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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division

With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a look at where each team in the Northwest Division stands. We’ll break down what there is to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for each team to finish in the standings. (If you missed it, read our preview on the Atlantic Division here.)

For deeper thoughts, you listen to the Northwest Division episode of The Dunker Spot.

Denver Nuggets

WHAT TO LIKE: THREE-MAN DOMINANCE

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

Jamal Murray will be back following a lengthy recovery from an ACL tear. When healthy, he's one of the most dynamic guards in the NBA behind some ridiculous pull-up chops. Michael Porter Jr. is another when-healthy stud offensively. Guys his size shouldn't be able to shoot that well and compound it with a high release point that makes him nearly impossible to contest.

Jokic, Murray, and Porter can get buckets in their own right. And because of Jokic doubling as one of the best passers in league history, the off-ball chops of Murray and Porter are even more valuable.

Over the past two (healthy) seasons — 2019-20 and 2020-21 — the Nuggets have posted a typo-level 126.7 Offensive Rating in over 1,100 minutes together, per PBP Stats. It quite literally doesn't get much better than that from a trio.

OTHER LIKES

With the scoring core back, Aaron Gordon should be able to slide right back into his Swiss Army knife role after being a bit overtasked last season.

- They have wing defender options! Gordon can be deployed against both forward spots. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is solid at the point of attack, but even better at chasing dudes around off-ball. Bruce Brown is a versatile weapon defensively. Davon Reed finally has a standard contract to provide some reinforcements off the bench. 

- I'm here for Year 2 of the Bones Hyland Experience. He's got deep pull-up chops, and is a willing cutter and a growing playmaker. I'd like to see him with Jokic more often; the Nuggets posted a 120.3 ORTG with those two on the floor together per PBP Stats, and their possessions were incredibly fruitful when featuring a Hyland-Jokic handoff (1.1 points per possession).

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: FRONTCOURT DEPTH

It's an odd thing to point to considering Jokic will be logging at least 34 minutes at center — and likely more than that when the playoffs roll around. But it's worth wondering how good his replacements will be.

DeAndre Jordan is there for four jobs: Screen hard, dive hard, hold serve in a drop and clean the glass. He did those things at varying levels of success last season. Jeff Green as a small-ball 5 option works, depending on what day of the week it is.

Zeke Nnaji is someone I'm excited about because of his blend of shooting and movement skills, but there's no telling how much faith Denver head coach Michael Malone has in him, particularly at the 5.

It's possible all three options could underwhelm this season, which would hurt their lineup versatility quite a bit.

OTHER CONCERNS

There will always be scheme questions with Jokic manning the middle. He's quality when playing at the level of the screen (or higher), but things get dicey when he's in a drop. With better screen navigators in front of him, maybe we see more success when the Nuggets go to a more conservative scheme.

- While I like the additions the Nuggets made defensively, it would be nice if they had one more big wing defender aside from Gordon.

- Porter was making real steps as an off-ball defender before last season's injury-riddled campaign. I wonder where he's going to be to start the year.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Murray-Caldwell-Pope-Brown-Gordon-Jokic

This may end up being the Nuggets' closing five, especially if Porter isn't up to par defensively. It allows the Nuggets to get their three best defenders on the floor to flank Murray and Jokic. And with the Murray-Jokic two-man game as the foundation, defenses will have their hands full dealing with that and the collective cutting ability of the other three.

BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed

Jokic is at the peak of his powers, and practically guarantees an elite unit when he's out there. If the Nuggets get reasonably healthy campaigns from Murray and Porter — while ramping up the defense with their new additions — they could rack up a ton of wins.

WORST CASE: No. 6 Seed 

The Western Conference projects to be really freaking tough, man. It's easy to make the "they could slide if Jokic goes down" argument, but I'd just keep an eye on the defense. If they underwhelm, they could find themselves in more shootouts than they'd like.

Minnesota Timberwolves

WHAT TO LIKE: RUDY GOBERT ON DEFENSE

The Wolves were a top-10 defense for most of last season behind an aggressive, two-to-the-ball style that engaged Karl-Anthony Towns while highlighting the range of guys like Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels on the backline.

They eventually dialed it down once offenses were able to pass out of those hedges early and generate fruitful looks on a dime. But that put Towns in drop, a coverage he's struggled in for most of his NBA career.

The Wolves finished the year 13th in Defensive Rating, but 28th in Defensive Rebound Rate.

Adding Rudy Gobert should make the Wolves much better.

