NBA Season Preview: Northwest Division (10/28/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

Finally, the 2016-17 NBA season has arrived. Opening week is underway and thus we must conclude our season preview series this week with the most wide-open division in the league – the Northwest Division. The division champions, Oklahoma City, lost two starters including a former MVP, knocking them out of the upper echelon of the West. Portland brought the band back (with a few interesting additions) from the team that surprised everyone in route to a second-round loss to Golden State. The other three teams - none of which have made the playoffs in the past three season – each offer an intriguing mix of talent, potential, and trade rumors. There is no clear favorite to win and no clear punching bag destined for last place – anyone could win this division.

All-Northwest Division Team

G – Russell Westbrook | Oklahoma City Thunder

Now in his ninth season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook has only one remaining teammate from his rookie season (Nick Collison). Unquestionably, the Thunder are now Westbrook's team and he will shoulder the largest burden of his career to keep the Thunder in the playoffs if not atop the division. Expectations are sky high for Russell Westbrook this season. Averaging a triple-double does not seem unrealistic. In fact, since January 2014 (earliest data available), when playing without recently departed teammates Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Westbrook has averaged 31 points, 8.7 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per 36 minutes – closely aligned with his game one stat line against Philadelphia.

There is no question Westbrook will dazzle with his individual performance this year, but the performance of the Thunder is the more important factor in Russell's place amongst the NBA's elite. Under the same conditions as above with Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder have scored 1.14 points per possession – good for second in the league last year ahead of what the Thunder did over the full season. Defensively, the Thunder allowed 1.08 points every possession, which is a figure in the bottom half of the league. Combined, the Thunder's net rating with just Westbrook would have finished fifth last season. However, Westbrook can't play the whole game and we have some data of what happens when Westbrook leads a team without Kevin Durant – the Thunder narrowly missed the playoffs in 2015 with 45 wins. Which direction this iteration of the Thunder goes will probably depend on the role players, but Westbrook carries the responsibility.

G – Damian Lillard | Portland Trail Blazers

I'm not nearly as bold as Steve Kerr, Damian Lillard is not my pick for the MVP award. The potential is there, Lillard already led a Blazers team without a single other returning starter into the second round of the playoffs last season. Now, with a full squad returning plus some additional parts, Portland is equipped to take another leap forward in a Western Conference down a powerhouse. They will need continued improvement from the 26-year-old Lillard to accomplish such a feat. However, I must say, there is not a whole lot of room for improvement, at least on offense. Lillard possesses one of the deadliest shooting strokes in all of basketball. He can get his shot off in a variety of ways, but is particularly potent off the dribble from beyond the arc – taking almost five a game last year at an other worldly (except for Curry) 34 %. This ability to shoot over ball screens puts tremendous stress on a defense giving the rest of the team space and openings most likely unavailable on without him. Lillard also has elite ball handling skills that only adds fuel to the fire when it comes to his shooting. For my money, Lillard has the best between the legs dribble move in the NBA.

So where can he improve to help the Blazers take the next step? On offense, his biggest weakness is his finishing around the rim. He gets plenty of driving opportunities because team's crowd him to thwart the jump shot but is poor at scoring amongst the trees in the lane. Compared to point guards throughout the league last year, Lillard shot some of the worst percentages in the paint both inside and outside the restricted area. If he can match his volume with an uptick in efficiency the Blazers become nearly unstoppable on offense. The other side of the ball is what truly holds Lillard back in the MVP/superstar discussion. Fighting over screens is a huge challenge that often leaves Lillard stuck to the screener as his man carves through Portland's interior. It is very difficult to maintain high-intensity on defense when handling such a burden on offense (ask James Harden) but he does not force turnovers or block shots at an adequate rate to justify his lackadaisical defense at times. Finding ways to add value on defense is important for Lillard if the Blazers have hopes for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

F – Gordon Hayward | Utah Jazz

One half of the star forward duo in Utah, Hayward is unfortunately hobbled with a broken finger and will miss an undetermined number of games to start the season. Very few players in the league can replicate his nearly 20 points a night with his stellar efficiency – only 15 others scored over 19 points with a higher true shooting percentage than Hayward. Fortunately, while never without Hayward for more than 10 games in any season, the Jazz are positioned to succeed even in his absence. Between Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Dante Exum, and Joe Ingles, Utah can loosely imitate Hayward's scoring and playmaking duties. Where his absence may hurt the most is at the ends of games where the Jazz already struggle. Hayward is the crunch time go-to guy on this team and there is no ready made replacement to step up in the short-term.

