To kick off our 2023-2024 NBA season coverage, Back Sports Page will preview all 30 NBA teams for the upcoming year. However, unlike years past, our previews will be put out according to their respective divisions. In our fourth preview edition, our staff looked at the Southwest division and broke down each of the five teams.
Our basketball staff turned their attention to the Northwest division in this piece. Most, if not all, of the focus this offseason has centered around Damian Lillard and his trade saga. With Lillard now out of Portland, the spotlight shifts to the other, more up-and-coming teams to make a name for themselves this season, and, of course, the reigning champion Denver Nuggets remain at the top.
Follow along over the next two weeks to see an analysis of the outlooks for teams as they head into the new season.
Denver Nuggets Preview
Record Last Season: 53-29, 1st place in Western Conference (Won NBA Championship over Miami Heat 4-1)
Denver’s first title run was as magical as it was dominant. The Nuggets reached the first seed in the West around Christmas time and never let up. A 16-4 record in the playoffs capped off a historic run led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic (who definitely had a case to make it a threepeat this year!) While the star-studded core of Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon will all be running it back, key role players Bruce Brown and Jeff Green skipped town for more lucrative deals with the Pacers and Rockets, respectively. Don’t expect the Nuggets to look any less golden, however.
Several incumbent guys are looking to step up and fill those crevices left by Brown and Green. The candidates, such as newcomers Reggie Jackson and Justin Holiday, as well as rookie Julian Strawther. Other returning rotation guys like Christian Braun and Peyton Watson will also look to round out a starting five that was probably the best group of starters in the league last year. I’m predicting no championship hangover for Mike Malone’s squad this season.
As long as the Jokic-Murray tandem can continue to get the backup it received all of last season, basketball fans should expect to see the Nuggets once again secure the one seed and still playing ball come next June.
Minnesota Timberwolves Preview
Record Last Season: 42-40, 8th place in Western Conference (Lost First Round to Denver Nuggets 1-4)
The 2022-2023 NBA season was officially the start of the Rudy Gobert era for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Things went as the French say, décevant. Roughly translated, underwhelming. For the exuberantly large price paid for Gobert, the results and fit were concerning and tough to watch. Luckily for the Timberwolves, the Rudy Gobert era coincides with the Anthony Edwards era, and Edwards’ star already shines brighter.
Minnesota retooled their roster this offseason with the hope that continuity reigns supreme. Some new additions like Troy Brown Jr. and Shake Milton will round out their bench depth. In addition, the Timberwolves are betting on Karl-Anthony Towns to have a fully healthy regular season. Lastly, the hope for T-Wolves brass is that Edwards leaps into the superstar category.
The main priority this past offseason was re-signing center Naz Reid. The center impressed with more minutes when KAT was sidelined. The three-person big rotation of Reid, Towns, and Gobert is versatile, but often, it only makes sense to have one of the three out there at a time. How coach Chris Finch balances that rotation early will be critical. The Timberwolves have weaved in veteran savviness with players like Mike Conley and Kyle Anderson in the past year. The leadership was nice to see from Conley last season when he was traded from Utah. However, the big question is how he holds up at age 35 because the depth behind him isn’t proven.
If the Timberwolves start slow, expect a change to be made on the roster and possibly the head coach. It won’t be Edwards, but one of Towns or Gobert will definitely be shopped on the trade market. On the flip side, this team reached 46 wins two seasons ago. At the writing of this preview, they have enough talent to get past that mark if healthy.
Oklahoma City Thunder Preview
Record Last Season: 40-42, 10th place in Western Conference (lost second play-in to Minnesota Timberwolves)
Players Lost: Dario Saric
What an exciting time to be an OKC fan. Coming off a summer where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander proved his stature as a top-five player on the international stage, there are deservedly expectations that the Thunder can get back into the playoffs this season. In a loaded Western Conference, the journey won’t be easy. However, their rotation receives a massive boost with the addition of Chet Holmgren. The pseudo-rookie provides added rim protection and a potentially devastating pick-and-roll with SGA. The supporting cast, led by Josh Giddey, entering his third year, can match up offensively with any team in the league (fifth in the league in points per game last year). On the defensive end, they must make the necessary improvements to advance past the play-in.