Gobert's arguably the best drop defender of his generation on his own. His insane length and spatial awareness allow him to wall off the painted area. There's a reason teams don't attack the rim as frequently as usual when he's on the floor.

If the Wolves stick with the aggressive style when Towns is involved, Gobert patrolling the paint behind the action instead of Vanderbilt (who was good!) should give opposing offenses something to think about. It also helps that Gobert is one of the best rebounders in the sport; he's ranked no lower than the 82nd percentile in Defensive Rebound Rate since his second season in the league, and is currently riding a four-year streak of ranking in the 90th percentile or better.

OTHER LIKES

Another year of the Anthony Edwards-Towns pick-and-roll tandem gaining chemistry. Post-All-Star break, that duo put up numbers (1.13 PPP, 203 picks) on par with the Steph Curry-Draymond Green ball-screen (1.14 PPP, 200 picks), per Second Spectrum. And just to give you a reference of what we're working with here...

- I love the Kyle Anderson pickup. Gives them another forward defender who can take some playmaking responsibility off the guards. Don't be surprised if he winds up closing out some games, though that leads into my biggest question.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: CAN THEY WIN VS. SMALL-BALL UNITS?

This is could be a Towns question, particularly on the defensive end. Defending on an island has never quite been his forte. It's telling that the Wolves experimented with — and mostly failed at — pre-switching during their first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies to try to prevent them from hunting him in ball-screens.

It's also very much a Gobert question. The narrative that he's been played off the floor defensively against spread-em-out units has always been overblown, if not outright false. The biggest issue has been Gobert's inability to punish smaller players as a scorer.

For the "Big Ball" experiment to really work, he'll have to prove he can handle the occasional post-up. Teams shouldn't feel comfortable switching guards onto Gobert. They just shouldn't.

OTHER CONCERNS

- Speaking of the defense, losing Patrick Beverley and Vanderbilt is a real blow. If given the green light, Edwards will likely take on tougher assignments on the perimeter. McDaniels is a really good defender already, but it's worth noting Vanderbilt took on the power wing assignments last year. This will be new territory for Jaden, and I'm curious to see how he handles it.

Ideally, the Wolves take small-ball units off the table for their opposition because of their star big tandem. I do wonder what their small-ball unit would actually look like if they had to go to one. McLaughlin-Russell-Edwards-McDaniels-Anderson? Is there enough shooting to make that work?

- Bryn Forbes being the only true movement shooter on the roster (sans Towns) doesn't seem ideal, especially once you consider his limitations in a playoff context. I'd keep an eye on the shooting, period.

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

They'll be the starters. Hopefully, they'll be the closers too. There are a couple of ball-screen pairings (Russell-Gobert, Edwards-Towns) they could build the boat around offensively. There's plenty of length 3-through-5 to restrict space for opposing offenses. I'm just as curious to see how Gobert is used off the ball as I am to see how Russell's role changes defensively with Gobert in the mix.

BEST CASE: No. 3 Seed

Teams with Gobert on them have won at a 50-win pace virtually every year he's been a starter. He's a walking top-five defense (when he's on the court). Adding that kind of game changer to the offensive firepower that the Wolves own, in addition to Finch being one of the most creative minds in the sport? The pathway to hosting a playoff series is an easy one to envision.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

If the Towns-Gobert fit proves clunky on either end, the ceiling of this team could drop. And if the shooting aside from Towns and Forbes doesn't come around, they're absolutely going to be battling it out in the 7-to-10 range.

Oklahoma City Thunder

WHAT TO LIKE: WING CREATION

If you like 6-foot-5 or taller guys making decisions with the ball in their hands, this upstart group may tickle your fancy.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best drivers in the NBA and one of the most unique drivers in league history. His constant downhill pressure, counter-filled mid-range game and growing passing chops (still a bit limited for a true No. 1) make him a fun watch.

Josh Giddey is already one of the best skip passers in the league. Lottery pick Jalen Williams has some juice as a pick-and-roll creator. Even Aleksej Pokusevski is a creative* half-court option, if you want to call him a tall wing of sorts. *Absolutely wild

OTHER LIKES

On the creation front, Tre Mann showed some filthy self-creation flashes last season. I'm excited to see how that carries into this season.

- Lu Dort got himself paid this summer after a career year. The drives are forceful, the jumper's a question mark and the defense is dogged. Fun dude to watch.

