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2016-17 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

Blazer’s Edge continues its trip throughout the NBA, previewing every team’s 2016-17 season. Today, we focus on the Northwest Division.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

In keeping with time-honored tradition, Blazer’s Edge once again will be looking across the entire NBA and offering season previews for all 30 teams. Today we move to the Northwest Division, where with one notable exception, each franchise boasts tremendous continuity this season. Four of the top five teams in the league returning the most minutes to their respective rosters are in the Northwest division, led by the Portland Trail Blazers (Oklahoma City is the lone outlier). With four teams on the upswing, and one team led by Russell Westbrook on a mission, this division will be one of the most interesting to watch.

(Be sure to also check out the FANalysts podcast preview of NW Division).

Denver Nuggets

2015-16 Record: 33-49 (No. 10 in Western Conference)
OffRtg: 105.6 (No. 17); DRtg: 108.9 (No. 24)
Roster Additions: Jamal Murray (Rookie, No. 7), Juan Hernangomez (Rookie, No. 15), Malik Beasley (Rookie, No. 19)
Roster Subtractions: DJ Augustine, Joffrey Lauvergne
Coach: Mike Malone; SBN Affiliate: Denver Stiffs

Zach Lowe rated the Denver Nuggets No. 29 in his yearly League Pass rankings. Clearly he doesn’t get the Will Barton Experience. While Lowe argued that Denver just doesn’t have any big games to get excited about, they do have plenty of interesting players to watch.

Sophomore Emmanuel Mudiay, who came on strong late last season as a rookie, leads the way for the Nuggets, along with rising star Nikola Jokic, a Serbian center who scored 25 against Team USA this summer after landing on the 2015-16 All-Rookie first team. And don’t forget, Denver also has the People’s Champ.

What they don’t have much of -- yet -- is an identity.

Who will the Nuggets become? is a wide-open question and they appear to be in a position to answer it with a big move this year. Right now, their team salary sits at less than $80 million total; Denver isn’t particularly close to the NBA’s salary floor ($84.7 million), much less the salary cap ($94.1 million).

They have assembled a lot of pieces that, if they don’t work out in the Mile High City, might be just what another team needs, and they have plenty of room to trade some lower-priced young players for a premium star.

It will be up to coach Mike Malone to keep them playing in harmony and improving even as many of them may be looking over their shoulders, wondering when the phone is going to ring with word of a trade.

Mudiay had a good-but-not-great season last year, sidelined halfway though with a sprained ankle. After the All-Star break Mudiay improved in almost all offensive categories, but not so much on defense. With the team’s continuity over last year, expect him to continue improving. Jamal Murray, 19, will likely split back-up point guard duty with 34-year-old Jameer Nelson, a good example of the young talent/veteran presence you’ll find up and down the Denver roster.

They don’t have a ton of options at center, relying on a thin but solid rotation of young Nikola Jokic (10 points per game last year, 7 rebounds) and Jusuf Nurkic (8.2 points per game, 5.5 rebounds). Denver has more options in the forward position with elder statesmen Danilo Gallinari (19.5 points per game, 5.3 rebounds), Kenneth Faried (12.5 points per game, 8.7 rebounds), Wilson Chandler and promising rookie Juan Hernangomez.

But how do all of these pieces fit together? The Nuggets definitely have talent in their youngest players and some wisdom in their older players. Still, Denver needs star power. Its unclear who is the anchor for the team -- the guy who will put the team on his back, step up for his coach, throw down for his teammates, and generally give them a guiding light to follow to the next level and the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

2015-16 Record: 29-53 (No. 13 in Western Conference)
OffRtg: 102.4 (No. 15); DRtg: 110.1 (No. 28)
Roster Additions: Kris Dunn (Rookie, No. 5), Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill, Coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau
Roster Subtractions: Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince
Coach: Tom Thibodeau; SBN Affiliate: Canis Hoopus

The Timberwolves have not been to the postseason since 2004. Expect that drought to end soon. Real soon. Loaded with young talent, Minnesota is a team on an upward trajectory — they have exciting offensive talent and a coach who will shore up their defense.

The last two NBA Rookie of the Year award winners, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, combined for 39 points per game last year for the ‘Wolves. Zach Levine, two-time NBA Slam Dunk champion, kicked in another 14. Each of those guys is 21 years old or younger. Old man Kris Dunn, at 22, is Minny’s only rookie. He poured in 24 points per game in the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League after putting in four years at Providence.

The biggest challenges for the Timberwolves this year will be managing expectations keeping things progressing at a slow burn. It will be tempting to see how hot they can get with all that talent, but coach Thibodeau is one of the more suitable coaches to stoke the fire slowly while allowing for a longer burn.

Their first order of business will be to commit themselves to defense. Last season, they were second-to-last in rebounds per game. Their team +/- was -3.5 per game. On last year’s roster, there were only five players who played better than league average defense as recorded by Percentage Points Difference (which measures the difference between the shooting percentage of an opponent against a specific player vs. against the rest of the league). Four of those players are gone, and the fifth, Nikola Pekociv, is out for the season. Take a look at some of their team defense stats:

  • Opp. Points in the paint: 46.1, No. 28 in the NBA
  • Opp. Fast Break Points: 13.4, No. 20
  • Defensive Rating: 107.1, No. 27
  • Defensive Rebounding percentage: 74.7 percent, No. 24 (tied with the Lakers)

Thibs can help in all of these categories. The season before he took over the Bulls, Chicago recorded a DRtg of 105.3 in 2009-10. They brought that down to 100.3 in Thibs’ first season (No. 1 in the NBA), and peaked with a DRtg of 98.3 the next year, good for No. 2 in the league.

