Northwest Division Preview

Nikola Jokic
Maverick Swenson likes Nikola Jokic, who was slighted in HP's preseason MVP voting (see Fearless Forecast), to lead the Denver Nuggets to the best record in the Western Conference. (Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

In Hoops Prospects’ continuing series of NBA previews, I take a look at the Northwest Division in the Western Conference, summarizing each teams’ key additions, key departures, and other developments. The teams are listed based on my predicted order of finish within the division. 

The projected depth charts come directly from Hoops Prospects, and are based on who is likely to play the most minutes this season.  We update the depth charts regularly throughout the year.  Click here for an explanation of the various depth-chart notations.  

1.  Denver Nuggets

  • Record last season: 48-24 (6th)
  • Offensive Rating: 113.8 (6th)
  • Defensive Rating: 111.5 (15th)
  • Net Rating:  2.3 (11th)

Key Departures: Monte Morris, Will Barton, JaMychal Green, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, Bryn Forbes, DeMarcus Cousins

Key Additions: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Ish Smith, DeAndre Jordan

Key Rookies: Christian Braun (pick 21), Peyton Watson (pick 30)

Projected Depth Chart

PGSGSFPFC
Jamal MurrayKentavious Caldwell-PopeMichael PorterAaron GordonNikola Jokic
Ish SmithBones HylandBruce BrownJeff GreenZeke Nnaji
Davon ReedChristian BraunPeyton WatsonVlatko CancarDeAndre Jordan
Collin Gillespie **Jack White **

Outlook

The two-time MVP Nikola Jokic led an injury-riddled Denver Nuggets team to the playoffs last season after Jamal Murray was ruled out for the entire year, and Michael Porter Jr. was injured early on in the season. The consensus was that a healthy Denver squad featuring Murray, Porter, and Jokic would have been serious contenders in the West. After acquiring Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the Washington Wizards, signing the walking Swiss Army knife, Bruce Brown, while maintaining their core, the Nuggets are healthy, deep, and ready to challenge for an NBA title this season.

There are a few holes worth noting with the Nuggets. Jokic seems to make everyone look better, and adding back Murray and Porter will only make this offense more efficient. The team was average on defense last year, ranking 16th in the league. The acquisitions Caldwell-Pope and Brown, along with the return of veteran Aaron Gordon, should help this team become more versatile in guarding elite offenses in the West. The Nuggets do not have much shot-creator depth, which proved too much to overcome in the playoffs last year against the Warriors. A player to potentially step into this role is Bones Hyland, the second year guard out of Virginia Commonwealth University. In the preseason, Hyland averaged an impressive 16 points on 46 percent shooting and only 18.4 minutes per game. A healthy Nuggets team is poised to be one of the best in the NBA and should be considered a solid favorite to finish first in their division, and ultimately be the top playoff seed in the West. 

2.  Minnesota Timberwolves 

  • Record last season: 46-36 (7th)
  • Offensive Rating: 113.8 (7th)
  • Defensive Rating: 111.0 (13th)
  • Net Rating: 2.7 (10th)

Key Departures: Patrick Beverly, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Josh Okogie, Jake Layman, Leandro Bolmaro

Key Additions: Rudy Gobert, Kyle Anderson, Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes

Key Rookies: Wendell Moore (pick 26), Josh Minott (pick 45)

Projected Depth Chart

PGSGSFPFC
D’Angelo RussellAnthony EdwardsJaden McDanielsKarl-Anthony TownsRudy Gobert
Jordan McLaughlinJaylen NowellTaurean PrinceKyle AndersonNaz Reid
Austin RiversBryn ForbesWendell MooreJosh MinottNathan Knight
Eric Paschall **Luka Garza **

Outlook

The Minnesota Timberwolves dominated headlines this offseason with their acquisitions via the trade market and free agency. Highlighted by the trade with the Utah Jazz, the Timberwolves acquired center Rudy Gobert to play next to Karl-Anthony Towns. The T’wolves sent away pieces that helped them reach the playoffs last year, including Patrick Beverly, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasly, depleting their bench depth. Minnesota also sent away five total picks for Gobert, committing the franchise to the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Timberwolves tried to replenish their bench depth by signing forward Kyle Anderson, guard Austin Rivers, and guard Bryn Forbes.

