Like the Pacific Division, this is an incredibly talented division with all but one team aiming to be in the playoff picture this season. Can the Timberwolves break out of their slump and land in the postseason? Can the Jazz repeat as divisional champs? Let’s take a look.
1. Utah Jazz
After owning the best record in the Western Conference last season at 52-20 in a shortened season, the Jazz severely petered out in the second round of the playoffs against a Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers, losing in just six games. Utah has a hard path to improving on last season’s regular-season record and an even harder path to getting past the second round in a healthier and more stacked west.
The Jazz did the best they could though, adding some talent around the edges to improve on paper. In free agency, Utah added Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside, with Gay giving the team some much-needed wing depth off the bench and Whiteside being a bigger solution at the backup center spot. Utah basically got Eric Paschall for free from the Golden State Warriors in a trade, giving the team a very skilled, versatile young player at a low cost. Those three should see significant minutes this season and vastly improve Utah’s bench depth.
Utah also got Jared Butler in the draft, someone who had some medical concerns but was once a sure first-round draft pick. Butler looked downright stellar in Summer League and the preseason. In three games in the preseason, Butler averaged 18 points, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game in three games. If Utah’s younger players — Butler, Udoka Azubuike, Elijah Hughes and Miye Oni — can show signs of growth this season, Utah will have a more vast selection of rotation pieces to choose from and could afford to pool some together in a move at the trade deadline.
The Jazz should be right back in the thick of things in the upcoming season. Expect the franchise to push for another top-four seed in a stacked conference.
Tristan’s prediction: 55-27, No. 2-No. 5 seed range
2. Denver Nuggets
After a largely successful season by Denver in which the franchise went 47-25, Nikola Jokic won MVP and the team finished as the No. 3 seed last year, the Nuggets largely ran things back. The only new additions to the team are Jeff Green, a strong free-agent signing that can play the three and the four, Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, who averaged 15.2 points, 4.6 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 steal per game in the preseason as a rookie, and Petr Cornelie, a two-way player that was drafted by the team in 2016.
The biggest storyline surrounding the team, however, is the injury status of Jamal Murray, who suffered a late-season ACL tear and might miss most of this season. Murray’s value to the Nuggets is irreplaceable, he’s a great defensive presence and averaged 21.2 points, 4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game while shooting a 47.7/40.8/86.9 line. Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers, along with Hyland, will likely fill in for Murray, but it will be hard to replace that production.
Assuming he doesn’t miss much time with vaccine mandates, Michael Porter Jr. is the obvious candidate to take on the scoring burden left behind by Murray. Porter, Jokic and last year’s trade-deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon, along with others like Will Barton, are more than enough to make a serious push to the playoffs. If Murray returns before the playoffs, this team’s ceiling obviously rises.
Tristan’s prediction: 53-29, No. 2-No. 5 seed range
3. Portland Trail Blazers
This could very well be the season that determines franchise icon Damian Lillard’s future in Portland. After quite a bit of speculation that Lillard wanted out of Portland following a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Nugs. According to several sources, Lillard wanted to see several strides from the front office to show him that it was serious about contending. The results were mixed, at best.
Portland capped itself out from the gate by re-signing guard Norman Powell to a five-year, $90 million contract. The move was absolutely necessary after the franchise traded budding role player Gary Trent Jr. for Powell at the 2021 deadline. Powell did perform well in the playoffs, though it’s hard to ignore his dip in efficiency for Portland in the regular season.
From there, Portland’s other strong move in the offseason was trading Derrick Jones Jr. in a three-team trade that netted the Blazers Larry Nane Jr., someone who stood out with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Nance is an incredible athlete and defensive presence and he averaged 9.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 stocks per game while shooting 36 percent from deep.
However, Portland’s bench depth is still a huge question mark outside of, assuming they don’t start, Robert Covington and Anfernee Simons. The franchise added Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore, Dennis Smith Jr. and Tony Snell in free agency. Zeller can be a productive big off the bench and he probably could’ve gotten more money on the market but settled for a minimum after spending eight seasons in Charlotte. While Zeller puts up numbers, it remains to be seen if he’ll put up any sort of a season as Enes Kanter did for Portland last year.
