There’s a little bit of everything in the Northwest Division ahead of the 2022-23 NBA season. Two teams, Denver and Minnesota, have aspirations of competing to win the Western Conference. Another two, Oklahoma City and Utah, have their eyes on the biggest names in the 2023 NBA Draft. And then there’s Portland, which could go in any direction now that Damian Lillard is healthy and back in the fold.
Today, we’re going to look at all five of these squads, and try to identify their biggest questions before the year tips off.
Denver Nuggets: Is their Big 4 really that good?
Nikola Jokic is Nikola Jokic. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are both back from injuries. Aaron Gordon can shoulder a much smaller scoring role and a much larger everything else role. That quartet only got to play five games alongside one another after Gordon was acquired at the 2021 trade deadline before Murray tore his ACL, but those five games made one thing clear: When they combine forces, these four dudes are capable of pummeling opposing teams.
Getting to watch Murray and Jokic do their thing alongside one another is going to be a blast — there is not a better inverted pick-and-roll in basketball when they are cooking. Porter needs to show he can do more than hit shots, but hoo boy, stopping him when he’s hitting shots is tough. Gordon as a Swiss army knife makes life easier on everyone else while maximizing the stuff he’s good at. And of course, no one in basketball is better at making everything make sense on the offensive end of the floor than the two-time league MVP, who should be able to carry the team while Murray and Porter are getting their feet back under them.
Denver is a championship contender this year. Their depth is quite good, as Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are sensational fits alongside that foursome and Bones Hyland is not afraid to shoot. But if the Murray-Porter-Gordon-Jokic grouping is going strong, beating the Nuggets four times in seven games is going to be awfully tough.
Minnesota Timberwolves: How does the whole Rudy Gobert thing work?
The Timberwolves made one of the more shocking trades we’ve seen in recent memory by going out and getting Gobert from the Utah Jazz. For a team that already has Karl-Anthony Towns, making a gigantic move to bring in a center seems a bit odd.
And then, you peel back the layers a bit: Towns is free to go all-in on being, as he fancies himself, the greatest shooting big man in basketball history. Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell now have a brick wall for a partner in their pick-and-roll game. Gobert’s ability to take away the entirety of the paint means the team can be hyper-aggressive on the perimeter if they so choose — while the team was a respectable 13th in defensive rating last year, the Wolves were second in turnover percentage.
There’s no guarantee any of this works, and as we saw during his time in Utah, there are real concerns about what happens when Gobert gets to the playoffs. They have 82 games, however, before they have to worry about that, and Chris Finch has established himself as one of the league’s best coaches at figuring out solutions to problems. This has the potential to be really, really fun.
Portland Trail Blazers: Is their bench good enough?
Portland’s starting five should be a blast. Damian Lillard is healthy, Anfernee Simons blossomed last season en route to a big money extension, Josh Hart thrived upon getting traded to the Pacific Northwest, Jerami Grant should fit in perfectly at the four, and Jusuf Nurkic has been a steady hand in the middle for years. When they are playing well, the Blazers are going to give opposing teams headaches.
What happens when they have to turn to their bench? Gary Payton II will miss the start of the year after offseason surgery, and guys like Drew Eubanks, Keon Johnson, Nassir Little, Olivier Sarr, and Trendon Watford flashed at various points during the lost 2021-22 campaign. How do those players respond to the lights being a little bit brighter for a team that wants to return to the postseason? What can they get out of 2022 first-round draft pick Shaedon Sharpe, whose talent as a wing scorer is undeniable but did not suit up for Kentucky at all last year? The good news for Portland is that answering this question with players who have been in the league and had some success is much easier than banking on guys to whom all of this is new.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can they balance going for a high pick with taking a step forward?
The Thunder have some tentpole players as they enter year three of their post-Russell Westbrook rebuild. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is excellent, Josh Giddey earned All-Rookie Second Team honors last season, and Luguentz Dort got a 5-year contract extension worth $87.5 million over the summer. While the team still has a billion future draft picks (this is only a slight over exaggeration), it stands to reason that whatever the best version of Oklahoma City looks like in 3-4 years includes those dudes, and continuing to develop them is of the utmost importance. And while Gilgeous-Alexander admitted he knew “what I signed up for” when he agreed to a 5-year extension, he made clear that “I don’t think we’re gonna be losing for much longer” this offseason.
Having said that, did you watch those games with Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson in Las Vegas? For how promising Dort, Giddey, and especially Gilgeous-Alexander are (along with a handful of others on this roster), Wembanyama and Henderson are the kinds of franchise-changing talents that make a huge rebuild worth it and accelerate any sort of rebuild. With how, for lack of a better word, competitive things could end up being in the race for the best possible position in the Draft Lottery next year, there is value in going for extremely broke as soon as possible. For example:
Utah Jazz: Do they want to find trades for their veterans?
Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, and Bojan Bogdanovic were the Jazz’s top-4 players in minutes per game last year. All of them were traded this offseason. Joe Ingles is gone. Danuel House is gone. Head coach Will Hardy is 34, got a long-term contract, and never has been in this position before. It is not hard to look at Utah’s moves over the summer and deduce that they have one eye on trying to get as high a pick as they possibly can in the 2023 NBA Draft.
The team did give a contract extension to one of the players they acquired in those aforementioned deals (Collin Sexton), while there are some proven dudes that came back, like like Malik Beasley, Lauri Markkanen, and Kelly Olynyk. Will they stick around ahead of the trade deadline? What about the guys who have been around prior to this summer, like Jordan Clarkson or Mike Conley or Rudy Gay, all of whom can be free agents next summer? There is value to having them around as the Jazz go through a youth movement, but it is not hard to imagine a scenario where other teams come calling and help them bolster their stash of draft picks.