Welcome to the most interesting division in basketball!
Home of the league’s most imposing defensive force, the two best young big men, two of the most explosive guards, the new home for two of the better wings, and Jusuf Nurkic’s dad, every team in this division is worth following.
After looking like they were on the verge of breaking through for years yet still falling below .500 and missing the playoffs, the Jazz finally did it last year with 51 wins. Then they lose their two leading scorers.
Rudy Gobert took his place as the league’s best center last season and should have won Defensive Player of the Year. With Gordon Hayward leaving for Boston, it’s now Gobert’s team and they’ll lean in even further for their defensive identity. They were the third best defense in the league last season and will be even better so long as Gobert stays healthy.
For a team making an 11 win improvement, there’s a lot of turnover on this roster.
Out: Hayward, George Hill, Boris Diaw, Trey Lyles, Shelvin Mack, and Jeff Withey
In: Ricky Rubio, Jonas Jerebko, Donovan Mitchell, Tony Bradley, Naz Mitrou-Long, Royce O’Neal, Thabo Sefolosha, and Ekpe Udoh (there’s a name we haven’t heard in a while!)
Of course, Rubio for Hill, Mitchell’s rookie season, and whoever replaces Hayward’s spot in the starting lineup are the interesting spots to watch.
On paper, they’re screwed offensively. There’s just not nearly enough shooting on the roster. But I feel like it could work. Rubio is genuinely a maestro as a passer and getting Joe Ingles a bigger role should be a very good thing. And Rodney Hood does a lot of the same things as Gordon Hayward.
That offense will likely limit their upside to the point where they get run off the floor by Golden State like when they met in the playoffs last year, but the bigger question is whether they can generate enough of an offense to keep above that 50 win mark. Interesting questions are more interesting when the answer is genuinely in doubt. I think that’s the case with Utah. It could definitely go either way.
At the trade deadline, Portland looked like a team poised to blow things up. The C.J. McCollum/Damian Lillard combo couldn’t defend anyone, they were 23-33, and they’d been blown out of an awful lot of games.
Yet they managed to still grab that last spot into the playoffs. They were the second best team in the league after the trade deadline. Crazy, right?
Lillard played out of his mind, posting 30 points per game on 61 percent true shooting percentage, but the biggest difference was what seemed like a relatively minor move.
It was clear the Blazers needed to balance their roster, that they were weak at their big man positions. So they swapped Mason Plumlee - who the advanced stats love - for the grumbling, rumbling, ineffective Jusuf Nurkic.
Out of Nikola Jokic’s shadow and finally in a role that wasn’t shoehorned, Nurkic was awesome. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and just had some monster performances. 28 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks, and eight assists in a win against Philly, 33 points, 15 rebounds in a win against his former team, 18 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks, and six assists in a win against the Thunder.
All of the sudden, Portland was no longer a lopsided team.
So which Blazer team will show up in 2017-18? I think this is another genuinely interesting question.
The Trail Blazers have been trending downward for each of the past four years with win totals of 54 to 51 to 44 to 41. If they start out like they did last season, it may be the end of the Lillard/McCollum. Or Nurkic could be the man in the middle they’ve missed since LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure. Could go either way.
Also, as should always be mentioned, this is Jusuf Nurkic’s dad.
He’s a 7 foot tall, 400 pound cop in Bosnia.
Oklahoma City Thunder
[Written before the Carmelo Anthony trade]
We’re getting Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the same team. Yes.
There’s some concern about the supporting cast, but I actually really like it - except for Raymond Felton. Nothing personal against Raymond Felton, but why is this guy still in the league? He was never very good, but he’s been legit lousy for the past six years. And he’s somehow going to still get 1,500 minutes next year. I don’t get it.
But there are some other really nice pieces on this roster. Steven Adams is a plus starter. Andre Roberson is actually better than Victor Oladipo, folks just never noticed because pointz and draft position. Enes Kanter is the best post up big man in the league, for real. Doug McDermott can shoot. Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson are those sneaky effective type of guys that make a team better.
It’s actually a well built team with nice compliments to the centerpieces of Westbrook and George. Well, except for Felton.
The key question is going to be if they can win enough games to get George to re-sign. And that’s going to be yet another interesting question for this division.
[After the Carmelo Anthony trade]
Well y’all screwed that up.
A subject of debate over the summer was that ranking Carmelo Anthony behind Lonzo Ball was disrespectful. But that’s missing the bigger point: Carmelo Anthony isn’t a good basketball player.
In his prime, sure. But not for the past three years. He does one thing: score. And he does it inefficiently. So...what’s the argument for him being a plus player again?
With two dynamic players on the team surrounded by a bunch of guys who do one or two things really effectively, that could have worked. But this. This just relegates Paul George to a glorified three-and-D player, a situation he’d be wise to walk away from next summer.
Everyone loves the Jimmy Butler trade. Except me.
