2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.19, let’s take a look at where each team in the Northwest Division stands. We’ll break down what’s to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.

If you missed it, read our previews on the Atlantic, Central, and Southeast Divisions.

Denver Nuggets

WHAT TO LIKE: OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER

Even with Jamal Murray still recovering from a torn ACL, the Nuggets shouldn't have much trouble generating offense.

Nikola Jokic is one of the best offensive players in NBA history and the reigning MVP. He can score at all three levels, sling passes from everywhere, and bludgeon you on the offensive glass if all else fails.

Michael Porter Jr. just flirted with one of the most efficient 20-a-night seasons in recent memory (19.0 points, 66.3% True Shooting percentage) and should be tasked with more responsibility while Murray is out.

A healthy Will Barton can get buckets and beat scrambling defenses with kick-outs and dump-offs when necessary. Austin Rivers can provide relief buckets. 

I think the Nuggets will be okay on that end.

OTHER LIKES

"Aaron Gordon, Professional Gap-Filler" was a rousing success. A full training camp with this group should lead to an even more effective season from him.

-I like the frontcourt versatility of JaMychal and Jeff Green (no relation). Both can shoot, while Jeff adds a little more punch with his rudimentary ball skills. I'm here for lineups featuring both of those guys.

- Are we still allowed to call Monte Morris underrated, or did his series against the Blazers end that noise for good?

- *Raises hand* I still love Bol Bol. I will hype up his garbage time buckets like they're playoff-clinching shots. Sue me.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: RIM PROTECTION

The Nuggets want to play ball screens more aggressively with their bigs. Jokic plays at the level of the screen or higher to cut off ball handlers. That puts stress on the backline to rotate behind him.

There's a reason the Nuggets ranked well in percentage of rim attempts allowed (28.2, 9th), and very poorly in terms of field goal percentage allowed (68.6, last).

A ton of pressure will be on Porter Jr. in particular to rotate in a timely manner and contest shots. There also isn't a pure 5 behind Jokic in the rotation. The Greens, JaMychal and Jeff, will get those frontcourt reps off the bench, and neither of those guys are staunch rim protectors.

OTHER DISLIKES

I really wish Jamal Murray was healthy. Sigh.

- I wonder who the threatening rim pressure guys are going to be while Murray is gone. Jokic will create a ton with his high post passing to cutters, but it'd be nice if someone could consistently get downhill without assistance.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Morris-Barton-Gordon-Porter Jr.-Jokic

I can't guarantee this will be the starting unit while Murray is out, but I'm sure we'll see this group quite a bit. Between Gordon being added via trade mid-season and Barton's injury woes, this group only played 55 minutes together last season.

They did generate an absurd 134.6 offensive rating, if you care about that kind of thing. I'm interested to see what the numbers are with a larger sample.

BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed

The table is set for another MVP campaign for Jokic. Porter Jr. could reasonably average 25 points a night, at least until Murray gets back. Guys like Monte Morris and Will Barton can handle some of the creation void left from Murray in the short-term.

There's enough depth for the Nuggets to churn out regular season wins.

WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed 

Unless Jokic himself gets hurt, I don't see the Nuggets falling out of the firm playoff picture. I do think there's room for the shot creation behind Jokic and Porter Jr. to underwhelm before Murray gets back. That combined with the general strength of the conference could force the Nuggets to slide a bit.

Minnesota Timberwolves

WHAT TO LIKE: KAT UNLEASHED

After the Ryan Saunders firing, I wrote about the need for the Wolves to truly build this thing out around Karl-Anthony Towns. Reimagine who he is. Get a stronger sense on what his strengths and weaknesses are, then put him in position to succeed on both ends.

We saw fruits of the former after Chris Finch was hired. More threes. More touches, particularly in the high post. More decision-making reps. Ultimately, more possessions like this:

It would appear that the Wolves are going to make similar adjustments on the defensive end, opting for a more aggressive approach that could save Towns from navigating the gap in Drop defense.

I am here for Towns to establish himself as a top-15-ish player in the sport, if healthy.

OTHER LIKES

Anthony Edwards might already be the best interview in the NBA. But seriously — this dude is so physically gifted. He can get to the rim when he wants — it's the "when he wants" part he needs to take a step in.

