To begin the NBA season, our staff writers took a stab at previewing each team and their division. While some predictions and prognostications have panned out, there is plenty that has been surprising.
This week, our writers will again break down the league, team by team, in order to get ready for the rest of the NBA season. We hope to give insight into where teams are at this point in the year, and with the trade deadline right around the corner, we will try to forecast what move lies ahead.
Next up is our breakdown of the Northwest division, where the defending champions, the Denver Nuggets, are in quest to get back, while young teams are nipping at their heels. Here’s how our writers, Andy Diederich, Ean Goldstein, Kevin Lu, Stacey Cumming, and Matt Strout, think about the Northwest Division.
(BSP mid-season reports were written prior to Feb. 8, 2024)
Team Record: 36-16 (2nd in Western Conference)
First Half Best Player: Nikola Jokic
First-Half Underperformer: Reggie Jackson
More than halfway through their season following their first title, there are no signs of a championship hangover for the Denver Nuggets. They sit in a 4-way tie for the West’s number one seed with four games to go before the All-Star Break.
To no one’s surprise, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is having another MVP-caliber season to lead the way for the Nuggets, posting averages of 26/12/9. His partner in crime, Jamal Murray, is close to averaging a career-high in points despite missing a sizable chunk of time due to injuries. Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope round out the starting five, marking a lineup that has outscored their opponents by over 14 net points per 100 possessions this year.
The offseason departures of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green led to concerns that Denver’s other bench players could step up to fill those newfound gaps in the lineup. Yet, the Nuggets reserves have done just that for the most part. Whether it’s the 12-year veteran Reggie Jackson averaging the most points and assists he’s had in four years or the sophomore Christian Braun continuing to plug into lineups as a solid wing option, the bench has definitely elevated their play.
Still, the biggest question remains: What is the entire roster capable of when Jokic is off the court? The Nuggets outscore opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor but lose the minutes he’s sitting by 10.3 points. These figures are sure to change come playoff time when Jokic sees the floor, likely 40 minutes a night, but it’s still an alarming statistic for the non-Jokic Nuggets.
The Nuggets still field the core of their roster that hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy eight months ago. Needless to say, any major trades they may make at the deadline would be a bombshell development. Their starting five is undoubtedly locked in place. Still, younger contributors like Peyton Watson, Zeke Nnaji, or the aforementioned Braun could potentially be on the move if this front office feels their bench needs an upgrade come playoff time.
The rest of 2024 will see the Nuggets attempt the unlikely accomplishment of repeating as champions. With much of the same team from a previous season and a top spot in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, expect things to continue trending upward in Colorado.
Team Record: 36-16 (1st in Western Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Anthony Edwards
First-Half Underperformer: Kyle Anderson
Before last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves went all in with Rudy Gobert, and after mixed results in 2022-23, it looks like it’s finally paying off. Minnesota has consistently been at the top of the Western Conference standings, led by a defense that has allowed just 107 points per game, the fewest in the league. The Timberwolves’ Big 3 of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and Gobert have all taken steps forward.
Gobert has been a force on both the offensive and defensive glass. Not only is he 2nd in the league in rebounds per game (12.4), but he is the NBA’s only player this season to rank in the top 3 in both offensive and defensive rebounds per game. Edwards has improved on nearly all of his offensive numbers from last season, and KAT has been shooting 44.3% from deep, a career-high by far.
However, the X-factor for the Timberwolves has been veteran PG Mike Conley. Per Cleaning the Glass, with Gobert, Edwards, KAT, and Conley all on the floor together, Minnesota outscores their opponents by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions. However, when Conley is on the bench, the Big Three only outscore opponents by 0.6 points per 100 possessions.
The Timberwolves are an impressive 19-10 against teams with a record of .500 or better, but winning in the playoffs is a different animal. As stated earlier, Conley has been invaluable to the team, but Minnesota lacks a true backup point guard, and they shouldn’t rely on the 36-year-old to log consistent 35- to 40-minute nights in the playoffs.
*Written before the Nuggets traded for Monte Morris from the Detroit Pistons*
Assuming the T-Wolves don’t want to break up their young core, potential buyout options like Kyle Lowry or Patty Mills could be enticing to help shoulder the load for Conley. Additionally, Kyle Anderson’s 3-point shooting has fallen off a cliff, and reports have linked Minnesota to Doug McDermott, who could be an excellent shooting option off the bench.
2023-24 is the Timberwolves’ best shot at a title they’ve ever had. A couple of deadline depth additions to an already good mix of veterans and young stars could bolster this team to lead the West in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Team Record: 35-16 (3rd in Western Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
First-Half Underperformer: Josh Giddey
Thus far, the Oklahoma City Thunder have had an impressive season, racking up 35 wins and 16 losses, marking themselves as one of the top contenders for the title. Thunder has made impressive progress compared to the previous season, whereas they lost to the New Orlean Pelicans as a 10-seed in the Play-In Tournament. The most encouraging part of the Thunder’s success is that they have been near the top of the standings for the entire season.