Tom Thibodeau is doing to this Timberwolves team exactly what he wound up doing to the Chicago Bulls: narrowing their window. He rode Joakim Noah and Luol Deng too hard to the point that their careers are basically busted by their early 30s, and Derrick Rose is only 28 but he’s in the twilight of his career.
Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are great players. They added some nice pieces. But what’s the ceiling for this team?
Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, they’re fine, but they’re complementary pieces for a .500 team. Unless Andrew Wiggins becomes more than just the middling volume scorer he’s shown to be so far in his career, this is just another mediocre team.
Which is a shame, because it could have been so more than that with a patient hand. The 76ers have been working their Process for half a decade now and only finally landed their foundation with Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz (we’ll see about Ben Simmons).
The Timberwolves lucked into a Process of their own with a nice balance of prospects. It’s not often you get legit prospects at each position who just happen to compliment each others’ talents. Let it percolate for a bit, let them grow together.
The argument against the Coach-GM dual role is the temptation to let short-term thinking overtake a strategic mindset. Though it’s been more of a theoretical argument rather than one that’s actually been the case in most of the situations. But with Thibs, it’s a clear issue.
Maybe I’m wrong though. I know I’m in the minority and it’s obvious that in terms of the incoming/outgoing balance sheet that the Timberwolves pulled coup. If they go win 50 games, I’ll tip my hat and admit I’m wrong. I’m just skeptical. Very skeptical.
In the meantime, I believe both the Timberwolves and the Bulls were significant losers in that trade - something you don’t really all that often. Combined with both New York and Oklahoma City screwing up with the Carmelo Anthony trade, pretty cool we get two of those in the same division!
NIKOLA JOKIC ALL OF THE NIKOLA JOKIC YES PLEASE
21 points per 36 minutes on 64(!) percent true shooting percentage, 12.7 rebounds, 6 assists. His .228 win shares per 48 minutes was the eighth highest in the league and his .320 wins produced per 48 minutes was sixth highest. His 28.8 assist percentage was the best for a big man ever, just ahead of peak Vlade Divac. He’s 22 years old.
He’s the best offensive big man in the league - yes, better than DeMarcus Cousins. What was a Twitter debate over the summer will be obvious this season.
Yet Jokic came off the bench for 14 games last season! What is wrong with you Mike Malone???
But no, it’s understandable to an extent.
Nurkic is a big personality and Nurkic/Jokic wasn’t going to work despite their best efforts. It’s rare to see a team dumping a player having such a positive impact while that same player makes such a positive impact on their new team. And within the division, to boot.
But once Malone resigned himself to pissing off Nurkic in the interest of doing the inevitable, making Jokic the team’s centerpiece, the Nuggets took off. After putting Jokic in the starting lineup for good, the Nuggets were the league’s best offense - yes, better than Golden State.
They had the league’s best offensive rating, third best assist percentage, and second best true shooting percentage.
And what’s even more interesting is that they did it without the benefit of playing in transition. Fast break points are generally very efficient. The Warriors led the league in transition possessions and posted a scorching 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. The Nuggets weren’t a good transition team. They just kicked everyone’s ass in the half court.
You don’t see that often. A team just bring the ball up the court, toss the ball in the basket, boast the league’s best offense. Especially with a bunch of guys whose names aren’t going to show up in the MVP voting.
The reason is because of one Nikola Jokic. Watch as much of him as you can this season. Go read this article from Denver Stiffs on his toolbox of passes - seriously, they have 19 different styles of passes from him, that’s a link you should click.
Oh and they also added Paul Millsap, who just does that thing where he makes every team he plays for better than they ought to be. Then there’s Gary Harris who Sean Corp suggested as his pick for most underrated player under 24 years old on DBB’s Twitter.
The question is point guard. Emmanuel Mudiay hasn’t shown himself to be good at anything on the basketball court just yet, but has a nice rapport with Jokic. But Jamal Murray is the hope for the team at the position.
Murray seems more of a natural shooting guard to me, but the thought around Denver seems to be that you don’t really need a point guard when you have Jokic. Reasonable enough, and Murray certainly has the electronic scoring ability that the team could use on the perimeter. But it’s certainly an experiment.
This team has so many power forwards. In addition to Millsap, you’ve got Kenneth Faried, Lyles, Darrell Arthur, Juan Hernangomez, and they just re-signed Plumlee. Someone please take one of these non-Millsap guys for a point guard. Let’s get this done. Any point guard, I don’t even care. Well, except Ray Felton.
Also, the team doesn’t play much defense. They were 29th in defensive rating last season. So they stand to be one of those teams playing a lot of “First team to 120 points wins” type of games, which was the case down the stretch last year too - and they won a lot of them. Heck, they eclipsed 120 points in 26 games last year.
In an already interesting division, the Denver Nuggets manage to be the most interesting.
Utah Jazz: 47 wins
Portland Trail Blazers: 41 wins
51 41 wins
Denver Nuggets: 45 wins
Minnesota Timberwolves: 36 wins