Meanwhile, McLemore saw a bit of a career resurgence with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers, though the latter rarely used him. Meanwhile, Snell has been extremely efficient in the last two seasons and he actually put up a 50/50/100 season last year, becoming the first player in league history to do so. While those two have been impressive in recent years, they’ve both had their fair share of lackluster seasons.
As for Smith, he won a training camp battle over Patrick Patterson, Quinn Cook and Marquese Chriss. Smith is wildly talented but hasn’t been in a winning setting since entering the league. If everything goes right, he should easily find a spot in Portland. It may be hard to break through though, considering Lillard and Simons will eat up point guard minutes, and rightfully so.
Portland’s bench is extremely boom or bust. If everything goes right, it could be a far better unit than last season’s up-and-down squad, and that would include a breakout season for Nassir Little. That would also include faster-than-expected developments for guys like Greg Brown Jr. and C.J. Elleby. But if everything goes wrong, and it very well could, this could be Lillard’s last season in Rip City.
Tristan’s prediction: 44-38, No. 6-No. 11 seed range
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Things are looking up in Minnesota, pending health. Since D’Angelo Russell was sent to the Timberwolves at the 2019 trade deadline, he and good friend Karl-Anthony Towns have only played together for a small fraction of Minny’s games. It is extremely rare to see Towns, Russell, Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards on the court together these days. The feeling in Minny is that it can contend for a playoff spot especially after an optimistic end to last season.
After former coach Ryan Saunders was fired, former Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch took over and made big strides with the roster. Under Finch, the Wolves went 16-25 compared to Saunders’ 7-24 mark and first overall pick Edwards became far more efficient, averaging 23.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2 stocks per game while shooting a 44.1/33.7/76.9 line. Under Saunders, Edwards averaged 14.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 37.5/31.3/79.5.
In the offseason, Minny severely improved its depth, adding Taurean Prince and Patrick Beverley to the mix, two players with scrappy attitudes that can see big minutes and play into the corps’ strength. Minnesota also brought over 2020 first-round pick Leandro Bolmaro, someone with a wide array of talents and playmaking abilities. Bolmaro has an impressive frame, measuring up as a 6-foot-8 combo guard.
If the Timberwolves can stay healthy, there is a tremendous chance the Wolves make their first playoff push since Jimmy Butler forced his way out. Look for players like Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaylen Nowell and Nazreon Reid to make further jumps in their careers en route to a potential play-in nod.
Tristan’s prediction: 41-41, No. 9-No. 12 seed range
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
After adding several rookies to their arsenal, the Oklahoma City Thunder are continuing on their multi-year rebuild and thus, will likely not be in playoff contention this season. Oklahoma City did well for itself in the draft, nabbing three guys with huge upside in Josh Giddey, Tre Mann and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Giddey in particular boasts some of the best all-around game in the entire draft class and will likely make a huge push for a starting spot and All-Rookie Team selection early on.
Last season in Australia, Giddey averaged 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.6 stocks per game. His shooting numbers weren’t anything to write home about but anytime you have a player with that passing ability, it unlocks so many levels to your offense. Meanwhile, Mann was one of the best three-point shooters in college last season, shooting 40.2 percent from deep on 4.7 attempts per game, earning a top-20 selection in the draft.
The team also added Robinson-Earl, a big man with a versatile offensive game inside, a solid passer on the inside. Vit Krejci, the No. 37 overall pick in the 2020 Draft, will spend the season rehabbing in the G League but may see some time late in the season for the Thunder. Between those four, the Thunder will likely be able to sift through their young talent, much like they did last season, in order to determine their rotation pieces.
The Thunder will tank, but it will be exciting to see Shai Gilgeous-Alexander do his thing, as well as seeing the growth of exciting youngsters like Aleksej Pokusevski, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon, Isaiah Roby and others.
Tristan’s prediction: 22-60, No. 13-No. 15 seed range
That concludes Basketball Insiders’ divisional preview series. Be sure to follow along with Basketball Insiders all season for comprehensive coverage of all 30 teams as the season begins on Tuesday, Oct. 19.