Mapping out the stats, Thunder has become one of the most balanced teams in the league, placing fifth and sixth in offensive and defensive ratings, respectively. Their third-place ranking in net rating further underscores this balanced approach, and they also excel in three-point shooting, with a 38.9% success rate, ranking them third in the league.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stands out as either the team’s best scorer (31.1) or leading the team in assists (6.6). After resting one season due to the injury, the rookie Chet Holmgren has become a stalwart, dominating the team in average rebound (7.5). Holmgren’s movement with the tremendous size enables him to score back-and-forth, showing his potential as a key play for Thunder’s future.
*Written before the Thunder traded for Gordon Hayward from the Charlotte Hornets*
Balancing on both ends shows Coach Mark Daigneault’s belief in his tactical approach, demonstrating the team’s guarantee for slaughtering the league’s top teams and its ambition to win the championship. As Daigneaul utilizes the team’s shooting efficiency and the offensive-defensive strategy, the young Thunder will be able to be unfazed by the more fierce playoff.
Portland Trail Blazers
Team Record: 15-36 (14th in Western Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Jerami Grant
First-Half Underperformer: Scoot Henderson
To say that the Portland Trail Blazers are not having a breakout season is an understatement. They are looking at another lost season, more than likely keeping them from the playoffs for the third year straight. This being their first year without Damian Lillard, their performance is as expected. Their record sits at 15-34, and they are currently 14th in the Western Conference, only ahead of the San Antonio Spurs. A majority of their wins were at home, including an impressive feat recently against the Milwaukee Bucks and their former All-Star Lillard.
This season for the Trail Blazers is focused less on wins and losses and more on developing their young roster of players. Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons have had moments of stardom but still have room to grow before either can truly lead the team. Jerami Grant is on his first year of a five-season contract and has put up impressive numbers throughout the first half of the season, averaging 21.1 points and shooting at 45.5%. Getting Deandre Ayton through the trade that lost Lillard had been beneficial both on the defensive side of the ball, averaging 10.2 rebounds per game, as well as bringing experience and leadership in the locker room.
A player whose performance is concerning is rookie Scoot Henderson, who has topped 20 points only four times so far this season and is only shooting at a 38% average. Adjusting and growing efficiency is expected for rookies, but this lackluster start for Henderson is worrisome. His development and growth will be essential to the team’s future success.
There have been unforeseen injuries that have played a part in the performance of the Trail Blazers, with only two of their top six scorers having played in 30 games, as well as major uncertainties in the organization surrounding the coaching effectiveness and success under Chauncey Billups. Between potential trades, player development, and their low shooting percentage, the Trail Blazers are at a critical point in their season to implement strategy changes to become more competitive and successful in their remaining games.
All in all, this is a rebuilding year for Portland, and as such, there will be more losses than wins, but the focus is on the growth for the future rather than on the immediate success right now.
Team Record: 26-27 (10th in Western Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Lauri Markkanen
First-Half Underperformer: Taylor Hendricks
Before the season, I wrote about the head coaches in the year and introduced the Head Coaching Tier List. In it, Will Hardy was a big-time winner. So far, that same is true in 2024. Hardy has propelled the Utah Jazz into the play-in conversation with a 26-27 record. Obviously, the play on the court has been a delight, too. There has been real growth from players like Colin Sexton and Walker Kessler. The Jazz scouting department deserves some praise as well. Keyonte George, the 16th pick in the 2023 Draft, is averaging 11.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game and is getting a boost in playing time as of late.
I have egregiously left out Lauri Markkanen in this discussion so far. The Finish forward is having an incredible season that would have nabbed him his second All-Star appearance if it weren’t for a stacked Western Conference. At only 26 years old, Markkanen still has room to develop into more of a playmaker as teams develop schemes around him.
*Written before the Jazz traded Kelly Olynyk and Ochai Abaji to the Toronto Raptors*
The trade deadline poses an interesting point for the Jazz. Just percentage points above the Golden State Warriors for the 10th seed in the West; what direction do the Jazz want to go? Dip into their chest of picks and swing for a star? Or sell off some pieces that are desirable to buyers? Most likely, the latter.
Even before the deadline, the Jazz traded away forward Simone Fonteccio to the Detroit Pistons for Kevin Knox and a future 2nd-round pick. Fonteccio contributed, but he was on an expiring contract, and the Jazz would likely use whatever extension money was assigned to him for other big fish in the market. It’s also probably the last days of Kelly Olynyk, who proved reliable for the Jazz, but he too was an expiring contract who is better served elsewhere.
Where the Jazz finish in the standings is inconsequential. Oklahoma City owns their 2024 draft pick but is 1-10 protected, so if the Jazz do bottom out, they retain it. However, the current projections are for a weaker draft than in recent history. So, if the Jazz compete in the second half, and their pick goes to OKC, the chance of missing out on a generation of talent is less likely. Every indication is that Will Hardy’s teams will compete no matter what. Expect them to hang around.
/ 1 day ago
Keon Coleman, WR, Florida State Height: 6’3” Weight: 213 Hand Size: 9 3/8...
/ 1 day ago
Malik Nabers, WR, LSU Height: 6’0” Weight: 200 Hand Size: N/A 40-Yard...
/ 2 days ago
Jalen McMillan, WR, Washington Height: 6’1” Weight: 197 Hand Size: 10 40-Yard...
/ 2 days ago
Rome Odunze, WR, Washington Height: 6’3” Weight: 215 Hand Size: N/A 40-Yard...