The core of Towns, Gobert, and Anthony Edwards make the Timberwolves one of the most unpredictable teams in the NBA. In theory, Towns and Gobert fit well together, having a good mix of offense (Towns) and defense (Golbert) between the big duo. Score-first point guard D’Angelo Russell might be the odd man out for this team. The ball will be in Edwards’ and Towns’ hands, giving fewer touches for Russell, who had been in trade talks this offseason and might be a target for some teams at the trade deadline. The Timberwolves also have a lack of bench depth. They tried to reconcile the situation in free agency by adding Anderson, but do not have shot creation coming off the bench to take pressure off the starting lineup. Fourth-year guard Jaylen Nowell will look to take advantage of the situation and carve out a role for himself — he averaged 11.6 points and shot 45.7 percent from the field in the preseason. The team’s interior defense should improve, but Gobert eliminates the five-out offense Minnesota was able to run last season with Towns at the center. In addition on defense, playing Towns on the perimeter sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. There will be a difficult adjustment period for each player, but the Timberwolves certainly have the talent to return to the playoffs and finish near the top of their division. 

3.  Portland Trail Blazers

  • Record last season: 27-55 (13th in the West)
  • Offensive Rating: 107.3 (27th)
  • Defensive Rating: 116.3 (29th)
  • Net Rating: -9.1 (30th)

Key Departures: Eric Bledsoe, Joe Ingles, Ben McLemore, CJ Elleby

Key Additions: Jerami Grant, Gary Payton II

Key Rookies: Shaedon Sharpe (pick 7), Jabari Walker (pick 57)

Projected Depth Chart

PGSGSFPFC
Damian LillardAnfernee SimonsJosh HartJerami GrantJusuf Nurkic
Gary Payton IIKeon JohnsonNassir LittleJustise WinslowDrew Eubanks
Shaedon SharpeGreg BrownJabari WalkerTrendon WatfordOlivier Sarr **
John Butler **

Outlook

After a season-ending injury to Damian Lillard last year, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to develop their young talent and trade away veterans for the next season. CJ McCollum and Larry Nance were traded for young wing Josh Hart, other players, and draft picks at the trade deadline. The Blazers continued to put an emphasis on acquiring athletic defenders, trading a first-round pick to the Detroit Pistons for Jerami Grant and signing Gary Payton II from the Golden State Warriors. The most surprising player from the 2021-22 season was Anfree Simons, who exploded while taking on the primary scoring role. The Trail Blazers re-signed the young guard this offseason to a lucrative four-year, 100-million deal, and are hopeful he can continue his success and form a formidable scoring duo with a healthy Lillard. 

The Trail Blazers have collected athletic wing defenders to become more versatile on the defensive end. They improved their starting lineup and bench depth that seemingly fits with Lillard. In addition, Jusuf Nurkic had a successful Eurobasket, showing off his improved jump shot and mobility. Regardless, it might not be enough to seriously compete in the West. The entire offense will rely on Simons and Lillard, which sounds oddly familiar to when the Blazers relied on Lillard and McCollum. Both Simons and Lillard are score-first, volume-shooting guards. Grant has developed into an all-around player, and there is concern that he will not get the opportunity to fully showcase his talents. Portland’s defense ranked 29th last season, and the only two experienced defensive pieces added were Payton II and Grant, meaning that youngsters such as Keon Johnson and Nassir Little will need to step up.  The Blazers are also once again relying on the injury-riddled Nurkic to anchor the paint for big minutes; there is an obvious lack of quality bigs on this roster. The Trail Blazers improved, but a lack of chemistry and minuscule depth might prove too much to overcome in the Western Conference playoff race.

Oklahoma City Thunder

4.  Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Record last season: 24-58 (14th in the West)
  • Offensive Rating: 103.8 (30th)
  • Defensive Rating: 111.7 (17th)
  • Net Rating: -8 (27th)

Key Departures: Isaiah Roby, Vit Krejci, Derrick Favors, Theo Maldeon, Ty Jerome

Key Additions: Isaiah Joe

Key Rookies: Chet Holmgren (pick 2), Osumane Dieng (pick 11), Jalen Williams (pick 12), Jaylin Williams (pick 34)

Projected Depth Chart

PGSGSFPFC
Josh GiddeyS. Gilgeous-AlexanderLuguentz DortDarius BazleyAleksej Pokusevski
Tre MannJalen WilliamsKenrich WilliamsJeremiah Robinson-EarlJaylin Williams
Isaiah JoeAaron WigginsEugene Omoruyi **Ousmane DiengMike Muscala
Lindy Waters III **Chet Holmgren

Outlook

The Oklahoma City Thunder won 24 games last year, and landed the second overall pick in the 2022  draft. The Thunder are not a desirable free-agent destination for any stars, contributing to the team not signing a proven player this offseason. However, OKC had an excellent draft, starting off by selecting Gonzaga star center Chet Holmgren to be the cornerstone to build around. The Thunder traded for raw talented wing Ousmane Dieng from the New York Knicks mid-way through the draft, a player who could become a versatile 3-and-D player in the future. The Thunder also drafted guard Jalen Williams from Santa Clara with their other lottery pick and center Jaylin Williams from Arkansas to add more size.