- We'll run this back from last year: KENRICH WILLIAMS IS GOOD AT BASKETBALL AND A PLAYOFF TEAM SHOULD TRADE FOR HIM IF THEY CAN.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: INTERIOR DEFENSE

The Chet Holmgren pick was perfect because it solidified the position I had the most questions about. Adding that kind of interior presence would've been a godsend for a group that quietly carved out an identity defensively. But he's out for the year, which puts a spotlight on the center depth and... yeah.

I'm not sure who in that room will strike fear in the heart of a driver. Holmgren might not have done that in Year 1 because of his size, but the length alone could serve as some sort of deterrent. We'll see, I guess.

OTHER CONCERNS

I can't say I love the defensive talent on the perimeter aside from Dort, either. We'll see if the Summer League juice shown from Jalen Williams carries over, but even that's going to depend on what lineups we see. Speaking of which...

There is so much positional and skill-set overlap on this roster, particularly on the perimeter, that it really doesn't seem conducive to clear development. I understand the gambles they're taking, but the infrastructure for their young talent could be a lot cleaner.

- On a related note: Whew, boy, there is a dearth of shooting on this roster.

LINEUP TO WATCH: SGA-Dort-Giddey-K.Williams-Muscala

Did you know the Thunder had a plus-15.2 Net Rating with SGA, Williams and Mike Muscala on the court last season? Well, now you do. 

This particular grouping only played 19 minutes together last year and was a plus-13 in those minutes. I know why they didn't play more than that last season (tanking/youth development), but I'd like to see more of a sample.

BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, Young Guys Shine

The Thunder get shooting and defensive growth from SGA, shooting growth from Giddey, shot-creation growth from Mann and one of their first-rounders from this year pops — all while racking up losses along the way.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West, Jumbled Mess

There are just so many young mouths to feed on this roster. If the lineups aren't handled right, and if the reps aren't distributed cohesively, the Thunder aren't going to be where they want in the standings, without having any of the long-term answers they want. That's a nasty place to be in.

Portland Trail Blazers

WHAT TO LIKE: BACKCOURT FIREPOWER

Damian Lillard is a top-10 offense onto himself when he's healthy. He's a legendary pull-up shooter and a somewhat underrated driver and playmaker. Here's to hoping he's healthy this year.

I'm really enamored with the offensive potential of Anfernee Simons. He broke out in Lillard's absence, shooting the leather off the ball and making defenses pay whenever Portland emptied the corner for him. With added strength and experience, I'd expect him to look better as a passer and scorer when getting downhill. With Lillard back and demanding star-level attention, it should be easier for Simons to get to his spots.

OTHER LIKES

I appreciate the Blazers once again attempting to address their defensive woes on the perimeter. Gary Payton II is one of the best guard defenders on the planet. Jerami Grant can mostly defend both forward spots when engaged. Those two plus Josh Hart (solid), Justise Winslow (versatile) and Nassir Little (stout) should at least give the Blazers options to play with.

- Hart is one of my favorite role players in the league. Every good team needs a guy like him who can knock down shots, maintain advantages against tilted defenses, defend across multiple positions and punch above his weight on the glass.

- (I'm still keeping an eye on Brandon Williams as a backup ball-handler.)

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: FRONTCOURT DEPTH

Jusuf Nurkic is a quality starting center. He's a bruising screener, surprisingly-nifty passer, reliable rebounder and does his job as a drop defender.

He's also good for at least one extended absence per season; 101 regular-season games in three years is less than ideal.

There are question marks behind him on the depth chart. Drew Eubanks is fine; I'm actually curious to see how real his post-ASB run was (14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds per contest in 29.5 minutes). Trendon Watford had some fun flashes last season, but the Blazers bled points when he was on the floor. Of course, they bled points pretty much the entire year, but there are some real limitations defensively when he's at the 5. 

OTHER CONCERNS

Do the Blazers have a small-ball 5 option they'd feel comfortable with defensively? ESPN's Zach Lowe pondered over Winslow-at-the-5 minutes (nice ode to his early Miami days,  but man is that group small.

- Honestly, I wish they had a little more size on the wings. They don't have a great answer for power wings aside from Little, and even he's listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. Payton is guard-sized; Hart isn't much bigger. Grant fits the prototype, but he's never dealt with those matchups particularly well. 

- As excited as I am about Simons offensively, I'm equally concerned about him defensively. He needs to take a step this year.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Lillard-Simons-Payton-Hart-Grant

I'm reasonably certain Chauncey Billups will trot this lineup out at some point this year. I'd have my concerns defensively, but there's enough help-and-gang-rebound potential with the Payton-Hart duo that you could talk yourself into the defense being tolerable enough.

