The 2019-20 NBA season is just around the corner. After an offseason chock-full of player movement, the title race appears as wide-open as it has been in years.
Over the past few weeks, we have examined one big question hanging over each team heading into the season. We’ll finish with the Northwest Division, where all five teams may enter the season with playoff aspirations.
Denver Nuggets: Will Jerami Grant help them go deeper this year?
The Denver Nuggets are doubling down on the value of continuity.
After taking the Portland Trail Blazers to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Nuggets didn’t radically overhaul their roster this offseason. Their biggest addition came via trade, not free agency, when they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the suddenly rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for rangy forward Jerami Grant.
A guy who set a career high by averaging 13.6 points per game last season won’t get much buzz during a summer in which Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler all changed teams.
However, Grant could be the difference between Denver again going home in the conference semifinals versus representing the West in the NBA Finals.
The Nuggets are set at center with Nikola Jokic, and their young backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris should provide plenty of complementary scoring. Wing depth was their biggest issue last season, as Will Barton scuffled through an injury-plagued campaign and rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. missed the entire season to recover from a back injury.
Grant isn’t likely to erupt for 20-plus points regularly, but he can slot in as a fourth or fifth option offensively while giving Denver a versatile wing defender. Head coach Mike Malone could even tinker with small-ball lineups featuring Grant at the 5, giving the Nuggets the sort of lineup flexibility that should benefit them regardless of who they face in the playoffs.
The Nuggets will have to get past the two L.A. teams, the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets just to make it to the NBA Finals, but Grant may be the X-factor who determines whether they do so.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Is Andrew Wiggins a lost cause?
Before the Minnesota Timberwolves offered Andrew Wiggins a five-year, $147.5 million extension in 2017, team owner Glen Taylor told Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press that “there are some things that I need out of him, and that is the commitment to be a better player than you are today.”
Wiggins has yet to live up to his end of the bargain.
The 2014 No. 1 overall pick shot a career-worst 41.2 percent from the field last year en route to per-game averages of 18.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 34.8 minutes. He’s a career 33.2 percent shooter from deep and has yet to consistently leverage his athleticism into becoming an impactful defender.
The Timberwolves aren’t paying Wiggins nearly $30 million annually to be a rich man’s Dion Waiters. Even if he doesn’t assert himself as their No. 1 scoring option—Karl-Anthony Towns should have that role locked down—there’s no excuse for him to finish 84th out of 90 small forwards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus, as he did last season.
Minnesota may be poised to maximize him this year as best it can, though.
With Robert Covington, Josh Okogie and rookie Jarrett Culver now all in the fold, the Timberwolves have a wealth of switchable wings to throw at opponents. That should help reduce pressure on Wiggins to defend every team’s best wing and allow him to become more alert off the ball, which could lead to more transition opportunities off turnovers.
Wiggins may never live up to his pre-draft hype, but the Timberwolves need to coax more out of him this season to begin getting a positive return on their massive investment.
Oklahoma City Thunder: What does the post-Westbrook era look like?
When the 2019-20 season tips off, the Oklahoma City Thunder will not have Russell Westbrook leading their offense for the first time in more than a decade.
Once Paul George asked his way out of OKC to join Kawhi Leonard on the Los Angeles Clippers, the Thunder immediately began to pivot toward a rebuild. Rather than hanging on to the last vestiges of their early 2010s success, they shipped Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, two future first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps.
The Thunder received promising second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Clippers as part of their massive haul for George, “who’s considered the franchise’s future playmaker,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Until they find a taker for the remaining three years and $124.1 million on Paul’s contract, he and Gilgeous-Alexander will likely share a backcourt in OKC.
A starting five featuring those two, Andre Roberson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams might not be playoff-caliber in the cutthroat Western Conference, but it isn’t far off. With reserves such as Dennis Schroder, Terrance Ferguson, Mike Muscsala and Nerlens Noel, the Thunder are by no means tanking (yet) despite having lost Westbrook and George in the span of one month.
However, if they stumble out of the gates and fall out of playoff contention early on, general manager Sam Presti might decide to conduct a fire sale. Gallinari and Roberson are headed into the final year of their respective contracts, while Adams will become a free agent following the 2020-21 season.
The Thunder are likely to be a fringe playoff team at best this season even if Presti doesn’t begin stripping the roster down to the studs. How well they perform in the first few months may decide the rate at which he embarks upon a full-scale rebuild.
Portland Trail Blazers: Have they already peaked?
After five straight first- or second-round knockouts, the Portland Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference Finals last season for the first time since 1999-2000.
But considering how many West teams upgraded this offseason, it’s fair to wonder whether the Damian Lillard / CJ McCollum-led Blazers have already reached their ceiling.
While the Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, the Blazers’ biggest offseason acquisition was… Hassan Whiteside? Kent Bazemore? They also lost key pieces such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Enes Kanter (who filled in admirably last season after Jusuf Nurkic went down), Seth Curry and Evan Turner.
Whiteside figures to start at center until Nurkic is healthy enough to return, and third-year big man Zach Collins should be slated for an increased role as well. Rodney Hood will likely get the nod as the Blazers’ starting small forward, while Bazemore should come off the bench as a capable sub.
Beyond Lillard, McCollum and Whiteside, the Blazers’ young players may ultimately determine their team’s ceiling this year. Second-year combo guard Anfernee Simons generated a ton of hype during summer league, while second-year 2-guard Gary Trent Jr. and rookie forward Nassir Little may be forced to play sizable roles by default.
The Blazers are entering the season on a tier below the Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz, but they’ve proved time and again over the past half-decade that you should never underestimate them. Don’t be surprised if they enter the playoffs as an underdog and topple a higher-seeded foe in the first round, particularly if Nurkic is back up to full speed by then.
Utah Jazz: Are they a legitimate Finals threat?
With two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert manning the middle, the Utah Jazz have long boasted an elite defense. It’s the other half of the floor that’s been the problem for them in recent years.
Whereas second-year guard Donovan Mitchell struggled as Utah’s primary (sole?) scoring threat last year, a few offseason additions should help reduce some of that burden in 2019-20.
Ahead of the NBA draft, the Jazz sent Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, their 2019 first-round pick and a heavily protected 2020 first-rounder to the Memphis Grizzlies for veteran point guard Mike Conley. Once free agency began, they quickly came to terms with former Indiana Pacers wing Bojan Bogdanovic on a four-year, $73.1 million contract.
Conley is fresh off a season in which he averaged a career-high 21.1 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 6.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 triples in 33.5 minutes per game with the Grizzlies. Although he’ll turn 32 shortly before the start of the season, he remains one of the NBA’s better two-way point guards, even if he doesn’t have the All-Star nods to prove it.
Bogdanovic, meanwhile, is a lights-out shooter who canned a career-high 42.5 percent of his three-point attempts this past season while averaging 18.0 points per game on 49.7 percent with Indiana. He and Jazz swingman Joe Ingles should be effectively interchangeable on offense, which means Utah will likely have a stretch-4 alongside Gobert for most of his minutes this season.
If the Jazz’s defense remains as stout as it has been in years past and Conley and Bogdanovic—not to mention bench solid additions such as Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis—help to bolster the offense, a Finals berth should be well within reach.
Check out our other division previews:
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.