Over the course of a decade, the NBA's Northwest division has been home to some of the best and worst teams in the NBA. The Oklahoma City Thunder has had a firm grasp over the division for most of the decade while competing mainly with Portland.
During this time period, Utah, Minnesota, and Denver found themselves at the bottom of the pile. This year the NW division contains teams with an average of 24.5, 26.3, 26.3, 25.8 and 25.7 years of age; by far one of the youngest divisions in the league.
With a division containing so many young players this year, where will these teams be in 3 seasons? Will the Timberwolves meet their full potential? Will the Jazz still be a defensive juggernaut?
Oklahoma City Thunder
After losing star Kevin Durant, the Thunder have done more than exceed expectations this year. Oklahoma City finds itself in sixth place in the Western Conference and a big reason is because of MVP candidate and triple-double machine, Russell Westbrook.
Without Westbrook in the game the Thunder score 10.5 less points per 100 possessions. That is the difference between having the #3 ranked offense in the league to having the #29 ranked offense. Because of this, the Thunder often find themselves being severely outscored while Westbrook sits.
If the Thunder want to have any chance of winning the division in 3 years, Sam Presti will have to resign Westbrook, hit on a few players in the draft, and surround Westbrook with more shooters.
The caveat with Westbrook in three years is where exactly he will be from a production standpoint. This year he is putting up numbers that we haven't seen since Oscar Robertson, but is also exerting a lot of energy. Could he potentially be so worn out with all the defensive attention in three years that his production will begin to decline?
In 2020, the Thunder will only have Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, and Domantas Sabonis under contract. Next year, the Thunder will have to worry about their best defensive player Andre Roberson and the year after they have to worry about Westbrook and Kanter.
If the Thunder can form a core around Westbrook, Adams, and Oladipo, and add a shooter and talented young prospects, they will be a threat yet again in 2020.
The Utah Jazz are one of the most intriguing teams in this division because they can go in a variety of directions in the next few years. The Jazz finally broke back into the playoffs this season and they are looking extremely good. They boast the leagues best defense with a rating of 102.3. With the length they have and rim protector Rudy Gobert, the Jazz usually play a stagnant brand of basketball and dictate the pace to their advantage.
While the Jazz look good defensively as a whole, it is mainly thanks to the Stifle Tower, Rudy Gobert. The stats back it up as he has a 5.8 defensive win share which is one of the highest in the league and puts up a PER of 23.4. Many of their guards get to play up on their man knowing that Gobert will be right behind them protecting the basket.
The Jazz have a large range of outcomes based on if they can resign Gordon Hayward this offseason. Hayward is the key to their offense and can sign a 1+1 to try and make an all-NBA team to get the designated veteran extension. Hayward is the guy for Utah and they have to do everything in their power to bring him back.
If Hayward elects to stay in Utah, then the Jazz will presumably try a little harder to retain the services of George Hill. Hill has made a major contribution to this Jazz team and has added great defense into their group of guards. Without Hayward however, the Jazz risk entering into "no mans land" by signing Hill to be their point-guard. After all, it's difficult to get a free agent in Utah.
By 2020 the Jazz could go in many different directions depending on the choice made by Hayward. They could be a contender for a top seed or they can be stuck with Rudy Gobert as their only option without an offensive threat and be back at the bottom of the west.
The Nuggets and Blazers look to be traveling in a similar trajectory over the next few years with both being young teams who can light up the score board while playing limited defense.
The Nuggets may have found their next star with 22 year old Serbian Nikola Jokic. Jokic has been one of the most fun big guys to watch because of his outstanding passing ability. From no-look passes over the shoulder or a full-court lob, Jokic sets his teammates up in a variety of ways once they feed him the ball in the low post.
The Nuggets may be able to score 115 points in a game, but that does not help if they give up 120 points a game. Their guards are young and Jokic is not light enough on his feet to be able to guard bigs in the PNR.
While many fans have criticized the Nuggets decision to move Nurkic to Portland for Plumlee, the move has benefited both teams. Moving Nurkic allows Jokic to be the main focus in Denver, and he has really flourished in that role. Even with Nurkic looking so good in Portland, Jokic has shown that he can be just as good or better without the competition from another big. Can't this trade be a win-win?
The Nuggets are looking good cap wise as many of their guys are under contract for at least the next two years. Denver will probably lose mainstay Danilo Gallinari in the offseason, but they have more prospects than they know what to do with. Hopefully they will be able to give more minutes to Juancho Hernangomez and Jamal Murray, but who knows how Malone will control his lineup.
Even with all of their defensive liabilities and youth, the Nuggets might be one of the most fun teams to watch in the league, not just the division.
The Blazers have a lot of work to do in the next three years to make up offseason 2016, but have lucked into what may have been their biggest acquisition in years. Ever since the Bosnian Beast has come to town, the Blazers have been one of the top teams in the league in net rating.
Nurkic does it all for this team by providing solid defense and being a great roll man in the PNR. According to these games without Nurkic, apparently Jusuf raises Lillards shooting percentage and efficiency. To put it lightly, this stretch without Nurk has not been the best, but they have shown what they can be in the future with Nurkic in the middle.
When people think of the Blazers, they think of their guards Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum. Damian is one of the best leaders this team has seen and C.J just has a way of finding his midrange shot that is just spectacular. While this duo may not play the most stellar defense, they always find a way to keep this team in games and with both being locked up for the long term, Portland will be in great hands.
The one factor limiting the Blazers future success is definitely their cap situation.The Blazers trade for Nurkic has been big in many ways. The biggest might be that the trade caused Portland to avoid the luxury tax for this season. This saves them from paying the dreaded repeater tax in a few years as they are projected to be over the already inflated tax line every year until 2020. With seemingly bad contracts that won't expire in what seems like forever, the Blazers will definitely be limited by their salary situation in 2020.
With all that being said, the Blazers have the potential to be the most consistent team in the division with a core of Nurkic, Lillard, and Mcollum.
If the national media were to select who they like the most in this division, at least 75% would choose Minnesota. The Timberwolves have some of the best young players in the league including a core of Zach Lavine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. It also doesn't hurt that they are surrounded by young players like Tyus Jones and Kriss Dunn. This team is practically built for the future.
Towns will be an all-star soon and if you couple that with the scoring ability of Wiggins than you'd believe that they're set. This team is also coached by Tom Thibodeau so their defense should soon regress to the mean.
In three years, this team will grow up and they won't be losing the games that they have lost this year. Blowing over 20 double-digit leads is just unheard of and it surely won't be duplicated as this team ages.
Apparently Nikola Pekovic still exists, so he and Shabazz Muhammad will most likely be free agents as both of those guys are not that important to the Timberwolves future plans. Other than those two, Minnesota has limited time to sign a more expensive player before being forced to pay up big-time for KAT and Wiggins.
Minnesota will have its growing pains, but by 2020 they should be near their peak. The T-Wolves have an extremely high floor and should be a fierce competitor in the west once they hit their stride with Tom Thibodeau.