Hayward's injury may not punish the Jazz as much as it would have in the past this season, but it hurts Hayward beyond missed games harder than ever. Coming up on the end of his contract, Hayward has an opportunity next offseason to score big in free agency. The overflowing Brinks trucks leaving NBA headquarters may make it so Hayward will get a maximum contract regardless, but this is a prime season for Hayward – one in which he needs to prove he is an All-Star level player and a reliable, consistent producer. Thankfully his injury is relatively minor, but every missed game is potential dollars out of his bank account, especially if it prevents him from making his first All-Star game. Any success the Jazz have without Hayward also adds to the uncertainty surrounding his return to Utah and the possibility of a trade. The situation between the Jazz and Hayward is worth monitoring closely throughout the season.

F – Derrick Favors | Utah Jazz

The other half of the Utah star forward duo and the last remaining piece from the Deron Williams trade, Derrick Favors is perhaps a surprising name on this team, but he shouldn't be. The names Anthony Davis and Paul Millsap should be familiar and unsurprising on all-division teams, but Favors is right up there with those guys in terms of impact on both ends at the power forward position. While the cut-offs again are arbitrary, Favors joined Davis and Millsap as the only players in the league to score 18 points, grab nine rebounds, block 1.5 shots, and amass at least one steal per 36 minutes last season. Simply watching him play, Favors moves his feet tremendously and can defend on the perimeter in a fashion similar to those other two gentlemen, which is extremely valuable alongside effective rim patrol.

Favors is a peculiar player at the most fluid position in the NBA, finding success in more traditional manners on offense while exhibiting versatility on defense. Unlike many of his peers, Favors does not stretch it out to three-point range – he's attempted just 16 in six seasons. He spends a large portion of his time on offense in pick and roll where he is top-five in scoring efficiency amongst high-volume roll men. Operating heavily at the elbows and in ball screen action, Favors gets plenty of mid-range opportunities, an area in which he can improve. Last season, Favors averaged the sixth most catch and shoot field goal attempts amongst forwards, converting at a paltry 39.4 % - by far the worst of the group. Just 24 years old, there is optimism that the best Derrick Favors is still to come as long as his health doesn't get in the way. Missing 20 games last season – a large factor in Utah's continued playoff drought - and sitting out game one this season surely has Utah fans nervous, especially considering the injury history of the team the past few seasons.

C – Karl-Anthony Towns | Minnesota Timberwolves

I will preface this section by reiterating that I am a lifelong Wolves fan and inherently biased. Now, that being said, is there a more tantalizing player in the league than Karl-Anthony Towns? In my humble opinion, he is the Tim Duncan figure of this generation. As a 20-year-old rookie, he started all 82 games, averaged 18 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, shot 54 % from the field, and posted a 22.5 PER – all of which mirror Tim Duncan's rookie season. What impresses me most about Towns is his greatest similarity with Duncan – his selfless team-first attitude. Towns hustles up and down the court, looks for the extra pass, and sprints in and out of screens – the types of things necessary for winning but often inconsistent or absent from the repertoire of a star big man. These are the the things that make me most excited about Towns' career prospects following in the direction of Duncan's.

If I am going to compare Towns to Duncan, I need to differentiate the two of them in order to temper expectations (instinct as a Wolves fan) and hedge my own prediction. In terms of circumstance, Duncan miraculously joined a team that won 56 games his rookie season while Towns played on one of the worst teams in the league last season. Duncan was contributing to a winning culture from day one. Towns has an uphill battle just to break the Timberwolves' franchise playoff drought let alone take part in a winning culture. Finding a way to impact winning is the biggest challenge for Towns going forward. The most glaring difference on the court is their shooting. For as amazing as Duncan was, he was only a career 69.6 % free throw shooter and never developed anything approaching three-point range. Towns shot 81 % from the foul stripe as a rookie and made 88 three pointers at a 34 % clip. He also happens to be an assassin in the midrange, taking almost 30 percent of his shots between the free throw line and the three-point line shooting an astounding 50.6 %. Trying to match Duncan's impact on the defensive end is a near impossible task, but Towns has the juice on offense to dwarf anything Duncan ever accomplished on that end. I'm anticipating a special season for Karl-Anthony Towns individually and hopefully for the Timberwolves as well.

