Northwest Division preview: Jazz look to make deep playoff run

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) celebrates with guard Joe Ingles (2) after being fouled while making a basket against the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Oct. 19.

Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Western Conference’s Northwest Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021–22 standings.)

Utah Jazz

2020–21 finish: 52-20, first in the Northwest, lost in the second round.

Major additions: Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall.

Major subtractions: Georges Niang.

Best-case scenario: The Jazz sported the best record in the league last season, only to disappoint in the playoffs -- flaming out in the second round to the Los Angeles Clippers by dropping four straight after taking the first two contests. Given that fact, it’ll be important for Utah to finish as at least a top-three seed, again, and then earn a Conference Final berth to show signs of growth.

Worst-case scenario: Of course, for all the talent that the Jazz boast with the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Utah stumble a bit, especially as they try to integrate some pretty big new additions in Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gay -- who will likely start the season on the injured list. It feels just as likely that the Jazz are absolutely awesome again as it is that they falter and end up disappointing once again.

2021–22 season prediction: 51-31, second in the West.

Referee David Guthrie, right, struggles to keep Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, back, from fighting with Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker in the second half of Game 4 of an NBA second-round playoff series. (David Zalubowski/AP)


 

Denver Nuggets

2020–21 finish: 47-25, second in the Northwest, lost in the second round.

Major additions: Jeff Green

Major subtractions: JaVale McGee, Paul Millsap.

Best-case scenario: The Nuggets have all the makings of a championship-calibre team. They have the defending MVP in Nikola Jokic, three-point shooting, one of the game’s most exciting up-and-coming scorers in Michael Porter Jr., signed to a five-year max extension, and play defence that’s just good enough to allow their high-octane offence to take over for them. They had all of this last season, but, unfortunately, were without the final championship piece of Jamal Murray, whom they’ll have to do without to begin the season. The native of Kitchener, Ont., is still recovering from a left ACL injury and still has a ways to go with rehab, but if the Nuggets can get him back healthy and ready to roll by the time the playoffs roll around then those title aspirations will be renewed.

Worst-case scenario: Outside the obvious scenarios you can probably well imagine, the worst-case situation for the Nuggets this season would be Murray being unable to return in time for the playoffs. For all the firepower Denver boasts, Murray is a next-level kind of scorer and competitor and his ability to get buckets at opportune times and heat up can single-handedly turn series for the Nuggets.

2021–22 season prediction: 47-35, sixth in the West.

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)


 

Portland Trail Blazers

2020–21 finish: 42-30, third in the Northwest, lost in the first round.

Major additions: Ben McLemore, Larry Nance Jr., Tony Snell, Cody Zeller.

Major subtractions: Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, Enes Kanter.

Best-case scenario: Simply put, the Blazers need to prove to Damian Lillard that there’s a real chance for him to win in Portland, and the best way to do that will be make a deep post-season run.

Worst-case scenario: The moves the Blazers made in the off-season don’t necessarily inspire confidence that this is a team good enough to truly contend, even with an electric talent like Lillard leading the way. There is some hope with a full season of former Raptor Norman Powell and some more athleticism in the frontcourt with the addition of Larry Nance Jr., but it’s hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu with this Blazers team, and that likely won’t be good enough.

2021–22 season prediction: 46-36, seventh in the West.

Minnesota Timberwolves centre Karl-Anthony Towns. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)[/caption]


 

Minnesota Timberwolves

2020–21 finish: 23-49, fourth in the Northwest, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Taurean Prince.

Major subtractions: Ricky Rubio.

Best-case scenario: You would like to think that with an exciting, young guard who can score at-will on the roster in Anthony Edwards along with other talented pieces in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell that it would be in the best interest of the Timberwolves to look to start being competitive and try to at least sneak into the play-in tournament. But a quick glance around the Western Conference reveals that to be an untenable idea. So, like most years, the Timberwolves would be better off playing for ping-pong balls this season rather than wins.

Worst-case scenario: The Timberwolves likely want to lose, but if they actually do string together some wins to get themselves in a race, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. What absolutely can’t happen is a regression from the likes of Edwards. The team also needs solid play from Russell after making a significant investment. Essentially, you want to see this group take a step forward positively lest it remain stuck in the doldrums.

2021–22 season prediction: 30-52, 13th in the West.

Oklahoma City Thunder's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander goes after a loose ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)[/caption]


 

Oklahoma City Thunder

2020–21 finish: 22-50, fifth in the Northwest, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Derrick Favors, Josh Giddey (R), Tre Mann (R).

Major subtractions: N/A.

Best-case scenario: The Thunder were attempting to bottom out midway through last season, but only ended up with the No. 6 overall pick, which they used to select intriguing tall and raw Australian point guard Josh Giddey. More importantly, however, the Thunder have a ridiculous 36 total draft picks over the next seven drafts -- 18 first-rounders and 18 second-rounders -- and they should look for a way to leverage all this draft capital into a true path towards a competitive future. The Thunder have a strong building block in Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but they need a lot more around him and should figure to be active around the deadline in pursuit of a star. If that doesn’t pan out, though, the Thunder will almost assuredly be one of the two worst teams in the league with another high pick coming their way to either use in the draft or as a tool to facilitate a trade. This season -- and likely a few more to come -- is all about how GM Sam Presti can use this war chest to create a real, competitive team for the future. What happens this season is, ultimately, inconsequential.

Worst-case scenario: The Thunder don’t want lottery luck to lock them out of the top four again and they need to do everything in their power to ensure that doesn’t happen again this season.

2021–22 season prediction: 22-60, 15th in the West.

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