The regular season survival-of-all-fittest that was the Southwest Division, which featured five playoff teams totaling 261 combined wins1, drastically affected seeding in the Western bracket of the playoffs. Portland’s situation was even more glaring. As winners of the Northwest Division, they earned a 4th seed despite holding only the 6th best record in the conference. Without the current playoff rules privileging division champions with a top-four seed, Portland would likely have been readily dispatched by the Clippers while Memphis and San Antonio would have clashed in the first round.
Whether or not divisional structure influences the outcome of the playoffs isn’t the point. There is no question that the division in which a team plays is a significant factor in the relative ease or difficulty of making the playoffs. Each team plays divisional opponents four times, so which bottom-dwellers would you rather face: the Northwest’s in Denver and Minnesota or the Southwest’s in New Orleans and Dallas? So, leading into the much anticipated 2015-2016 NBA season, Jazz fans would be wise to keep a close eye on the most immediate and frequent competition their team will face: Northwest Division rivals.
Hence this team-by-team breakdown of each Northwest division team heading into the draft.
First, here are last season’s final division standings.
Throughout the year at pivotal times (after the draft, following free agency, etc.), additional posts will update developments within the division. But here are how things stand at present.
Draft Assets: Picks 12, 42, and 54
Total Salary Already Committed:2 $47.0 million in guaranteed salary, with an additional $8 million in non-guaranteed salary (Trevor Booker, Elijah Millsap, Chris Johnson, Bryce Cotton, and Jack Cooley) and a qualifying offer option of $1 million (Joe Ingles)
Players Now Under Contract: 8 – Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert, and Grant Jerrett
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: Jeremy Evans
Key Injury Concerns: Alec Burks recovery from shoulder surgery
What to look for heading into the draft: Whether the team keeps their first round pick. All seven players currently under contract are 25 or under3, and many of the players with team options that may be retained are also young, inexperienced, or both. There is real question whether the team needs another young player, particularly as a bench contributor, as is likely a best-case scenario of a 12th selection in the draft. What the Jazz do in the draft will shed light on a number of other concerns going forward:
1) Front office strategy. Will the Jazz front office and ownership continue to be patient by depending primarily on growth from within, or will young assets (draft picks possibly with players) be moved to procure a veteran piece or pieces, potentially signifying an “upping of the timetable,” as Dennis Lindsey would term it?
2) Team objectives in free agency. Drafting someone like Frank Kaminsky, a capable-shooting big man ready for a support role immediately, would definitely narrow Jazz needs in free agency. Likewise, trading pick #12 for immediate or delayed assets would significantly affect team priorities in free agency.
3) How the front office and coaches feel about the current roster. The decisions made in the draft may show where the Jazz feel they want to invite more internal competition, typically a sign that no one has won utter confidence from decision-makers in the organization.
Season forecast at this point: Slight likelihood of rising in the division.
Draft Assets: Pick 23
Total Salary Already Committed: $23.1 million guaranteed, plus $5.8 million in non-guaranteed salary, with $9.9 in player options (Arron Afflalo, Steve Blake) likely to be accepted
Players Now Under Contract: 8
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Dorrell Wright
Key Injury Concerns: Wesley Matthews returning from a torn achilles, LaMarcus Aldridge returning from thumb surgery
What to look for heading into the draft: It’s all about positions. The Trailblazers face the prospect of perhaps the most precipitous fall in the division next season due to their plethora of vital free agents, injury questions, and past success. Pre-draft buzz and the lone selection Portland will make at pick 23 should say a lot about how insiders feel about important probabilities going forward. They will certainly do everything possible to retain LaMarcus Aldridge (and likely Robin Lopez as well), but are they confident enough in success to draft to fill other needs? What about Matthews’ recovery from injury? Can Portland afford to assume his full recovery or is a backup plan (and player) the order of the day? This off-season is massive for the Trailblazers, and the draft will only be the beginning.
Season forecast at this point: Strong likelihood of falling in the division
Oklahoma City Thunder
Draft Assets: Picks 14 and 48
Total Salary Already Committed: $78.3 million, with options for $10.2 million in qualifying offers (Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler)
Players Now Under Contract: 12
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: None
Key Injury Concerns: Kevin Durant returning from foot surgery, Serge Ibaka returning from knee surgery
What to look for heading into the draft: Health reports. The Thunder have been built for contention for the last several years, but injuries have derailed all legitimate attempts since their Finals run in 2012. Any draft buzz is likely to be peripheral to even wisps of rumor about the health and attitudes of OKC’s big three of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. All three will become free agents within two years (Durant after this upcoming season), making this next year all-determining for the future.
Season forecast at this point: Strong likelihood of rising in the division
Draft Assets: Picks 7 and 57
Total Salary Already Committed: $48.0 million guaranteed, with an additional $10.1 million non-guaranteed salary, a $2.9 million player option (Jameer Nelson) and the options of $2.3 million in qualifying offers (Will Barton and Ian Clark)
Players Now Under Contract: 10
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: Darrell Arthur
Key Injury Concerns: Danilo Gallinari’s injury history
What to look for heading into the draft: Direction. The Nuggets have been a team that adheres to the “accumulate assets” approach to team building, where the goal is to procure good players on reasonable contracts, even when the players don’t ostensibly fit together stylistically or within a particular system. The strategy is a stage in team-building, not an entire philosophy, and recently it has seen them drop in the standings without obviously increasing their cache of valuable assets. Pick #7 in this year’s draft likely won’t provide a franchise-changing talent, but it will be a key choice in determining their direction going forward. Will Denver seek to move up for a chance at a true superstar? Will they fill a gap in their current roster at the wing? They may even go best player available at the risk of positional redundancy. Whatever the choice, it should give some indication how patient team ownership and management will be going forward.
Season forecast at this point: Moderate likelihood of falling in the division
Draft Assets: Picks 1 and 31
Total Salary Already Committed: $56.0 million guaranteed, $947,276 in non-guaranteed salary (Lorenzo Brown), $3.4 million in qualifying offers (Robbie Hummel, Justin Hamilton and Arinze Onuaku)
Players Now Under Contract: 10
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: Kevin Garnett, Gary Neal
Key Injury Concerns: Ricky Rubio returning from ankle surgery, Nikola Pekovic returning from achilles surgery, Shabazz Muhammad returning from finger surgery
What to look for heading into the draft: How Minnesota seeks to build a contender for the next decade. The Timberwolves will become the first team in NBA history to roster three consecutive #1 overall draft picks: one disappointment sliding toward bust (Anthony Bennett), one Rookie of the Year rising to superstardom (Andrew Wiggins), and one unknown. They will most likely pair Wiggins with one of the top-tier bigs, Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor (who shares Wiggins’ agent). Given their choice, will they opt for the offensive potency and polish of Okafor or the more complete, if not-yet-realized, potential of Towns? Either way, the team will bring in a major addition to a squad already positioned to rise up the ranks if they can defy past injury history.
Season forecast at this point: Moderate likelihood of rising in the division