Discover more from The Box and One
NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division
The new-look Timberwolves and healthy Nuggets set the pace as the Blazers are seeking another playoff berth
The NBA season is quickly enclosing us. We finally had a real offseason this summer, resulting in a few seismic shifts for franchises. Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota, Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland, Dejounte Murray in Atlanta, and a ton of teams are banking on getting back to health atop the crowded Western Conference. Looming for rebuilding teams is the threat of a historic top of the draft featuring Victor Wembanyama and a potential race to the bottom.
Now, it’s time to look backward at what has happened to inform what might happen moving forward. We’ll tackle each team through the lens of the most important questions they face this year. Some questions are about timeline and process, while others ponder the fit of the roster. At the very least, this serves as a great launching pad into the 2022-23 NBA season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Head coach: Mark Daigneault, 3rd year (46-108 record)
2021-22 Record: 24-58
Vegas Line: 23.5 wins
Our Projection: 20-62, 14th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 29th
Def. Rating: 28th
We were really hoping to see Chet Holmgren play this year. A freak injury in a pro-am cost him this season, though that could be to the organization’s long-term benefit. OKC might now be bad enough to remain as a leader for odds to secure Victor Wembanyama — and a Chet and Victor frontcourt is one we’d salivate over.
Regardless, we enter another season in Oklahoma City with no big man option at the 5 that can play NBA-style rim protection. Not only that, but the Thunder traded Derrick Favors away to Houston this Fall, leaving only Aleksej Pokusevski on the roster standing 6’11” or taller. That lack of defense gives the Thunder a clear pathway to the bottom, even though they were 18th in defensive rating a season ago. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is just that solid of a frontcourt piece and a really good defender; he’s more of a 4 than a 5, but is proving solid as a small-ball 5 option long-term.
The real meat and potatoes of this roster comes in its backcourt. Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are their best players, full stop. Giddey is a sensational passer with elite feel in ball screens, while SGA is an All-Star-caliber scorer. SGA will miss some time to start the season, furthering their delve into the bottom of the league. Giddey has to show a good deal of growth shooting-wise in year two, otherwise his fit off-ball next to SGA will be clunky long-term.
Presti has seemingly prioritized drafting young, long-armed, intriguing players. Giddey and SGA both have positional size, Chet is well-known as a huge human, and Pokusevski is that positionless piece with upside. Poku doesn’t belong listed in their core, though he is indicative of their draft strategy. This year, Jalen Williams from Santa Clara and Ousmane Dieng from France are first-round picks that check the same boxes.
It will be interesting to see how much preferential development and minutes go to those guys (Poku, Williams and Dieng) over some later-round picks or additions that have less of the same physical profile. Tre Mann, for example, proved that he’s a rotation-caliber guard last season. Minutes given to Dieng more at the 2 or even the 1 could cut into Mann’s overall role. Having length allows the Thunder to get away with playing one smaller guy (see Raptors, Toronto), so it may be a good thing for Mann.
On the wings, there are a few sturdy bodies that we like. Lu Dort recently signed an extension and is a competent 3-and-D player right now. How he explores his offensive ceiling may indicate if his best value tot he Thunder is on the court or as a trade asset. Aaron Wiggins is good, but playing him over Dieng or Williams as first-round picks seems foolish long-term.
Speaking of rookies, Jaylin Williams figures to get some minutes right away due to the needs of the roster at the 5. Mike Muscala is the only battle-tested one, an important stretch-5 for offensive purposes. Throw Jaylin and Poku into the mix behind JRE and Darius Bazley and there are some interesting pieces to monitor.
The Thunder are scrappy and will win a few games nobody thinks they should. They have legitimate NBA players, they are just too young to consistently win games - at least without Chet Holmgren. They’re another year away from meshing and maturing into something, and that may be a good thing to maximize one more year of draft picks in a loaded 2023 draft class.
Five Burning Questions
Where does their rim protection come from this year?
How do they sift through prioritizing minutes for all the young players on their roster?
Does Josh Giddey make any improvements in terms of off-ball offense?
Outside of SGA and Giddey, who is their third-best active player?
Does Presti shut it down again mid-season and put on an all-out assault for Wembanyama?