Of course it matters what pieces he has to work with, and that Chicago roster went 62-20 on its way to the Eastern Conference Finals. But just in case you aren’t having future Minnesota nightmares yet, note that Chicago went from 41 wins to 62 in one season under Thibodeau.

Oklahoma City Thunder

2015-16 Record: 55-27 (No. 3 in Western Conference)
OffRtg: 110.2 (No. 2); DRtg: 105.6 (No. 13)
Roster Additions: Alex Abrines, Domantas Sabonis, Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Ronnie Price, Semaj Christon, Joffrey Lauvergne
Roster Subtractions: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Nazr Mohammed
Coach: Billy Donovan; SBN Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City

Unless you’ve been living in a tent on the beach, you’ve probably heard more about the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer than you have since the team moved from Seattle.

Look, it’s like this: Say you are having a bonfire on that beach you’ve been living on. It’s a real nice bonfire. You’ve got two big logs burning brightly, giving off a nice warm glow. You’re singing songs, toasting marshmallows -- the s’mores taste pretty good. Now imagine that someone with the organic graham crackers and virtual reality glasses walks up to your bonfire and takes your biggest log right off the top.

You look at your lone burning log and think, “It’s okay, we’ll still be warm. We can still have fun. We can still make s’mores. But, darn it. We really liked having that second log!”

If you haven’t guessed, Russell Westbrook is the remaining log on your beach bonfire and Kevin Durant is the one that got taken away. Sure, it was fair and square, but that doesn’t make it any easier to light up the beach when you’ve got less fuel to work with. How are you going to replace that log? How are you going to replace Kevin Durant’s 28.2 points per game?

And even though Durant’s departure was the biggest news, Oklahoma City also lost Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters and their combined 22.4 points a night.

In total, that’s more than 50 points per game the Thunder need to make up.

Basketball-Reference has projections for the 2016-17 season. These figures are per-36 minutes:

  • Victor Oladipo 17.7 Points per game
  • Ersan Ilyasova 15.5 PPG
  • King Joffrey Auvergne 15.8 PPG

That, folks, is a total of 49 points. So, if these players approach 36 minutes per game, Russell might only to have to score a few more points a night to make up the difference. If rookie Domantas Sabonis kicks in a couple of points, heck, you’re actually better than you were before KD left. Right? Right???

If OKC carefully tends the fire, and if all the embers like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams keep Russ lit, the Thunder can maybe, possibly, get back to 50+ wins. But they simply don’t have anymore fuel to add to the fire. It will take all the right conditions in order to make s’mores at the end of the season — or rather, win a playoff series again — but boy will it taste sweet!

Utah Jazz

2015-16 Record: 40-42 (No. 9 in Western Conference)
OffRtg: 105.9 (No. 16); DRtg: 103.9 (No. 7)
Roster Additions: George Hill, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, Joel Bolomboy
Roster Subtractions: Trey Burke, Trevor Booker, Tibor Pleiss
Coach: Quin Snyder; SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk

There is a bandwagon pulling out into NBA traffic right, now carrying a bunch of Utah Jazz fans. Before we anoint them the newest sensation in the west, however, let’s pump the brakes and consider a few things.

While they have shown growth year-over-year the last three seasons (25, 38, and 40 wins), the Jazz have only made the playoffs once in the last six years. They haven’t finished higher than No. 3 in the Northwest Division since 2009.

Utah’s been hard-pressed to find playmakers the last few years. In 2016 they were No. 28 in the league in assists per game. In 2015, they were No. 29.

Finally, the Jazz were slow last year. Like, seriously slow. Last year, they finished:

  • No. 29 in Field goals per game
  • No. 28 in Points per game
  • No. 30 in Pace

Slow pace did translate into effective defense, however. They were second in opponents’ points allowed , behind only the best defensive team in the NBA, San Antonio. Overall, the Jazz had the eighth best defensive rating.

Rudy Gobert is heading into just his fourth season, and he is already one of the best rim protectors in the NBA. Opponents only made 41 percent of their field goals at the rim last year when defended by Gobert.

The Jazz were the busiest team in the Northwest Division with player movement this summer. They managed to retain high continuity overall (83.5 percent of 2015-16 minutes returned), although rather than finding young players who share a similar career trajectory like the Trail Blazers and the Timberwolves did, the Jazz brought in veterans they hope will have an immediate impact.

George Hill will fill the void at point guard that troubled them a good deal of last year. At 30, he has at least a few more solid years left in the tank, which should give Dante Exum time to mature into the position.

Boris Diaw (34 years old) and Joe Johnson (35) bring experience and veteran leadership, but how much they will play remains to be seen. Diaw is known as a pass-first player, whose addition will hopefully help Utah with ball movement. Joe Johnson has started every game he has played in since 2005, and has never averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game. He hasn’t averaged fewer than 30 minutes a night since 2004. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts if he plays fewer minutes. Johnson will likely start while Gordon Hayward is out with a broken finger, so at least he can ease into his role as bench player.

Overall, the Jazz will be solid if not slow. Hopefully for fans in Utah, Diaw will add more assists while teaching the young guys some new tricks.

Tune in to Blazer’s Edge this week for extensive Portland Trail Blazers 2016-17 Season Preview coverage.