- I'm all in on Jaden McDaniels. He's a rangy defender with some shot-creating chops that may be worth exploring in spurts. I'll yell about him more on the pod, don't you worry.

- Malik Beasley might be the best shooter nobody really knows about. The Wolves will certainly welcome having him be more available than he was last season.

- MOAR NAZ REID.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: ROSTER BALANCE

The Wolves have players that can shoot. They have guys that can get to the rim. They have guys that can defend. They have guys that can fill gaps — screening, cutting, chain-moving passes. 

What they don't have, however, are a lot of guys that can check multiple boxes. 

Consolidating for someone, say, I don't know, Ben Simmons, could help solve some of that. For now, though, there are a lot of one-way players that head coach Chris Finch will have to figure out how (and who) to play together.

OTHER DISLIKES

It's worth noting that there's a difference between being able to get to the rim and being able to finish once you're there. The Wolves did the former last season, ranking fourth in rim frequency. They also ranked 24th in field goal percentage at the rim. They'll need massive steps from Edwards in particular within that context. As explosive as he is, he took some tough shots in traffic. I think he'll figure it out, though.

- The wing/forward depth on this team isn't very good on paper, though I'd love for one of Jake Layman or Taurean Prince to prove me wrong.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Russell-Edwards-Vanderbilt-McDaniels-Towns

Russell has legit pull-up and playmaking chops. Edwards can get downhill whenever he wants, and the jumper looked good during the last 20 or so games of the season. Both Vanderbilt and McDaniels can fly around defensively and clean up mistakes.

We only got 23 minutes out of this grouping last season, but this may be Minnesota's best hope at protecting Towns on the backline while also taking some of the creation burden off of him on the other end.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament

If you can get a somewhat efficient 60-65 points a night from the Towns/Russell/Edwards triumvirate and fill the gaps elsewhere, you can talk me into the Wolves as a back-end play-in team. Chris Finch has pieces to mix and match; his ability to do so will help decide where this team lands.

WORST CASE: Near the Bottom of the West

A third straight season of Towns missing time would end any postseason hopes the Wolves have. Beyond that, the rest of the West is still pretty strong. There exists a world in which the Wolves look better on both ends, and it doesn't matter much in terms of seeding.

Oklahoma City Thunder

WHAT TO LIKE: SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER

This is one funky dude.

By funky, I mean unorthodox. Nobody in the NBA plays like him, plays with the cadence he does. He's the league's most prolific driver from the perimeter — a lofty title when guys like LeBron James and James Harden exist. The numbers bear it out, though.

SGA led the NBA in drives (25.2) and shot attempts via drive (9.3) by a healthy margin. Among the 42 players that averaged at least 5.0 shot attempts on drives, only six converted those looks at a higher clip than SGA did (55.4). Of those six, only Luka Doncic came close to SGA's volume (20.3 drives, 59.2 FG%).

The drive sets up everything else with SGA. He's growing as a passer, though not a master manipulator by any stretch right now. The more encouraging thing is the development of his jumper. He shot a shade under 42% from three on nearly five attempts, showcased new comfort getting it off the dribble.

He'll have to prove that the leap was real. He still saw a ton of "under" coverage in ball screens, so I'm curious to see what his shot looks like if teams press him more. Though, if they press him more, he's won a battle that I didn't see him winning this soon.

OTHER LIKES

I'm here for Year 2 of the Poku Experience. He looked like an NBA player during the second half of the season after, well, not looking like one during the first half. His blend of size, skill, and unearned confidence intrigues me.

- I sounded like a disappointed father on the pod this year at times, but I'm in on Theo Maledon if he plays with a little more aggression.

- Lu Dort will stuff your favorite player in a locker, and the Velveeta account will likely tweet about it. He also has an interesting catch-and-go game and shot roughly 37% on catch-and-shoot triples last year. Interesting guy to track moving forward.

- I like the Josh Giddey pick. Another tall playmaker next to SGA is a solid investment. Any concerns about him breaking down defenders should be alleviated by the fact that SGA can bend the defense first.

- KENRICH WILLIAMS IS GOOD AT BASKETBALL AND A PLAYOFF TEAM SHOULD TRADE FOR HIM IF THEY CAN.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: THE DEFENSE

Yeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh, I'm not sure what to expect this year.