Head coach: Will Hardy, 1st year
2021-22 Record: 49-33
Vegas Line: 25.5 wins
Our Projection: 23-59, 13th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 28th
Def. Rating: 29th
Look, we are here to help. Most people honestly have no idea who is still even on the Utah Jazz. So before we do a commentary on their season outlook, let’s quickly run down who is on the roster (as of training camp)
PG - Collin Sexton, Mike Conley, Jared Butler
CG - Jordan Clarkson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Leandro Bolmaro
W - Malik Beasley, Talen Horton-Tucker, Ochai Agbaji, Simone Fontecchio, Stanley Johnson
F - Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, Kelly Olynyk, Rudy Gay
P - Walker Kessler, Cody Zeller, Udoka Azubuike
If you’re doing math along with us, yes… that’s 18 players. So cuts and roster consolidation will have to take place. For that reason, it’s felt like the Jazz were going to make a training camp deal to move on from some of their veterans, namely Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley. Nobody feels off the table for this group.
That said, there are some talented pieces here. We’re pretty high on Lauri Markkanen and believe he could thrive as more of an offensive focal point. Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Nickiel Alexander-Walker and Talen Horton-Tucker make up the all-confidence team; those guys will get it up in a hurry and not care much about creating for others. That will be some delightful entertainment at some point… just a bunch of capable scorers going out and firing night after night.
Let’s not lose sight of the youngsters, though. Jared Butler, Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler are three guys on their rookie deals we’re really intrigued by. Kessler has a high defensive ceiling, Agbaji a readymade 3-and-D piece, and Butler always one of our favorite guards. If Butler can see the floor over some of the other vets, this will be a crucial year in his evaluation.
Alexander-Walker and Sexton are still young enough to be part of the long-term core. I think Sexton is instantly their best player and young enough to wait out a rebuild in Utah. He should have every chance to succeed in Salt Lake City. The presence of Conley and Clarkson as proven vets that need minutes early to keep their trade appeal up does crowd the backcourt rotation just a tad.
Two acquisitions from the Timberwolves in Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley also are good contributors from day one. Vanderbilt is the team’s best defender, full stop. He’s a really good piece and could start for them as a small 5. Beasley’s floor spacing is important, though he is known to go rogue and let it fly at times as well.
The Jazz will likely be pretty brutal on the defensive end this season. But with enough offensive firepower thanks to Sexton, Markkanen and the other guard pieces, they could win a few more games than people think. Much of their trajectory will be decided by when they make a trade and what they get in return. It’s a fluid situation in Utah as they enter a long-term rebuilding phase.
Five Burning Questions
Does Mike Conley finish the season with the Jazz?
Are these Jazz too good to finish at the bottom of the NBA standings?
What does Collin Sexton look like in his return from injury?
Are there any valuable long-term building blocks here on rookie contracts?
What other veterans are involved in trade discussions throughout the year?
Portland Trail Blazers
Head coach: Chauncey Billups, 2nd year (27-55 record)
2021-22 Record: 27-55
Vegas Line: 39.5 wins
Our Projection: 39-43, 11th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 19th
Def. Rating: 23rd
It doesn’t feel all that long ago when Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic were in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. The trouble with clinging onto that memory is that their appearance in the 2019 WCF masked a lot of roster issues they had, some that they haven’t gotten the chance to remedy. Sure, they dealt McCollum at last year’s deadline and pushed themselves downward into a late-season tank. What do they have to show for it? Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe, a new contract for Anfernee Simons, and a couple of role players.
This is still Dame’s show, and his health and production will be what takes them back to the playoffs. Grant has been miscast as a top-two option before, a role he’s likely to reprise this season in Portland. Simons can score it and is a fantastic off-ball shooter. Nurkic scores on the interior and is serviceable on defense despite his inconsistencies. The core four for the Blazers isn’t all that bad, and they’re good enough to land in the Western Conference’s competitive top-ten.
Our issue comes with the rest of the roster, where they are really short on both experience and high-caliber role players. Justise Winslow seems to be the frontrunner for the fifth starter role, a solid on-ball defender and more of a secondary passer than anything on offense. He’s a unique element, especially if he successfully cross-matches onto opposing guards to take the top defensive assignment. Positive defensive contributions from Winslow and Grant may not be enough to compensate for the porous backcourt and lack of elite rim protection provided by Nurkic.
Jabari Walker looks like a steal from Summer League and training camp play, but it’s hard to trust a rookie to be one of your key contributors off the bench. There’s a slew of big wing/ forward types who are more toolsy than proven: Nassir Little might be in line for a breakout, Greg Brown is supremely athletic, and Trendon Watford showed real passing and finishing flashes last year. Sorting through that backup rotation isn’t easy when none of them are proven spot-up shooters or project safely as a small-ball 5 this season.