And if it is, this group could be fun offensively. The floor would be completely spaced for Lillard or Simons to work. Hart and especially Payton could get busy as screeners and give the Blazers a different dimension. 

BEST CASE: No. 5 Seed

If the Blazers get a healthy campaign out of Lillard (and Nurkic), they're going to be a top-10 offense at worst. Any leap from Simons would raise the ceiling more. If the defense can simply be average — anywhere in the 15-to-19 range — they could churn out regular-season wins.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

The scary thing for the Blazers: things could break reasonably right, and they could still find themselves in Play-In range because of the strength of the West. There's also room for this thing to go wrong; the Lillard-Simons-Nurkic trio could prove problematic enough to prevent them from building a strong defense.

Any sort of actual regression from Lillard — he is entering his age-32 season — could shrink the Blazers' margin for error.

Utah Jazz

WHAT TO LIKE: COLLIN SEXTON'S RETURN

Sexton fell out of favor in Cleveland, and it really wasn't his fault. A torn meniscus limited him to just 11 games last season. The year before that, his production — 24.3 points (.475/.371/.815 shooting splits) and 4.4 assists per game — was overshadowed by the ascension of Darius Garland, particularly after the 2021 All-Star break. 

And with Garland becoming a legitimate All-Star last season and Sexton entering restricted free agency, the Cleveland Cavaliers had ample reason to pivot. If you can turn Sexton into Donovan Mitchell, nobody will blame you for taking that gamble.

But it's worth noting that:

1) Sexton is pretty darn talented.

2) He's shown pretty consistent improvement throughout his NBA career.

Every year, Sexton has become a more willing shooter from deep, a more refined driver and a better (but still limited) playmaker. He gives a crap defensively, even if his screen navigation still leaves a bit to be desired. But his skill set and work ethic are easy to bet on; clearly the Jazz agree. 

OTHER LIKES

- I'm high on the impact Kelly Olynyk can have on this team for however long he's there. He's a spacer and a movement threat and a post hub and a handoff hub and a versatile pick-and-roll partner. When you look at the young centers behind him on the depth chart, it's a positive that his skill set differs so much from theirs.

- Actually, the Jazz feel like the anti-Thunder in that they have a fair bit of veteran shooting to surround their young players with. We don't know how long that shooting will be on the roster — Bojan Bogdanovic was recently traded, for example — but they do have it for now. 

- I'm excited to watch Jarred Vanderbilt fly around defensively again. The field proved to be too deep last season, but he was good enough to make an All-Defensive team in my view.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: LINEUP BALANCE

The good news is that the Jazz have, like, 12 players they could justify giving rotation minutes to.

The bad news is that the Jazz have, like, 12 players they could justify giving rotation minutes to.

What kind of burn will Talen Horton-Tucker get this season? What about Nickeil Alexander-Walker? How does Jared Butler factor into their future plans now? What does Walker Kessler's addition mean for Udoka Azubuike, a first-round selection that seemed questionable in real-time? There are some things for new head coach Will Hardy to sort out.

OTHER CONCERNS

What exactly do you do with Mike Conley? He's obviously helpful — part of the positive infrastructure you want around your young talent — but he's also not part of the future plans. I wonder how long they keep him.

- This group seems woefully short on playmaking beyond Conley and Olynyk overall. It could make for some clunky offense at times this year.

- Is it too early to fire off #FreeBolmaro? Let me know.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Sexton-Agbaji-Vanderbilt-Markkanen-Olynyk

There are endless combinations to choose from on a team like this, but this is where I land. Give the Sexton-Ochai Agbaji duo reps and see what it looks like. Agbaji's movement skills and off-ball value should vibe well with Sexton's style of play. Markkanen and Olynyk should give Sexton plenty of spacing to work with, and Vanderbilt can play cleanup by roaming around the dunker spot (subscribe!).

Don't ask about the defense.

BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, Young Guys Shine

Strong rookie campaigns from Agbaji and Kessler would rock, as would a high-level bounce-back year from Sexton. Add to the pick cupboard within reason; even if you keep Conley into next offseason, teams should be willing to give up capital for guys like Vanderbilt, Olynyk, Jordan Clarkson (linked to the Bucks) or Malik Beasley.

Gaining a clearer picture of the current core while putting yourself in a position for Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson should be Utah's goal.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West, Jumbled Mess

Similar to the Thunder, this could turn into a too-many-mouths-to-feed situation if they aren't careful. They may be okay with that for a year if it lands them a top-two pick, but it's not an ideal process.

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