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Is the NW Division the Toughest in the NBA?

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers have a shot at the Northwest Division title this year, but the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets will have something to say about that.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA changed the playoff seeding rules before last season - placing teams purely by record and throwing out the top-four protection for teams that won their division - separating teams into regional divisions became less important. I hesitate to use the word meaningless, though I’ve heard that word thrown around, because they’re still important in terms of strength of schedule and team travel.

Barring some sort of anomaly, any given team will play each opponent within its division four times per year, nearly 20 percent of their games against the same four opponents. This can make a difference; the Dallas Mavericks (a decent team on paper) have to face up against the likes of Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio, with only the New Orleans Pelicans to pick on. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers, while having to contend with Golden State, also get to beat up on the Suns, Kings, and Lakers four times per year. All Western Conference teams play each other at least three times, but those extra few games within a weak division can make a difference in the standings at the end of a season.

Which brings us to the Northwest - Portland will be playing in the most competitive division in the NBA, in terms of parity. Other regions have better teams, but none of them are likely to have as small of a talent gap from top to bottom. Again, winning the division doesn’t matter for playoff seeding, but when one out of every five games is against one of these opponents, some “gimmes” would be nice. However, with the improvement of some historically weak teams in the NW, there aren’t any easy wins automatically built in. Let’s take a brief look at each team.

Denver Nuggets

The closest thing to a bad team in the NW Division, the Nuggets won only 33 games last season, but are predicted to be much more competitive this year, even if they still project as the worst team in the NW. Center Nikola Jokic looks like a break-out player with excellent post skills and shooting range and, along with fellow center Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets finally have some size to go along with the one-dimensional, yet effectively energetic Kenneth Faried.

The Nuggets have a legitimate NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Will Barton, and are anticipating a healthier and more efficient sophomore campaign from explosive young point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The biggest question in Denver is whether veteran SF Danilo Gallinari can stay healthy. Though Denver will likely place at the bottom of the division, look for their average point differential to shrink from last year’s -3.1 to something a little more respectable.

Portland will still have an advantage in terms of athleticism and perimeter scoring, but may face challenges containing Jokic if he is truly to be a more featured piece of the Nuggets offense.

Minnesota Timberwolves

One of two darlings of the basketball writers’ universe to hail from the NW Division, a lot of people are predicting that this is the year that the Minnesota Timberwolves finally get back into the NBA Playoffs. It remains to be seen whether or not they have enough to get there, but Minnesota isn’t the punching bag they used to be.

Relying predominately on internal player development from last year, Minnesota hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach. Thibodeau, one of the best defensive coaches in the game, takes over a young roster featuring Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins -- two of the best young players in the game. Towns and Wiggins are 20 and 21 years old, respectively, and will continue to make strides this season as they come into their own.

Add in emerging point guard Zach LaVine, steady veterans Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng, and highly touted draft pick Kris Dunn, and you can see why the Wolves are expected to make a move up the ladder this year

The Blazers will have their hands full with KAT, but who won’t? Young players typically struggle with execution and defense over a full 48 minutes but with Thibodeau running the ship, this is likely to be less of a problem this season. I’m looking forward to this matchup.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The only team in the division to take a clear step back this year after losing Kevin Durant to free agency, OKC still has enough firepower to be in the mix for a middle playoff spot. Personally, I’m excited to see what All-World point guard Russell Westbrook can do in a full season of beast mode, and after trading the fading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, OKC now features a highly athletic backcourt that can do some damage on the defensive side of the ball.

Of course, OKC also has Steven Adams in the middle, an effective and annoying defender who is the perfect center for OKC’s system, doing all of the dirty work with glee.

OKC will need that defense, because Enes Kanter will likely be moving into the starting lineup to replace Ibaka. Kanter is a deadly efficient scorer, but he is known for being one of the worst defenders in the NBA. Of course, a lot of people won’t want to hear this, but toward the end of the season, his defense moved from laughably terrible to merely bad; a huge step in the right direction and a move that OKC desperately needs.

Historically, Portland has had success against OKC when Westbrook decides to take Lillard one-on-one and gets outside of the offensive flow. Now he IS the offensive flow, so I’m curious to see how Portland decides to game plan against the Thunder.

Utah Jazz

The other “critical darling” in the NW Division, the Utah Jazz are primed to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference, assuming they can stay healthy. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, two defensive monsters on the interior, both missed 20 games last season, which tanked Utah’s chances at a playoff berth. When both are healthy, they anchor a formidable defense that held opponents to less than 96 points per game last season.

Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood join Favors as Utah’s main scoring threats. Most importantly, Utah upgraded its bench and point guard depth, acquiring steady point guard George Hill, and veterans Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. Raw point guard Dante Exum is expected to be 100 percent after missing last season with a torn ACL.

The Blazers will likely really need to lean on Lillard and McCollum from the perimeter against Utah. Evan Turner and his creation in the midrange may turn out to be effective in pulling Gobert and Favors out of the paint.

Looking at the division as a whole, Portland is in the mix as one of the top teams, but with OKC having the experience (and Westbrook) and the other three teams looking at significant internal development, there won’t be a lot of easy wins this season.