Drew Eubanks feels like the only backup big on the roster. He’s only 6’9” and while a solid defender and finisher, the Blazers are one Nurkic injury away from being far too thin to survive up front. Portland needs to address their front line, both with more bodies and alternative options for opponents who force them into a separate style of play. It feels like a crime that Lillard and Simons are two creative lead guards that don’t partner with a true screen-and-roll big.
There are a couple of backups we like on the perimeter. Josh Hart always tries hard, and he fits well if he has to share the floor with any of the starters. He’s a good enough scorer, but his defense and glue guy tendencies win him increased minutes. Gary Payton II is the new acquisition, a defensive whiz who will play as the third guard and be a dawg in his minutes. It was a shrewd acquisition on its face, but playing Payton with the likes of Nassir Little or Greg Brown on the second unit leaves the Blazers a tad thin on shooting. It also squeezes Keon Johnson, a toolsy second-year pro with high upside but a long way to go to clean up his offense.
All roads lead back to not just Lillard’s heroics to carry this team, but major decisions made by Billups to keep them competitive. Last year’s defensive gameplan by Billups was to be ultra-aggressive on the perimeter, so as to not strain their lack of depth at the 5 by funneling ball screen action toward the rim. For both personnel and schematic reasons, that did not work: the Blazers were dead last in defensive rating.
This feels like a team wandering through the West a bit. Lillard wants to be here, and the organization feels committed to playing through him and trying to be competitive so long as he’s here. Yet they’ve made decisions around the margins that lead to a lack of veteran role players on the roster, only one young cornerstone for long-term development (the man of mystery, Shaedon Sharpe), and similar issues defensively that caught up to them during the Dame and CJ era. There’s never a good reason to count out Lillard, so they very well could be a play-in team and overachieve our expectations. If they do not, the front office will be faced with a ton of really challenging questions.
Five Burning Questions
Are the pieces around Dame better fitting so this can be a playoff team?
Does Chauncey Billups scrap their aggressive ball screen coverage in Year Two?
Which of the young guns can take a step forward to be a true rotation-caliber contributor?
Do we get anything out of Shaedon Sharpe this year?
Is Anfernee Simons going to post similar numbers with Damian Lillard in the lineup?
Head coach: Chris Finch, 3rd year (62-61 record)
2021-22 Record: 46-36
Vegas Line: 48.5 wins
Our Projection: 47-35, 6th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 4th
Def. Rating: 11th
Acquiring Rudy Gobert was arguably the biggest and most important move across the NBA this offseason. The Timberwolves have been one of the league’s most impactful offenses since Chris Finch took over, stymied by the unique shooting big man Karl-Anthony Towns and blossoming star Anthony Edwards. With KAT at the 5, defense was always going to be questionable, and while Finch was somewhat creative last season to maximize his pieces, he’s an offensive coach at heart.
That’s where Gobert can really change the game for this team. He’s one of the best regular season defenders over the last 25 years, a dominant rim protector who patrols the paint no matter how many sieves are guarding the perimeter. The Timberwolves now look to move Towns to the 4, where his shooting can still be utilized but he isn’t the quarterback of the defense and has an elite shot blocker behind him for when he gets blitzed off the bounce by smaller guys. D’Angelo Russell, a smart help defender but subpar on-ball athlete, also gets a blanket of protection.
Gobert is used to being surrounded by an offensive-minded group: it’s how the entire roster was constructed in Utah. Minnesota does offer a few more strong athletes at least, and the Wolves have made it a point this summer to bring in some defensive-minded role players. Anthony Edwards has a high defensive ceiling, and he flashed his potential in the postseason series with the Memphis Grizzlies. Jaden McDaniels, who will either slide to being their starting 3 or their backup 4, is a terrific individual defender. If I were Finch, I’d be putting him on the floor whenever Towns plays the 5. Acquiring Kyle Anderson (a competitor on D but not an elite athlete), PJ Dozier, and keeping Taurean Prince via extension gives them plenty of big bodies to help on that side.
Of course, shooting is paramount around any Rudy-centric pick-and-rolls. In Utah, Conley and Mitchell were elite handlers that brought multiple options for ball screen attacks. Russell is competent but not as live-bodied of a driver, and Edwards’ best traits come in isolation or on the move. Incorporating Gobert on offense may be a little different than he’s used to. If anyone can get it right, it’s Finch, a fantastic tactician and underrated coach overall.