Best of the Rest

6th ManEd Davis | Portland Trail Blazers

Coming off the bench, Ed Davis is the jigsaw piece that completes the puzzle for Portland. He is there most disruptive force in the paint on both ends. While certainly limited in comparison to starter Mason Plumlee in terms of playmaking out of the pick and roll, he is just as capable if not more so than Plumlee at finishing as the roll man. What sets him apart on offense is his offensive rebounding. He led the team in offensive rebounding rate last year and the team went from middle of the pack with Davis on the bench to second in the league in offensive rebounding with Davis in the game. Protecting the rim is a sore spot for the Blazers, except with Davis on the floor. In terms of disrupting shots at the rim, Davis was near the tops in the league for centers and by far the best on the team. Davis' fit as a compliment to the extraordinary talent in Portland's backcourt provides him opportunities to finish games, as he did in the home opener versus Utah.

Player to WatchGary Harris | Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are a team without any elite level talent but a collection of good to potentially great players still developing in this league. Gary Harris is one of those promising young players and is often overlooked. Coming out of Michigan State, Harris barely played as a rookie, struggling to find a rhythm and display his touted shooting ability. Last season under Coach Malone, Harris was elevated to the starting lineup and did it all for the Nuggets. The shooting ability scouts clamored over came through and he handled the ball reasonably well as a secondary creator. Defensively, the short-handed Nuggets often asked Harris to guard small forwards, a tall task for the 6-4 shooting guard, but he scrapped and earned the trust of his coach. This season, the Nuggets are healthier on the wing and Harris should be able to stay at home at the shooting guard position and shine on both ends. There are plenty of guys in Denver to keep an eye on but Gary Harris tops the list for me potentially emerging as a premier player at a weaker position in this league.

Key Offseason AcquisitionGeorge Hill | Utah Jazz

All due respect to Raul Neto, Trey Burke, and Shelvin Mack, but the Jazz played the entire regular season last year without a starting level NBA point guard. Every night the Jazz were overmatched at perhaps the most talented position in the league, certainly in the Western Conference. Adding a starting level point guard was priority number one for Utah this offseason and that's exactly what they did. But they got much more than that. George Hill is the rare player in the league who can slide between point guard and shooting guard on both ends because he is an exceptional three-point shooter and does not demand the ball in his hands. In an offense that has playmakers at the wing like Hayward and Rodney Hood, Hill is a perfect compliment. Defensively, Hill is in the top ten if not top five at defending the point guard position using his long arms to disrupt passing lanes and challenge shots. It is hard to imagine a better fit for the point guard position in Utah than George Hill, truly one of the best acquisitions of the offseason. If there is reason to believe the hype around this Utah team, George Hill's presence is it.

Most Missed PlayerKevin Durant | Oklahoma City Thunder

With the season underway, I have officially lifted my ban of Kevin Durant from my articles. This was a necessary decision because in a division without much player movement flowing out, Durant is the only legitimate pick for this honor. There is no way to replace a player like Kevin Durant, a former MVP and one of the five most talented players in the NBA. But, the Thunder did not really even attempt to do so and are now left with major question marks on the wing. The Thunder were a game away from the Finals last season and now have an uncertain playoff status. As mentioned, the Thunder missed the playoffs in 2015 when Durant missed almost the whole season. Oklahoma City had a tremendous run with Westbrook and Durant together and now we will see if they can retool with Westbrook signed on for several more seasons or whether the era has run its course and it is time to blow it up and start over. Either way, there is now a personal layer to the Golden State-Oklahoma City rivalry and those matchups should prove to be amongst the most exciting in the league.

Play of the Division – Utah Jazz

I could not go the entire NBA season preview series without a “hammer” play. Luckily the Jazz are happy to oblige with one of my favorites. What is so clever about this play is that it starts just like routine offense from Utah. As is often the case, the money is a surprise twist in routine action.