Last year's group had a top-ten defense before the All-Star break, then fell off a cliff. I wonder if there was a series of rotation and/or injury-related decisions that affected that number.

Who's to say, really.

In all seriousness: no Al Horford to quarterback things will hurt. Derrick Favors should help some on the interior, but there's virtually nothing resembling rim protection behind him on the depth chart right now.

Outside of Dort, I'm not sure who to trust on the perimeter either. SGA has the tools to be a good defender, but issues with screen navigation and off-ball attentiveness have him squarely in the "liability" tab right now.

OTHER DISLIKES

I'm the resident "let the young guys play" person, and even I am a bit concerned by the lack of veterans on this team. Favors and Mike Muscala are the oldest players on the team, and they're both 30. Williams is third and he's 26.

LINEUP TO WATCH: SGA-Dort-Giddey-Bazley-Pokusevski

I want to say this up front: this unit would get absolutely demolished defensively. Poku would need to have done borderline illegal things to bulk up enough to play the 5 defensively.

However.

I do want to see what the young core looks like together. There's plenty of drive-and-kick potential with this group, headlined by SGA. Bazley and Poku have the ball skills to run some inverted ball screens. It's a 2K five, but a five I'd watch on League Pass.

BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, young guys shine

SGA is the blue-chipper, so improvement within the margins would make the season a success on its own. But meaningful steps from The Others in the core — Giddey, Dort, Poku, Bazley — would put OKC in a good spot.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West, jumbled mess

There's not much in the way of veteran help here, and head coach Mark Daigneault is heading into Year 2 himself. There's a line to walk between "giving the young guys freedom" and "letting the young guys do whatever the heck they want" that he'll need to balance. If it goes too far in the wrong direction, we could be looking at this team wondering what the actual plan is at the end of the year.

Portland Trail Blazers

WHAT TO LIKE: THREE-HEADED MONSTER

There are a few guys in the league that guarantee you a top-10 offense when they're on the court, almost regardless of who you put around them. Damian Lillard is one of those guys.

He's the second-most dangerous pull-up shooter in the NBA and complements that with legit driving and passing chops.

Joining him in the backcourt is CJ McCollum, one of the NBA's best number twos and a pull-up artist in his own right. 

Flanking them is Norman Powell, a 40% three-point shooter on high volume that drives with ruthless aggression. 

If healthy, that's a trio that's going to flirt with 70 points a night on a high-30%, low-40% clip from three. Good luck dealing with that.

OTHER LIKES

I wrote about it not too long ago, but I love Larry Nance Jr.'s unique skill set on both ends of the floor for this Blazers team. Heck of a trade to get him in the building.

- I like the Cody Zeller signing. He'll bring value as a rim-runner; he's also more scheme-versatile on defense than you'd think. 

WHAT TO DISLIKE: POINT-OF-ATTACK DEFENSE

Nance Jr. can wreck stuff defensively as a helper, as can Covington. Jusuf Nurkic is a productive rim protector when healthy. Portland's backline should be really good. It also has to be, because I'm not sure who can fight over screens in the backcourt.

Lillard is coming off, by my eye, his worst defensive season since his rookie year, if not ever. Screen navigation isn't a strong suit for McCollum either. The options aren't that much better on the bench.

Luckily, the rest of the West is lacking in guard talent so the Blazers don't have to worry about-

Wait.

Oh...

OTHER DISLIKES

Wing depth is a bit of a concern for me. Gotta get something out of Tony Snell or Nassir Little; I'm not sure how comfortable I am betting on either right now.

- Aside from the general, uh, let's call it "weirdness" surrounding the Chauncey Billups hire, I have no real sense of what he wants to do on either end of the floor. This is less of a dislike and more of a "guess we'll see."

LINEUP TO WATCH: Lillard-McCollum-Powell-Covington-Nance Jr.

This is what you make the Nance Jr. trade for. On nights Nurkic isn't there or isn't a good defensive matchup, downsizing with a Covington-Nance Jr. frontcourt is a remedy. I'm not sure what you do with this group as an opposing defense. Lillard and McCollum are flamethrowers, Powell can shoot and get to the rim whenever he needs to; Covington can knock down spot up looks, while Nance Jr can create havoc as a roller.