The Thunder were not a good team last season, and are not foreseen to be any better this season. Holmgren had an unfortunate foot injury during a pro-am game this past summer, ruling him out for the entire season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an interesting piece for the Thunder. An All-Star caliber player, Gilgeous-Alexander was named in various trade rumors this offseason, and ironically, he is clearly the team’s best player at this point in time. The Thunder will commit Josh Giddey, a lottery pick last year, to being their point guard this season. The 6-foot-8 Australian seems ready for the challenge, shooting 53.3 percent from three with increased volume in addition to 6.6 assists a game in the preseason. The backcourt duo of Alexander and Giddey will be the strength of the team this season, while wing Lu Dort will continue to be a defensive standout.  Other than that, this season will be about developing the young assets, and the Thunder will not win many games once again. 

The Thunder have compiled draft assets for years now, and might finally have the chance to unload their picks soon, with phenomenon Victor Wembanyama being eligible for this year’s NBA draft. If the Thunder see fit, they have the assets to make a Wembanyama-Holmgren frontcourt possible. 

5.  Utah Jazz

  • Record last season: 49-33 (5th in the West)
  • Offensive Rating: 116.2 (1st)
  • Defensive Rating: 111.0 (10th)
  • Net Rating: 6.2 (3rd)

Key Departures: Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mithcell, Bojan Bogdonovic, Royce O’Neale, Danuel House, Hassan Whiteside, Juancho Hernangomez, Eric Paschall, Trent Forrest

Key Additions: Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vandervilt, Kelly Olynyk, Talen Horton-Tucker, Leandro Bolmaro

Key Rookies: Ochai Agbaji (pick 14), Walker Kessler (pick 22), Simone Fontecchio

Projected Depth Chart

PGSGSFPFC
Mike ConleyCollin SextonMalik BeasleyLauri MarkkanenKelly Olynyk
Nickeil Alexander-WalkerJordan ClarksonOchai AgbajiJarred VanderbiltWalker Kessler
Leandro BolmaroTalen Horton-TuckerSimone FontecchioRudy GayUdoka Azubuike
Johnny Juzang **Micah Potter **

Outlook

The Utah Jazz dominated headlines all offseason for the amount of movement the franchise endured with various trades and rumors surrounding their core of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Both players were ultimately traded. Gobert was acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Mitchell was sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Jazz got back a variety of picks, along with proven NBA players such as Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, and Malik Beasly. The Jazz also landed two first round-pick rookies from this year’s draft class, Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler. Kessler looks all he was advertised to be, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game during the preseason. Despite the Jazz being barely recognizable, the team may not be finishing trading other veterans on the team, such as Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley.

The Jazz made the playoffs last year and lost in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks. It was reported the Jazz felt as if they were becoming stagnant as a franchise, which led to the big trades. It is safe to say the Jazz will not repeat their 49-win season of last season with the current roster; they are clearly in rebuild mode, perhaps even tanking mode. Their offseason acquisitions do not lack talent; Kessler and Agbaji are promising rookies with potential, Sexton and Markkanen are former lottery picks that can score, and Jarred Vanderbilt is one of the NBA’s most underrated defenders. The Jazz likely won’t be good this season, but they are in a great position for the future, with numerous draft assets acquired, expiring contracts, and young prospects already on the roster.

Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements

Statistics used in our scouting reports come from RealGM.com (international and NBA stats), Sports-Reference.com (NCAA and NBA stats), and Synergy Sports Technology (special analytics).  Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.  Click here to see the statistical abbreviation key.

About the Author(s)

  • Richard has worked as a sports writer/editor/analyst since 1998, and is NBA credentialed. He has contributed to various magazines, radio shows, and a number of other sites, including ESPN.com, SI.com, and USAToday.com. He is the former CEO of FantasyFootballExperts.com and a former member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He is currently the Managing Director at Hoops Prospects. Follow on Twitter @HoopsProspects.