For the third year in a row the Denver Nuggets are dedicating the offseason to the draft and free agency but this summer there's definitely a more positive vibe regarding the state of the team. Denver is young and rich with talent, they own three first-round picks in the upcoming draft, and will have plenty of cap space to work with. Tim Connelly has a lot of flexibility on what he can do to make the Nuggets a better team and keep Denver on the right course moving forward.
Unfortunately, Denver isn't the only team poised to improve. What's really frightening is all that is going on just within the Northwest Division. With the Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals and increasing the probability of keeping Kevin Durant, the emergence of C.J. McCollum in Portland, Minnesota hiring Tom Thibodeau and Utah continuing to develop nicely, this division is going to be STACKED for years to come. In reality, the Nuggets might have only the fifth-most positive outlook in the Northwest.
Here's how I rank the potential for each Northwest Division team:
Minnesota is the first team in 42 years to have back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners in Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been great but Towns put together one of the best rookie seasons of all time, joining David Robinson and Tim Duncan as one of three rookies ever to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Towns also notched 51 double-doubles (3rd in the NBA) and shot 54.2% from the field. At 7'0 with crazy athleticism and the ability to shoot, Towns is a future All-NBA player and the perfect candidate for a team to build around. He will dominate for years ahead with the support of both Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
The Timberwolves will also be adding to their young talent when they select fifth in the draft this June. Several mocks have them selecting Jamal Murray or Kris Dunn for backcourt insurance and shooting ability, but they could also benefit from a power forward to pair with Towns. Minnesota really can't go wrong with whatever direction they take; whoever they pick will fill a need.
Perhaps the biggest impact on Minnesota though will be the addition of Thibodeau. In 2015-16, the Wolves were 27th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions . Thibodeau shouldn't have trouble remedying that as Minnesota has plenty of potential defensive weapons already on the roster. Additionally, his experience in turning teams around and his ability to get the most out of players will be a welcome sight. He is likely the final piece that the Timberwolves need to take the franchise to next level. If all goes well, Minnesota could reach the 50 win mark as early as next season and finally end their 12 year playoff drought.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
All season long the elephant in the room has been Kevin Durant's pending free agency. It's possible that if the Thunder don't win the title this season then Durant is gone for good but after a six game defeat of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City now finds itself in the Western Conference Finals for the third time in five years. They have already won Game 1 against Golden State and have a realistic chance at upsetting the best regular season team in history. If they can't get past the Warriors though, will this playoff run be enough to keep Durant in a Thunder uniform?
Personally, I think he stays. There's only one Russell Westbrook to play with in the league, and the development of Steven Adams has pushed this team to another level. The rest of the Thunder roster is set to remain intact and as long as Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are all healthy the Thunder are hard to beat. In fact, with all three in the lineup Oklahoma City has yet to lose a playoff series. Durant wants to win a championship, and his best chance still lies with the Thunder no matter how many records the Warriors break.
He could realistically improve his chances of reaching the Finals simply by moving out East, but even then the Thunder with Westbrook and Co. will still be very good. Simply put, Oklahoma City isn't going anywhere for a long time.
After losing four of its five starters Portland was thought to be a guaranteed lottery team this season. Instead, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers became the darlings of the West by earning the five seed and taking advantage of the injured Clippers to make the second round. Portland only won one game against Golden State but they did keep the Warriors in check throughout the whole series. By all accounts the Trail Blazers exceeded expectations this year and have had the rare fortune to "fast forward" a rebuild.
The real question is whether Portland's success was a fluke or not. Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum can legitimately be one of the top backcourts in the league, which is a formula that has provided success in the NBA for other teams like Golden State and Toronto. McCollum is rightfully this season's Most Improved Player after nearly tripling his scoring average from the previous year and becoming the clear second option next to Lillard. The rest of the roster remains questionable, however. If Portland wants to really build on this season it will have to add some better players, particularly in the frontcourt, to the supporting cast. The Trail Blazers are often notorious for lacking depth team and it seems this trend will continue.
However, if there's one thing we've learned it's that you can never count Damian Lillard out. All-star or not, with him leading the way expect Portland to remain a playoff team especially now that McCollum must be accounted for in all game plans.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are in an eerily similar spot to Denver. They are young, have developed primarily through the draft, and will keep getting better with player development alone. Utah was one bad home game against the Clippers (and Kobe Bryant's miraculous finale) away from making the playoffs this season and it's fair to say the first round against Golden State would have been more compelling had the Jazz qualified instead of Houston.
For now, Utah remains a few steps ahead of the Nuggets. Some of Denver's young core have a higher offensive ceiling but the Jazz defense is one of the best in the league. Anchored by Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, Utah was second in points per game allowed at 95.9 and seventh in defensive efficiency. Gobert is a nightmare defensive matchup at center who was third in the league blocks per game and is perhaps the most important player on Utah's roster. Had he not missed 21 games this year it's likely the Jazz would have been in the playoffs and fighting for higher than the eight seed.
Offensively the Jazz have lacked consistency but not all is doom and gloom. Gordon Hayward is their best scorer at 19.7 points per game and has improved his scoring each year in the league. In addition to his defense and rebounding, Favors is a proficient low post scorer who averaged 16.4 points last season and Rodney Hood has also solidified himself as a scoring threat. Like Denver, Utah lacks a true superstar player, but they do have Hayward to at least take the shots in crunch time.
5. Denver Nuggets
Lastly, your Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are primed for a productive summer and hope to build on a season that saw a lot of player development and a 180 degree change in locker room culture. Mudiay and Jokic look to be future stars in the league, Harris is a skilled two-way player and the veteran presence of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler will provide a much needed balance with the youth movement. Add this year's draft picks and the foundation for a competitive team is there.
Let's face reality though: to win in this league what the Nuggets have right now is not enough. Denver is still missing the most important piece of the puzzle, a go-to player who can take the ball with the game on the line and make something happen. Every other team in the Northwest division has that player. Durant, Westbrook, Towns, Lillard and Hayward are all players that opponents must stop when it matters most. While this player could very well already be on the roster, the Nuggets don't have anyone clearly defined in that role yet. Until he is found or drafted or traded for, the Nuggets will be hard pressed to make noise.
No matter what happens this offseason, the Nuggets will still field a competitive team and will be in the playoff hunt next spring. They don't need to win the division, but to take the next step and get in the postseason they will need to beat out some of the other teams. Doing so will be easier said than done.