As you'll often see with Utah, Hayward brings the ball up the floor with a big (Trevor Booker) trailing, wings running the sidelines, and the other big heading to the paint. As the ball is reversed to Alec Burks on the wing, the typical thing you'd see from the Jazz is a down screen from Booker to Joe Ingles. Instead, they flip it and Ingles sets a back screen for Booker. So far, this is a reasonable twist on the usual start to the offense – this is what traditional “Kansas” action looks like even though you hardly see it anymore. However, instead of popping out to receive the ball up top, Ingles gears up for an angle screen from Rudy Gobert. Ingles' man, Emmanuel Mudiay, gets nailed on the screen because he had to help on the back screen (again the value of back screens). Now the Denver defense is compromised and a potential roll from Rudy Gobert to the rim is a major threat. With Kenneth Faried's first responsibility to stop Ingles from scoring until Mudiay can recover, the weakside defenders are sucked in to protect against a Rudy Gobert lob. It just so happens that he is but a decoy to distract the primary defenders in the money action – the “hammer” as it's called. Notice as Ingles drives Hayward starts cutting from the wing to the corner and Booker steps out to locate Hayward's man and nail him with a blind screen. The Jazz are able to misdirect the Denver defense and scramble attention to the middle of the floor, leaving them vulnerable to the true intention of the play. The result: a wide open Gordon Hayward corner three, about as good a shot Utah can ask for in its offense. A subtle wrinkle in the clip below is that Ingles receives the ball going to his left hand, his dominant hand, making the cross court pass to the corner easier. Wonderful!

Stat of the Division – One

If you had to guess which division collectively had the most efficient offense, would you guess the Northwest Division? You probably would ask what is a ‘division' but if you did guess Northwest you would be correct. The manner in which this division gets points is the most interesting part. As a division, the Northwest had the highest offensive rebound rate and free throw attempt rate last season. Four of the top five teams in offensive rebounding came from this division with Oklahoma City leading the way by a large margin – an accomplishment likely to continue this season. In getting to the free throw line, the Northwest comprised four of the top twelve led by the Wolves who finished second in the NBA. To add another layer to the story, the division shot the second fewest number of three-pointers and converted them at the second-lowest rate. The focus around the league is all about shooting and spacing, but this division shows that grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the foul line are still effective mechanisms for efficient offense even without dead eye shooting. Long live smash mouth basketball.

Bold Prediction – Steven Adams will win Most Improved Player

Again the degree of boldness on these predictions is maybe suspect, but it is a prediction nonetheless. Two types of players seem to win the Most Improved Player award – good players given their first opportunity to shine or star players emerging in a big way. Adams would fall into the former category, much like CJ McCollum last season. McCollum was probably nearly as good as he was last season in prior seasons but never got the opportunity to show it. So while his numbers improved, that was more a function of starting and being featured in the offense as opposed to improvement on his part. Steven Adams has a clear path to claim the award in the same manner. Without Durant or Serge Ibaka, the Thunder will have to rely upon Adams like never before on the offensive side of the ball. His stellar play in the postseason last year led some to anoint him the best center in the NBA – the backing of the media is there; he just needs to prove it in a full season. The opportunity is there for Adams to double his point per game from eight to 16 and legitimize what many already believe about him.

Division Winner – Portland Trail Blazers

This was the toughest choice of any division. I thought if I cheated and watched everyone play a game it would clear things up for me – I was wrong. Until Utah is fully healthy, they are impossible to evaluate – but that has been the concern for the past three season now. For Portland, bringing everyone back and adding more depth pieces solidifies their position in the race to the top of this division, but it is Damian Lillard that puts them over the top. Westbrook may be the most dynamic player in this division, but Lillard is the most skilled and clutch. When it comes down to the end of a close game, I feel supremely confident that Portland will get quality shots thanks to Lillard. The same cannot be said for any other team in this division. Utah and Minnesota are notoriously porous in tight end game situations and Oklahoma City was derided for years for their uninspired late game offense – and that was with Durant! With Oklahoma City knocked down from the elites, the division is wide open and there will be lots of close games. We already saw Utah crumble against Portland late on opening night and I think we will see more of the same throughout the entire season. Much like everyone's darling the Utah Jazz, Portland is deep at every position and versatile in the lineups they can play. It will probably come down to Portland and Utah in the end and the winning experience coupled with the best player gives Portland the edge. It is Portland's time to reclaim the throne.