they would draft Victor Wembanyama if they had the No. 1 pick. And as they say in Jurassic Park, “life … finds a way.”

The Thunder could decide that a full-on tank is in the franchise’s best interest, shut down or trade Shai, shut down or trade Dort, etc. Or maybe they’ll be more like the Pistons and just be kinda bad but more competitive and let the lottery balls fall where they may. It seems to me that Sam Presti likes to be more in charge of his own destiny. And Presti, when it comes to losing, well, he’s a pretty creative guy.

Playoff Contender?

Lottery positioning is its own playoff in a way.

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings

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Portland Trail Blazers

Offseason in 5 words or less

Jerami Grant’s new home

Big Changes

Jerami Grant wanted to stop losing 60 games per season so he forced his way to Portland to play alongside his Team USA pal Damian Lillard and Grant might only lose … 50 games? That might be close to the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, but their best-case outcome doesn’t seem to be that much better.

The franchise cleaned up their books in shedding almost every significant non-Lillard salary, but they are looking to quickly reinvest it in new players and there is no reason to think it will be enough to make serious noise in a competitive Western Conference. Jerami Grant is good, especially as a second or third option, but he isn’t that good. Gary Payton II is a great defender, but do the Blazers have enough offensive punch to let him play his free safety role on that end?

I just don’t see it. I just don’t get it.

Better or Worse?

Who cares? I mean, honestly? Who could possibly care about a team that even in the best of times is never quite good enough, and certainly doesn’t seem to be good enough now? Are we supposed to care that this team might be in the mix for the play-in game? Is that what Lillard wants for the final few years of him near the top of his game? Is Chauncey Billups the right coach to maximize the effectiveness of vets with definitive holes in their games? The answer to all of the above is “who cares?”

Playoff Contender?

I think it’s much more likely that Lillard gets traded than the Blazers make the playoffs, and I’m pretty confident Lillard wants to retire playing his entire career in Portland so …..

Metropolitans 92 v G League Ignite

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Utah Jazz

Offseason in 5 words or less

We’re having a fire sale!

Big Changes

Please read the above entry in the voice of Tobias Funke in Arrested Development. In Utah, everything must go, and Danny Ainge seems intent on racing the San Antonio Spurs straight to the bottom of the standings and into the best odds for the Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Rudy Gobert is gone. Donovan Mitchell is gone. Royce O’Neale is gone. Bojan Bogdanovic is gone. If they had any immediate value, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay would be gone too. The Jazz did get some immediate value in return — Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk and Talen Horton-Tucker aren’t exactly scrubs. But I’m not sure Ainge wouldn’t flip them if the team was flirting with too many wins. Ainge is in tanking and asset accumulation mode in the first year of a major rebuild. Don’t be surprised if by the trade deadline, the Jazz are left with the equivalent of John Henson and Brandon Knight on their season-ending roster.

Better or Worse?

No team got worse in a single offseason than the Utah Jazz. I wonder if they might have the biggest one-season change in winning percentage in NBA history? Probably not because I’m sure some very good teams got really bad really quickly, but it’s at least worth thinking about because these Jazz should be pretty bad.

Playoff Contender?

If the Utah Jazz make the playoffs, it means the team must be coached by Lou Brown and have a rotation of Roger Dorn, Jake Taylor, Willie Mays Hayes and Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.

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