BEST CASE: No. 3 Seed

The Blazers ranked second in offensive rating last season and return most of the personnel that helped them get there. With added depth and versatility in the frontcourt, the pathway to a below-average (or better!) defense is there. I don't think homecourt is out of the question if they stay healthy.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

Of course, if the defense doesn't come together, they could find themselves fighting for a playoff spot.

Despite being historically good offensively last year, the Blazers ranked 12th in net rating (8th in the West). Depth has been added, but point-of-attack issues could still throw the defense in flux. The Blazers have the shot-makers to win shootouts, but that's a tough diet to live on in the West.

Utah Jazz

WHAT TO LIKE: DONOVAN MITCHELL'S ASCENSION

We didn't get the capital-L leap from Mitchell last season, at least not statistically, but he grew a bit around the margins.

On the numbers front: he posted career highs in points (26.4), assists (5.2), and True Shooting percentage (56.9).

On the shot selection front: Last season marked the first time in Mitchell's career that he improved his three-point rate (.352 to .423) and free throw rate (.24 to .29) in the same season. Nearly 63% of his shots came from three or at the rim last season; that isn't a Hardenian number, but it's a major leap from the year before (56.3%).

As his game has nudged into more efficient areas, it's also slowed down for him. His basic passing reads are being made quicker, and we're seeing more flashes of legit manipulation.

He's good, folks.

OTHER LIKES

Rudy Gobert's the best Drop big on planet Earth. It's hilarious watching drivers probe the paint, say "NOPE" and drive back out to the perimeter.

Flirting with a 70% TS percentage with a three-point rate over 70% is absurd, but that's what Joe Ingles (67.2% TS, .722 3PAr) did last season. The Aussie is still trucking, one slingshot triple at a time.

- I ... am a fan of the Hassan Whiteside signing? Not sure if you can get a better blend of rebounding and rim protection at the veteran minimum than that. Hopefully Gobert teaches him how to screen.

- Speaking of free agent gets, Rudy Gay should help quite a bit offensively. Another guy that can shoot and attack a closeout should help keep the offense humming.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: PERIMETER DEFENSE

This isn't something new; I hammered it quite a bit on The Dunker Spot during last season. Royce O'Neale is a good defender. Can hang with most forwards at either spot, and can offer some switchability in a pinch. Every team would love to have O'Neale as part of their stopper lineup.

The fact that O'Neale is Utah's best option defensively against star wings or forwards is a problem to me within the context of their title aspirations.

O'Neale, Ingles, and Gay is a good group. It's sub-elite, though, and leaves them susceptible to certain matchups in a playoff setting (ahem, Lakers). 

OTHER DISLIKES

To that point, I'm still not sure how often the Jazz can afford to go small. There was a clear effort to answer that question by adding Gay and Eric Paschall, both of which fit the physical profiles of 4s that can swing down to 5 when needed. I'm a bit worried about both of those guys in space against guards, assuming they'd have to swtich in a small-ball alignment.

- Though I believe Gobert is ultimately underrated, the "self-creation to dollars earned" ratio is a bit concerning. Hopefully the Gobert we saw with the French national team this summer is the one the Jazz get. Because the Gobert we saw last season generated 0.57 PPP on post-ups, per Synergy.

- I really, really want Conley to stay healthy. I'm worried about him.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-O'Neale-Gay

If Utah's going to go small while trying to maximize their defense, this will probably be the unit. The quartet of Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-O'Neale had a plus-22.6 net rating in 65 minutes last season, and I'm honestly not sure which number is more head-shake-worthy. If Gay can hold up at the 5, and if the group can rebound well enough, they should be able to blitz most teams.

BEST CASE: Top Seed

Gobert guarantees you an elite defense. The creation from Mitchell and Conley, combined with the half-court wizardry of Quin Snyder guarantees you a high-level offesne. The roster is deeper this year. It's not hard to envision the Jazz leading the West, if not the NBA, in wins.

WORST CASE: No. 4 Seed

A long-term injury to Mitchell or especially Gobert could obviously derail things. Beyond that, the only real slippage I could really forsee would be general aging from Conley or Ingles. Even with that, this Jazz team is deep and disciplined enough to churn out regular season wins at a high clip.

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