The other lingering questions are: How does coach Mark Daigenault handle a team that needs to start getting results? And, relatedly, is this team in need of more veterans? We still should appreciate the new additions like Cason Wallace, Vasilije Micic from Europe, and Davis Bertans. OKC’s staff has an incredible development team for aging veterans, so is it possible that rubs off on Bertans? Hopefully so.
Along with Lou Dort and Isaiah Joe, Aaron Wiggins and Victor Oladipo (if he stays) will be relied on to guard the perimeter. Rebounding is a question mark. It’s easier said than done to have guards rebound consistently, so undersized guys like Jalen Williams and Kenrich Williams will need to hold their own on the boards.
With an MVP candidate and a core rounding into their early primes, this feels like a year when OKC leaps back into the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers Preview
Record Last Season: 33-49, 13th place in Western Conference
The most recent and arguably the biggest loss this team has experienced is Damian Lillard. The All-Star had been vocal about his request to be traded, and the deal has officially been made sending him to the Milwaukie Bucks. With Lillard no longer donning a Blazers jersey, the outlook for the Blazers is far from great. To say this does not bode well for Portland is an understatement.
They have historically been on the bottom of the totem pole regarding win percentages and post-season hopes. They have not made the playoffs for the past two years, and the two years prior were eliminated in the opening round, and this was with Lillard. This team has been in a “rebuilding” period for several seasons, and this year seems no different. It sadly seems even the NBA agrees with this, as the team is slated for just one national TV appearance for the entirety of the 2023-24 season (Feb. 27 against the Miami Heat).
On a high note, however, there are some key games the nation will want to tune into, specifically the most intriguing being those against the 1st and 2nd overall picks from this year’s NBA draft, as the Blazers have the 3rd overall pick in Scoot Henderson. The first one to watch will be against the San Antonio Spurs and Victor Wembanyama. This results in back-to-back games at the Moda Center in late December, with the next rookie faceoff being at the end of February against the Charlotte Hornets and Brandon Miller.
While there are matchups that the Blazers will come out victorious throughout the season, the chances of seeing this team in the playoffs this upcoming season are slim to none. Since the slim chances of Lillard staying in Portland are officially dashed, the thought of a championship coming to the great state of Oregon remains highly improbable.
Utah Jazz Preview
Record Last Season: 37-45, 12th place in Western Conference
After a one-year absence from the NBA playoffs, the Utah Jazz have made several changes through their offseason. They had three first-round draft picks in the 2023 NBA draft. The selections brought youth and talent to a roster that definitely needed it. Mix this in with a star in Lauri Markkanen, big man Walker Kessler along with Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, and the rest of their returning roster, this is a strong starting point for the Jazz.
The disappointing end of last season for the Jazz was seemingly less talent-driven and rumored to be more soft tanking in March and April to boost their odds in the draft lottery, so with some key pickups from the draft and free agency, this year has the potential to be much better but truly could go either way. At the end of the season, you either want to make the playoffs or be far from making it.
Yes, the Jazz could use this year as rebuilding season and opt to go for another lottery pick. However, the 2024 draft class is seemingly weaker than 2023, and more importantly, this franchise and, specifically, their fans are vying for a new and improved team, especially after losing Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell two years ago. If this team focuses on strong and efficient lineups for each opponent and developing the incoming rookies, they will be on track for a post-season slot.
Looking at the addition of John Collins as well as three first-round picks in Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George, and Brice Sensabaugh, I see this team potentially reaching the playoffs anywhere from an 8th seed to reaching the play-in tournament, even as a 12th seed. Unfortunately, even with the upswing they have created in the offseason, the odds of the Jazz taking the title this year are not in their favor.
Stacey Cumming is a contributor on Back Sports Page. A Graduate from the University of Oregon in Journalism, she has four years of sports reporting experience, including covering the Oregon Ducks, working with NFL Films, and various interview opportunities with Tyler Lockett, Kalenna Azibuike, Jordan Kent, and more. Cumming takes part in various podcasts such as OnSide Take, and Sofa Sports with her father, Roger Cumming. For more on Stacey, follow her on Twitter @StaceyKean.