How Finch constructs his second unit remains to be seen. Russell-Edwards-McDaniels-Towns-Gobert-Anderson feels pretty firmly entrenched as their top six. Prince and Dozier will get wing minutes, and Jaylen Nowell is ready for backup scoring guard duty. He’s a vastly underrated player across the league. The Timberwolves don’t really have a backup point guard who can run the pick-and-roll at an elite level, though — something I’d recommend to maximize Gobert. Luka Garza and Naz Reid will compete for minutes and roster spots as backup bigs; both provide an element of floor spacing that we know Finch covets.
All this talk about their improvement helps us get through the regular season. Gobert-led teams have faced similar postseason issues over the last several years: opponents go 5-out or find ways to consistently move him away from the rim. The way the rosters are built because of his presence, they aren’t usually equipped to survive defensively in those moments. Perhaps having more size with KAT at the 4, or with McDaniels as a skilled defender, will alleviate those concerns. But it certainly doesn’t feel, at first glance, that these Wolves are overwhelmingly more talented on offense or a better fit overall than the Utah Jazz teams of the last several.
We absolutely respect this organization going all-in on getting Gobert, realizing what type of star they need to maximize the cornerstone pieces they already have in Towns and Edwards. While there are still questions and overall challenges to making it fit seamlessly in year one, they’ll be better served from a talent perspective than they were before. I’m incredibly intrigued to see how they make everything mesh on both ends.
Five Burning Questions
How do KAT and Rudy Gobert coexist?
Is Anthony Edwards ready to take another leap towards superstardom?
Is there enough shooting among the role players?
Will D’Angelo Russell find himself on the trading block once again?
Will Gobert run into similar schematic issues on defense in the postseason?
Head coach: Michael Malone, 8th year (314-241 record)
2021-22 Record: 48-34
Vegas Line: 50.5 wins
Our Projection: 51-31, 4th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 1st
Def. Rating: 15th
Okay, here’s the deal. The Nuggets have the reigning two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic, a cheat code on the offensive end and the tireless engine of their entire team. They are getting two scoring threats back from injury in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Both are capable of scoring 25 on any given night while also playing off-ball next to Jokic. That core has played sparingly with Aaron Gordon, their prized acquisition over a year ago and a really athletic 4-man that pairs very well with Jokic.
That group alone is reason to be optimistic about the Nuggets, who were excellent in the bubble before those injuries interrupted their ascent to the top of the Western Conference. Picking up where they left off will require health and impact from other role players around here.
The most important role player not mentioned is likely to be their fifth starter: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. With KCP in the backcourt, the Nuggets have a second strong individual defender, another solid shooter to flank Jokic, and an underrated cutter that the Joker will find on backdoors. He fits so seamlessly into this roster that it is laughable how underrated this acquisition was. This could be the five-man unit that leads the NBA in plus-minus this year.
Monte Morris, the man traded to bring in KCP, is a tough loss for the team. He was underrated and always solid as a creator, settling those moments when Jokic was off the floor. Without him, the Nuggets need to rely on second-year scorer Bones Hyland. Bones is a drastically different type of player, though he can anchor the second unit with his limitless range and confidence. He’s long and wiry, making him capable on defense of at least being a disruptor when he provides effort.
Bruce Brown, a free agent signing from Brooklyn, is another huge piece. Brown is that energetic, roll-up-your-sleeves defender that will come in and handle all the dirty work for this team. He defends 1 thru 3 very well and is a smart enough cutter, again, to be able to play with their MVP. From a conceptual standpoint, he fits what they do so well.
Young guys like Zeke Nnaji and Christian Braun may be asked to step up into a rotation role eventually. There are veterans to bridge the gaps in DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green, but they are a tad over the hill and not guys we’d want to see for extended (if any) minutes in a playoff series. Nnaji, Braun and even Peyton Watson become wild cards to round out the rotation.
What you see from a contender in October is often different on the back end of the roster from what will be there in March. The buyout market always contains a gem or two, and because the Nuggets have a championship-contending core, they’ll be a desired destination for a veteran to come to. We fully expect them to add a little more experience by the end of the season.
This offense will be absurdly good now that they’re healthy, and the role players like Gordon, Caldwell-Pope and Brown are going to help on the defensive end. Jokic has his issues in postseason series guarding in versatile schemes, so different opponents could be tough for the Nuggets depending on who they draw. This is a team that doesn’t get enough love for title contention, though. They’re firmly in the mix in our eyes.
Five Burning Questions
Will injuries have interrupted Michael Porter Jr.’s long-term development?
Can the Nuggets defense be good enough to win postseason games?
Are Bones Hyland and others ready to step up to solidify the second unit in Monte Morris’ absence?
Will Jokic win a third consecutive MVP?
Do matchups matter for them in the playoffs more than any other team?