Northwest Division Watch: Pre-Draft

June 12th, 2015 | by Clint Johnson

Wolves Luck

When the Minnesota Timberwolves make the first overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, it will begin what looks to be a tumultuous year for the Northwest Division. [JULIE JACOBSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS]

NBA divisions made a strong case that they are still relevant this year.

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.

Division Standing

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.


Utah Jazz

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.


Portland Trailblazers

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


Denver Nuggets

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


Minnesota Timberwolves

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

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

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  1. LKA says:

    Will be interesting what happens with Matthews from Portland. If Jazz draft Kamanisky, or Portis then they might look to sign Matthews. A chrystal ball would come in handy here. If Blazers lose both Matthews and Aldridge they might find themselves in the cellar.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Absolutely. Portland’s position is the most tenuous in the division because they have the most to realistically lose within a single season.

  2. Grandpa John says:

    Again fantastic article! I love the depth and detail of your articles. Good jobhowever, . I do think drafting Kamanisky would be a mistake. Even though his offense is strong, he is a little slow and not a great defender. Too much like Kanter. Looking at it long term, if somehow, the Jazz can get Porsingis AND Keven Looney s with their assets, they are set. Watch out NW division. Booker can still fill in until Porsingis matures. The Jazz have many options as back up to Gobert who have height, and high shot block stats such as Biyomba, Ajinca, Jordan Bachynski, etc. (Tomic & Pleiss both don’t play great defense and don’t have high shot blocking skills). Also at power forward besides Porsingis and Booker, I don’t know very much about Grant Jerret. Can you give us your views about the potential of Jerrett?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I saw Jerrett quite a bit at Arizona and, like most, thought he was foolish to come out as early as he did. He didn’t look like an impact player in college so I have no reason to think he’s likely to be a contributor in the NBA. He’s basically a stretch four with solid height and length and one respectable skill: a stationary jump shot. He’s a good shooter off the catch so if a team needs a big to stretch the floor and do nothing else, he can probably find a spot-only role in the league. I don’t think the Jazz expect to retain him beyond 2015-16 (his contract is non-guaranteed). Watch his fitness. If he gets both stronger and leaner, it’ll show he has the work ethic and drive to possibly warrant greater attention. If not, I wouldn’t expect much.

    • Brent says:

      The Jazz need a back up center. Both Favors and Gobert have very limited range. When they do shoot jump shots their PPS is low. We do have a top ranked defense and a number of plus defenders. What we do lack is outside shooting/scoring. Currently the playbook on the Jazz is pack the paint, take away the drives from Hayward, Burks, Hood. Go under the pick and roll screens of Exum and Burke as they can’t shoot.
      It is nice to have some versatility and we since we have a top ranked defense but a mediocre offense, it makes sense to add someone like Kaminsky. He’s not as bad as you think defensively either. He held down both Karl Anthony Towns (16 pts, 9 rbs) and Jahil Okafor (10 pts, 3 rbs, 4 fouls) in the tourney. Meanwhile he scored 20 pts, 11 rbs and 21 pts, 12 rbs respectively.
      You can always pair him with either Favors or Gobert and keep your rim protection. Basically it’s good to have a versatile roster so you can adapt matchup to matchup and game to game.

  3. Zach says:

    If Portland has a strong likelyhood of falling in division and Denver a moderate level of falling, how are the Jazz only a slight likelyhood of rising? Unless you think Minnesota (with their moderate level of rising) will be better than the Jazz this year.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      The Jazz finished 3rd in the division last season and I think it’s the most likely place for them to finish next season as well. The Thunder should be the class of the division, which means to move up the Jazz would need to hit the 2nd position. I see them battling for that with Portland and possibly Minnesota, who I think has a chance to improve a lot if they’re healthy. If Portland experiences defections in free agency (especially Aldridge) and Minnesota experiences yet more injury problems, that’s how the Jazz rise in the division.

  4. Mewko says:

    I’m not that optimistic about Minnesota. Ricky Rubio can’t even shoot. Karl-Anthony Towns/Gorqui Dieng pairing will take some time to jell together. I don’t think Flip Saunders is a long term fit at head coach.

    The defense will probably be bottom 10, because Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic can’t defend well.

    The offense could be dynamic if Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio shoot well, and if Kevin Martin stays healthy. Those are two very big IFS.

    The 2015-16 T-Wolves could win 25-32 games.

    But, you gotta be excited about their future. Just acquire a young point guard that can set good pace, and their core is set.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      The health is a major question. That said, if Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Towns (their odds on pick), and Pekovic start most of the season allowing Garnett, Dieng, Muhammad, and LaVine to come off the bench, that team will have substantial talent and good depth. I don’t think they’ll be world beaters by any means, but could their ceiling be good enough to press a possibly depleted Portland or a still-maturing Utah? I think so. Even if they don’t improve to that degree, I would be surprised if Denver isn’t the cellar dweller in the division this year.

  5. Brent says:

    Clint, I think you are spot on with your analysis. The big unknown is Portland. If they lose LMA and decide to implode it could get really ugly in Rip City real fast.
    OKC is going to go “all in” with the hopes of getting back to the top of the mountain and have some hope of keeping Kevin Durrant
    I think the Jazz slot into either the 2nd or 3rd spot in the division.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think that is the most likely outcome as well. The division may potentially be extremely tough in a few years. If OKC and Portland can keep their teams intact as the Jazz and Wolves rise toward the playoffs, the division will be brutal. Denver better get its act together.

  6. Cody says:

    Why isn’t anyone talking about the concerns for OKC surrounding a new head coach? Does everybody really think that Donovan will really provide immediate improvements for the team? I agree with most of this analysis, but I am hesitant to crown OKC as division champs since they will have a first year, brand new NBA head coach with no proven NBA history.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I’m not convinced Donovan will be an elite coach immediately (or ever), but I don’t think Brooks was either. That didn’t stop his team from being a perennial conference favorite based largely on sheer talent. They still have arguably the greatest collection of talent in the league. If the finals have demonstrated anything, it’s that the advantage of a true superstar covers many deficiencies, including in coaching. If Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka remain healthy for an entire season, realistically, any head coach in the league would coach that team to a top two or three record in the west. Just look at David Blatt and Steve Kerr to see what new coaches can do with elite talent.

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